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Cup Your Body into Someone Else’s Longing


In Emily O’Neill’s Make a Fist and Tongue the Knuckles, (Nostrovia! Press, 2016) the boys are sweet even when they are leading you by the hand to the back of the bar and the girls always know better. These poems are intimacy laid out on a conveyor belt—all parts are deconstructed and rebuilt. The intimacy is cataloged from kissing a stranger on a porch, to admiring a lover’s freckle colony, to justifying one’s job when meeting a date’s parents for the first time. O’Neill’s imagery travels around the block a few times and doesn’t apologize for it: her poems are harsh, gritty beauty.


O’Neill begins her dark walk with the poem “World’s Smallest Woman.” Her words are almost like those of an instruction manual:


“You can’t explain surprise

to yourself. Somebody else has to.

In the mirror your hair gets longer but

your eyes remain the same depth. Keep that

gulf to yourself.”


How many faces do we have to show others? To ourselves? O’Neill’s speaker knows about crappy first jobs, sharing drugs at work, making out in cars, knowing more about her own exit from a relationship than the other person in it.  She isn’t afraid to expose skin or call it like it is. One of the first poems that displays this distance in connection is “Your Boy Came By.” In the third stanza, aloofness plays a part but people still strip down the ankles at the end of it.


“Didn’t buy you a drink because why bother

bartering. Your boy, for free of you

won’t risk it…”


O’Neill’s speaker can only “fly away from the fire before (she’s) finished.” (From the poem “No Flinching.”) The details in racking up relationship bodies are staggering. Knives are a repeated image. Some knives are imagined as being planted in dirt and then growing trees on top of them. Let something lovely grow from weapons meant to cut. One knife is placed in the speaker’s hand by a shirtless boy who recites Coleridge. There is also blood (“I’m sure I’ve bled on sadder men,” is one memorable line from the poem “How To Whistle.”) In contrast, there are also multiple images of shoulders. We carry burdens on our shoulders and each poem in this collection is fighting a fight. We don’t know who wins but that doesn’t seem to matter. The fight feels important.


O’Neill never writes about intimacy in a clichéd way. In the revealing and almost confessional “Need to Know,” we witness exquisiteness. We recognize the exchange here between two people:


“I took my dress off for you—an invitation

to keep seeing what you shouldn’t take.

You won’t just take and I like that.


You hesitate and I bite harder. I want you

stuck like river bending in a valley…

Here, my fingers. Little ghosts. Here,

your fingers troubling me like rain

haunts the freeway in a dream.”


In such a hunger driven, spiny collection, this subtle moment is beautiful and haunting and gives the reader a glimpse into O’Neill’s softer side.


Here are some of O’Neill’s knowledgeable lines that are written like a manifesto, like we should be taking notes:


“Can’t be poor when you’re a killer.”  (“Lucky Like That.”)


“Give me a choice better than razor or grave.” (“Always a Sinner.”)


“Leave marks or I won’t learn.”  (“Always a Sinner.”)


“You were falling asleep on camera as I was waking up on camera.” (“Orioles.”)


“Never liked men with guitars. How they need constant noise keeping them still.” (“Last Year’s Blues.”)


“Shoes make the man aware that he can leave at any moment.” (“How to Whistle.”)


O’Neill’s speaker instructs us on how to survive, but it’s tough.  In “Poem for Brunch with Your Family Where They Asked When We’d Be Married,” there is a whole world of characters revealed throughout the two page poem. Here is an example of the inner psyche of the speaker here:


“It wasn’t that they asked what I did for work and choked

at the utterance of waitress or your mother’s insistence

on grad school as unfortunate or your uncle demanding

a second glass for the beer in front of me…”


We witness O’Neill’s speaker as a prisoner at this uncomfortable table. We feel her skin

crawl at being judged by these people who do not know her and may never know her well. We empathize. We also want to run away.  The speaker confesses:


“Yes I have parents. No, you can’t meet them.

My father is dead and my mother needs coaching

on how not to kill what she loves.”


Then the poem takes another glorious turn with these lines:


“The disappointment I am for not dropping everything

to stand by my man…Part of womanhood is waiting for

your turn to speak and they wouldn’t give me one and that

tells me everything about weddings…”


This poem is a novel of voice and vigor and slaps us across the face, and we still want more. Whereas so many of these poems circle around the speaker’s relationships, there is a transience to the language and the actual fleetingness of the intimacy. Its breakneck pace is powerful and does not let up. (It is, “O’Neill writes “the dance nobody teaches:” (From “Need to Know.”) We cannot go to O’ Neill for answers though, even though she has already told us how to live. She reminds us in the last line of the very last poem “Not So Fast,”


“Don’t answer me. I won’t stand still long enough.”


Luckily we read her words, hold them, tread on them softly, because she deserves no less and we cannot stay away, even if we end up following her into the cold, dark night.




Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of eight chapbooks and two full length poetry collections forthcoming from Yellow Chair Review and Stalking Horse Press. Her chapbook “Clown Machine” recently came out from Grey Book Press this summer.  Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, concis, and decomP. Visit:







Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors
by Leslie Heywood, Red Hen Press, ISBN 9781597097307
About ten years back I put a very good poet into a panic by putting the word confessional next to her work. It wasn’t being labeled that bothered her as much as that particular label.  Seems the word had accrued a largely pejorative meaning, as if poets ought to avoid writing from their own lives at all cost (of course the MFA students who gave the confessional a bad name wanted to avoid writing from their lives at all costs  because they hadn’t lived any lives to speak of except those of  privilege and mostly male avoidance of feeling)“Confessional is a dirty world.” She said.” You can’t use it.” The word, as I was employing it, was accurate: confession or the poetry of witness, not in the Plath, Sexton, Lowell, Snodgrass, and next generation Sharon Olds sense, but in the sense of St. Augustine and Rousseau  and Wordsworth’s Preludes (modeled on Roseau to some extent) and the poetics of those who have been othered or cut out of the normative discourse. Confessional in this respect combines narrative, conversational lyric and introspection with larger social and ontological implications. It is both more ambitious in scope and more scrupulous in detail than the personal self-indulgence of which the confessional poet is often accused (note that it became considered self-indulgent only when it was no longer controlled by men). This is witness poetry rather than memoir and more ferocious and lyrical and its mode is conversion in the full Latin sense: con (with) and vert (a turn): “With a turn.” This “confession” is often a conversion narrative: one begins at point A and then turns, becomes turned and is transformed. Sometimes this conversion narrative takes place over a single life time. Often it is generational (as in the novel Wuthering Heights which might be seen as thesis, antithesis, synthesis—the joining of the natural and social realms through a great storm over three generations.  Faulkner’s novels are often generational, but, being 20th century works, they can be rather pessimistic (like Spengler) and might represent the inter-generational descent as a sort of historical pathology, a series of vicious circles rather than any hope of healing. In this respect, Emily Bronte’s take on the generational novel of dysfunction was way ahead of the curve and might, for all its gothic flights, be more well-grounded in what neurologists are started to know about the traumatized brain. Leslie Heywood’s new book of poems, Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors, is, to a great extent, a conversion narrative of witness under those terms: lyrical and full of turns away from the social determinism of family trauma stretched out over generations to the possibility of healing (though not in a new age or self-help way) and toward an end to the pathological “(the viscous cycle) of violence, alcoholism, and the ghosts that not only haunt, but which reconfigure the map of the brain itself. The first poem in the prologue clarifies the title, and the title actually bleeds directly into the poem:
Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors
Or “stereotypies,” as animal behavioral
Researchers sometimes call them, are seen
Especially in research animals who live
Their lives in tiny cages or who live                                                                                                                               
 In larger cages in zoos, anywhere there is
A sense of conflict and panic and feeling trapped
This is the base line for the repetitive behaviors of loss, anger, and being trapped in behavioral patterns   these are threaded with such clarity and compassion through the book. At some points “repetitive behaviors” becomes a metaphor for how we keep reenacting our damage even when the cage has been torn down,  the bars long taken off, even when  there is nothing to stop us from walking to freedom. Just as the neurology of base line emotions are first at the scene of any trauma, they are also likely the last to get on line with new circumstances. Heywood privileges no human emotion over the base line emotions we share with most mammals: RAGE, FEAR, LUST. CARE, PANIC/GRIEF, and PLAY. Our ability to cover these up as it were with social appearance and the decorative aspects of secondary feelings and rationales often causes more problems than it solves. At best,  such secondary affects are constantly making the present prologue to the past. She writes in “Night Ranger, Don’t Tell me you Love me:
it is four decades later, but my body                                                                                                           
behaves as if it does not know this,                                                                                                                      
As if everything now is the same                                                                                                              
As it was then and it is on guard,
this body on guard before it thinks.
“Before it thinks’ is an important qualification. The emotions (not feelings) in Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors precede thought, as do the emotions in Wallace Stevens The Irish cliffs of Moher where the poet addresses the cliffs and asks where is my  father… “before thought, before speech?”
The central relationship in the first part of this book, the author’s “Heathcliff’ is her father. The poet does not learn that her paternal grandparents were a murder/suicide until she is an adult. (Imagine a father keeping that bit of news secret). She doesn’t know he was a concert level pianist until her mother spills the beans. In one respect, this is the Mary Gordon narrative of the secret father reversed since every new revelation helps shed light and understanding and empathy on the father– but without white washing him. The narrator of the poems loves her father fiercely (ferocity is an ongoing theme), and yet she fights him with her fists. He is often drunk and beats her. Her mother uses her as a human shield. Only her dogs (she shares a love of dogs with her father) and a friend named Lucille remain true and constant, and yet the narrator loves her father– even when she is estranged from him, even when they do not speak almost to the moment of his death. The great triumph of this book is that, as Toni Morrison makes the good reader sympathetic to a father guilty of incest in The Bluest Eye, Leslie Heywood makes the reader see this man whole, gives the reader not a sense of his worthlessness, but, rather of his broken majesty. This is not a book for the knee jerk, for those who love the easy judgement of the politically correct.. It’s not a book for people who would read “My Papa’s Waltz” as merely an abuse narrative. Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors is for those who know life is complicated enough so that the greatest pain is that we cannot unlove those who leave us misshapen because they themselves were misshapen and, at the core, the wounded animal cries to those who have been equally wounded. It is truly in the tradition of generational forgiveness (As O’Neill said, “In the end, there is only forgiveness. There is only forgiveness, or there is nothing” )In that respect, Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors has the scope of drama and novel rather than being simply a collection of poems. It grounds itself in the new neuroscience that proves through experiment what poets and writers have always shown at the highest levels of their art: that the animal cry in us informs the spirit and the spirit is never far from that cry; we cannot be divorced from the body or the brain by any cognitive trickery, or metaphysical disowning of the base emotions.
Sometimes, the smallest things in the midst of a great storm may calm us, help us to live another day. Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors is also full of such temporary reprieves and comforts, as in the poem “Tea cart” where the poet remembers her maternal grandparents:
My grandparents were beautiful like the glass
and their voices were always kind
and now the tea cart sits in my living room,
sunlight twinkling across the long-necked bottles.
 Note the “like the glass” and take that at its full connotation. Glass is beautiful, but easily broken and must be handled with care. Not just beloved objects tied to kindness help us heal, but also the reprieves adding up to a real change in the next generation. This change, as in Paul’s “conversion” is not into a new creation, but is a transformation that takes the genetic and neurological elements already there and turns them towards their original purpose and light.  The last poem of the collection “Caelan at Thirteen” might be perceived as the full conversion, the turn of fortunes that allow both the family and the synapse of generations to heal. The author depicts her daughter on the cusp of adulthood, stable, with a realistic view of things, not tormented by the same level of suffering visited upon the poet and her father. She is like the characters at the end of Wuthering Heights when the next generation is able to enjoy the deepening companionship and love Cathy and Heathcliff were denied:
My daughter, at thirteen, this unicorn, all legs
and brains and speed, now winning
All her cross-country meets and reassuring
Herself when she too melts down,
Caelan its only hormones. what
you are feeling isn’t real.
My daughter, who knows at thirteen
Things it has taken me
four decades to start sorting out,
what my grandmother, my father’s mother Annie,
could never sort through with all those
emotions running through her like flame,
making her dangerous, the one you can’t stand
to be around; never for Annie, four decades for me,
what my daughter knows now
at thirteen.
 As the poet, Maria Maziotti Gillan says in her blurb:
Terror still lives within these poems and sorrow for the cruelty and chaos of a world in which humans cannot seem to exist without destroying as much as they create, but the vision of a new world is there. What an amazing and powerful book.

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s first poet is Joshua Jennifer Espinoza. 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world—what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza: My drive to write mostly comes from my inability to understand and deal with my own emotions as a trans feminine/mentally ill/traumatized person in a world that kind of hates all of those things. With poetry I can attempt to subvert the language of the world that has been inscribed on and within me against my will. In navigating the poetry world I am motivated by the same thing that motivates me to navigate the world at large, and that is simply surviving as unscathed as possible.

FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

JJE: Panic attacks, comments sections on articles about trans women, bad dreams, good dreams, bad memories, good memories, poems I’ve only half-read, windy days, people who I love and who inexplicably love me back, the possibility of the end of this world and the emergence of a better one.

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?

JJE: There’s a line in one of my poems that goes “the only aesthetic i have left is survival” and I guess that sums it up pretty well. I’m interested in art that does some kind of work in addition to simply existing as a beautiful object. I would love to be able to just create aesthetically pleasing work or whatever, but I don’t feel like I have that luxury. I’m more interested in disruption, not in the sense of being shocking for its own sake, but in the sense of challenging that which keeps me in the position of having to fight for survival.

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

JJE: Before I finally admitted to myself that I was trans I had spent a long time getting sicker and sicker, physically and emotionally, from the stress of holding it all in. I hadn’t cried in years and every day was one long panic attack. Near the end of this I stopped eating and was totally dissociated from everything. I was sure I would soon either be in the hospital or dead—but finally something in me broke and I just started crying in the car one day. I remember vividly my head against the window, the sun warm against my face, staring off at some mountains in the distance and sobbing because it all felt so real for once. I started feeling everything again and within weeks I was like “Holy shit—I’m not a man and I never have been.” I think a lot of my work attempts to recreate those moments of breakage, of transcendence through pain and destruction, of the necessity of tearing something down in order to discover or create something better in its place.

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

JJE: Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip completely destroyed everything I thought I understood about poetry, history, and the articulation of trauma. José Muñoz’s Disidentifications is essential for anyone interested in a non-whitewashed history of a queer and trans resistance that operated through the strategic appropriation and purposeful confusion of the cultural products and signs of white supremacy, heteronormativity, and the gender binary.

FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

JJE: Not that I can think of! Thanks!


Joshua Jennifer Espinoza is a trans woman poet living in California. Her work has been published in The OffingThe Feminist WirePEN America, and elsewhere. Her full-length poetry collection THERE SHOULD BE FLOWERS will be released this month (August) through Civil Coping Mechanisms. More of her work can be found at and on Twitter @sadqueer4life.

Dinner Table Refuge by Benjamin Schmitt

Punks Write Poems, 2015

Paperback, 118 pages, $14

ISBN: 978-0986170737

Clocking in at over 100 pages, Benjamin Schmitt’s Dinner Table Refuge tackles a number of issue— death, politics, homelessness, love, punk rock nostalgia, and even zombies and robot takeovers. The collection is not only wide in scope, but wide in its array of forms. Collage poems mix with straight-forwarded narratives, but the work resonates the most when the poems are clear, when they recall the idealistic punk rockers of the poet’s youth, or offer meditations on love in the book’s final section.

There is a thread of memory, images of slam dances and sweaty punk clubs that reoccur in the book. The poem “1997,” for instance, transitions between the past and present well. Set against the backdrop of punk rock youth, the poem drives deeper, hitting notes of love and heartache.

In 1997

the punk rocker read a book on this curb

returning now

fifteen years later

he doesn’t remember until he begins crossing the street

and sees that spot he sat reading Homage to Catalonia

one youthful melancholic Friday afternoon

a few hours before she broke up with him

The poem continues to weave in and out of the past and present, as the speaker remembers the various punk patches that adorned his studded leather jacket. The conclusion echoes the beginning, when the speaker again remembers the girl who broke up with him and his book that she never returned. Schmitt has a knack for writing about memory and the passage of youth, while detailing the people that inhabited those clubs, making them more than punk rock caricatures in Doc Martins boots and Black Flag t-shirts.

The idea of lost youth returns later in the book through the poem “We were radicals,” as the speaker reminisces about all of the idealistic plans he and his punk friends had, such as plotting for the overthrow of capitalism, while quoting the Dead Kennedys and Bakunin. There is a collective “we” that echoes throughout the poem, too, which stands not only for the speaker and his friends, but also the activist punk scene. That said, there are times when I wanted these characters to be given more specific names and details, like the girl in “1997.”

The collection makes a major shift in its final section, through a series of love poems. Here, Schmitt offers some of his most well-crafted lines and images. In “T.,” he writes, “I rediscovered my body/in her arms. As she/clutched me I felt the music of pores/singing through skin and I knew/that to truly love the music one had to be/reborn in such embraces/to experience the inevitability of total loss/before sensing the fluidity.” Another poem, “Weirdos,” reads like a praise poem, as the speaker compliments all of the nerdy characteristics of his partner, including her Captain America action figure and affinity for Lord of the Rings marathons.

 Dinner Table Refuge is not afraid to address more serious topics, such as white guilt and homelessness, or how the passing of time can tame youthful ideals, but it’s also a collection that will draw laughs from the reader through its pop culture references. It is a book diverse in both subject matter and form, and some of Schmitt’s strongest poems successfully capture a moment and place in time, be it a punk club or a first date with his partner. The lines range from funny to confessional and even sensual in the final pages.



Bad News, Again
   after the June 2015 Charleston AME church shooting
after Mary Oliver
There are so many reasons to stay inside, to lock
the room around my heart. I don’t even like it,
my heart. Bitter little fruit, little lead stone,
carnation blooming from a Sunday dress.
What does the world mean if you can’t trust it
to go on?


Listen: birdsong (whippoorwill, maybe) broken
by the wail of a woman prowling barefoot
down the street.


Sometimes, before light breaks, I lace my shoes
& race outside. I try to touch everything—
my neighbor’s rusty wind chime, the fallen
trees. My soles drum the concrete, hands strum
each metal fence.


Listen: hasn’t my body felt like the body of smoke


One morning, on the corner, a girl, still
in plaits, crowned with butterflies, a field
that sang with every motion of her head.
Where was her mother at this hour?
I don’t know. But she looked at me
like a child. She turned her head.
She laughed & laughed at my awful music
& I thought oh. Yes. This is the world
with me in it. It is beautiful. It is.



Walking Lake Calhoun
to a.

In my favorite childhood memory
a blue lip of water is closing above
me & then my mother is pulling
me back up, though she denies it.
You were never drowning she says, love
is no buoy. This is as good a place as any
to begin, watching you descend
the stairs at 32nd St, back into my line
of sight. Here is the circle of my life
& here is yours, tangent extending
indefinitely away & here is the place
where, by definition, they always meet.
Rounding the bend, I almost tell you,
but there’s a monster rising from the water,
which for years killed off someone
close to my heart— massive jaws
opening in the ocean or sometimes,
improbably, appearing to fling
the beloved before a train.
What brought me here?
you’re asking, Loch Ness statue
bobbing still, though out of sight.
What brought me here? My friends
& I live in one apartment building
& once a week drive to a diner uptown.
It’s like being in a sitcom about having
friends, which is nice because
I never have to go outside.
Still, there are at least two worlds
in every person. Sometimes
I look too long at my friends’ faces
& fall through the bottom of our life-
boat & cannot find my way back
into the light & sure, I’m the monster,
sure, I’m the one eating my own heart.
My therapist would call this
a cognitive distortion, but I’m trying
to say that I prefer it, imagining myself
cruel & merely proximate to love.
Let me assure you I don’t believe in us.
Not you & I, storied romance, grotesque
pronoun, what am I without you? & here we
are, back at the beginning. We could walk
another lap? Not hug & say goodbye?
Though it isn’t true, you know,
what I said before.




Something About Joy

I’m alone in a room empty
of me, though I’m in it. The desk
is full of paper cups, still
with the residue of morning
coffee, or afternoon coffee,
or god / that which tethers me
to light. I’m not joking. The joke
is printed on the cups, green
voice reassuring You’re
Making A Difference!
because these cups
are compostable,
these paper cups
bear the Earth,
or at least its image
but I can’t see the forest
from here, the blade
on a child skipping
out into the death field
to fill the cup I cradle
in my palm like a songbird.
Little joy & then it flies.



Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016) and the chapbook Transit (Button Poetry, 2015). A Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine, their poems have appeared/are forthcoming in The Journal, The Offing, Vinyl, Nepantla, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Cam is currently a doctoral candidate in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University and has essays forthcoming in Science Fiction Studies and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s second poet is Cam Awkward-Rich. 


Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world—what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Cameron Awkward-Rich: Well, I’ll answer in reverse: I don’t know if I do navigate the “poebiz landscape.” Obviously I must, but it feels pretty unintentional, almost exactly like standing in the corner of a party full of people who are unbearably too brilliant and too beautiful (or just unbearable), but this party is where all of your friends are so you’re there too, standing in the corner hoping no one will notice you though of course they will because you’re a) being weird, over there alone and b) wearing that one outfit that makes you feel pretty. I’d like to say that I’m motivated to put my work out there because I really do believe that art both marks and expands the boundaries of what is possible to know/think/imagine and when I was growing up it would have been nice to have evidence that someone like me existed, that I could be thought. Of course that’s true. But, also, poetry is where most of my dearest friends live, so I live there too.

I think the first part of this question boils down to why poetry? It’s probably not enough to say that I have terrible visual aesthetic sense, yeah? Terrible fashion, terrible hand-eye coordination, terrible. But I’ve always known how to work with language. In part, it’s because I’m terribly anxious, so almost anytime I speak coherently, you can be sure whatever I’m saying has already been composed, crafted. Even before I started “writing,” then, I’d had a lot of practice. Also, I’m learning that poetry is not necessarily my medium. Essays (lyric, standard academic, etc.) are really my jam. What a poem can do better than an essay, though, is appeal to different registers of sense, both as in sensory info and as in making sense. Poems let us communicate/understand things (feelings, ideas, experiences) that don’t make sense as if they did.[1] And, honestly, as someone who finds the world, my self, and others utterly bewildering, I need all the help I can get when it comes to making sense.


FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

CAR: To avoid making a long, nonsense list, I’ll say that I’m sort of a sponge: I read too much and watch too much and am too easily pulled in the direction of whatever I am currently consuming. That said, the things that I am most inspired by and am trying (and failing) to align myself with (creatively, personally, and politically) tend to be by femme and/or queer poc whose work turns away from the imperative to “humanize” (i.e. make legibly human according to the logic we’ve inherited) poc/queer life and instead engages the awkwardness, violence, persistent strangeness produced by that very endeavor. There are, in particular, visual artists working in collage (Alexandria Smith, who generously provided the cover art for my book, and Wangechi Mutu are two of my favorites), poets (Francine J. Harris and Ronaldo V. Wilson are two contemporary touchstones), and speculative fiction writers (Larissa Lai, Octavia Butler, etc) whose work has helped me think about how I’d like my life/work/politics to align. That said, my poetry actually operates mostly in the confessional mode, which I think is also an important mode and has been personally necessary for me at this particular moment in my life.
(The abbreviated nonsense list goes, in addition: my friends/peers in this weird house party, soap operas, movies that take place in tightly bounded worlds (i.e. spaceships, underground colonies, single buildings), my sister, other trans writers, my cat, academics who manage to navigate the academy without becoming creatively/intellectually/politically diminished, old ladies who don’t give a fuck, theory that delights in witticisms, people who ride the same bus and/or train every day, devastating novels.)


FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?

 CAR: Oh, all kinds of things. Anytime I come away from a book/poem knowing the world differently somehow. Anytime a phrase or an image gets stuck in my head like a song. Anytime an aesthetic object makes me react viscerally, moves me to laugh or (less frequently) cry or throw it across the room. As a reader, any of these marks an object’s success, so, as a writer, my work’s capacity to affect others in similar ways is how I measure my own success.

Also I suppose I should say that there is plenty of art that moves me in ways I’d rather not be moved: to feel, again, the persistence of white(cisheteromale) supremacy. There’s always the question of whether something can be “good” art despite being rooted in, reinforcing, and/or coming from someone whose actions perpetuate various oppressive ideologies. It’s a hard question, I think. Because one wants (I want) to say no, but then one inevitably cannot help but be moved by, even enjoy, problematic objects, as all objects inevitably reveal themselves to be. So while I want to say that the most important thing for me in my work and the work of others is this political dimension—does this object help me to imagine other worlds?/give me respite from this one?/expose or rework its harms rather than perpetuate them?—I also think that everything I write and most things other people write fail at this in one way or another. Still, in the attempt to not fail, new possibilities open. Which is the difference: art that moves me to feel white supremacy again might actually be incredibly “good,” or at least successful, art. But it lacks the surprise, the challenge, the freshness of work that actively tries to do something else. Cuz what’s less surprising than racism, ableism, misogyny, transphobia, etc?


FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?
CAR: During my senior year of college, both of my mother’s parents died in pretty rapid succession. I feel weird saying that their deaths altered my writing style for the better, but retrospectively I think it’s true. I never felt very close to my grandparents for all of the usual reasons: being a petulant adolescent, differences in religion, being obviously queer and always wary about what that might mean they thought of me. Anyway. After they were gone, I discovered a glut of speech, things I’d never said but should have or wanted to, questions I’d never asked.
Throughout college, my writing—but especially the writing that I thought of as Poetry—wasn’t really aimed at communication. It was confessional, sometimes, but I didn’t really think about the reader. Often I’d think of a poem as a little puzzle, not a speech act. But I found myself wanting to talk to my grandparents, so I wrote my first poem that was intended to be performed. It was straightforward and sentimental and cheesy. But it moved people, people who’d never known my grandparents and people who loved them dearly. And that’s, initially, how I found my way into the world of slam and spoken word, how I started valuing a poem’s capacity to affect, and why I started writing poems in my own, ordinary voice.

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

CAR: A book or two?! What do you think I am? That’s way too much pressure, so I’ll say that a book that I’ve been thinking with a lot lately is Eli Clare’s Exile & Pride: Disability, Queerness, & Liberation, which was out of print for a sec, but Duke University Press just reissued. It’s a wonderful example of the hybrid criticism/memoir genre and also, sadly, still feels ahead of the times (even though it was first published in 1999) when it comes to thinking gender, sexuality, ability, class, and, to a lesser extent, race together. Clare asks hard questions that today we seem hesitant to ask, let alone approach the answers to. It also manages to be a great intro text for people not already thinking about disability justice, in particular. Also it’s beautifully written.

FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

CAR: Not necessarily. Though last time I appealed for help in an interview it worked out pretty well for me, so I’m going to do it again. I’ve been feeling pretty stuck lately, in terms of writing, and have been looking for books that will unstick me. Not like self-help books, but like novels so devastating or critical theory so gorgeously absurd or movies so strange they’ll shake me out of it. Anyone have suggestions? Hm?


[1] Taken from Jonathan Culler Theory of the Lyric page 184: “In a wonderful book, Precious Nonsense, now largely neglected, Stephen Booth uses the example of nursery rhymes to illustrate poems’ ability to let us understand something that does not make sense as if it did make sense. We seem to take pleasure in accepting nonsense…”


Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016) and the chapbook Transit (Button Poetry, 2015). A Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine, their poems have appeared/are forthcoming in The Journal, The Offing, Vinyl, Nepantla, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Cam is currently a doctoral candidate in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University and has essays forthcoming in Science Fiction Studies and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 

Anand Prahlad – As Good As Mango

Stephen F. Austin University Press 2012

Page Length: 90

Retail: $15.95

Much of contemporary American poetry centers on expressions of “identity politics.” This mode of poetics, which has taken many diverse and brilliant forms, is most commonly articulated in assertions of identity: celebrations of self in its various guises against the dominant hegemony of the culture of the oppressor.

In Anand Prahlad’s brilliant collection, As Good As Mango, we encounter a poet who, while participating in the liberation from oppressive cultural forces so central to the poetics of identity, accomplishes this individuation by subverting the common relationship between poet and text. Prahlad is a poet less interested in expressing “self” than allowing self to be expressed by the very world in which the poet finds himself. His is a poetics of quasi-passive divination wherein the poet becomes the vehicle for larger aesthetic forces: voices, textures, and spirits that transcend the individual self of fixed human identity. The result is an incredible achievement: an articulation of radical liberation that doesn’t seek to merely assert self via poetry, but a world-driven poetics that gives itself fully to its vision and thereby transcends the limits of ego that so often encage the poetry of identity.

“I remembered scarlet

breaths like wind

through Japanese maples.

The giant windows

that never closed flush.

Hardwood squeaking and

an old, steam heater

clicking like a clock.


I remembered my father.

I would see him whenever

I went home, although,

he would hardly speak.

I hadn’t started seeing

his ghost yet blossoming

around my face.” (“Ghosts”)

“Ghosts” is one of the few poems in As Good As Mango that positions itself in the first person. As a matter of fact: it is one of the few poems in the collection to even use the first person “I,” which is virtually unheard of in contemporary poetry. And yet: the “I” we find is one whose very articulation is composed of memories of objects; a poetic self that is itself a kind of ghost: a spirit hovering over a series of memories—through which those memories pass and thereby assert something loosely resembling a self. The father, here, is a “blossom” that inhabits the speaker—a means by which the speaker can learn to see.

What is implicit throughout the poem is made explicit in its final three lines: “I could remember me / remembering things / without writing a poem.” In this gorgeous summation, the speaker asserts the poem as a means of self-identity—a vehicle through which the self can come to be. Memory, here, is less an assertion than an accumulation, and the self engendered by it is a coalescence of sensory experience.

Prahlad’s work is firmly rooted in an Afro-Caribbean animism that finds in the world of objects the primacy of the sacred. This is made explicit in the collection’s second half, titled, “Hoodoo,” after the West African syncretic religion of the same name. In the poem titled, “Hoodoo,” we get something of a credo. The poem begins:

“Knowing how silly it is,

still I chase the wind blown hair.

I run it down for blocks,

weaving through briefs and suits.

My heart fills like a rain bucket

with stories from the old people.” (“Hoodoo”)

Here the speaker begins with a self-deprecating concession, “Knowing how silly it is,” which is then followed by a series of declarations that manage to overcome the professed silliness. This ambivalence is markedly postmodern: even as the speaker remains suspicious of the religious system and its non-rational methods, he cannot help but “run it down for blocks.” There is something undeniable about the way his heart is filled with the tradition’s power, passed to him through “stories from the old people.” The poem ends with a powerful set of couplets, which finally overcome the initially “silly” talismans that make both the poem and its speaker:

“I chase it like I’d chase a black cat,

desperate for the bones.

This is who we are. This is everything.

Never being held by strange fingers.”

Prahlad’s poetics can be understood in the tradition of the African Diaspora, but there is also something present that is undeniably Keatsian. In the letter in which Keats coins what becomes one of the defining terms in English Romanticism, he distinguishes his own aesthetic from that of Wordsworth’s “Egotistical Sublime.” Whereas Wordsworth’s poetics engender a speaker who is capable of sensing and being, “a thing per se [that] stands alone,” Keats self-identifies as a “camelion Poet” (sic). The latter, “is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing… he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body.” Insofar as the poetry of identity politics is an assertion of ego, it participates in the Wordsworthian lineage, but Prahlad’s approach is distinct in that the self found in his work is ever-shifting and perpetually in tune with the pulse of the things and beings which inhabit the poems.

The opening half of the collection is a long sequence composed, “In Movements and Incantations:” a series of poems or demi-poems that float in and out of particulars in a roving voice that seeks to animate its subject matter: persons and objects; spirits and histories that trace the contours of black experience in West Africa and then the American South. The sequence is at times solemn and mournful, as in “the lynching:”

“at first

he just shook.

and then

he stayed still.

at first

there was

so much pain that

no one there

and no one


would ever be

without it.

but then

he felt

the garden.” (“As Good As Mango”)

At other moments, though, the sequence is ecstatic and overwhelmed with beauty:

“when the black


spreads out

among lotuses

and lilies,

when the woman

in the moon


wearing sapphire

and animal tusks

with rivers and stars

gushing from

her navel,

and ginger and pepper

is burning you

and greens is rocking

you on the atlantic

you can swallow

rose and petunia


the flesh

of tulip bulb

like peaches

with salt, or a jar

of lilacs, opened

while a pine

wind blows

through windows.” (“As Good As Mango”)

Prahlad’s poetry is willfully haunted by the spirits that animate the very world in which the poet walks and sings. As Good As Mango is a shamanic celebration of the vital life force of the poem, and its articulations are devastatingly beautiful and wildly original. This collection transcends the lesser aims of identity politics insofar as it is not interested in a self, but in a transcendence of self—a coalescence of spirit that mends the very fractures that separate the poet from that in which he lives and moves and has being.

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s first poet is Cortney Lamar Charleston. 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world—what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Cortney Lamar Charleston: I’ve got a lot of things to say about the world. I’ve always had a lot of things to say about the world, but haven’t always been confident enough to say them, smart enough to articulate them, artful enough to make them strike the chord I wanted them to, at least before poetry. People who have known me long and well may disagree with that, but it’s my own personal assessment, and in looking through my own eyes, I’m never quite as good as I want to be in regards to my intent of being in strong service of good: goodness. Poetry, however, has brought me closest to that (what I know to be) unreachable ideal. It relies on the mind and heart working in tandem, effectively communicating on two wavelengths at once. Anything I’m attempting to say, about myself or what I see around me, needs to be understood in both ways for there to be any hope of collective progress, in my estimation. We know the shortcoming of law is that one’s opinions, beliefs and feelings can’t be legislated, but does poetry, does art more generally speaking, have the same limitations? I don’t think so. I believe within a poem there is metamorphosis. A person is never the same after reading a poem, whether they realize it or not; it molds in a slow and unassuming way. Instead, the challenge is in getting more people to read poetry, to engage it with their mind and their soul. Access is everything, accessibility absolutely vital: again, this is my opinion. That is what has inspired me to get involved in “poebiz” as you call it. Whereas poetry is often seen as some ivory-tower pastime, something institutionalized and therefore not meant for wide consumption (by design), I’m attempting to bring forward language that resonates beyond the tower through the channels it has created for dissemination of verse. And to also do the same beyond those channels, because ultimately there are different audiences to be found across the landscape, from journal to journal, in print and online, and I’m not intending to restrict my words only to one set of people over another. Rather, I’m trying to speak to everyone because I believe my words are somehow relevant for everyone, regardless of their lived experience or mine; I want folks to experience their humanity just a little bit more and allow others to experience theirs. I’m pushing people in that regard.


FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

CLC: When I need inspiration, a spark of creative energy, a push to the pen—I tend to go to music, usually hip-hop. For me hip-hop has always been there, and if I’m being honest, it is the reason I fell in love with words in the first place. For something that is often talked about so reductively outside of the fan base, people forget that it has a more expansive vocabulary than any other genre of music and it defies the conventions of language to make new modes of expression regularly. Every time I put on a record, I’m forced to bend my mind around the words and I follow by bending words around my mind. Hip-hop also provides something to analyze, to critique whether in terms of artistic execution or its underlying politics, which makes sense, as hip-hop was a militant child, so to speak. Now, other musical genres hold a lot of sway with me as well, but I always feel compelled to shout out hip-hop in a positive way when given a chance such as the one presented by your question. Beyond the music, I also find a lot of motivation to create from my peers, many of them accomplished artists and activists and scholars in their own right. They give me and give my words something larger to be part of and remind me daily that the work I want to do can’t be done in isolation. They remind me that in sharing my work isolation is what I’m running from, as well as the fear isolation produces. I know that fear. I’ve seen that fear. I’ve seen what that fear does. It’s destructive of self and community. In these tumultuous times, it’s undoubtedly time to run towards each other.


FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?

CLC: I have the most difficult time talking aesthetics in poetry, but I’ll do my best! In my own work, there are three things I’m often trying to do at any given time: (1) provide a musical experience, paying close attention to sound and/or rhythm; (2) invoke an organizing concept and/or conceit to its maximum effect; (3) avoid the use of words that I don’t use in everyday speech. I tend to hold myself to these guiding points whether my poem leans narrative, leans lyric or falls between the two poles. Because this is what I attempt to do in my own writings, it also makes sense that I’m pulled to the work of others that do any of these things whether singularly or in some combination. It all goes back to what I said before about accessibility and access as well as what I said regarding a poem working on the mind and soul; I want people to be able to enter a poem and feel comfortable in it. I want it to talk in their language. I want it to sing to them and soothe. I want it to make them think, to make them be contemplative and quiet their confusions. When I read, I always want to be brought to that place and really start to make sense of myself, and make sense of life, to the greatest degree I can. I want to be forced to ask questions and challenged to answer them. I want to be dared to be still and see through the haze. Funny thing is, in noting the symmetries between what I strive to do in my work and what I long to receive from the work I encounter, I’m making a small admission that I’m trying to create the work I need for myself. I’m the hand penning a kind of personal scripture. That’s damn beautiful if I think about it.


FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

CLC: This type of question for many, I think, often leads to discussion of a type of trauma. What I want to do, instead, is talk about a moment that offered me joy, perhaps more in retrospect than it did in the moment, but still. Back in college, as a freshman, I had a prospective student from Chicago who I knew visiting campus and wanted to show him a good time. Looking for something to do, I took him to a spoken word show that I’d heard classmates talking about, not really knowing much about it, but having heard positive buzz. In that show, I found folks about my age speaking to life and death, speaking to violence and tenderness, speaking to comedy and tragedy and doing so all in their own unique voices from their own unique perspectives. These people had something to say about themselves and about their place in the world. It was affirming for me. It was liberating for me. It showed me a path forward after searching for years for a comfortable and viable mode of expression. It was that moment that made me a poet and one committed to speaking generously through myself but not necessarily being overly concerned with myself exclusively, which is a delicate endeavor. But even still, poetry, time and time again, has helped steady me when I felt I was going under, whatever the trigger may have been and no matter how many times I tried to direct the focus of the work away from me.


FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

CLC: This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz is an unflinching look at the mispronunciation of love. Partly because of Diaz’s wildly colorful language and partly because of when in my life I read the book, it continues to stick with me and requires me to interrogate how I carry myself within the bounds of commitment to a partner, especially in regards to selfishness and the ease with which I can claim and wield masculine privilege to her harm (or even my own). The stories that comprise the collection were real to me in a way that many books simply aren’t; they were insightful but primarily because they weren’t written from a retrospective clarity or wisdom. Instead, the stories invited the reader to live in and through the muck, where our behaviors and decisions, good and bad, are contextualized but not fully rationalized nor forgiven and certainly not forgotten.

Wild Hundreds by Nate Marshall is simply one of the best collections of poems to hit the market in the past few years and certainly one that should be on everyone’s shelf. If I had to describe the book in one word it would simply be Chicago. The Chicago that Marshall so beautifully and fully renders in his verse is the one that captures negative national headline after negative national headline, but is given no real narrative in the process, nothing that speaks to the true character of the place and the many, many people who call it home. For all its rough edges—its willingness to push (re)imaginings of violence, vice, poverty and politics to the forefront of our consciousness—it is undeniably tender. It is full of love. It is authentic and invested with great purpose. It literally sings in praise, its musicality no doubt owing to the talents of its author as a rapper and student of the break beat. Sure, I may be biased in my assessment of this book both knowing Marshall personally and having the love for Chicago that I do, but I find it hard to believe that anyone who picks up this book and reads it walks away without being transformed for the better (and also made to have a bit more flava). I honestly just can’t fathom it.


FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

CLC: The only thing I can think to say, at this point, is just how unbelievably grateful I am that anybody has read my work, taken interest in it, taken it to heart. What a blessing it is to be heard; thank you so much for listening.


Cortney Lamar Charleston is a Cave Canem fellow, finalist for the 2015 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize and semi-finalist for the 2016 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Beloit Poetry JournalGulf CoastHayden’s Ferry ReviewThe Iowa Review, The JournalNew England Review, Pleiades, River Styx, Spillway, TriQuarterly and elsewhere.

“I know and have always known my body was mine.”

(from the poem “The Difference.”)


Sarah Frances Moran’s Evergreen (Weasel Press, 2016) brings us a speaker whose vulnerability and strength resembles the beauty and transience of the tall Evergreen. Its branches may be chopped, its needles may burn—but the trunk, the soul, is strong. A girl can climb it, dangle her legs over the edge, and look out over the world.

Appropriately, in the collection’s first few poems, the Evergreen is a jailer for everyone who has hurt the speaker. Trees are such common place objects in our lives, always watching us move through our day, this makes sense to us. Moran’s Evergreen feels personal. Whether an abusive step father or a caregiver who looked in the other direction is caged here, the Evergreen holds the keys.  The people who caused harm to the speaker cannot, will not, be rescued. In “This Evergreen’s Locking Up Everyone Who Ever Laid a Finger on Me,” the language is surreal and gothic:


“These are the cages I keep where I harbor

all the damaged broken animals of my childhood.


If you reside among them it’s only because

you harbor abhorrence that can do nothing

but trickle through the blood stream of the root

of the tree you’d wish to cut down…”


Moran separates the sections of the second poem into cages much like humans who can compartmentalize pain—in order to function, to get through our day. In the first section, Cage 1, Moran writes:


“If you ever dreamed of being a patriarch, you failed.

You planted a tree

then doused it in gasoline and attempted to burn it.”


The idea of a tree acting as turnkey to our cages of people who have misused us is gorgeous and fairy-tale like. The tree is protector and punisher—especially since many people are never punished for their crimes. In Moran’s cages, the pain is kept sectioned off while the speaker of these poems heals and moved forward.

But this book does not limit itself to a compartmentalized kaleidoscope of suffering; as the reader navigates Evergreen’s gritty, dark, and beautiful terrain, they will find that Moran’s poems are multilayered. In the poem “Battle,” the reader not only deciphers an argument about “battling” one’s inner demons, but also a description of the writing process itself. In “Battle,” Moran writes:

“They don’t care about that stifled genius

or about how you’ve received 52 rejections letters to date.

What they do care about,

is the meat of you.


What’s deep down in your guts?

What makes them churn and what makes them ache?


…You redraft yourself, every day

for this battle.”

This poem uncovers the speaker’s vulnerabilities with lines like “Why do you sit at the bottom of the tub and just cry sometimes?” but also how writers need to reach deep inside of themselves to ask, How do I write this pain? How do I confess about this thing that happened to me and twist it into art?  How often do I cross out and start over— the words, my feelings, plunging a magnifying glass into the past and a knife into my heart again?

Moran has experience as a stellar spoken-word artist and it is thrilling to read “Battle” almost like an audience member at a performance. One can hear her voice create a moment to moment truth. We recognize the speaker’s manifesto of  “get up anyway,” find the strength somewhere, and write the poems.  We are ready to launch our own battle cry.

For example, take “Mama Makowski,” a poem about the speaker’s mother getting day-drunk and trying to compare herself to the poet Charles Bukowski—that icon of male bravado that continues to cling to its status in the literary canon. In this poem, the speaker asserts that her father is still alive, and that she hates a part of him but there is:


“…the longing for something not there.


We fantasize about holding their hands and

looking up at them with adulation…”


a piggy back ride

a stroll through the park…”

Moran shares that with her mother— an experience of fathers consumed by their own violence and drinking. Moran illustrates that what really makes a man is one who will hold a small hand, protect those he loves. The speaker commiserates with her mother over their “broken childhoods.” By this poem, positioned later in the book, Moran’s speaker is already reflective: she knows she was given the short end of the father straw and she still overcomes pain, chooses to honor her mother through cooking her recipes.

This speaker looks to the future. What will she, the speaker, leave behind? In the two poems “Frances’s Fingers” and “The First Time I made a Tortilla,” there is a joy in one’s roots, the peace in knowing who we are and where we came from:


“All the bolls of cotton you picked

and endless days in the sun

where your brown skin soaked up ray after ray..


Look at my hands and know the work they’ve done too.


…I got more than my middle name from you.”

Moran pays homage to an ancestor who picked cotton in Texas. The sun beating down on her skin, fingers arthritic by the end of her life, the speaker communes with this woman in these lines and helps her feel centered, blasts Johnny Cash on the way out of town, feels akin with this ghost. Likewise, in “The First Time I Made Tortillas,” Moran writes,


“As I knead the dough


the strength of all of my ancestors flow through into my fingertips

and I feel the struggles of feeding and caring for a multitude of children


my desire for perfection’s depth

is further than this rolling pin.


I simply want to honor my mother with this task

Say to her that the beauty of this creating will not die with her…”


Moran’s words vibrate and pull at us long after we close the book. We look down at our own bodies: what did we inherit?  With all of these poems, there is an overcoming of anguish. Flushed-out secrets explode from the tallest tree, find the warming sun, and the music, and always the words that seem to come down to or come back to “I rely on you,”  “I rely on you, “I rely on you.” This repetition is a magical litany: the words make themselves come true. We know what it means to find the ability to trust again, and to survive. Evergreen is legacy.




Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of two full length poetry collections (forthcoming.) Her chapbook “Clown Machine” just came out from Grey Book Press. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. She also has poetry reviews at The Rumpus and Horseless Press. Visit:

Solmaz Sharif – Look

Graywolf Press 2016

Page Length: 93

Retail: $16



The winner writes history; the loser writes poetry. Not that Solmaz Sharif’s debut from Graywolf Press, Look (2016) is anything short of extraordinary. It’s just that the cliché about the “winner” is too true for Sharif to resist subverting in her urgent, prophetic, and virtuosic invective against the Nation State in general, and the contemporary American Nation State in particular.


It is hardly new for poets to use poetry as a means of political resistance, but rarely have we seen the politics of language play such a prominent role in the resistance. Sharif uses a variety of avant-garde forms to put enormous pressure on language itself so as to exploit its materiality, and therefore its malleability—a process of weaponization that can be used to liberate as well as oppress. Given the enormous oppression brought forth by the militarization of language, which is itself a kind of violent occupation, Sharif seeks to re-contextualize weaponized words in a process that might exorcize the English language of its most demonic possessions.


Until now, now that I’ve reached my thirties:

All my Muse’s poetry has been harmless:

American and diplomatic: a learned helplessness

Is what psychologists call it: my docile, desired state.

I’ve been largely well-behaved and gracious.

I’ve learned the doctors learned of learned helplessness

by shocking dogs. Eventually, we things give up.


These opening lines of the poem “Desired Appreciation” present the reader with a credo that posits the “learned helplessness” of nonviolent poetry as a means of complicity. The speaker gestures to the death of her own complicity in a brilliant image that serves opposite agendas: “Eventually, we things give up.” The “learned helplessness” of human complicity—of poetic complicity—is the resting state of one exposed to prolonged torture (here represented by the shocking of dogs). The American public—and by extension American poetry—has been psychologically tortured by prolonged exposure to “shocking” horrors, such that we must learn to normalize brutality and unspeakable violence not only in our lives but in the very language that is the substance of our thoughts. This acquiescence to horror is a “learned helplessness,” such that we must write about flowers and falling in love lest we lose ourselves in the grip of despair. Poets too are things, and, “Eventually, we things give up.” But even as Sharif offers a potent metaphor for the “learned helplessness” of American poetry, she, with the exact same metaphor, offers us a means of resistance: to “give up” docility is to be shocked too many times—to, in an act of poetic desperation, use the very means of torture to subvert the captivity.


This is precisely what Sharif accomplishes in Look, which offers contemporary American poets a look into what a revolutionary resistance to Imperial co-option might look like. The most pronounced example of this is the many poems in the collection that re-appropriate terms taken from the United States Department of Defense’s “Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms.” This practice participates in the tradition of the American avant-garde, beginning perhaps with Gertrude Stein and extending through the Objectivists and then later the LANGUAGE poets, which seeks to subvert the Imperial occupation of the English language by calling attention to language’s materiality. This is accomplished largely by the process of re-contextualization in which words’ meanings are determined not by some kind of intrinsic semantic cargo but rather by the larger context into which words, like objects, are placed and misplaced.


Sharif uses familiar, stabilizing poetic forms such as anaphora, the litany, and parallel syntax to place tremendous pressure on the diction culled from the DOD’s lexicon, words marked in the poems as foreign by their appearance in small caps: terms like INTERTHEATER TRAFFIC, HUNG WEAPON, PENETRATION AIDS, and SAFE HOUSE. In this typographical designation, Sharif mimics the problematic us/them tribalism inherent to all ethnic and political identities. This presentation of language inherently “other” calls attention to it—our awareness is heightened by its dual-citizenship, and we instinctively wonder whether its presence disrupts an otherwise “safe” poetic experience. In this way, we come to distrust the words, for we know that whatever sense in which they belong to the poem, they also serve another, more sinister master. In doing this, Sharif indicts the “learned helplessness” of benign, supposedly-non-political poetry by calling attention to its inattention: by interrupting poems that might otherwise be pleasant to our palate with targeted phrases like DESIRED PERCEPTION and THRESHOLD OF ACCEPTABILITY, Sharif brilliantly and subtly incriminates the reader for a habit of CIVIL CENSORSHIP. In so doing she implies that much of American poetry is little more than a LOW VISIBILITY OPERATION.


Sharif’s is the ground of BATTLEFIELD ILLUMINATION, whereby the poem seeks to redeem language itself for its complicity in human atrocity. Hers can be described as a guerilla poetics, whereby the overwhelming force and hubris of the occupying force is used against it, and this is made possible only by the native’s intimacy with the nuances of the terrain. Here the “native” is the poet and the terrain is our language—violently taken and brutalized by a Nation State to which it does not belong. Many twentieth-century guerillas believed that a true revolution could only take place when the occupied population became sickened at the abuses of its occupier. By forcing readers (and poets) to LOOK at what is being done in our “homeland,” Sharif accomplishes extraordinary work toward our necessary revulsion.


The bad news is that language, as an object, can be weaponized as a means of oppression and terror. Worse yet, unlike steel and plutonium, language is the substance of thought and identity: it is only through language that we can understand ourselves and the world in which we live. It is what we use to make sense of our lives: to justify the things we have done and want to do. When a Nation State occupies the language of its people, it creates an “us” by engendering a “them”—it necessarily splits the world into a quasi-tribal dichotomy. By doing so, the State unifies its populace by the perpetual generation of an enemy—a something against which we can be together. It is language alone that makes this possible.


However, the good news is that a word, unlike steel and plutonium, can never only be one thing. A word is unique among objects in that it always exists multiply: it may mean one thing, but it always necessarily also means something else. The alchemy of this transubstantiation resides in the power of context, and Sharif is an extraordinary wizard. The context of the DoD manual is war; the context of the poem is supposed to be peacetime. Of all the binaries Sharif seeks to dismantle in this collection: East/West; Islam/Christianity; Brown/White; Terrorist/Soldier; Enemy Combatant/Civilian; none more pervasively haunts the pages than the dissolved line between Wartime and Peacetime. This dissolution, only possible in an Empire, is the collateral damage of the weaponization of language. Sharif masterfully undermines and contradicts this violence by exposing the inherent multiplicity of words; which is to say, she rages against the dull machine of war by turning its weapons against it—into poems with which she hopes to provoke a sleeping community out of its “learned helplessness.”





During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s second poet is Samantha Duncan.


Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world—what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Samantha Duncan: I’m still very new to being a poet and the po-biz world. The majority of my creative work and education was in fiction, until about four years ago when I more or less switched over to poetry, so I’m still learning a lot through my experiences being a poet and press and journal editor. There are specific challenges that motivate me to write poetry—there’s a succinctness to it that requires cleverness and intimacy with language, and that really exercises writing muscles I don’t always use in fiction writing. It’s that uniqueness of the form and construction of it that drives me to stick with poetry, despite it not being my primary writing field.

FFF:  What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

SD: I don’t consider myself a terribly artistic person, outside the writing spectrum. I became heavily interested in book arts and papermaking, several years ago, and a lot of those little details make their way into my writing. It’s such a tactile form of art that’s fun to write about. I also cite music as perhaps a second love, after writing, and it’s a vast landscape to draw inspiration from, whether it be someone else’s song lyrics or my own experience with playing instruments.

I have a Sociology degree and I’m a news junkie, so those issues are constant influences. No matter the direct topic, I’m always looking for the stories and voices I feel aren’t being heard enough. Some would argue that the prevailing point of view in most poetry is that of the straight, white, male, and so a greater representation of experiences is important to me, both when writing and when choosing work to publish as an editor.

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?

SD: I really value inventiveness in poetry. As writers, we’re examiners of language, and poets have the unique opportunity to create our own molds for that language, to affix a personality of our choosing to it. We’re allowed to subvert the act of straightforwardness, and that opens doors to a free-play word arena. I really admire poets who write with such a rhythm that seems natural yet doesn’t sound like anything you’d hear in regular conversation.

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

SD: Not really an experience or art piece, but I’ve written a lot about Malala Yousafzai since her attempted assassination. Her life and her relationship with her father fascinate me and have awakened me to some new realizations about my own upbringing. Her story has also led me to read and write more about women’s oppression in less developed countries, which can be very different from the inequalities women face in America, but just as important to talk about.

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

SD: There are so many poets I think everyone should read, for many different reasons. I’ll throw John Ashbery out there, because I think people should become more comfortable with the notion of enjoying work they don’t always fully understand. He’s not extremely accessible, but he’s re-readable, and you get a little more out of him each time you do.

Fiction-wise, I think everyone should read Margaret Atwood. I have a long-standing beef with the fact that 1984 and Brave New World are on school reading lists but The Handmaid’s Tale mostly isn’t. Also, Amelia Gray’s Gutshot, because I love women who write weird, grotesque little stories.

FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

SD: Nope, I think you squeezed everything out of me. Loved this interview, thanks!


Samantha Duncan is the author of the chapbooks The Birth Creatures (Agape Editions, 2016), One Never Eats Four (ELJ Publications, 2014) and Moon Law (Wild Age Press, 2012), and her work has appeared in The Pinch, Meridian, Stirring, and Flapperhouse. She serves as Executive Editor for ELJ Publications and reads for Gigantic Sequins. She lives in Houston and can be found at and @SamSpitsHotFire.

Stay with Me Awhile

By Loren Kleinman

ISNB: 978-1941058350

April 2016

Winter Goose Publishing

Reviewed by Brian Fanelli

Loren Kleinman’s last collection of poems, Breakable Things, had a lot of references to Charles Bukowski, even in terms of subject matter, specifically the poet’s willingness to not shy away from raw subject matter, such as drinking or sex. There are still some echoes of Bukowski in Stay with Me AWhile, but Kleinman’s new book draws more resemblance to Anne Sexton for the way that it addresses matters of the body and notions of beauty. The book is also more expansive in form, containing a number of prose poems and work that is more surreal than it is narrative. At the heart of the collection, however, is a theme that has been most pronounced in Kleinman’s work, the need for love and affection in an increasingly isolated and fragmented world.

Kleinman’s growth as a writer extends to how she addresses the erotic, which also echoes some of Sexton’s work. For instance, in the short prose poem “Me and Him,” the speaker confesses, “I want to know what makes him cum,” but the poem digs deeper than mere sex, illuminating the layers of feelings that coincide with sex in a long-standing relationship. In the next line, the speaker states, “I want to hear what happened to him that one night in his mother’s arms.” In many of the poems, the speaker admits how guarded she is around men, but “Me and Him” shows a tenderness, especially in its concluding lines, “He asks me to take off the do not enter sign/Joseph slides his face against mine. I let him crawl inside me/this time, fill me with sugar and kisses.” This is a nice contrast in tone and subject matter to some of the other poems that address loneliness. In “The Snow Reminds Me to Play,” the reader feels the speaker’s ache and desire for love and affection, especially in the lines, “The snow is loud and strong/It makes love to me when no one else wants to.”

Other poems tackle gender constructs, and Kleinman does so in direct, forceful language. “It’s Cold Out There” recounts a conversation between the speaker and a friend over the idea of beauty. This poem is also different from some of Kleinman’s earlier work for the surreal lines woven throughout the narrative.


No. No. I will not go outside and listen to the wolves tear

at the moon. It’s just that I’m alone. It’s just that you make

me feel so alone. You know. It’s not an achievement to be

that pretty, you say. It’s a bunch of glock and glick and it’s

cold out there. Look at my thighs. Look at the scratches

and stretch marks. Look at the skin pulled back from my

fingers. And you lick the marks; you eat them out with a

fork and knife. I’ve already forgotten what it’s like to be

loved; what it’s like to be. Let’s sit down in front of the

TV and nibble at our skin. Let’s sit here and stare into

the deepness of our eyes, then we’ll go outside and eat the

cheese form the mice’s paws.

The lines about wolves tearing at the moon and eating cheese from mice’s paws is an interesting, surreal juxtaposition to the rest of the poem, which is generally a more narrative prose poem. There is also something consuming about the couple’s attention to each other, namely the idea of nibbling skin and licking marks.

Ultimately, the book circles back to the character of Joe, first introduced early in the collection, in “Me and Him.” The concluding poem, “We’re Here Briefly, is celebratory, recalling a simple moment, when the speaker drinks on a rooftop with Joe, while holding his hand and smiling. At last, the speaker finds the love she desires. Overall, Stay With Me Awhile marks a shift in Kleinman’s poetry and shows she is willing to experiment more with tone and form, while addressing a deeper subject matter.








During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s first poet is Chen Chen. 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Chen Chen: Thank you for these questions—big and kind of impossible, but I’m glad to be living with them. Why poems? I actually started out as a fiction writer; I tried writing novels. These were imitations of whatever I happened to like, from Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In college, I wrote both poems and stories. I also wrote scholarly essays that went on too long and basically argued that literature is super neat (I still do this, in my doctoral program). Then in my third year, I took my first poetry workshop and just fell in love with the weird difficult astonishing ways of saying and wrecking and loving that poems give us.

I am part of so many different communities, histories, sparks, losses, trees, whispers. Poetry is a place where I can ask my Many and if I’m lucky, my All, to come in and converse. I can ask a frozen lake in Upstate New York to talk to an artificial pond in Lubbock, Texas. I can ask Pablo Neruda to talk to the stray cat that greets my partner and me when we pull into our driveway. I can ask your silences to dance with my silences; a form of talking, maybe. So: responding to what I read and love, attempting to create spaces for conversation and stray cats. And lately: what is real learning and how does that intersect with but also sometimes depart from institutions of education? And always: how can I, anyone, keep the heart, a heart, keep our places and selves living?

As for the poebiz, I think it’s crucial not to confuse prestigious publications and awards with what our actual work is. Of course, these shiny things have practical outcomes that are important—I have been supported throughout my graduate school life with scholarships and fellowships. And getting paid here and there for a poem does make a difference. (POETS SHOULD BE PAID BETTER.) Yes. That said… when I was a lonely kid in high school, going to the local library and discovering poets like Li-Young Lee, Louise Glück, and Robert Hass for the first time, I had no idea that blurbs were written by friends or former teachers of the writer and bios were quite often written by the writer. I had no idea that FSG was a “good” press and that it was more prestigious to publish in New England Review versus somewhere else. Now I know these things and I know why they are or can be important. However, aiming to publish in New England Review is not the same thing as attempting to write an exciting, moving poem. (A poem that can give and give.) You can have both “goals,” of course, but the former is achievable in a much more concrete way. The latter is big and impossible and infuriating and wonderful. On a similar note, I think it’s crucial not to confuse a style of poetry with making poems. Finding a style or a voice can be delightful; it can also be deadly. I would like poets to have questions and dreams rather than styles.


FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

CC: I love the films of Wong Kar-Wai. I love the music of Perfume Genius. I love ridiculous huge purple snow pants on anyone, anywhere. I love my mother figuring out how to send me texts in Chinese and then how to send me emojis. I love the paintings of Paul Klee and Agnes Martin. I love Audre Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Martín Espada’s introduction to Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination, and this recent book edited by Timothy Yu (Nests and Strangers) examining the work of Nellie Wong, Myung Mi Kim, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Bhanu Kapil. I love a painting by Anselm Kiefer entitled “Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven.” I love Kundiman, an organization dedicated to Asian American writers. I love the pug dog calendar that hangs in the living room I share with my love. I love the March pug dog.


FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?

CC: I value a poet’s idiosyncratic obsessions and a poet’s depth or scope of compassion. I like seeing a range of emotional and intellectual concerns. In my MFA, I started out trying to be a Serious Poet for some bizarre reason. I like humor, though it’s more important to me that someone real is writing the poem. Being a Funny Poet can be just as tiresome as being a Serious Poet. I like musics and formal dexterities, though the thing needs to move, not just impress. I like disliking a poem and then liking it. I dislike poems because of my tastes, which often need expanding. I loathe poems that harm or erase people. I like erasure poems, ones that demonstrate an understanding of the power dynamics of erasure and erase texts, not people. I like having my mind blown. I love not knowing what a poem is doing to me. I love poems that do what the cherry trees do, to rip off Neruda.


FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something – an experience, a piece of art, anything really – that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

CC: One of my best friends from high school liked to practice her photography with me as a model. She would take all these pictures and then we would look at them together on her computer. I remember saying, more than once, “Ugh, I look so Asian in this photo.” And my friend would say, “Um, you are Asian.” At the time, I would just say “I know” and make it seem like I was joking—but about what? It has taken a long time for me to really think about the internalized racism and messed up beauty standards I’d accepted and tried (try?) to live up to.

Earlier today I saw a posting about a new scholarship for Asian American actors and performers based in New York City. New York City—a place with a big and super diverse Asian American population. And we need a scholarship. So that Asian American actors have a (better) chance. Part of me is so glad that the organization behind this scholarship is taking action. Another part of me is so angry that the situation (in film and TV, in literature…) seems to improve for a select few and then the idea is that somehow we’re “diverse enough” now.

I grew up in the 90s, started college in 2007—and I still felt like being Chinese, Asian, Asian American, like these were ugly things and the more I could look and behave like a white person, the better, the more beautiful, the more person I could be. I don’t feel that way now, but I do wonder who I would be if I hadn’t spent so much time wishing I was someone else, hadn’t pushed away certain interests deemed stereotypically Asian (piano—I should’ve given piano more of a chance!), hadn’t thought I could never reconcile being both Chinese and gay. The thought of “well, the awfulness shaped me and I’ve turned it into art” doesn’t seem right. I don’t want to fetishize suffering, ever. I think it’s a pretty basic expectation, that people of color should be able to see dignified, complicated, beautiful representations of themselves on a daily basis.


FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

CC: Two books that have come out in recent years:

Hello, the Roses by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. This book is so expansive and attentive—to landscape, to notions of culture and self, to illness, to the opening of flowers and affinities. Berssenbrugge stands out to me as a writer for how she insists on a spectrum of feeling, perception, and vocabulary. Blending the mythic, the quantum mechanic, the phenomenological, and the medicinal, she makes poems (always now in sequences of longish sentences) that seem densely packed at first glance, but are really some of the most welcoming spaces I’ve encountered on the page. Berssenbrugge writes, “I tell you, your own thoughts and words can appear to inhabitants of other systems like stars and planets to us” and I believe her.

Life of the Garment by Deborah Gorlin. This book is so lilies-&-urine full of life, is living, every time I pick it up—it twitches and shivers and pinches me like a magnificent crab in my hands. A poet of world-bending physicality and a sort of gritty spirituality, Gorlin teaches me to inhabit space the way space inhabits me. Wildly. Graciously. Completely. Gorlin writes, “Cars sorrow too, their glittering/surfaces, metal wigs on wheels” and I believe her.


FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

CC: Aren’t beavers AMAZING? Aren’t queer poets of color doing the BEST work? I’m going to make more time for walks. And soups. And supporting the poets, poetries I love.



Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming spring 2017 from BOA Editions, Ltd. His latest chapbook, Kissing the Sphinx, is available from Two of Cups Press. His poems have recently appeared in Raleigh Review, The Poetry Review (UK), and the PBS Newshour weekly poem series. Chen is a Kundiman Fellow and a PhD candidate at Texas Tech University. Visit him at

Malachi Black – Storm Toward Morning

Copper Canyon 2014

Page Length: 75

Retail: $15


Like the greatest formal poets, Malachi Black writes in shapes. Received forms sculpt the shape of a poem by the measure of their recursiveness: the manner in which the poem moves forward and back simultaneously. In a traditional sonnet, for example, as the speaker develops an idea, a scene, or a narrative (an argument), she also, at the end of each line, creates sonic consonance with that which precedes and/or follows. The result is the sensation of forward movement through recurring patterns and the modulation of poetic effects (in this example the effect in question is end-rhyme, though the same argument can be made for poetic features like anaphora, syntactic parallelism, and other features that can echo through a poem). This recursiveness of the sonnet is heightened and dramatized when the poem looks back on itself in its volta: the previous content is artfully repeated and thereby modified, and the result is something like epiphany. The extent to which a poem establishes and then resists its form can be understood as its poetic “shape.”


Malachi Black’s poetic shapes are both elegantly discursive and dizzyingly circular: spiritual yearning in swirling eddies of sonic clusters. Storm Toward Morning, Black’s first full-length collection, relies heavily on received forms (most notably the sonnet) to present an aesthetic argument that is equal parts familiar and strange, and the result is palpably beautiful tension: between the traditional and contemporary; between first-book energy and technical virtuosity; and, most importantly, between faith and doubt: a spiritual disquiet masterfully imbued into content and form.


Black possesses an astounding command of prosody, and like a world-class athlete, he moves through his lines without wasted motion.


“Rocking in my midnight robe, I am

alive and in an eye again beside


my kind insomniac, my phantom

glass, companion and my only bride:


this little window giving little shine

to something. What I see I keep


alive. I name the species, I define

the lurch and glimmer, sweep and pry


of eyes against the faint-reflecting glass

by what they can and what I can’t


quite grasp…” (Against the Glass)


While this sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, Black opens with a procession of trochees that accentuates the quietly desperate state of the speaker. Notably, the opening line ends with a kind of existential release: “I am,” which both posits a stability of self and shifts the poem into its natural meter, which wraps itself around the line in a series of enjambments that create a cascade effect as we progress down the page: “I am / alive”; “my phantom / glass”; “What I see I keep // alive.” But as we course through the couplets, we are returned to previously introduced sounds. At times this consonance is semantically pleasing: “I am / alive;” “my only bride;” “I keep / alive.” However, at other times the effect is something more unnerved: a kind of haunting: “phantom” and “companion;” “faint” and “can’t.”


Black’s formal recursiveness is a microcosm of his poems’ engagement with poetic tradition: there is something undeniably traditional in Black’s prosody, yet that quality is cantilevered by Black’s associative ingenuity and contemporary diction, concerns, and general aesthetic orientation. In this regard, there are echoes of James Merrill, Robert Pinsky, Frederick Seidel, Thom Gunn, and the very best of Philip Larkin. And yet: the heart of Black’s formalism, which is, in the end, utterly Psalmic, seems to be in the spirit of the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century: John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw and Andrew Marvell, to name a few. These poets sought in their verse an ascent into the mysteries of the divine—mysteries rarely resolved but left open like metaphysical wounds that are simultaneously fatal and freeing. It was this quality, their articulation of spiritual brokenness in formal precision, that T.S. Eliot found utterly compelling, which led him to not only champion these once-derided poets into their still-standing critical favor, but eventually state that devotional poetry is actually poetry in its highest form.


Black’s poems are devotional in this regard: rather than proclaim “truths” about the divine, they are poems written toward the possibility of God. This postmodern faith is most prominently displayed in the second section of Storm Toward Morning, a crown of sonnets that testifies to both the undeniable reality of the sacred and its impossible position within the profanity of human living.


“There is no end: what has come will come again

will come again: and then distend: and then

and then: and then again: there is no end


to origin and and: there is again

and born again: there is the forming and:

the midnight curling into morning and


the glory and again: there is no end:” (Vigils)


Rarely are form and content so seamlessly transposed: as in Heaven so on Earth; so too in the poem. “There is no end” is both a joyful declaration and an ominous lament: to be “born again” in poetic rapture is to see the infinitude of experience within the finite moment. Or, as Blake famously wrote: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour” And yet: to be born is to be subjected to death. Incessant birth yields incessant death, and this fact yields profound ambivalence in Black’s poetry, which hiccups its rebirths and stutters its praise. In this, we are reminded inseparability of beauty and death, a tension that cannot (and must not) be resolved.


This resistance to resolution is Black’s most unique aesthetic move. While it has become a hallmark of postmodern poetics to parade this resistance, Black’s angle is fresh because of the shape of his formalism. Received forms convey implicit order: they are teleologically determined from the outset. Black’s sonnets are both elegant and desperate—their formal ruptures proceed out of existential doubt.


“Once more the bright blade of a morning breeze

glides almost too easily through me,


and from the scuffle I’ve been sutured to

some flap of me is freed: I am severed


like a simile: an honest tenor

trembling toward the vehicle I mean


to be: a blackbird licking half-notes

from the muscled, sap-damp branches


of the sugar maple tree… though I am still

a part of any part of every particle


of me, though I’ll be softly reconstructed

by the white gloves of metonymy,


I grieve: there is no feeling in a cut

that doesn’t heal a bit too much.” (This Gentle Surgery)


Black oscillates between formal precision and something like an artful wobble: by embracing imperfection in the presence of technical virtuosity, he dramatizes spiritual poverty and celebrates the fallibility that constitutes the essential distinction between the human and the divine.




Can modern poetry ever be sublime? Variations on this question—Is epic poetry dead? Are any modern poets truly Great? Is modern poetry doomed to be the verbal selfie?—all seem focused on the plethora of similarly-styled modern poems that skew toward the personal as opposed to the epic (in the larger sense), that eschew grand themes and sweeping visions for personal vignettes and points of view, the image for its own sake, language for its own sake, minutiae. Yahia Lababidi’s poetry, in his new comprehensive collection Balancing Acts, takes another direction, quite consciously balancing his own life experience against higher things, not only spiritual but also philosophical. While not epic poetry, these poems take us to another level of understanding in the visionary sense, actively reaching toward enlightenment, something higher.

Each poem balances its everyday sensuous elements, which are quite comprehensive, with a loftier vision. And that vision almost always reigns supreme. His pivotal moments wrestle with great ideas, often his own original ideas and observations. His language, as one might imagine, follows suit. He has no compunctions about using words like “specificity” and “undifferentiation” if they suit his purpose. The whole of language, including the often-spurned abstraction, is useful to him. The first poem in the book, “Words,” gives us his attitude towards language:

Words as witnesses

testifying their truths

squalid or rarefied

inevitable, irrefutable. […]


every poem is a cosmos

dissolving the inarticulate.

And indeed, that last couplet sums up what the poet seeks to accomplish. He also sets us up to understand that this book will be about “truths,” about things that are “irrefutable.” This would be the opposite of the current trend in poetry toward avoiding the abstract, proving in fact that philosophy and “pure” ideas can be presented or discussed in poetry without cliché or prosaic generalization.

He asks, for example, what do we understand about animals? To articulate such as-yet-unformed thoughts, he does not describe an animal in the usual way. Instead, the poet chooses a more philosophical exploration, asking “What Do Animals Dream?” (the poem itself being a series of questions):

Are there agitations, upheavals, or mutinies

against their perceived selves or fate?


Are they free of strengths and weaknesses

peculiar to horse, deer, bird, goat, snake, lamb or lion?


Are they ever neither animal nor human

but creature and Being?

In asking such questions, we face the dissolution of species in a moment in which consciousness itself is contemplated. The issue of animal vs. human is explored further in “Dog Ideal”, a tour-de-force of poetic reasoning that crescendos to where the dog becomes something akin to a zen master…possibly better. And not the way one might expect, but, as he argues earlier in the poem,

unconcerned with the pursuit of truth

and other lies

they live in Truth


never lost in the labyrinth of self

they are without self-image,

thus without self-deception

This is not another tale of the faithful dog often memorialized in literature; this is a philosophical exploration in poetry of dogness itself. He balances the facts of a dog’s life against important philosophical issues, and the comparison articulates a dog’s cosmos for us as seen through that lens. Of course, who we are as human beings is the subtext of this discussion of dogness, and by the end we can see where the dog has succeeded in ways that our very minds have doomed us to fail.

Or our hearts, as in this excerpt from the same poem:

honest in their need to give and receive

a love neither tormented nor tormenting

nursing their wounds without meditation,

which is the creation of more suffering

Grounded in science and reason, but aimed toward the spirit, his words engage both thought and experience to achieve their revelations. His poem “Dawning” describes the similarity of human change to plate tectonics:

As decisively, and imperceptibly, as a continent

some thing will give, croak or come undone

so that everything else must be reconsidered

In “Solitude and the Proximity to Infinite Things,” the desert is depicted as a force of nature to be reckoned with, its remoteness and sense of infinity making it a place “without heart.” Yet it is in that very place, “set apart,” where we can find the sublime, as in “Desert Revisited:”

incorruptible starting point

inviolable horizon

where eye and mind are free

to meditate perfection […]


experience quietude

the maturity of ecstasy

longing to utter

the unutterable name

Here the mind’s power transforms one’s environment while finding its own place in synch with the heart. These poems do not present “realization” as an end, as so often typifies “spiritual” writing. Rather, they form a gentle laying out of possible paths, ways of seeing and being. Here, to be enlightened is to return from the heights of concept, of “realization,” back to the heart.

As in the poem “Heart,”

The heart has its treasons

that reason does not know—

why it must cheat, lie, even die

just to stand a chance at rebirth.

This wisdom of the heart transcends logic and yet, in Lababidi’s cosmos, is not at war with it so much as offering us a takeoff point for those questions unanswerable by logic or philosophy alone. Such “rebirth” and the truths that are revealed by seeking it need a “poetry of feeling” which appeals to the senses and the intuition, beyond the “labyrinth of self” and “the conceit of thought,/ the paralysis of analysis” (from “Dog Ideal”).

Nothing, of course, can be sublime or grand without first being tested. These poems take us through more difficult and meandering routes, to familiar places we imagined perhaps as of no significance. Such as in “Hotels:”

Come, check into these dens

you patrons of boredom, lust

and pay-per-view entertainment


Such privileged inmates

showered simulated warmth

impatiently switching channels


You do not see yourselves

as the night does, shadows

in a flickering monster screen

This is no didactic poem; rather, it makes us picture a world where everything is of consequence. In the poem “Inheritance,” observing what we inherit from our progenitors shows that consequences derive not from the reality we present to others as true, but all the defects and awkward facts we seek to cover up:

We inherit the things we abhor

the unsightly clunkers we scorned

and vowed to forsake as décor […]


Hardly, the heroic public stances, more defeatist private habits

precious little of the extolled self discipline, gleaming courage

or magnanimity. In their place, a host of colossal smallnesses

Yet from “a host of colossal smallnesses” can come, with a more enlightened use of the mind, something far better. Although one might expect that an accomplished aphorist, which Lababidi is, would focus on larger issues; such focus is no less influenced by his being an Egyptian, a place where one’s personal life is dominated in many ways by powerful and oppressive or demeaning forces. Writing in English, exiled not only from his home country to which he dedicates this volume but from its language, makes more compelling the sense of there being a grander vision to be found. Without didacticism, and with a sense of beauty and freedom both in life and in the craft of poetry itself, we are offered insights into such things as the root cause of social unrest, in “What Is to Give Light”:

When words lose their meaning

and an entire people their voice—

so they can neither laugh nor scream—

death and life begin to taste the same

Here words are in fact survival tools. Oppression deprives its victims of the means of human expression, even of words themselves, so essential to freedom. “Dissolving the inarticulate” has never been more urgent. And as Jane Hirschfield says in her essay “Spiritual Poetry,” the poetry that rings most true “plunges into the heart of the matter at hand, bearing witness in some essential way.” This is exactly what Lababidi does on matters of highest import, and we as readers, taken way beyond the borders of our selves, are grandly enriched by it.

Beauty Broken and Decamped

The women in Ivy Alvarez’s chapbook Hollywood Starlet (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) have all lost something. Whether it’s their minds, a man, anonymity, peace, or a sense of self or place, it’s not coming back. We feel for their losses, but like any disaster hungry mob, we cannot look away. All of the titles have a name of a “starlet” followed by a word depicting an action of loss. Here are some of the titles: “What Vivien Leigh Dropped,”  “What Greta Garbo Offered,” “What Betty Grable Gave.” These women are missing pieces; like the artist Lana del Rey, they embody that idea of “beautiful sadness.” Alvarez captures this theme to a tee in this collection.

In “What Katherine Hepburn Lost,” we are transported into her inner conscious. Alvarez writes:

“Yorkshire. Why’d he bring me here?”

“…How long since I’ve had dirt under my nails?

This pantsuit’s stained with chlorophyll.

Maybe I’ll change. He can’t marry me. I have my role to play—

good time girl and quick repartee doth not fine marriage material make…”

Alvarez’s last lines carry a plea: “Oh Spencer, It’s me Kathy.”

The poem goes from recognizing Hepburn as the quick witted “girl Friday,” the friend, not the lover, and ends in heartbreak; we feel her plain yearning at the end. Alvarez brings out the “Kathy” (vs Katherine)  in us, in the wanting what we never seem to get, even though we already seemingly have it all.

Even the elegant and pristine Olivia de Havilland pines silently. She says, “Errol –

please call me Livvie once more.”

In “What Olivia de Havilland Wished For,” the last couplet is:

“I wish for something more than a celluloid kiss,

the mirage of eternity between our lips.”

Alvarez captures the persona of these famous heroines in a few lines of poetry. Olivia de Havilland was classy and perfect, never mussed up. What did this cost her? Alvarez offers us a personality for us to recognize and touch. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction. The poems are emotional truth.

We never know where Alvarez is going to direct us next. These short celebrity poem portrayals are surreal and bizarre. There is a welcome grittiness to some of the poems.

In “What Clara Bow Stole,” we are introduced to an obvious director’s statement when he says “Don’t speak…look pretty.” And Clara is a trouble maker, full of vim and vigor.

“…When I stole

my mother’s coat, after she held that butcher’s

knife to my throat, it scratched like that…

One more bite. Just like her, I’m committed

to my paper bag, my asylum of sweetness.”

This was one of my favorite poems. With Clara Bow, Alvarez draws attention to the fact that these women were forced to fit in a certain mold/persona.  The movie production companies controlled them and used them to make a profit.  These women fit into boxes of “best friend,” “siren” “ingénue,” “tomboy,” etc. Once the die was cast, no one could escape. These poems offer an escape. Alvarez offers an insight to a different reality for these women. They can escape, leave the set, love someone they are not supposed to. And they do it with tenacity.

In “What Ingrid Bergman Wanted,” we are made privy to Bergman’s thoughts. The actress was always so cool and collected in her films, but Alvarez throws in some grit and immediacy:

In Bergman’s thoughts:

“I spot a chapel in the shade

covered in lichen’s dull brocade.

No-one’s looking at me, kid.

Take a flake of rock, scratch the word

Ingrid into bark, letter by letter.

By the force of my hand.

I might earn permanency.

Let that plane leave without me.”

Alvarez gives Bergman a voice. She isn’t “made” to get on a plane by Humphrey Bogart, the symbol of a masculinity and control. Bergman stays because she wants to stay and maybe she lives in the woods, carves her names into the pines. Other starlets are given a voice as well: Frances Farmer chooses to swallow a chicken fetus whole while living in a foreign country. Rita Hayworth is nostalgic for her childhood, dancing with her father.

The closing poems are a direct line from A to B in terms of “innocent girl” transformed into Hollywood icon. They are “What Marilyn Monroe Ran From,” and “What Norma Jean Became.”

With Norma Jean, Alvarez pointedly describes an insecure girl, seeking validation:

“I’ve trimmed my flesh for muscle…

…becoming more anonymous with every step.”

With Marilyn, she is pursued by a swarm, “a halo of flies.”

“Jackrabbits, ears pricked,

follow me with their eyes.”

Like Ophelia wandering in madness, who takes center stage handing out herbs and flowers in one of her final scenes, she enraptures the audience for a time, steals their hearts.

But then we hear of her death offstage. Only her essence lives on, floats through our memories until the next breath of fresh air, the next live performance.



Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of two full length poetry collections (forthcoming.) Her chapbook “Clown Machine” is forthcoming from Grey Book Press this summer. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Freezeray, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. Visit: