Tag Archives: poetry

Now Accepting Applications for Fall Artist Residencies

Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is excited to announce that they are now accepting applications for short-term artists’ residencies in creative writing, visual art, film/theater, music, and more. Each residency includes a room of one’s own, access to a communal kitchen, bathroom, office, and living space, plus wireless internet.

The length of a residency can run from one to three weeks. SAFTA is currently accepting applications for our fall residency period, which runs from August 21st to December 31st, 2017.   The deadline for fall residency applications is May 7th, 2016.

screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-2-00-27-pmFor the fall residency period, SAFTA will be pairing with VIDA to offer two fellowships (one full fellowship and one 50% fellowship) for a week-long residency to two women writers of
any genre. VIDA’s mission as a research-driven organization is to increase critical attention to contemporary women’s writing as well as further transparency around gender equality issues in contemporary literary culture. Fellowships will be chosen by guest judge, Idra Novey.

Idra Novey is the author of the novel Ways to Disappear, winner of the 2016 Brooklyn Eagles Prize and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. Her most recent poetry collection  Exit, Civilian

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Idra Novey

was selected by Patri­cia Smith for the 2011 National Poetry Series. Her fiction and poetry have been translated into ten languages and she’s written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Paris Review. She is the recipient of awards from the National Endow­ment for the Arts, Poets & Writ­ers Mag­a­zine, the PEN Trans­la­tion Fund, the Poetry Foundation, and the Poetry Society of America. She’s also translated the work of several prominent Brazilian writers, most recently Clarice Lispector’s novel The Pas­sion Accord­ing to G.H.

The SAFTA farmhouse is located on a working farm that rests on a 45-acre wooded plot in a Tennessee “holler” perfect for hiking, camping, and nature walks. Located less than a half-hour from downtown Knoxville, an exciting and creative city of 200,000 in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, SAFTA is an ideal location for those looking for a rural get-away with access to urban amenities.

The residency bedrooms are 130 sq. ft. with queen-size platform bed, closet, dresser, and desk. There is also a communal kitchen supplied with stove, refrigerator, and microwave plus plenty of cook- and dining-ware.  The facility also includes a full-size working 19th century full-size letterpress with type, woodworking tools, a 1930’s drafting table, and an extensive library of contemporary literature.

To apply for the Sundress Academy for the Arts residency, you will need the following:

  • Application form (including artist’s statement and contact information for two references)
  • CV or artist’s resume (optional)
  • Artist sample (see website for more details on genre specifications)
  • Application fee of $25 or $15 for current students (with student email) payable online*

For more information and application material, visit our website or find us on Facebook or on Twitter.

*Application fee will be waived for those applying for the VIDA scholarship who demonstrate financial need. Please state this in your application under the financial need section.

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Lyric Essentials: Dan Albergotti reads “A Stubborn Ode” by Jack Gilbert.

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Dan Albergotti reads “A Stubborn Ode” by Jack Gilbert.

Dan, as I searched for a copy of “A Stubborn Ode” I came across your recommendation in Post Road Magazine in which you mention a moment when a friend read “A Stubborn Ode” to you out loud. Was that the first time you were introduced to Jack Gilbert’s work? What else can you tell us about that moment and about discovering the work of Gilbert?

Dan: That was basically the first time. The friend in the anecdote is Melanie Carter, a fine poet whose amazing “Water to Sky” I once discussed in an essay on metaphor in Poets & Writers (Jan/Feb 2012). She’s the person that introduced Gilbert to me, most definitely. At the time, she had recently discovered his work when she attended a summer seminar at Bennington where he was a visiting faculty member. She came back from that seminar singing his praises, but I was skeptical and resistant. In fact, I think her reading that poem aloud to me was probably provoked by a question from me along the lines of “What’s so great about this guy’s work?” I can still almost hear the poem in her voice and see the image of her clutching the book to her chest when she was finished. Within a year, I was a devotee, a full-fledged member in the cult of Gilbert. If any of your readers are unfamiliar with his work, I would encourage them to rectify that tragic situation as soon as possible, starting with his magnificent third collection, The Great Fires, in which “A Stubborn Ode” appears. (I would also encourage readers to seek out Melanie Carter’s work, some of which is available online.)

Chris: What are the particular elements in this poem that illustrate Gilbert’s essentiality?

Dan: The poem seems to compress everything—and I mean everything—down into a hard, sharp gem. It is intimately specific and broadly universal. There is achingly personal grief (for his late wife Michiko, “buried in Kamakura”) and pure empathy for the suffering of others. In one way, it seems like anything but an ode with its aggressively prosy diction and line-breaks. Yet it is certainly what its title claims: an ode, and stubbornly so, damn it. It’s even coyly sonnet-esque in its 14 lines. In a way, the poem seems like it could be a response to Theodor Adorno’s pronouncement “No poetry after Auschwitz” (that’s a common reduction—I think the actual quote is closer to “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”). The poem catalogs disappointments, injustices, griefs, savagery, and despair. It quietly says, yes, yes, yes, yet nevertheless.

Chris: So was it Gilbert’s ability to compress emotion that finally won you over then? Or was it something else in that year of becoming a devotee that made you a convert?

Dan: As with most passions, it’s hard to point to one thing or to condense the experience into a pithy description. All I can say is that “A Stubborn Ode” led me to read The Great Fires, and it was over from there. I jokingly (somewhat) referred to “the cult of Gilbert” above, but my conversion experience is not uncommon. If you want evidence, check out the prices listed for signed first editions of his work by second-hand book dealers.

But in an effort to more fully answer your question, I will point to something I wrote for Borderlands in 2005: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/coming-end-his-triumph-retrospective-jack-gilbert. That piece began as a review of his fourth collection, Refusing Heaven, and metamorphosed into a short career retrospective. In that essay, I refer to Gilbert’s entire life being a poem. It’s easy to become a devotee when you perceive that. Happily, I turned out to be wrong about his imminent death and no fifth collection. The Dance Most of All was published in April 2009, and Jack died in November 2012.

Chris: I completely lose it at the tenth line, “All of us wane, knowing things could have been different.” There are several succinct, declarative lines like this in the poem that make the piece—I like how you said it—“a hard, sharp gem.” Is there a line or part of this poem that is especially poignant for you? What do you hope readers of this poem will walk away with?

Dan: The poem begins with a three-word fragment: “All of it.” And it ends with a four-word sentence: “And I say, nevertheless.” Even in their brevity and simplicity, each feels especially poignant to me. Between them in the poem, I believe there is, as I said above, everything—all of it. Everything that Gilbert provides, and everything that the readers feel as well: their own horrors, griefs, sadness, despair. I hope readers feel all of that when they read the poem, and I hope they walk away saying stubbornly, with Jack, “nevertheless.”
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Dan Albergotti is the author of The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008) and Millennial Teeth (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), as well as a limited-edition chapbook, The Use of the World (Unicorn Press, 2013). His poems have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Five Points, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and two editions of the Pushcart Prize, as well as other journals and anthologies. He is a professor of English at Coastal Carolina University.

Chris Petruccelli doesn’t know what he is anymore. His chapbook Action at a Distance won the 2014 Etchings Press Chapbook Contest. His poetry appears in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. In his spare time Chris enjoys running and whisky.

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An Interview with Sundress Author, Colleen Abel

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As a poet, Colleen Abel is a shape-shifter. In her chapbook, Deviants, you’ll find couplets, flash CNF, lists, lyric essays, sectioned verse, and poems that morph across the page. What takes this formal variability to another level is that Colleen’s work is also about form—about the human body, about boundaries and celestial bodies and the Venus of Willendorf. These thirty pages are about a lot. We talked with Abel about Deviants, the way these forms find themselves, and how she found her way to poetry.

Colleen Abel’s Deviants won the 2016 Sundress Publications 5th Annual Chapbook Contest. Her first full-length collection, Remake, won Unicorn Press’ 2015 Editors Prize and is forthcoming in fall 2016. She is also the author of Housewifery, a chapbook (dancing girl press, 2013). A former Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at UW-Madison, Abel has published work in Pleiades, Colorado Review, The Collagist, Southern Review, West Branch, and elsewhere. She lives in Wisconsin with her student loans.

Sundress: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

Colleen Abel: I have always wanted to be a writer, from the time I was four. I wrote my first short story around that time, about a vampire and his wife. (I illustrated, as well, but happily I abandoned notions that I was a competent illustrator pretty much immediately.) But even though I always wrote poetry, when I was a kid, I saw myself becoming a novelist. It wasn’t until college when I was encouraged to do an MFA in poetry that I thought, hmm, maybe this is going to be my path. Not that you have to pick a genre and stick with it! The older I get, the less interested I am in staying within genre boundaries.

Sundress: How do your pieces find their form? Do you draft in the form a piece eventually takes, or do you think about form later?

Colleen Abel: I almost always draft a piece in the form it ends up with—the form dictates the intellectual and sonic moves the poem makes, usually, so I like to find the form first. It’s sort of like picking a vessel to hold the thought. But sometimes in revision, I do figure out that the vessel is wrong! “The Photographer’s Model” is an example of a poem that was restless in the original form I had chosen for it.

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Sundress:Formally, Deviants is a very eclectic bunch of poems, but the book’s foundation seems to be the 18-page piece titled “Fat Studies.” Speaking of genre, how do you classify “Fat Studies”?

Colleen Abel: I would say “Fat Studies” is a lyric essay. I have been trying to write about obesity for over a decade in my poetry and it never worked–not once. I couldn’t really figure out why. It wasn’t until I shifted my thinking about form that I was able to write about obesity in a way that I was happy with–and “Fat Studies” was the result.

Sundress: In “Fat Studies,” the speaker’s body is described as “deviant.” The piece goes on to investigate the speaker’s life and mind within this “deviant” body. How did this piece come about? Is this stigmatized subject you’ve dealt with before, or is it something that required the building of experience and courage to write about so directly, frankly, and beautifully?

Colleen Abel: As I mentioned, I’ve been wanting to write about obesity for a long time, but could never make headway. A couple of things happened right around the same time that broke open the essay for me. I was sitting in on a fiction class at the school where I was teaching at the time, in 2014. So I was thinking a lot about prose. Then I stumbled across the theories of stigmatized identities by the sociologist Erving Goffman. He had this list of ways that people could respond to having a stigmatized identity, and I immediately thought: that list would make a great backbone for an essay. The third thing was that I had read an essay about physical fitness by John F. Kennedy and was trying to write a poem about it (and failing; see above.) Somehow those three factors collided and “Fat Studies” was born.

Sundress: In “Poem Beginning With A Zen Proverb,” (which, is such a great title), you create a list poem of places to “hide your body.” What are other list poems you have loved or that have influenced you?

Colleen Abel: Great question. The list poem that I think I go back to the most is Kenneth Koch’s “One Train May Hide Another.” I’m fascinated by how list poems make their way toward endings. They are so hard to write!

Sundress: What’s something you used to believe about writing that you no longer think is true?

Colleen Abel: Wow. I can think of probably a hundred things, from small to hugely philosophical. I was very young when I went into my MFA program and for a while I think I absorbed a lot of the aesthetic preferences of my teachers and saw those as rules of a sort. Eventually, I shook those off–as writers need to do with their mentors, often. I had a teacher who thought poems shouldn’t have questions in them, for example, and for a long time I was scared to ask questions in poems. That’s a small example, but I think the more I read and write and live in the world, the more expansive my idea of poetry becomes.

Sundress: What are three things that every poem needs?

Colleen Abel: 1. Attention to language 2. Attention to arrangement 3. A desire to communicate something to an audience.

Sundress: Can you tell me a little about writing community? Where is yours? What is it like? What were the best writing communities you’ve ever encountered, and why?

Colleen Abel: I am about a month into a two-year writing fellowship. There are about a dozen of us who comprise the inaugural class of Tulsa Artist Fellows, so I am excited to see this fledgling community grow and evolve, especially since it’s multi-genre. I was very, very lucky to be a part of a small group that met frequently for several years in Chicago. I probably won’t ever find anything quite like that again, but I still carry their generosity with me even a decade later.

Sundress: What projects are in the works for you now?

Colleen Abel: [My full-length collection] Remake is coming out this spring! I’m super excited. I have a full-length collection called Caryatid that’s seeking a home, and right now I am just trying to generate work without thinking too much about how it will shape into a book. Wish me luck!

Colleen Abel is the winner of Unicorn Press’ 2015 Editors Prize for her collection Remake, which is forthcoming in fall 2016. She is also the author of a chapbook, Housewifery (dancing girl press, 2013) and a former fellow at University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in Colorado Review, Pleiades, The Southern Review, Phoebe, West Branch, and many other outlets. She was recently named a 2017-2018 Tulsa Artist Fellow.

Tyler Barton is one half of FEAR NO LIT, a literary organization focused on community-building, surprise, and discomfort. An MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, he edits fiction for the Blue Earth Review, co-hosts the radio show Weekly Reader, and leads writing workshops for senior citizens. He’s currently creating a flash-fiction podcast called SHOW YR WORK that will be available online this summer. This winter, you can find his short stories in Midwestern Gothic, Little Fiction, matchbook, NANO Fiction, and No Tokens (and you can always find his jokes at @goftyler). Tyler is originally from York County, Pennsylvania, where, once, as a teenager, he saw a sweatshirt that read “York’s Not Boring…You Are,” and his life changed.

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AWP Roundtable with Chen Chen, Muriel Leung, Jessica Smith, and Sarah Viren

“It is my history raiding me”: Exploring Representations of Public and Private Violence

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Welcome to our Sundress Roundtables, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2017.

How is violence produced in a twenty-second exchange, perpetuated in a centuries-long system? This panel explores how writing can engage with the intersections of institutional and interpersonal violence. Through poems and essays, we share strategies, messy attempts, more questions. One common thread we trace is violence’s relation to intimacy. If we allow it in private, do we then more readily allow it in public? Is desire inherently violent? Or should we distinguish a more metaphorical violence from abusive dynamics, historical atrocities, present crises?

 

In your view, what is the relationship (overlaps as well as key distinctions) between institutional violence and interpersonal violence?

Muriel Leung: The public imagination of violence has always largely veered towards the interpersonal, I think, because it’s a bit more easy to detect and articulate since we are each experts in how our own bodies relate to the world. A solely interpersonal outlook on violence, though, is dangerously limiting. It obscures the larger forces at play that dictate how we relate to each other socially: how we are all influenced by a certain type of education, upbringing, privileged positioning, and opportunities we are afforded and not afforded. And these relations sometimes change or stay the same when we travel to a different state, region, or country.

The U.S. in particular is guilty of such failings in recognizing institutional violence as a legitimate source of inquiry and rage. The recent election of Donald Trump and the widespread approval of him by those who identity as poor or middle class white is pretty emblematic of that rift in understanding between institutional and interpersonal violence. Largely, poor or middle class white people have been expressing feelings of being shafted by progressive political actions that appear to provide opportunities in favor of those who are immigrant, non-citizen, and/or nonwhite. In other words, provisions of social or political rights to these communities means they lose out. The issue here seems to be that even the understanding of interpersonal violence is incredibly short-sighted. It’s the strangest correlation – the more privileges you possess in this country, the greater the level of threat of its loss such that one feels the need to hoard opportunities, to forbid others who may be further marginalized from access to them. I think this is what a limited scope of institutional violence can do – it turns social and political life into a never-ending blame game in which vulnerable communities are under attack rather than the systems that perpetuate the original source of the misery.

Jessica Smith: I think this relationship has to do with sustainability – what an individual is willing or has been taught, in private, to sustain. If one is subjected to gaslighting, violence, and subjugation in their home, the space that is supposed to be the most safe and sacred, then how can they hope to interrogate these same offenses at an institutional level?

One of the most difficult parts of fighting violence, or rerouting mindsets that lead to violence, is having to identify it when you are so consistently working to “recover” from it. How do we name what harms us when that harm originates from a place we trust – a parent, a partner, a university, a government? How can we explain what cruelty is to those who are in the position of teaching us right from wrong?

Trying to illuminate structures of oppression to the oppressor is not only painful and unfair, but nearly impossible, particularly when their behaviors are reinforced by an oppressive societal framework. I’ve found this space un-navigable – the space wherein the victim must be the one who is measured and thoughtful, where even the most basic explanation of decency feels like begging. We’ve seen this during the campaign and election of Donald Trump – calls for harmony and decency in the face of a man who ran his campaign on cruelty and harassment.

It is vital to interrogate this public-private connection because it is interdependent. Institutional violence relies on breeding acceptance in private. It needs people to expect it, or at minimum be afraid to fight it.

Sarah Viren: Sometime after the election I found myself rereading Gabriel García Márquez’s Nobel Prize lecture from 1982. I used to teach the lecture, but it had been a while. And also it was different reading the speech at this moment in time, when it feels like all forms of violence are under attack by those who would insist that they do not exist.

Though I love every part of that speech, there is one part that is particularly powerful. After listing innumerable instances of interpersonal, institutional, and state-sponsored violence in Latin America, García Márquez demands that this reality be what we recognize when we recognize his fiction:

A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.

(Read the original version of the speech in Spanish here.)

Interpersonal violence tends to be what we recognize as real violence. It is what we see on TV and in many movies and in so many of our fictions and nonfictions. And often in its representations and repetitions, in its sexy allure and sell-ability, interpersonal violence can appear more hyper-real than real. I cannot tell you how many bloody and dead women I have seen on a screen, their violated and abused bodies made into the mystery around with a male narrative will unspool.

Institutional violence is our refusal to also see the repetition of that dead female body as a form of violence. It is our refusal to read One Hundred Years of Solitude outside of any other context than the “magically real” hoisted on it by U.S. and European critics and academics. It is what García Márquez is talking about when he says solitude. Institutional violence is all those forms of violence—health care inequities, sweatshop conditions, historical revisionism, voter suppression—that are so often denied a reality in large part because they are so pervasive and engrained that we struggle to see at all.

Chen Chen: I’ve been thinking about the post-election rallying cry shouted or tweeted out by many liberals: “Love trumps hate.” But what do we mean by love? Do we mean feeling some vague but pleasurable harmony? Do we mean saying hi to strangers and holding the door open for them? Or do we mean something that actually requires policy change and systemic change? I return, always, to this James Baldwin passage from The Fire Next Time:

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.

These days, I am also returning to an article by Jo Blaise, published recently in Kinfolk Kollective (and entitled “Your Love Won’t Trump Hate”):

Toni Morrison taught me early on that love is never any better than the lover. She warned us in the pages of The Bluest Eye that “wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly…” So when I see exasperated faces and secret Facebook groups lamenting that love failed to trump hate, I must ask: Whose? Whose love failed us?

It’s important here to say that James Baldwin and Jo Blaise are both writing out of a history of Black struggle movements, some of which have been deeply transnational in practice (for instance, both Baldwin and Blaise make connections to Palestine). As a non-Black POC, I think that love also, on some basic level, means insisting on the fact that certain frameworks and strategies for resistance come specifically from Black resistance.

 

How can the genre(s) you write in get at the relationship between different yet interlocking forms of violence? What is it about a particular genre or way of writing that opens up the investigation into violence(s) for you?

Muriel Leung: I’m interested in how recent turns to hybrid genres or less clearly defined genres of writing seem symptomatic of a world whose set of complex relations seem to growing exponentially as the years progress. If genre and form is historically, politically, and socially influential to aesthetic development, then I think the growing tenuousness of containers for these genres and forms means that things are happening far faster than we can write them. In particular, writing violence and trauma demands a far greater set of responsibilities and ethical aesthetic practices now that I think ruptured forms and genres seem to address.

I’m especially interested in the essay now, the etymology of the word drawing from the French “essayer” (trial or attempt). Moving into the essay from poetry, I adapt a lot of poetic elements, particularly the lyric when it comes to phrasing, but how I think essays differ from poetry is the impetus “to try” to achieve a point of hyper-clarity, to arrive at some answer in the end. Poetry has always been, for me, about creating language landscapes of webbed responses. This abstraction is useful too, but experimenting with the essay as a form that responds to violence and trauma in a way that poetry alone cannot do is a necessary project for me. It forces a necessary toggling between poetry’s propensity towards abstraction and the essay’s need to establish a personal rhetoric. It is as if poetry offers sites of feelings for rage, anxiety, and depression, and the essay provides a set of guidelines for how to navigate them. When you put the two together, they do joint work to convey a perspective that may not possible if each genre were solely confined to their own rules.

Jessica Smith: Most of my work and research centers on intimate partner violence. One of the most illuminating things a counselor once shared with me is that society is structured to misunderstand victimhood – that the victim of sustained abuse (in any form) usually appears more scattered, damaged, and volatile to the outside world than the perpetrator. Victims are more likely to miss work, invent transparent lies to their loved ones, and be generally unslept, unkempt, and unhappy. The perpetrator of the violence is, conversely, accustomed to the dynamic and in control of it, thus appearing more “together” to observers. The victim’s reality is distorted on all levels.

This gulf between the realities of abuse and the understanding of it, I think, is best traversed by poetry. Ricardo Gullon said that poetry is the transfer of intuition – it privileges insight over information. If we are hoping to gain insight into sustained, systemic violence (institutional, interpersonal, both), then we have to close the space between representation and reality. As Rachel Louise Snyder put it in her New Yorker article on domestic violence, “A Raised Hand”:

“Between 2000 and 2006, thirty-two hundred American soldiers were killed; during that period, domestic homicide in the United States claimed ten thousand six hundred lives. This figure is likely an underestimate, as it was pulled from the F.B.I.’s Supplementary Homicide Reports, which gather data from local police departments, where homicide reporting is voluntary.

Dunne attributes the prevalence of domestic violence, in part, to a deep cultural misunderstanding of how violence operates. We assume that victims incite abuse, or that if the situation at home was truly threatening they would leave.”

Because I think that victim-blaming and gendered assumptions about who commits intimate partner violence are both erroneous, I want my work to focus on the collective societal issues that support a culture where intimate partner violence happens with such frequency, and in such secret. Poetry weds the private and the public – it distills the moment of crisis into a universal one. Poetry gives us the pinhole camera so that we can look directly at the eclipse. It is “…the language of intensity,” wrote C.D. Wright. “Because we are going to die, an expression of intensity is justified.”

Sarah Viren: I write in all genres and often I think that the way we separate our genres, especially when the deciding factor is whether the text is “true” or not, is itself a form of violence. So I’m not sure that the genres get at violence differently, but that readers’ understanding of genre distinctions can both open up and/or confine how violence is understood within a particular work.

I’m often struck, for instance, by how much more people will react to a description of violence if it is read within the context of a “true” genre, like memoir or literary journalism, as opposed to violence that’s been framed as fictional (but might still be representative of a real situation or injustice). Whenever I’ve taught Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Colonel,” I can see a change in the room—and in the reading of that poem—as soon as I mention that Forché has said that it documents actual events. Students suddenly take the poem more seriously and are also more interested in hearing about context. I wonder about that change. Because even if the Colonel or the sack of ears were invented, the violence they represent would still be symbolically true. More than 75,000 people were killed during the Salvadoran Civil War, a war that the United States helped prolong.

So rather than saying I prefer this or that genre when writing about violence, I think it’s more accurate to say that I tend to use the essayistic mode. For me, essaying is the form of writing that best replicates the mind on the page. It is not chronological or narrative in nature. It is not interested in replicating reality but rather commenting on it and trying to understand it, often by making connections, many of them non-intuitive. For all those reasons, it is the best way for me of getting at issues of institutional violence.

I once wrote an essay, for instance, about singing murder ballads to my newborn daughter to stop her from crying. All I knew when I started writing that essay was that there was something not right, or at least more complicated than I wanted to admit, about me singing her those songs, most of which are about murdered women. What I ended up working through in that essay were a series of connections, between those ballads and other stories of violence against women, between my desire to soothe my daughter and my own culpability in a system in which stories of violence against women—not to mention actual violence against women—are so common we don’t notice them at all.

Chen Chen: Most of the time, I am a poet. Lately, though, I’ve been working on essays. Lyric essays. Somewhat experimental, perhaps. The possibilities of creative nonfiction have opened up for me some new ways into difficult subjects. One essay I just revised is a meditation on the shooting at Pulse and on living as an openly gay person in a very conservative town in West Texas. Guns are a big part of the culture here, as are rather normalized (often coded) forms of sexism and homophobia—so before Pulse, I was already on guard all the time. I felt like I was back in the closet in certain contexts. After Pulse, a part of me wants to stay home 24-7; at times I feel deeply uneasy going, with my boyfriend, to the movie theater or to the local Barnes & Noble. Obviously, these places are not nightclubs, but the fact that a safe or sacred space specifically for queer people was attacked makes every space seem dangerous. The essay traces the social roots of anti-queer erasure and violence, including how internalized homophobia manifests.

At the same time, I have no direct connection to Pulse. I’ve struggled with how to represent the specific and enormous violence that occurred there. It feels necessary to document the violence because it seems like the violence has left the national consciousness so quickly. Part of the essay’s task is slowing down, making space for a longer memory to take hold. But I worry about reproducing violence. I worry about the reiteration of a certain form of tragic queer suffering. I worry about aestheticizing or narrativizing such immense loss. I worry about what it means for me—someone who is a queer person of color but who is not Latinx or part of an Orlando community—to write about this in the first place. In the essay, I try to acknowledge these worries and to critique my own tendencies/approaches. I try to keep distinct and particular the experience at Pulse and the experiences in West Texas. And I try to excavate why, exactly, I feel so much grief; why it is that this mourning feels already familiar. The piece is called “It Seems I Have Been Mourning for a Long Time.”

Writing in a lyric essay form has allowed me to bring together multiple threads without (I hope) conflating them. The form has also allowed me to ask questions about what it means to “research” an event so horrific and personally triggering—the fact that it became unbearable to read account after account from friends and relatives and beloveds of the people killed at Pulse. I couldn’t read more than two or three accounts in a single sitting. I couldn’t keep looking at the pictures: the smiling selfies, the couples in love, the people who were just going about their lives in their particular, beautiful, complicated ways. So, I had to slow down. I had to cry. I had to read more slowly and return to my essay, taking greater care with my language. It just seems so impossible that they are gone.

 

What are some examples of work that you feel interrogate, complicate, reshape our understanding of violence(s)?

Muriel Leung: There are so many writers and artists out there who challenge our understanding of violence in such a way that folds critique into our daily imagination of it. The first names that come to mind are always women of color: Claudia Rankine, Cathy Park Hong, and Bhanu Kapil. Each writer is invested in pushing or challenging presumed genre and formal boundaries in their discussion of race and national (anti)belonging. There’s also Douglas Kearney, Craig Santos Perez, Solmaz Sharif, and Robin Coste Lewis, whose works critique structures and forms of power from black history archives to Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. I think it’s powerful to consider one’s poetic practice as a part of history and history-making, to think about how reviewing the past can be a way of conceiving a certain type of future. Not necessarily optimism — I think these writers would agree that one should always be skeptical about overly idealistic renditions of future possibilities — but a complicated and weighted hope for some form of change.

Other writers I think who have been on my mind recently: Will Giles beautifully utilizes heartbreaking comedy and extended metaphors in his performances about substance abuse, history, and community revival. Vanessa Villarreal, whose book, Beast Meridian is forthcoming from Noemi Press in 2017, is especially gifted in recognizing how the textures of the page can be a means of exploring how violence can be enacted through language. Kay Ulanday Barrett, whose first poetry collection, When the Chant Comes (Topside Press 2016) just came out and I think is one of the best texts on intersectional politics and what good allyship is out there. Jamie Berrout too, who largely self-publishes, has not only put out some amazing nonfiction, fiction, and poetry about being a trans Latina woman — her work gorgeously weaves in and out of time, place, space, and memory.

Jessica Smith: I was moved and devastated by Lacy M. Johnson’s memoir The Other Side, which explores not only the horrific crime her ex-lover committed against her, but the murky systemic issues around academic and sexual power structures that allowed her to sustain a relationship with him – despite his escalating violence – for so many years prior to this final attack. She complicates notions of how a victim should act or “heal” in the aftermath. The memoir is both lyrical and unflinchingly direct, which I think mirrors the ice-clear fever dream of working through “recovery.”

I am endlessly in awe of Vievee Francis’s ability, in her poetry, to be confrontational and still deeply vulnerable. She engages violence as a scope, not an isolated incident, and demands that her reader do the same. Though she is clear about the intensity and consistency of the violence in her work, she avoids the kind of “begging” explanations these narratives often devolve into. Her poems key into the strange familiarity of violence, and the way it parades, so often, as intimacy.  I go back over and over again to the end of her poem “Taking It,” where she writes:

“…Is this too dramatic?

Find another story. Find a lie. In love, body after body
fell beneath my own, though my own was broken,
and I made love like a sea creature, fluid as if boneless,
though my bones would rattle if not for the fat I cherish.
Wouldn’t you? How I grew to love the heavyweights,
myself with one in the ring. How I imagined him punching
me, and punching me again, saying I’m sorry, so sorry,
to have to love you this way.”

Any writer who can open their throat this way – who puts the words cherish and fluid and love in the same breath as punching and broken and heavyweights reveals that violence is not something that punctuates life but rather is woven into it.

Sarah Viren: Well, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a really good example of how fiction can address violence. The novel is allegorical, and so the stories of violence it tells are meant to be read both as specific examples of interpersonal violence and as representative of systemic forms of violence that happened and continue to happen (i.e. how poor people and poor countries are exploited by multi-national companies and how dysfunction within a family can be passed down through generations and, thus, perpetuated).

While we’re thinking about Colombia, I’d also mention Don’t Come Back by my friend Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas, which will be published by The Ohio State University Press this January. Lina’s descriptions of violence can be both beautiful and horrifying, but she never glorifies or sensationalizes violence, which is a danger, I think, in any attempt to write about violent acts. What her book does that’s particularly effective for me is that she uses descriptions of violence to unnerve the reader, make us uncomfortable and, then, force us to think about the world that engendered that violence.

Besides those two examples, I happen to be reading two books right now that also speak to violence in new and interesting ways: Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexiavich and 100 Chinese Silences by Timothy Yu. The first, “a novel in voices,” as Alexievich calls her oral histories, is collection of testimonies from people who came of age in the Soviet Union but are now adjusting to its replacement (i.e. a capitalistic society), and their stories show how the forms of violence that unfettered capitalism supports can sometimes be as devastating as the state-run violence suffered under leaders like Stalin.

Yu’s book talks about another form of violence: that of representation. His poems are a response to a whole body of American poetry that uses references to Asia or Asian people as symbolic stand-ins for stereotypical ideals/ideas. These are poems commit violence by silencing people, and Yu attempts to speak into that silence through parody. What I love about his book is that each poem mentions a specific U.S. poet and poem so that there is, in effect, a very real calling out, or confrontation, but also a conversation created between the original moment of silencing and Yu’s often funny but also fierce response.

Chen Chen: I’ll just recommend two amazing books that came out recently.

Aracelis Girmay’s poetry collection the black maria. A shattering and necessary book engaging the loss of “over 20,000 people [who] have died at sea making the journey from North Africa to Europe in the past two decades.” Specifically, the core cycle of the book speaks to the history of those of Eritrean descent (Girmay is part of the Eritrean diaspora). The second part of the book engages police violence against Black lives in the United States. From the acknowledgments on p. 112:

          I have struggled with this particular project, so steeped in violence, mourning, and grief. How do I work inside of such histories of violence without further brutalizing the black body in the work? How do I, especially here, make critical space for joy and tenderness in the remembering, so that my own imagination (gesture by gesture, line by line) isn’t rendered by the values of white supremacy or violence as I resist it? And how do I express, with tenderness, who and what this work/I love(s)? It is my hope that while these poems mourn the dead and the bleak circumstances of our present, violent day, they are also a tribute to black joy, black art, black making, black life.

Garrard Conley’s memoir Boy Erased. A deeply moving account of undergoing church-sponsored gay “conversion” therapy in the early 2000s. There is such heartbreaking tenderness and ache in Conley’s writing. From p. 148:

I had been wondering what it felt like to be in a straight mind my whole life, or at least ever since I discovered I was gay, when, in third grade, I’d first realized that my interest in our teacher, Mr. Smith, was much greater than that of my other male peers’. Though over the years I’d done my best to pretend otherwise, I’d had a string of male crushes that wouldn’t go away, a constant guilty ache that ran through my body for so long that I came to believe the feeling was just a part of what it meant to be alive. The only moments when the ache became a sharp pain were when I allowed myself to imagine a happy life with these crushes, a rarity to be sure.

 

How do you practice resistance to violence(s) in your work—as a writer, an activist, a teacher, an editor, a community member, etc.?

Muriel Leung: I think of my work as resistance and survival. I write about violence and trauma in my own work, especially in my recent poetry collection, Bone Confetti, which takes place in an especially violent landscape that forces its ghostly figures to find a way to reconfigure their notions of intimacy and desire in a time of loss. I also believe in exercising this resistance in editorial work with Apogee Journal as Co-Poetry Editor. I get fatigued with literary politics quite often so I think it’s important to take part in community building work that tries to work beyond representational politics — to offer a space to publish marginalized voices who may feel that their works are undervalued or dismissed by other literary spaces. I hope that we get to be a space where writers feel safe knowing that the editors are legible in race, gender, sexual, and dis/ability politics. This work, I think, is important to create alternative possibilities out there for publishing and engagement in literary spaces.

In addition to literary activism, I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in intersecting struggles from community organizing to direct service work. I’ve volunteered as a crisis counselor for an LGBTQ anti-violence hotline and just started as an abortion clinic escort. I think there’s such value to doing work that teaches you to confront emergency and to recognize that trauma surrounds us. We have a responsibility to know how to call it by name and support each other in our struggles. I think this work is just as important as supporting marginalized communities organizing for rights for undocumented workers, queer and trans youth, and anti-police brutality causes.

My hope for the future is that people can feel moved to support causes that are not necessarily pre-vetted by mainstream media as issues that matter. I hope that #BlackLivesMatter becomes more than just a hashtag and that we can work to undo anti-black racism in our communities on the institutional and interpersonal level.

Jessica Smith: As a teacher at a university that allows students to carry concealed weapons, in an isolated college town that is deeply pro-Trump (and was before Trump was a political metonymy), I have always worked to engage my students on what it means to be a citizen. What is your role in society, I ask them, and what is actually important to you? I try to bring conversations about politics back to the body – the bodies of their friends, their mothers, strangers, themselves – and ask what bodies matter to them. Politics is a question of where those bodies go, I say, and who gets to put them there.

I think this election has revealed to many (particularly white liberals) that activism is not a lifestyle choice but an imperative. Organize in your community. Talk to your family members. Educate yourself about the nature of systemic violence and suppression. There’s always more to know, and more to change. No one has ever regretted actions they take if those actions are rooted in advocacy and empathy.

Sarah Viren: I write a lot about crime and I just taught a literary true crime class and in both of those areas what I try to do is complicate our understanding of criminality and of the criminal act. I think one way we can do this is to consider the multiple forms of violence that cocoon any one crime. There is the violence of the crime committed, but there are also always violences that gave rise to that crime and that come out of it.

So, when I was teaching that class, I worked with students a lot to consider context when we discuss criminality and violence, but also perspective. We read a found essay about violence against transgender people, for instance, in which the author makes clear that these are crimes that will never be solved, in large part because they are continually minimized and erased by our culture. We also read an essay by Jose Antonio Vargas about being undocumented, which then allowed us to talk about what it means for a person to become a crime. If something that absurd is allowed to happen, where, then, is the violence occurring? My students were really smart about analyzing crime in these different ways and that class was one of the most rewarding I’ve taught so far in large part because I think we were really able to make some headway in our understanding of the interlocking forms of violence.

Beyond that, I also write a lot about my personal experiences as a queer woman and now a queer mother living in the far reaches of the south. And what I’m often hoping to do in that work is to break apart stereotypes that exist in both the larger culture, but also within queer culture, about what it means to parent. I’m very resistant to the idea that choosing to parent is inherently a conservative act and, in fact, I think the perpetuation of that stereotype is a form of violence that has a real silencing effect on families like mine. So my work in that area is also advocacy in that I want to speak to that silence and open up within it new understandings of what it means to parent or to start a family.

Chen Chen: I try to be constantly asking what people actually need—what is the support they need? Do they want support? I try to be constantly learning. Listening. Reading. Studying. Showing up but not taking up space that isn’t mine. Building and contributing to existing spaces for queer people of color. Improving my pedagogy. Speaking out on the corporate structures of the university, my university. Researching ways to create funding opportunities for queer people of color that are not reliant on university or governmental structures or on the nonprofit industrial complex. Celebrating the lives and resistances of queer people of color. Insisting on the differences between different communities and positionalities. Donating to Kundiman. Making English super gay.


Muriel Leung is the author of Bone Confetti (Noemi Press 2016). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction can be found or is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, Ghost Proposal, Jellyfish Magazine, inter/rupture, and others. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship and is a regular contributor to the Blood-Jet Writing Hour poetry podcast. She is also a Poetry Co-Editor of Apogee Journal. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California.

Jessica Smith’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waxwing, cream city Review, Sixth Finch, Phantom Books, Lumina, and other journals. She received her MFA from The New School and is currently pursuing at PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University, where she was the 2016 recipient of the Warren S. Walker Prize and is a co-founder of the LHUCA Literary Series.

Sarah Viren is a writer, translator, and former newspaper reporter. Her essay collection MINE won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize and will be published by the University of New Mexico Press in the spring of 2018 and her translation of the novella Córdoba Skies by the Argentine novelist Federico Falco was published by Ploughshares Solos in 2016. Other essays, poems, and stories have appeared in the Oxford American, the Iowa Review, AGNI, The Normal School, and Hobart. Read more about her at sarahviren.wordpress.com.

Chen Chen (moderator) 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 work has appeared in two chapbooks and in publications such as Poetry, Gulf Coast, Best of the Net, and The Best American Poetry. He is a Kundiman Fellow and a Lambda Literary Fellow. He holds an MFA from Syracuse University and is pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. Visit him at chenchenwrites.com.

 

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Ten Percent of all Sundress Publications Subscription Profits to be Donated to ACLU in the Month of January

Sundress Publications is pleased to announce that in month of January 2017, we will donate 10% of all of our subscription profits to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“For nearly 100 years, the ACLU has been our nation’s guardian of liberty, working in courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and the laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.aclu-logo

“Whether it’s achieving full equality for LGBT people, establishing new privacy protections for our digital age of widespread government surveillance, ending mass incarceration, or preserving the right to vote or the right to have an abortion, the ACLU takes up the toughest civil liberties cases and issues to defend all people from government abuse and overreach.

“With more than 1 million members, activists, and supporters, the ACLU is a nationwide organization that fights tirelessly in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., to safeguard everyone’s rights.” (Source: ACLU.org)original

A Sundress subscription makes a great gift for yourself or a friend who is eager to stay connected to the literary world, support independent publishing, read new and exciting work from emerging and established authors, and this month, make a meaningful donation to an organization that is committed to establishing peace. Order 2017 Sundress subscription and get all of our 2017 titles including books from Natalie Giarratano, Sarah Marcus, Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick, Sarah Chavez, Stephanie McCarley Dugger, Jim Warner, and more! All subscribers will also receive Sundress swag and goodies and free entry into our contests!

Order a Sundress Subscription here: https://squareup.com/store/sundresspublications/item/sundress-subscription?t=modal-tw

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An Interview with Kelly Andrews, Editor of Pretty Owl Poetry

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Jackie Vega:
How did you come to be involved with Pretty Owl Poetry?

Kelly Andrews: Pretty Owl Poetry was founded in 2013 by myself, Gordon Buchan, and B. Rose (Huber) Kelly. At that time, I was just starting my MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh and was involved with the program’s online literary journal, Hot Metal Bridge, as a reader, but I wanted more experience as an editor. I reached out to Gordon, with whom I had taken creative writing classes as an undergraduate at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), and Rose, who I had befriended while she still lived in Pittsburgh (she’s now in New Jersey). I had relationships with both in terms of sharing work and giving/receiving feedback, either via e-mail (w/Gordon) or through a low-key workshop setting (w/Rose). Though we were all IUP alums, Gordon and Rose didn’t know each other before Pretty Owl, and Rose and I met post-graduation through a mutual friend. All of that to say, they both were people who I trusted as writers and editors, whose taste in literature was similar to my own, and who had different skill sets than I do. From conception of the journal, we’ve worked collaboratively in all that we do when it comes to Pretty Owl, including decisions about how best to move the journal forward in the literary world. I feel incredibly lucky that I get to work with Gordon and Rose on a journal we started from the ground up—they’re both such talented friends.

 JV: How would you describe your poetry aesthetic, and how do you bring that to the publication?

 KA: I’m mostly drawn to gritty poems with substance. Ones where the emotional motivation of the speaker is believable, though the poems needn’t be set in reality or be realistic, if that makes sense. Gage Ledbetter’s “Fully Drawn, Steady Breaths” from Issue 9 is one of my favorite examples of this. The imaginative space in which the speaker exists with their mother and the canyon is exquisite: “Your mother taught the canyon how to shoot a bow, being a champion, herself. The canyon felled entire flocks of birds and you ate well and, after, the canyon taught your mother how to reply the day you told her you have layers of colored sediment and fields of corn right next to one another but no gender.” I love that the speaker is grappling with gender identity in a surreal world. And that there are so many unexpected moves in that poem (“And your mother and the canyon were accused of being lesbians, like a lot.”)

I also love poetry that is inventive and creative in its use of language. One poem that comes to mind is Ryan Downum’s “Painfeel” from Issue 7. That poem has so many beautifully created words like “fieldbloom,” “nightmouth,” and “bloodloom.” I remember how excited I felt when reading that submission because it was like nothing I had read before. That feeling is rare as an editor and overwhelming in the best possible way. And I love poetry that is fraught with complicated emotion. Mostly, I want to feel things when I read poetry. I love when a poem (or any art form) can make me cry—or even better, cry and laugh in the same space.

JV: What do you value the most in poetry?

 KA: There’s so much that poetry can do for people. Writing poetry completely changed my life course—after graduating high school I was working multiple jobs and partying nonstop, with no real plan in place for what I wanted to do with my life. But then I joined a poetry workshop, and the encouragement I received from my mentors, Susanna Fry and Jessica Lauffer, really pushed me to apply to college. My future before taking that workshop was very uncertain and bleak. I can’t imagine what my life would look like now if it weren’t for their belief in me as a writer, if I hadn’t fallen in love with writing poetry.

More broadly, I value how poetry can affect people—it can be comforting in times of grief or pain; it can be an expression of love; it can evoke empathy; the list is endless of the things that poetry can do for people.

JV: What are some of the challenges of being an editor for an online publication? On the flip side, what are some benefits?

KA: One of the biggest challenges for us as an online journal is making sure our website is easily readable both online and on mobile devices. And because technology changes so often, nearly every year Gordon has revamped the look of the website in some way. Initially we started off with the work embedded into a web page, then moved to having it in a PDF. There is talk of maybe moving to a different platform like Issuu in the future, but that is probably quite a ways off.

The benefit of being an online journal is that we can reinvent our look/platform fairly often. Also, we can push our deadlines back if need be, whereas if we were a print journal, we’d have a much stricter printing schedule. And of course, the general cost of running an online publication is quite low. Since switching to Submittable, we’ve given readers the option to make a small donation with their submission if they’d like, but this is not required. The money is used to cover costs like our domain name/website and food/drink for our Spotlight Reading Series in Pittsburgh. I love that we can share work with the world without having to charge readers a subscription fee.

JV: What can we look forward to from Pretty Owl Poetry in the next year?

KA: We have a great lineup already for our winter 2016 issue that will be released in early January, and we’re still reading submissions for that issue right now. Gordon just finished another revamp of the website’s homepage. I’m hoping to get some readers lined up for our Spotlight Reading Series in Pittsburgh, with the possibility of some out-of-town contributors making an appearance. And hopefully, lots more great poems, art, and fiction!


You can read Pretty Owl Poetry here.

andrewsKelly Lorraine Andrews is an assistant managing editor for the American Economic Association and a recent MFA graduate from the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of the chapbooks The Fear Archives (Two of Cups Press, forthcoming), My Body Is a Poem I Can’t Stop Writing (Porkbelly Press, forthcoming), I Want To Eat So Many Kinds of Cake With You and Mule Skinner (both out from Dancing Girl Press). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in [PANK], Prick of the Spindle, Weave Magazine, and elsewhere. You can read more about her past and future publications and look at a slideshow of her cats at her website.

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Jackie Vega is a recent graduate of Grand Valley State University’s Writing program currently residing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. During her time at GVSU, she served as Editor-in-Chief for fishladder, their literature and arts journal. Her poetry has been featured in Brainchildand on WYCE’s Electric Poetry radio program. She intends to pursue an MFA in (you guessed it) poetry.

 

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Sundress Reading Series Presents Catherine Moore, Stacey Balkun, and Amie Whittemore

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The Sundress Reading Series is pleased to welcome Catherine Moore and Stacey Balkun for the December installment of our reading series! The event will take place this Sunday, December 11, at 2 at Bar Marley.

balkun%2c-stacey-kault-photo2-colorStacey Balkun is the author of Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak (dancing girl 2016) and Lost City Museum (ELJ 2016). A Finalist for the 2016 Event Horizon Science Poetry Competition as well as the Center for Women Writer’s 2016 Rita Dove Award, her work has appeared in Gargoyle, Muzzle, THRUSH, Bayou, and others. A 2015 Hambidge Fellow, Stacey was awarded a SAFTA residency in 2015 and served as Artist-in-Residence at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2013. She holds an MFA from Fresno State and now lives in New Orleans, where she volunteers for literacy and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn.

catherine-mooreCatherine Moore’s writing has appeared in Tahoma Literary Review, Cider Press Review, Southampton Review, Caesura, Still: the Journal, Wicked Alice, The Tishman Review, concīs, and in various anthologies. She has two chapbook collections (Finishing Line Press and Kentucky Story Press) with another forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. A Walker Percy fellow, she won the Southeast Review’s 2014 Poetry Prize and had work included in “The Best Small Fictions of 2015.” She’s a recipient of a Nashville MetroArts grant. Catherine earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Tampa and she teaches at Columbia State Community College.

thumb_34a_0067_1024Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press) and co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series in Virginia. Her poems have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, Smartish Pace, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.

 

The Sundress Reading Series is free and open to the public! We look forward to seeing you there!

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An Interview with Katie Longofono

Katie Longofono is the author of Angeltits (Sundress Publications, 2016). Her poems traverse between intimate and breathtakingly visceral imagery, between narratives on the body and the objectification of bodies, into a lyrical testament and commentary on sex and modern-age relationships.

Longofono spoke with our editorial intern Brianna McNish to discuss her literary inspirations, her writing process, and the influences that helped create the poems in Angeltits.

Brianna McNish: What were your biggest literary inspirations while writing Angeltits, and why?

Katie Longofono: As I recall, I was reading a lot of essays and fiction at the time I was working on these poems. I had just finished my MFA, so I guess that was my rebellion from soaking in poems pretty much exclusively for two years. Specifically, I think I was re-reading Mary Reufle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, which has some great thoughts on sentiment which stuck with me. I was (and remain) super into being overly sentimental, or obvious, on purpose, in poetry. I’m the kind of weirdo who thinks it’s fun to see how many times I can say “very” in a poem without inducing gagging (or maybe in order to). I played with that idea a lot in these poems, I think.

I also was very inspired by Plath’s journals, which most people would be able to point to immediately. Lots of anger at men, etc. You know the drill!

BM: What left me in awe about your poems was how your fixation on bodies creates beautifully visceral language. What does the body represent in your poetry, and why do you use it as a common motif in your work?

KL: I guess this might be a disappointing answer, but really the body represents… the body. These are all poems that are pretty explicitly about sex. Sometimes it’s joyful, but now that I’m looking at it, yeah, these are poems about the ways a body can be in pain, the ways a body can let itself be hurt, the ways sex reveals the bodies’ soft spots and the aftermath of that vulnerability. I’ve always been fixated on the body in my work. I’ve written ecstatic body poems in the past, but for this collection, the central idea was objectification—hence the title, Angeltits—because so often women are reduced to their bodies. Fine, dudes, you wanna play that game? I’m gonna lean into it, then. Here’s an entire book about tits. It’s not sexy. You’re welcome.

BM: How would you describe your writing process?

KL: It’s definitely a cycle—I’m not one of those people who can sit down and write every day. I have, for short bursts of time, been able to force myself into that routine, but mostly I just try to remain aware of when I feel ideas forming and allowing myself a moment to write them out. I was lucky to have a pretty low-pressure job at the time I was working on Angeltits so I could easily switch into writing mode for the amount of time it took me to at least jot something down.

BM: What’s also striking about your chapbook is how the poems develop from “Who can fault me for loving / the fault, for tonguing the crack / we crumble within?” in “Dollface” to “I am not a bird or a symbol. / I am a woman burning,” in “We Grind Ourselves Out”. The poems unravel in a linear fashion with effortless transitions from the next poem to the next, which leaves me curious about how you would describe the development of the women who inhabit these poems from “The Outline” to “[When a man says no]”?

KL: Well, people are complicated. It’s amazing and weird that a person can hold defiance, rage, and two middle fingers inside the same body that also holds shame, loneliness, and hurt. It’s really difficult to capture all of that in one poem, let alone one book, so this was my attempt at trying to get all of those angles. A big part of this series was thinking about how (personally) I often feel victimized because of my body, but not like a victim—I really resent that label. That comes out in these poems—there’s a lot of anger here, a lot being challenged because I think it’s reductive to put people into boxes.

BM: What is the best piece of advice you have received as a writer?

I’ve received a lot of helpful advice over the years, so this is hard to narrow down—but what comes to mind is early on somebody told me, at the end of the day, you get to call the shots. You can (and should) listen to advice, tips, workshopping comments, whatever, but you don’t have to use it all. It’s your writing and your process. It was really helpful for me to basically be given permission to ignore advice if I didn’t think it was coming from a useful place for my writing.

KL: If you could describe yourself as a poem, which poem would you be?

A dirty limerick. I think this question was probably meant for a specific poem but I don’t feel justified in comparing myself to any of the poems I admire!

Katie Longofono’s Angeltits is available as an e-chapbook on Sundress Publication’s website here.


Katie Longofono received her MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, where she directed the 2014 SLC Poetry Festival. She is the co-founder of Dead Rabbits Reading Series, a monthly literary salon that takes place in NYC. Her first chapbook, The Angel of Sex, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2013. She has a chapbook forthcoming from Sundress Publications titled Angeltits. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Tinderbox Poetry Journal, South Dakota Review, Juked, Midwestern Gothic, and more. She may or may not be on Twitter. She lives in Brooklyn.

Brianna McNish is an undergraduate student studying English and literature at the University of Connecticut. Her fiction has previously appeared in or forthcoming in Literary Orphans, Juked, Unbroken, among others.

 

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Lyric Essentials: Caolan Madden reads “Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices” by Sylvia Plath.

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Caolan Madden reads “Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices” by Sylvia Plath.

Caolan, this is a really interesting, unique, and powerful poem you’ve read for us today. I’m sure Sylvia Plath needs no introduction, but what about this poem? Who are the three women?

Caolan: Three Women is a verse play that Plath wrote in 1962, not long after the birth of her second child. I had always kind of assumed it was a closet drama–a play that wasn’t meant to be performed–but it was apparently commissioned by the BBC and produced as a radio play in August of 1962, with three different actors voicing the three women. So the “three voices” were really three different voices, not three voices that you imagine inside your head, or three aspects of one voice like they are in my recording.

At the beginning of the poem, each of the three women is pregnant. (The setting for the play–the only stage direction–is “A Maternity Ward and round about.”) They go on to have three different experiences of hospital birth or miscarriage. The First Voice’s story is maybe the most familiar–it’s the kind of birth narrative that our culture, and even more so Plath’s 1960s Anglo-American culture, tends to celebrate: she gives birth to a baby boy and brings him home to the nursery she decorated for him. The Second Voice, a married woman who has been trying to conceive, has a miscarriage. The Third Voice, an unmarried college student, has a baby girl and gives her up for adoption. In the excerpt I read, which is from the very end of the poem, the women have all left the hospital and are starting their lives back up again, with or without children.

Chris: What made you decide to read this Plath piece above all her other poetry? What’s in this poem that makes it essential to you and your writing?

Caolan: Plath was the first poet I really loved–I first read her poems when I was thirteen, and for that reason she might be the only poet whose work I will ever love in this fundamental, visceral way. Obviously falling in love with Sylvia Plath at the age of thirteen is not an uncommon experience! But I wish more people were aware of the tenderness and humor and wonder in her work, as well as its fascinating, ambivalent relationship towards women’s popular culture. When people talk about, for example, Plath’s Mademoiselle internship or her desire to be the perfect housewife, they talk about these things as oppressive structures Plath had to strip away in order to become her true self, the avenging spirit of the Ariel poems. In reality that relationship is much more complicated and was, I think, much more generative than these narratives allow.

So that’s one reason I didn’t pick a really famous Plath poem like “Daddy” or “Lady Lazarus”–I love those poems, but I love to introduce readers to less familiar aspects of her writing. I’ve always been especially drawn to Plath’s accounts of domestic interiors, to the clear, focused attention she brings to the details of home décor, children’s toys, clothes, accessories, stuff, and the processes of maintaining and preserving that stuff–painting, sewing, polishing, gardening. I think Plath uses this stuff to write about love–not necessarily as metaphors for love, although that’s probably true, too, but more as a way to enact or perform love within the poem and in the real world.

“Three Women”–particularly the section I’ve read–is really a goldmine for that stuff. The First Voice painting the nursery and the Second Voice sewing her material are both doing creative, domestic work that is also protective or reparative. There’s darkness there–traces or more than traces of acquisitiveness, selfishness, compulsion, codependence, delusion, denial, complacency–but there’s also so much tenderness, determination, courage, generosity, creativity, resourcefulness, patience, attention, labor, care.  All those things are part of how I understand my own writing process, as well as my own relationship to the people I love, and the spaces and things I love, too. And I tend to express love, too, by making things and places and poems for people, and I think that’s one thing that draws me to good-student-Plath and happy-housewife-Plath, the Plath who a lot of people dismiss or deride.

Chris: What do you make of Plath’s juxtaposition of these three experiences? Why this sort of format as opposed to having three separate poems, or more than three voices?

Caolan: Well, we can read Three Women biographically, as describing Plath’s own experiences: she gave birth to both a son and a daughter, she had at least one miscarriage, she worried about unwanted pregnancies when she was a student at Cambridge. I hesitate to even say that, because readers’ fascination with Plath’s biography can get in the way of reading her actual poems. But in this case, I think biographical detail helps us understand that the poem is working both to represent a range of experiences with pregnancy and birth and to suggest how all of these experiences might be part of a single person’s life. There’s a productive tension in the poem between universality and particularlity, which is reinforced by the tension between the poem’s performance history as a radio play performed by three different actors and the experience you have reading the poem on the page, or listening to my recording here, where you realize Plath didn’t do much to differentiate the voices from one another in terms of diction or rhythm. One powerful effect of that tension is that it becomes almost impossible to make moral judgments about these women. For example, if these three voices actually belong to the same woman, we can’t think of the First Voice, who keeps her child, as a better person than the Third Voice, who doesn’t. Another effect is that the poem discourages us from psychologizing the woman or women as character(s), and instead focuses our attention on its concrete descriptions of what are often considered taboo bodily experiences. Earlier in the poem, describing her contractions, the First Voice says “I am used. I am drummed into use”–an incredibly evocative and brutal description of labor that I, personally, don’t think I fully  understood before the birth of my daughter, but that probably helped shape my expectations for what childbirth might be like.

So we can think of the poem as describing three aspects of one intense, complicated experience–kind of like  Robert Graves’s idea of the Triple Goddess, whose three aspects are the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Plath was really into Graves, and really into three as a magic number, especially when you’re talking about groups of women: there are three Fates, three Graces. So that’s one reason there are three voices, not four or five or six.

Chris: You spoke earlier of how you enjoy introducing readers to the less familiar aspects of Plath’s writing. Is this poem one you came to know early in your reading of Plath? Also, what Plath poems in addition to “Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices” showcase the things you love about her poetry?

Caolan: I remember reading this poem in eighth grade, when I was reading almost anything by Plath that I could get my hands on. But before I opened my copy of Plath’s Collected Poems to make this recording, I’d forgotten what an involved history I had with “Three Women.” There are notes in the margins from papers I wrote when I was in college and grad school; there are also notes that suggest I must have performed some of the Second Voice’s sections as a monologue in my high-school drama class. And in college I took the title of my senior thesis, which was about Plath’s depiction of domestic space, from one of the First Voice’s lines: “I Have Painted Little Hearts on Everything.”

If you’re looking for it, you’ll actually find a lot of the things I love about “Three Women”–the attention to material domestic detail; the interconnectedness of creative work and love and protection; the TMI physicality–all over Plath’s writing, including her most famous poems, her prose writing, and her journals. But some great poems to revisit are “Letter in November,” “Last Words,” “Nick and the Candlestick,” “Morning Song,” “By Candlelight,” and “Kindness.”
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Caolan Madden holds an MFA from Johns Hopkins and is currently a PhD candidate in English literature at Rutgers. Recent poems have appeared in Bone Bouquet, Cartridge Lit, glitterMOB, Split Lip, and Black Warrior Review; some of her essays on literature and popular culture can be found online at weird-sister.com. Girl Talk Triptych, a collaborative chapbook she co-wrote with the feminist poetry collective (G)IRL, was published this spring by dancing girl press; her chapbook VAST NECROHOL is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

Chris Petruccelli is snackin’ on some cornbread and debating what kind of gravy he should have for breakfast–sausage, or red eye? His poetry has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: the Journal, and elsewhere. Check out his chapbook Action at a Distance from Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes with older women.

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Lyric Essentials: Chen Chen reads “Lone Star Kundiman (For the Guy Who Seized My Arm After I Accidentally Cut the Line for the Toilet in Austin)” by Patrick Rosal.

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Chen Chen reads “Lone Star Kundiman (For the Guy Who Seized My Arm After I Accidentally Cut the Line for the Toilet in Austin)” by Patrick Rosal.

Hey Chen, before we get deep into this poem I’d like to start by saying that I’m a total sucker for long titles—I think it comes from my scientific background where for a while I’m pretty sure scientists were competing to give their articles the longest titles imaginable. This title takes the cake. So, first question, when it comes to a title are you a fan of the one worders—“Winter”—or obscenely long titles like the one you’ve read for us today?

Chen: Obscenely long. Yes. I mean, the title of my forthcoming book is When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. And recently I had a poem published called “I am reminded via email to resubmit my preferences for the schedule.” I love long titles. I love titles that are full, obnoxious sentences. But I also love the one worders. It’s so bold just to call a poem “Winter” or “Snafu” or “Poem.” Louise Glück has the plainest titles and she makes it kinda badass. So in my book I also have very short, humble titles. Titles all in lower case. Titles that require a magnifying glass. Molecular, nano titles. You know, for balance.

Chris: With the pop song references, the triumphant double slap redemption, and those final two lines I find myself terrified at what the narrator experiences, but also laughing and cheering on their vindication. Am I reading more humor into this piece than is actually present, or is that something you experience in this poem as well?

Chen: Definitely humor here. Which we can also think about in maybe a darker way—that the humor in the poem indicates or registers the (enormous) extent to which the speaker has experienced these racist microaggressions and so has come to see them as almost everyday. Well, because these incidents do happen all the time.

This discussion is making me think of a great moment from a great piece by Jacqui Germain: the phrase “c’est la vie” pops up in the middle of this piece, which is about being a black girl and hearing one’s white professor and white classmates casually throw around the n-word in the middle of a literature seminar. Because the texts feature that word. Because of whiteness. The phrase “c’est la vie” is so funny, the way it just shows up in the midst of all this awfulness. But the phrase is also completely serious. There’s a shrug the speaker of the piece seems to do, a shrug of “c’est la vie,” as in, “well this kind of thing happens and happens and here we are again here we go okay but not okay.”

As a queer Asian American, I do see and use humor as a coping mechanism, a survival tool, a form of awareness and knowledge that lets me be inventive in the face of a violation or erasure. Still, it’s not exactly healing, this kind of humor. It can be a band-aid on a gaping wound.

That’s what Rosal seems to be getting at: the fact that the speaker and the man he accidentally cuts in the line, both of them are dealing with a lack. The poem’s wrestling with these notions of strength versus power, compassion versus domination, healthy personhood/agency versus toxic masculinity. The speaker questions his own capacity for compassion. The man the speaker cuts clearly needs to question his lack of compassion, or patience, in that moment in the bathroom line. The speaker, as a Filipino American man, as one historically and presently oppressed, points out how exiting the bar in Austin doesn’t really solve anything. He still has to face a city, a state, a country that tends not to see people like him. The other guy, the white man, can go on to use the encounter as a chance to really learn something or to dismiss it as some random, irritating event. The other guy can literally go “c’est la vie” and be done with it. The last sentence of the poem, “No white boy left behind” is similarly complicated in its humor, I think.

 Chris: It seems that Rosal’s use of humor is doing a lot of work in this poem as it raises the questions you’ve pointed out in regards to race, oppression, and the need to evaluate one’s compassion and empathy (or lack thereof). In addition to the humor, what is Rosal doing in this poem that you find to be essential to you as a writer?

Chen: I’m struck by his use of the pronoun “you,” which shifts from being the guy in the bathroom line (“how you eyed me to my place with your little smark”) to being, perhaps, the reader, or some generalized person (“In Texas, you can sit in a diner…”). But that second kind of “you” doesn’t seem generic to me, doesn’t seem to be a synonym for “one.” The “you” is at once another “I” and a kind of “you” that inhabits an othered, racialized body. I read the lines, “you practice what it’s like to be the last man on earth/or the first one to land in a city where no one sees you” as a particular experience, an experience of being an Asian American man. I’ve felt this kind of invisibility and erasure. I’m living in a Texas city myself at the moment. Few Asian Americans here, probably far fewer than there are in Austin, Rosal’s setting for this poem. I love Rosal’s use of the “you,” how the gaze of the poem shifts, how the poem asks a reader to inhabit an Asian American perspective as both “I” and “you,” how the poem asks the person who was “you” in the beginning to try seeing things as this “you,” this person who’s “in a city where no one sees you.” And when someone does see you, it’s to put you back in your (unthreatening, obedient, invisible) place. I think also of Claudia Rankine’s use of the “you” in her book, Citizen. The disorienting, destabilizing possibilities of the second person.

Chris: Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene in this poem that stands out above the others? Is there a piece of this poem that is most important to you, or does it change every time you read “Lone Star Kundiman”?

Chen:  My favorite lines are: “Truth is, I couldn’t stop to consider how we both live/in a country mostly afraid of the difference between/strength and power.” I’ve been thinking and thinking about this difference, how these two words can mean radically different things. How power depends on hierarchies, binaries, absolutes, forms of domination. How strength is rooted in the difficult/lucky practice of love, community, open communication, vulnerability, an embrace of the unknown. Thinking this way is making me rethink a term like “empowerment.” Do we want to be powerful? Is power all about our own individual success? Does power always reproduce itself? Its assumptions and structures? Are we making real decisions or are we merely helping to perpetuate the world as we know it?
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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 work has appeared in two chapbooks and in publications such as Poetry, Gulf Coast, Phantom, Drunken Boat, and Poem-a-Day. A Kundiman and Lambda Literary fellow, Chen is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. For more, visit chenchenwrites.com.

Chris Petruccelli is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). You can find his poetry in Appalachian Heritage, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: the Journal, and elsewhere. Chris currently plays too much Civ V, nearly purchased the Sid Meier’s Civilization board game, and is searching couch cushions for enough change to buy a new desktop PC and a copy of Civilization VI.

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