Hood Criatura Book Club Questions

féi hernandez’s Hood Criatura is a reimagination of possible futures, of trans, queer, immigrant, Black, and Brown lives celebrated in all of their unbounded glory. hernandez’s poems take us through a coming-of-age story that delineates the existential wars of gender, race, sexuality, and im/migration, as well as the pains and joys that bind communities, family, and love. In a world that seeks to simplify and reduce the self to binary boundaries, Hood Criatura serves as a reminder of what it means to exist unbounded, to claim all of the multitudes within us that make us who we are. 

hernandez makes it clear that understanding ourselves comes as we understand our communities and the roles we play in each others’ lives. To that end, these questions focus on our relationships to our hometowns, to Hood Criatura, to hernandez as an individual and as an author. They encourage us to convene in humility and respect, for our fellow readers and for the text.

  1. What was your favorite poem, or one you returned to? Why?
  2. How do the parenthetical identifiers in “(resident)(illegal) / (trans)(American) / (hood)(non-binary)” intervene in our reading experiences? In this poem and Hood Criatura, what makes someone or something American?
  3. In “Brunch,” hernandez talks about American identity and intersectionality over “dumb dry” pancakes. Are we at the table with hernandez? Or, in other words, what is the audience’s role in Hood Criatura and their relationship to the text?
  4. In “Before Being Flung on the Telephone Wire,” hernandez writes, “i am what she envisages, my palms and feet nailed to a cross; a mirage / showing the world we’re all mid-flight somewhere”. Where are you mid-flight to, and what do you imagine as your destination?
  5. What would you describe as the collection’s primary emotion or tone?
  6. hernandez writes, “the city is sick unrooted apartments pulse / blue with internal bruisin yet the organs / bump to a track we call joy we call this / inglewood our home and we rep”. What feelings do you have towards your hometown? What does it mean to be a resident?
  7. How does TenQú, hernandez’s acknowledgments section, read as an extension of the work?

Purchase your copy of Hood Criatura today

Sundress Reads: Review of Behind This Mirror

Fairy tales are ripe for adaptation, with their morals explicitly laid out and traditional character archetypes strong. Granted, not every fairy tale retelling captures the spirit of the original tale while troubling them, reshaping a known story into something wholly unique, but when they do, they stick around. A well-crafted fable retelling suggests these same morals extend into the present day like Behind This Mirror by Lena Bertone (Bull City Press, 2020) does, accomplishing this through its complex points of view, proclivity to the flash fiction form, and contemporary feminist lens.

Bertone gathers 22 pieces of flash and short fiction into 54 concise pages in Behind This Mirror. Almost all of these stories are one or two pages long; the longest (“Constants”) maxes out at nine pages long. Rather than following a traditional story arc or Freytag’s pyramid, Bertone uses the power of flash to offer an impactful glimpse rather than the full story. These differences from traditional forms continue into point of view, which is constantly shifting. Some stories are told in close first, others in distant third or omniscient, some narrators known and described, others never named. The unknowability of these narrators as we see glimpses into their lives adds to the inherent relatability at the core of these stories: a good fable, after all, portrays a moral lesson that anyone reading it can pick up, and the fluidity of narrators allows for greater opportunities for self-insertion.

Behind This Mirror slides easily into conversation with Angela Carter’s work, particularly her similar collection of short fairy tale retellings, The Bloody Chamber. Published in 1979, Carter relies on an image of femininity that goes directly against social prescriptions: women are not only strong and independent, saving themselves, they save each other through familial relationships, friendships, and literal acts of strength, such as in the titular story based on Perrault’s original Bluebeard myth, in which the protagonist is saved by her mother rather than her brothers. Almost all of Carter’s protagonists, whether they are good or morally gray, are women. Behind This Mirror’s protagonists are similarly female-dominated and portrayed as strong women, but are developed beyond Carter’s archetype disruptions: they have desires, feelings, and actions that go both with and against the social grain. Where Carter’s protagonists are sexual femme fatales, Bertone’s protagonists are often seen as unattractive by society but embrace the things that make them unique. Put simply, Behind This Mirror disrupts the idea that the archetype of a strong woman is one who is tough. Even when they are not brave or strong or able to stand up for themselves, or are, again, not physically attractive—such as in “Seven Sisters,” where each of the sisters’ major source of beauty is described in contrast to the stark ugliness of the rest of their bodies, like the sister Sesta whose “eyebrows take minimal grooming, and then they are like artwork on her otherwise hideous face” (15)—Bertone shows that these women have value not in spite of their unattractive features but by simply being alive.

The gender politics of this collection are nuanced and do their best to promote women’s empowerment but also show the disempowerment of individuals, particularly queer and transgender people, that comes frequently in romantic situations. In many traditional fairy tales, the story arc follows a heterosexual couple falling truly and deeply in love, and the story ends at the beginning of the romance, where “happily ever after” is not only achievable but the only answer. Each of the relationships in Behind This Mirror are either framed at the end of the relationship (such as in the opening story, “Stories for Next Time,” and “Self-Portrait”) or feature a non-romantic familial relationship (particularly between mothers and daughters, such as in “Patch” and “Missing”). There are a few sideways glances towards the idea of queer relationships or the existence of transgender individuals. However, this is primarily through threesomes to please a king-turned-husband and going to Thailand for “the operation [Rumpelstiltskin] was sure would make him the person he was meant to be” (10). Even in revisionist fairy tales where transformation is not uncommon and the socially unattractive embrace their features with compelling self-acceptance and love, traditional social norms still hold strong influence over what is and isn’t possible.

What Bertone does to disrupt the idea of falling in love being a linear path held forever, on the other hand, is strong. One of the best examples lies in two parallel stories: “The Woman Who Waxed and Waned” and “Exactly 69% of This Sad, True Story is True.” In the former, two childhood sweethearts marry and have a daughter but the wife falls ill, her husband leaves her, but she heals and they get back together to have a happy family. In the latter, it is the exact same text, but 30% of the ending has been crossed out: “But, instead of [her life] ending, years passed, and as they did, her gaunt cheeks began to fill again with flesh and fat, and sometimes, when she spoke, words came perfectly formed from her lips.” (35) The truth that comes from the 69% of the story that is supposedly true is that the happy ending isn’t actually achievable, despite what one may hope.

Behind This Mirror opens a brief window into what the gritty reality of fairy tales may look like in contemporary contexts with grace. It touches upon the grit and dust of our world delicately, leaving that space behind the magic mirror for us to explore.

Behind This Mirror is available at Bull City Press

Lee Anderson is a nonbinary writer from the American -west with an MFA from Northern Arizona University. They have been published sporadically but with zest, forthcoming or appearing in places such as The Rumpus, Columbia Journal, and Unstamatic Magazine.

Sundress Academy for the Arts Presents Our June Poetry Xfit

The Sundress Academy for the Arts is excited to present Poetry Xfit hosted by Arlynn Dunn. This generative workshop event will take place on Sunday, June 20th, 2021 from 2 to 4 pm EST via Zoom. Join us at the link tiny.utk.edu/sundress with password “safta”.

Poetry Xfit isn’t about throwing tires or heavy ropes, but the idea of confusing our muscles is the same. This generative workshop series will give you prompts, rules, obstructions, and more to write three poems in two hours. Writers will write together for thirty minutes, be invited to share new work, and then given a new set of prompts. The idea isn’t that we are writing perfect final drafts, but instead creating clay that can then be edited and turned into art later. Prose writers are also welcome to attend!

Arlynn Dunn is an aspiring Filipina poet and thanks the contemporary canon of Asian American poets who open healing spaces for both grief and celebration of diversity. Arlynn is the Client Ambassador for Choice Health Network and is the volunteer Community Outreach director for Sundress Academy for the Arts. Her upbringing and desire to form community from remote spaces imprints on her poems. 

While this is a free workshop, donations can be made to the Sundress Academy for the Arts here: https://sundress-publications.square.site/product/donate-to-sundress/107?cs=true

All donations received for this event will be split equally with our community partner. Our community partner for June is Knoxville Black Mamas Bailout (KBMBO), which grew as a direct action organization through Southerners on New Ground, a LGBTQ liberation organization. KBMBO disrupts the cash bail system through a practice of bailing Black mothers and caregivers, while also breaking down the barriers of cash bail and incarceration that impact these women. These practices include paying cash bonds, educating the community on the cash bail system, offering court support, and promoting the abolition of mass incarceration and the cash bail system.

You can find more information and links to donate at https://www.facebook.com/knoxvillesblackmamasbailout/

Sundress Reads: Review of Dust & Ashes

A gray chapbook with the title "DUST & ASHES" written in all-caps. The author's name is below this, with the words "Californios Chapbook Series No. 5" at the bottom.

In his poetry chapbook Dust & Ashes (Californios Press, 2020), Matthew E. Henry reimagines a past, present, and future where religion and fairy tale walk hand in hand, making readers reevaluate what stories get told and whose stories are remembered. Part celebration of resilience in the face of systemic violence and racism, part mourning of lives taken through this violence, Dust & Ashes presents a truth in contrast to the commonly held belief that art can immortalize mortals: “there are no resurrections,” Henry writes in “A Home Burial,” a theme that presents itself time and time again in this short yet powerful collection. Dust & Ashes is a testament to how art may serve as a way to remember and honor our dead, but it does not bring back those who were killed by a system at war with their bodies and minds. Throughout all of this, there is a steady undercurrent of betrayal and secrets kept.

Mimicking biblical structure, Dust & Ashes is broken into two parts: “The First Testament: in the beginning” and “The Second Testament: at the end of the age.” Populated with characters such as Hansel and Gretel, Adam and Eve, Noah, Pecola Breedlove, and other characters from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and an unnamed prophet, “The First Testament” rewrites a creation story in which creation takes on many meanings: biblical creation, creation through birth, and creation through art. Poets including Auden, Williams, and Rilke are called forth throughout, and Flannery O’Connor’s work is alluded to on multiple occasions, as “a class of misfits found a good man / hard to find,” situating us in a new tradition of hierarchical literary canons.

Henry layers meaning upon meaning throughout his poems, as characters take on ever changing roles, with ever changing interpretations. Father becomes not just a paternal figure but also God—a god and father figure who is sometimes present, sometimes absent, and sometimes mentioned as a reason for lack of redemption: “for him there is truly / no peace for the redeemed. and therein may lie / his integrity…no doubt this all stems from / the father-figure he won’t discuss …” (“From the Notebook of the Prophet’s Court-Ordered Therapist”). In this way, Henry not only reworks traditional religious narratives that have favored certain groups of people over others, he asks us to reimagine the stereotypical patriarchal family structure, and question what our culture has made of Black men and Black fathers.                       

“The Second Testament” begins with the poem “Lady Daedalus,” in which “Mothers see a coffin in the cradle,” an allusion to the Greek myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus, who, despite his father’s warnings, flew too close to the sun, causing his death. “Lady Daedalus” subverts this narrative by highlighting the work Black mothers do in raising their children, and Icarus’s sun becomes “a stranger’s candy / in windowless vans. stray bullets, cocaine, / the average cop.”

The relationship between parent and threatened or murdered child is teased out in the remainder of “The Second Testament” through the lens of racial violence. We see this through the voice of someone who has been told they must “kill the children / of my people, with my own hands” (“For Myself and Others it is the End of the World”), through a reimagined Mary of Nazareth who witnesses her son “scaled & / skinned. bones / still in place” (“Mother Mary, Behold Your Son”), and through a guardian of Sai no Kawara, the bank of a river in Japan believed to house the spirits of dead children.

Like the children mentioned in “For Myself and Others it is the End of the World,” the future generations Henry writes about in Dust & Ashes are not simply the descendants of the speaker, and thus their responsibility. Henry’s poems highlight the need for a collective family, a collective weight of responsibility for racialized violence. The poem “…And Who is My Neighbor?” for example, reimagines the parable of the Good Samaritan in the context of police brutality, the “unholy hands” the man falls into being those of “officers, who stopped him for / [insert ____-ing while Black reason]. they shot him, stood above his leaking body, and left him for dead.” The measured tone of this poem is reminiscent of the straightforward way the Bible is written, contrasted with the horror of its content. Dust & Ashes, then, is a fierce portrayal of the effects of racism and colonialism on our past and present, and a biting plea for our future.

As described on his website, Matthew E. Henry is an educator whose career has found him teaching English, teacher education, philosophy, and sociology at the high school, college, and graduate levels. His writing shines a black-light on the bed of race, relationships, religion, and everything else you’re not supposed to discuss in polite company. Along with Dust & Ashes, he is the author of Teaching While Black (Main Street Rag, 2020), and has a full-length collection of poetry, the Colored Page, forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2022.

Dust & Ashes is available at Californios Press

A white woman in a power wheelchair sitting in the middle of an empty street. She has pink hair up in pigtails and is wearing a gray shirt with the words "This Body is Worthy" across the front.

Hannah Soyer (she/her) is a queer disabled writer born and living in the Midwest. She is the founder of This Body is Worthy, a project aimed at celebrating bodies outside of mainstream societal ideals, and Words of Reclamation, a space for disabled writers.She is the editor of The Ending Hasn’t Happened Yet, an anthology of poetry from disabled, chronically ill, and/or neurodivergent writers forthcoming from Sable Books, and her work has appeared in places such as The Rumpus, Disability Visibility Project, and Entropy.

Sundress Academy for the Arts Announces Winners of Fall 2021 Residency Fellowships

The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is pleased to announce Tia Clark and Sarah Fonseca as the winners of the VIDA fellowships for fall 2021 residencies. Thank you again to Tatiana Johnson-Boria who served as this year’s VIDA fellowship judge.

Congratulations also to Tochukwu Okafor, Remi Recchia, and L. Renée who were also awarded grants and/or fellowships. These residencies are designed to give artists time and space to complete their creative projects in a quiet and productive environment. 

Tia Clark’s work has appeared in Joyland, The Offing, American Short Fiction, Kenyon Review, No Tokens, and elsewhere. They have received support and fellowships from the Omi International Arts Center in Ghent, NY, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Lambda Literary Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. A New Yorker, they currently live and teach in New Orleans.

Sarah Fonseca is a self-taught writer from the Georgia foothills who lives in New York City. Her fiction and cinema writing have appeared in Bosie Magazine, Evergreen Review, Leste Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Museum of the Moving Image’s Reverse Shot, and others. She is a co-editor of The New Lesbian Pulp (Feminist Press, 2023).

Tochukwu Okafor is a Nigerian writer whose work has appeared in the 2019 Best Small Fictions, the 2018 Best of the Net, and elsewhere. In 2021, he received fellowships from PEN America, Jack Straw Writers Program, GrubStreet, and the Worcester Arts Council. He is a 2022 Good Hart Artist-in-Residence, a 2021 Frank Conley Memorial Scholar, and a 2018 Rhodes Scholar finalist. [Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan]

Remi Recchia is a trans poet and essayist from Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is a Ph.D. student in English-Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. He currently serves as an associate editor for the Cimarron Review. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Remi’s work has appeared or will soon appear in Columbia Online Journal, Harpur Palate, and Juked, among others. He holds an MFA in poetry from Bowling Green State University. Remi’s first full-length poetry collection, Quicksand/Stargazing, is forthcoming from Cooper Dillon Books in 2021.

L. Renée is a poet and nonfiction writer from Columbus, Ohio. A third-year MFA candidate at Indiana University, she has served as Nonfiction Editor of Indiana Review. Her work, nominated for Best New Poets and a Pushcart Prize, has been published in Tin House Online, Appalachian Review, Poet Lore, the minnesota review, New Limestone Review, and elsewhere.

Finalists for this fall’s fellowships included Cindy Ok, Katherine Gaffney, Leon Ozuna, Astha Cupta, and Monica Teresa Ortiz.

Lyric Essentials: Athena Dixon Reads Seamus Heaney

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! We’ve chatted with poet, essayist, and editor Athena Dixon about the universality of Seamus Heaney’s work, connecting past and present within writing, and moving forward in life. As always, thank you for reading!

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: What was your first encounter with Seamus Heaney’s work?

Athena Dixon: I first came across his work during my second tour through undergraduate school, but I didn’t really hold onto it until I was working on my MFA two years later. At the time I was compiling my creative thesis, Way Station, and quite a few of poems in that collection concerned my hometown and its working-class roots and routines. Heaney’s poems, especially those in Death of a Naturalist and North, were very concrete for me and I added them to my touchpoints for continuing to craft my final project.

Athena Dixon Reads “Digging” by Seamus Heaney

AH: Even if we are not Irish, living in the Ireland that Heaney wrote about, would you say that there is this universal aspect to his work that everyone can relate to in some form? 

AD: I think so and that’s what kept me connected to his poems after my initial introduction. There is a common thread that connects Heaney to his readers because the heart of his work is universal. Readers can relate to Heaney’s very clear reverence for family and tradition. I come from a very blue-collar background. My father was a steelworker and my mother was a factory worker. So, there was an instant understanding in how he describes the work, the physical toll of it, and how it can impact the individual and the family. His work makes me revisit pieces like Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” for the same reasons. There are for sure quite a few people who can relate in the same ways because we’ve seen this kind of labor ourselves or are participating in it to raise our own families. They can understand judgement from social circles and society at large. And they can understand the underlying desire to respect tradition, but to also move forward along your own path.

Athena Dixon Reads “Punishment” by Seamus Heaney

AH: In “Punishment,” we see this interweaving of finding a bog body and political strife in contemporary Northern Ireland. As a writer, how do you grapple with this tension of past and present in your own work?

AD: I try to find tension that is useful to the work and myself. There is, of course, always tension to be found when trying to reconcile the past and the present. However, writing for me has always been a way to filter through that tension and find what is going to be best for not only my art, but also my own personal journey. I think there has to be some balance between the two because what is tension if you aren’t trying to truly dissect it and discover some measure of beauty or questioning in it? I think anything else is just for shock value and that’s not the purpose of writing for me. I want to be able to go back to the past and come back changed in some way. I don’t want to wallow in it. That doesn’t mean there has be complete healing or understanding, but there has to be something useful if I’m going to add more tension to my life.

AH: Why did you choose these two poems specifically?

AD: “Punishment” was the first Heaney poem I encountered and it was like a shock to the system. I fell in love with how he broke his lines and how he crafted images. Those images are rich, but not overwrought. I found such pleasure in the idea he wasn’t trying to be opaque in the poem as well. It is both accessible, yet elevated. Heaney gives us something violent and troubling in a very concise way. It highlights how detached the punishment was despite the very passionate act that led to her demise. Also, his ability to move readers from a macro level to a micro level is brilliant. We get see the overarching expectations and rules of society, the woman’s actions, the reaction to her “crimes”, and even down to the very essence of her bones and brain. It’s an amazing journey in very lean lines.

I love “Digging” for some of the same reasons. I instantly wanted to dissect how there could be such depth to the world building in such slim stanzas. However, what I love the most is his use of sound and rhythm. This poem begs to be read aloud just to hear how the words bounce against each other, how they pull you from one line to the next, and how the poet uses word choice to engage our senses. For me, the poem also is very much an act of love that is recognizable on both sides. The caring of the father and grandfather through their manual labor which gives them the means to care for the speaker juxtaposed against the speaker’s desire to honor those men in the medium he has at his disposal is lovely. And the idea of generational betterment that isn’t couched in shame but rather respect and acknowledgement is close to my heart, too.

Seamus Heaney was a poet and playwright from Ireland. He is widely considered to be one of the finest Irish poets in contemporary history, as his poetry and writing was well-loved all over the world. Full of rich, luscious descriptions of Ireland and its natural beauty, as well as informing readers about the politics and history of the country, his poems showcased his prolific talent as a writer.

Discover some of his work at Poetry.

Read an interview he had with The Paris Review.

Read this New Yorker article on his legacy.

A native of Northeast Ohio, Athena Dixon is the author of The Incredible Shrinking Woman (Split/Lip Press) and No God in This Room (Argus House Press). Her work also appears in The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket Books) and in various publications including GAY Magazine and Narratively. She resides in Philadelphia. Learn more about the author at www.athenadixon.com.

Read Athena’s essay “You Have the Right to Remain Silent” at Grub Street.

Find her essay collection The Incredible Shrinking Woman at Split/Lip Press.

Listen to the podcast Athena co-hosts, New Books in Poetry, here.

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a multimedia artist and writer. She has had work appear, or forthcoming, in Into the Void Magazine, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She currently reads forEX/POST Magazine, is the Associate Managing Editor of Mud Season Review, was a Brooklyn Poets Fellow, and is the co-Editor in Chief of Juven Press. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com

Poets in Pajamas Presents Our June 2021 Readers

A gray and white sketch drawing of a bear in bed, under a floral comforter. The words "Poets in Pajamas, Bi-Monthly Reading Series, Sundays at 7pm ET" are written in typewriter font to the left.

Sundress Publications is pleased to present Poets in Pajamas (PiP), a free, bi-monthly reading series run through Facebook Live that encourages worldwide literary connection by attending a virtual reading from the comfort of your pajamas. Poets read from their work for around fifteen minutes and welcome questions from the audience after the reading.

Our episodes for June will feature Melissa Fite Johnson (June 13th) and Akua Lezli Hope (June 27th) and will air on Facebook Live at 7:00 PM ET.

A black and white photo of a light-skinned woman sitting on a stairwell outside. She is looking off to the side and smiling.

Melissa Fite Johnson is the author of Green (Riot in Your Throat, 2021) and While the Kettle’s On (Little Balkans Press, 2015), a Kansas Notable Book. She is also the author of A Crooked Door Cut into the Sky (Paper Nautilus Press, 2018), winner of the Vella Chapbook Prize. Her poems have appeared in PleiadesSWWIMWhale Road ReviewBroadsided Press, and elsewhere. Melissa teaches high school English in Lawrence, KS, where she and her husband live with their dogs.

RSVP to PiP 114: Melissa Fite Johnson on Facebook!

A black woman wearing a crocheted yellow top and yellow hat, taken from the shoulders up. Her hair is in braids and she is wearing a cowrie shell earring. She is wearing glasses and looking off to the side.

Akua Lezli Hope is a creator and wisdom seeker who uses sound, words, fiber, glass, metal, and wire to create poems, patterns, stories, music, sculpture, adornments, and peace. She wrote her first speculative poems in the sixth grade and has been in print every year, except one, since 1974. She is published in numerous literary magazines and national anthologies. A third generation New Yorker, her honors include the NEA, two NYFAs, an SFPA award, Rhysling and Pushcart Prize nominations, among others. She twice won Rattle’s Poets Respond. Her first collection, EMBOUCHURE, Poems on Jazz and Other Musics, won the Writer’s Digest book award. A Cave Canem fellow, her collection, THEM GONE, was published 2018. She launched Speculative Sundays, an online poetry reading series, in 2020.

She just won an individual artist grant for Now Voyager, her sculpture project about the immigration of her four grandparents from the West Indies to New York. She won Sundress Publications anthology competition to edit a speculative poetry anthology by BIPOC creators. Later this year, she is also editing an edition of Eye to the Telescope on the Sea.

An avid hand papermaker and crochet designer with over 130 patterns published, she exhibits her artwork regularly. A paraplegic, she founded a paratransit nonprofit. Her chapbook, Otherwheres (ArtFarm Press 2020) is available on Amazon. She sings songs from her favorite anime in Japanese, practices her soprano saxophone and prays for the cessation of suffering for all sentience.

RVSP to PiP 115: Akua Lezli Hope on Facebook!

Sundress Announces the Release of Sunni Brown Wilkinson’s The Ache and the Wing

Sundress Publications announces Sunni Brown Wilkinson’s The Ache and the Wing.

In this sublime collection, award-winning poet Sunni Brown Wilkinson shapes guilt and grief into a narrative of love, loss, and possibility. The Ache and the Wing explores the flickering, flighty nature of life by allowing a glimpse into the speaker’s world after the death of a newborn son. Bodies become houses, three-and-a-half-inch gaps appear in an old Irishman’s brain, and birdsong reverberates throughout these healing poems. Wilkinson gives life to last words. Her honest, yet delicate poems combine grief with possibility in the hope of rebuilding one’s life in the wake of absence.

Kimberly Blaeser, author of Copper Yearning, says of the collection, “In a ‘world wired for worry,’ enter these elegant poems. A catalogue of the real, The Ache and the Wing is filled with the miraculous everyday—the arms of the saguaro raised like ‘monks blessing the cracked earth;’ filled as well with ‘what eats your heart / into grave simplicity.’ The kaleidoscopic forms of loss include the burning of Yosemite and the weeping body of a stillborn child. Maybe, ‘the world is a starving coyote,’ maybe this poet has ‘so much sad truth to say,’ but the haunting images also hold hope. Perhaps the poems can teach ‘he difficult, / liquid art of living,’ teach their own delicate balancing of the ‘broken and beautiful.’ Here, Wilkinson marvels at birds who ‘make music out of nothing;’ she commands us: ‘open your emerald throat again.’”

Read it free on the Sundress website

Sunni Brown Wilkinson’s poetry can be found in Western Humanities Review, Sugar House Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, SWWIM, Crab Orchard Review and other journals and anthologies. She is the author of The Marriage of the Moon and the Field (Black Lawrence Press 2019, finalist for the Hudson Prize) and The Ache and the Wing (winner of Sundress’s 2020 Chapbook Prize). She also won New Ohio Review’s NORward Poetry Prize and the 2020 Joy Harjo Prize from Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts. She teaches at Weber State University and lives in northern Utah with her husband and three sons.

We Call Upon the Author to Explain—William Soldan

Bill Soldan has had a busy time the last few years. In 2019, his book In Just the Right Light came out, followed by his short story collection Lost in the Furrows and his poetry collection So Fast, So Close in 2020. Now, in 2021, Soldan has just released his new short story collection, Houses Burning and Other Ruins. Bill lives in Youngstown, OH, and has a Master’s of Fine Arts degree from the NEOMFA program. When I first read Bill’s work, I was blown away by the tenderness he has for the most broken of characters, something that’s caused other writers to liken his work to Tom Waits’s music (okay, I’m a sucker for Tom Waits, too). But Bill’s writing is so much more than just that authorial empathy—he’s got a great ear for language, a brilliant understanding of story structure and tension, and, plainly put, his stories are electric. We talked about craft in this interview, and you’ll want to read every thoughtful word he’s got to say about it. 

Alex DiFrancesco: There’s often a dual tension in these stories—between the past and present, between the instincts in the characters for good and their draw towards their darker sides. Can you talk about how you structure story around these opposing threads?

William Soldan: Although the finished product typically maintains the same order as it did when drafting (with the exception of the story “Space Station Stereo,” which I wrote entirely out of sequence, because it felt appropriate given the subject matter), I don’t often have any sort of structure in mind when I begin a story. But I usually know from the start that there will be (at least) two stories at play within a single piece. And that’s largely due to the types of stories and characters I tend to write. There’s always going to be a backstory, even if it’s not explicitly on the page—either a time when the character was in a bad place before clawing their way out, or when the character was in a better place and ended up somewhere worse—whichever place they occupy in the main story, the opposite of that will often be the backstory that sheds light on the overall narrative. 

Not every story is this way, of course. Sometimes, it’s a story about a kid, say, who by the end never actually escapes whatever situation they’re in, but I like to hint at what might happen next, even if I don’t give it to you. Sometimes the main story in one piece is the backstory of another piece, which was the case in a few of the stories from my first collection, where the stories are all linked, either by place, character, or circumstance.

But when it comes to structuring this stuff, I try to let instinct be my guide. I might use white space and give backstory its own section. I might let the character drift into reflection or memory triggered by something in the present—a person, object, sound, whatever—then start a new section when they snap out of the flashback. I know it’s popular to rail against flashbacks (as it is to rail against so many techniques these days), but I think whether it’s a full blown scene or simply a summarized paragraph, the past always has a place in the story. Always, especially if the character’s past was in someway different from their present. The then and the now are always pressing against each other, in fiction as in real life. I might just fold some backstory into the current scene during an exchange of dialogue (not necessarily in the dialogue itself, which often feels like a means to shoehorn pertinent information into the story, and feels contrived, but in the beats between the dialogue) or wherever it feels effective. It doesn’t need to be much, sometimes just a line or two, a hint at something that illuminates what’s going on.

Those are the main types of structure my stories tend to take, I think (sometimes employing more than one or all of them), though I’m sure there are others I’ve used. I’ve definitely attempted other structures: the circular plot, the reverse chronology, the braided narrative, etc. I’m always interested in how I can manipulate and convey time on the page. I’m far from an experimental writer—at least when it comes to my published work—but I enjoy playing around with ways of laying out the timeline, even if the finished work seems fairly conventional in its structure.

As for the tension itself, these opposing forces at work within the characters, often at odds with their environment or circumstances, I think that describes all of us, every single human being. We’re all walking sacks of contradicting desires and needs and dreams. I couldn’t imagine writing about any other type of character. As we know, tension comes from conflict (of course structure and word choice and style and other things can serve to heighten tension, too). For me there’s no greater conflict than what we wrestle within ourselves every day. Even a story where there’s very little external conflict, I think should have some—maybe just a glimmer—internal conflict. Depending on the character, this can take on many forms, but it’s always there. Identifying it and figuring out how to depict it is the fun part. 

AD: Though I know neither of us are wedded to ideas of genre, your work is often described as “grit lit,” and that it’s set in the worlds of addicts, criminals, and small rough towns, adds to this categorization. How do you use the elements and tropes of this genre, and how do you push back against them?

WS: I suspect when you’re writing in a specific genre or picture yourself as a “____writer” then these things are a focus all the time during the writing process, but unless I’m setting out to write, say, a crime story, which I’ve been known to do on occasion, and as such have considered the genre’s specifics and expectations, I don’t typically set out to write a “____story,” just a good story, one people will enjoy if they choose to read it. And honestly, that approach has served me well. For instance, I’ve been embraced by many in the crime writing and noir communities online. And while much if not most of my work has the bleak atmosphere and absence of hope associated with noir, only a handful of my stories are overtly crime stories. And I like that about noir, it’s a broader term than crime, because a story can be noir without being a crime story (and vice versa), but a crime story has to have crime in it to be a crime story. Grit Lit is an even broader term (contrary to the opinion of many, I’m sure), and one that I think best describes my work as a whole. The qualities that have come to be associated with it—struggle, booze, drugs, violence, secrets, single moms, absent or abusive fathers, convicts, would be criminals, and other “hardscrabble” folks—are ones that are ever present in my writing. It just so happens these kinds of stories seem to also appeal to readers of crime and noir. A lot. Again, I’m just looking to tell a story you’ll enjoy, or in the very least have some sort of emotional reaction to. These places and characters are the ones I have the deepest connection to. Occasionally I think, This is gonna be a crime story when I begin a piece, but I’ve never said to myself, This is gonna be noir or This is gonna be a Grit Lit story. At this point, those two are almost a given coming from me. I just write the story and it fits in where it fits in. But I do use the terms when describing my work, because as much as labels can pidgeon-hole a writer, they are useful for readers when seeking out new work.

I could go on about Grit Lit and what it is and its characteristics and what genres overlap it and so on, but that’ll almost certainly steer the conversation in another direction, like “literary” vs. “genre,” and those distinctions are bothersome. Suffice to say, even with all the conventions, genres are nebulous and can morph into whatever the writer wants. The tropes of Grit Lit, crime, and noir overlap. They all find there way into my work because I feel a sense of authority of certain subject matter due to my history. Also, I write the types of things I love to read, and I love to read these genres. How I push back against the tropes and expectations that come with writing this stuff is by bringing to it something no one else can: my own lived experience. Also by refusing to be constrained by the conventions if I feel compelled to diverge from them or to subvert expectations, big or small. Tropes can be your friend, but they can also stifle you, choke all the life out of your work. I guess it’s all about learning how to make them work for you while telling the story you have to tell and allowing yourself the freedom to be more flexible than strict adherence to tropes would allow.

AD: You write prose and well as poetry, and much of your prose has what I like to think of as “barroom musicality” or “street poetry.” What’s the significance of language to you as a prose writer, and how does your work in the genre of poetry influence this?

WS: I love that term “barroom musicality.” One of my favorite things anyone has ever said about my work. Thank you for that. The short answer is language a top priority for me at all times, and poetry influences everything I write.

The more rambling, lengthy answer (you should have seen one coming by now, haha!) is I always bring the poet in me (whatever that means) to the table when writing prose. In fact, the majority of the poems I’ve written over the last couple years have been prose poems. Partially because when I’m writing a poem, I’m usually taking all the way to the margin, focusing on language over structure. Afterward, I’ll sometimes chop up and line-break and stanza-fy, but I’ve been doing that less and less in my recent poetry. Something about the visual aesthetic of a tight block of prose appeals to me (I’m sure a therapist would suggest that I desire order and to be in control, and they might be right), but I love all forms of poetry. I just have an affinity for the prose poem. 

Anyway, I think a lot of people have this assumption that the sound of language isn’t as important to prose as it is poetry, as if there’s this unspoken (or rarely spoken) idea that poems are intended to be read aloud, to be heard—even if the majority of poems will be experienced silently through reading and not at a live event or open-mic—and as such are expected to be more conscious of to things like rhythm and acoustics in the language. But I argue it’s every bit as vital to prose.

After all, storytelling was once an oral form, and many of the techniques we use in both poetry and prose—repetition, anaphora, alliteration, sibilance, etc.—come directly out of that tradition. These techniques were not only used to make stories easier to memorize and thus perform, but they’re also pleasing to the ear if executed well. It’s no accident that speechwriters (good ones, anyway) employ these techniques in political addresses and persuasive rhetoric all the time: they captivate the ear first and foremost.

Now, fiction writers might not be as preoccupied with this stuff as poets, or as our forebears sitting around the hearth, but any writer is (hopefully) a reader first and understands that we have an inner ear that is always tuned to the language we read. This is why some sentences, even perfectly serviceable ones, fall flat compared to others. Take any two sentences that say pretty much the same thing, but let’s have one be dull and unremarkable and the other crackle with life. Both may or may not be grammatically correct, but both work to convey the information, yet one is meh and the other is POW! The difference? One hundred percent of the time it’s the words (and rhythm) of the sentences. One isn’t using language to its full potential while one shines because of an awareness of what language can do beyond conveying information. Of course, there’s a time and place to do linguistic acrobatics and a time to be more reserved with your language. But reserved doesn’t mean it can’t still have rhythm and flow.I’m not saying we should be writing musical, flourishing sentences all the time, just that we should have our ears always tuned the music of language, even the simplest mundane phrase can be beautiful. Is every sentence going to be? Probably not. But considering how a sentence interacts with the other sentences around it isn’t a bad practice. Also, if you’re language is great at the expense of the plot, even a mostly plotless story, then maybe consider writing poetry, because few readers have the tolerance for impressive language that doesn’t go anywhere.

Which reminds me of something Stephen King once said, which I’ll paraphrase. He essentially said there are two kinds of stories. One is the working-person, utilitarian story that functions just fine and takes you somewhere. The other is the beautifully written story that goes nowhere, which is like a Cadillac with no engine under the hood. At least the first story, although nothing remarkable on the line level, transports you, and that’s the kind of story people want. He also said occasionally you get the greats, the ones that do both. Those are the stories that stay with us, that we recommend to others. Like him or not, it’s a good analogy. And I suppose if I had to choose, I’d rather my story be a beater that gets you across town than a nice looking car that doesn’t start, much less move. Of course, my mission is to have it both ways. Always. Do I succeed? Sometimes, yeah, I think I do. I’ve written my share of the other two types, sure, and I’m sure I will again, but language is something I always consider. It matters. Hell, it’s all we have. Shouldn’t we try to juice it for all it’s worth? 

That was my longwinded way of saying I think every prose writer could benefit from embracing poetics more. 😊 

AD: To talk more about setting, your work often takes place in your home city of Youngstown, Ohio. Is the history and your own personal history of this place something you research and recall to create these stories?

WS: I’m a huge fan of place-based writing. It’s one of the reasons I love Grit Lit and rural noir so much. They almost always have a rich sense of locale. In addition to a strong narrative voice, a strong established setting is typically the first thing I connect with in a story. Never mind the plot and other important things. Without having a world for the story to take place in, you’ve got a void, and fun as voids can be, existentially speaking, they’re no good in fiction. So while others might disagree or have other priorities, place is big on my list of must haves. Flash fiction is another animal and doesn’t always apply to that belief, though I’ve read some wickedly good flash that has a strong sense of place, too, which is challenging as hell, so kudos to those who can pull it off.

But, unless I’m writing something that’s set against a particular historic event, the majority of my setting description comes from recall or good old fashioned boots-on-the-ground research. Or wheels-on-the-road research. I’m a big fan of a nice aimless drive. Of course, if I’m setting out for inspiration or looking for certain details then it’s not aimless, but at any rate I love driving around town. I do it all the time, move through the city and the surrounding rural communities, some of which I grew up in. I like to put myself physically in the place if I can. With the exception of stories that take place elsewhere, where I need to go online to study a different geography, different flora and fauna and whatnot, most of the setting details in my locally-set stories were gathered this way. 

And yes, memory. I rely on that a lot, too. But memory is notoriously unreliable, which is why some of the stories in all of my books are presented as fiction rather than memoir. Some stories only differ from actual life events in that I had to mess with the geography or timeline in a way that better served the story, but are otherwise nonfiction. My creative liberties are enough that I don’t feel right calling them memoir. My first collection was mostly set in a fictional town that was drawn from details of a couple different towns I know well, where I grew up, but I changed enough about it to warrant calling it fiction. That, and the stories are fiction, even the ones that are mostly true. This new collection is entirely set in real places, namely Youngstown and Columbus, Ohio. There’s not a story in there that I couldn’t take you to the specific locations depicted. All the places exist, or existed. Only a couple of the stories in this book are of the memoir-turned-fiction variety, but I’ll let you speculate on which ones.

So driving or walking the same path a character takes, when possible, has always been a great way for me to get inside a story, and occasionally it’s these walks/drives that help me resolve an issue with the plot or figure out a character’s next move. Regardless of my motivation, getting out there physically is good for me.

As I’ve said, though, I have done traditional book/online/interview research to get my facts straight when writing about something specific. For example, there are two stories in my first book that take place before, during, and after a devastating blizzard that occurred here in the late 70s. Even though the story was a complete fiction, the setting details were researched, the time and date of the storm, the destruction it caused, the lives lost—all of that seemed important to get accurate. Those are my most heavily researched stories. But I did quite a bit of that type of research for my forthcoming novel, too. I needed to get some dates right, concerning the steel mills, the names of them, which ones shut down when, which ones still stood, which had been razed. I moved to this area in the late 80s, after all that happened. Not much after, but I was young enough not to have any factual information of that sort in my memory, so Google, and pestering a local historian, proved useful for that stuff.

Driving around was helpful here, too, being able to visit specific locations and see the remnants of the past up close. The material you draw from it feels—at least to the writer but hopefully the reader—all the more authentic because you have a more direct association with the place/object, and it’s less likely to be blurred by an unreliable memory. When I’m in doubt of my ability to hold an image in my mind, I snap a picture. I’ve got thousands. Rundown buildings, motels, truck stops, bars—the types of places my characters frequent.

Part of the increasing difficulty with this drivearound method is that so much of what was once here is now gone, abandoned mills and warehouses replaced by fields and vacant lots. Plenty of blight still, but nearly all of the big structures that haunted our landscape for the last forty years—furnaces and smokestacks and looming buildings from one end of the horizon to the other—have been torn down. What once appeared to be the ghosts of a better time are now gone. Some felt all the abandoned places were a constant negative reminder of where we are vs. where we were as a community. Others felt they were symbolic of who we were and always will be. I can see both sides of that argument, but I fall into the second camp. I miss the old structures. For me they were a source of inspiration. So it sucks that they’re gone. But I guess there’s always Google.

All that to say, nearly everything I write draws, in some way, from my lived experience, and setting is a crucial aspect of representing that experience, so recall and in-person research are extremely important to me and my work.

AD: Something that really resonates with me in your work is that your characters are not necessarily “good” people, but your writerly empathy shines through in every story, no matter how debased the people involved may be. Can you talk about the role of empathy in your work?

WS: This goes back to the first question, the idea that we’re all far more complicated than “good” and “bad.” I mean, unless we’re writing a fairy tale or some other type of story where absolutes like these are among the established tropes of the genre, who the hell would want such a rigid dichotomy, right? That’s why “anti-heroes” are so popular. Giving seemingly decent characters flaws is done in an effort to create a false reality that mirrors the real world. That is, to create a complex character, which is our objective, most of us, we must try for verisimilitude, a sense of being real and true. Even when writing high fantasy or speculative fiction, we want our stories to be believable. As far-fetched as the world or concept might be, we want characters to seem alive.

I think this is the distinction between sympathetic and likeable, in terms of character. People often conflate these terms, suggesting that a character has to be likeable to be sympathetic. I think what sympathetic means in this context has more to do with empathy than likeability. You can sympathize or empathize with an otherwise unlikeable character so long as you can imagine yourself in their situation, even if it’s unlikely you’ll ever be in their situation, and even if you’d never admit it to anyone. You don’t need to like them to do that. Some people seem to think you must like the character, perhaps because they feel icky relating to someone who does deplorable things. But it’s okay to feel some kind of way other than loathing toward even the worst characters. Because people are complicated, and complicated is more interesting. 

It helps to have walked in their shoes in some way, too, which is another reason I write the stories and characters that I do. I’m a recovering addict. I’m a reformed criminal. I’ve done less than admirable things in my life. But even at my worst, I don’t think I was ever all bad. Perhaps it’s easier for me to suspend judgement of these types of characters for this reason. I’m just one bad decision from being right back there, in not so good a place. I try to remember that, in someone else’s story (even our own), we might be the despicable character. And we’d all like to be seen as greater than the sum of our bad choices.

The world is one big gray area when it comes to most things, as are the people who populate it, far more nuanced than black and white absolutes. None of us are all good or bad. There are some people whose decency I admire far more than my own, and likewise, there are some downright awful human beings on this earth. But even the best have had bad days, and even the most vile, at some point in their lives did something decent or showed the potential for decency. I’m not saying we should cut the villains some slack; I’m saying they’re more interesting if they have more than one side.

What’s cool about fiction is there might be a character who on the surface seems like a saint to other characters in the story, but to the writer and reader, we know better, and we can reveal the other facets of the saintly person while other characters continue to be duped by the “good” person. If we want, that is. It’s one way of creating tension and dramatic irony. Same with the “bad” guys. We can see them beyond the way other characters do, in a way that might contradict their usual actions. Or everyone can be aware that everyone else, including themselves, are imperfect and thus not to be trusted at face value. I prefer these types of stories myself. No one is beyond reproach, and no one is beyond redemption. As a writer, it’s not my place to cast down that kind of judgment. That’s the reader’s job. Sure, I’ve given the bad guys their comeuppance plenty of times, and I’ve written characters (usually mother figures) who, despite their struggles and bad choices, I hope to depict as decent, admirable folks. But those kinds of decisions tend to happen as the story unfolds and I get to know the characters better. A character who is invariably good or bad is a caricature. As a reader, my suspension of disbelief quickly wavers, in both realistic and fantastical stories, the second I realize a character is too perfect or too evil—too one-dimensional. So as a writer, I try really hard to avoid that sort of thing.

People make bad choices on occasion. Some people make them often. These bad choices are the backbone of compelling stories. They determine everything that follows. And if a protagonist is faced with a tough choice, and appears as if they’re about to make the wrong one, we want to keep reading to find out what happens. And that’s what we all want. If we can’t make the reader want to keep reading, we’re pretty much fucked and might be better off taking up knitting or something.

Order Houses Burning and Other Ruins from Shotgun Honey Press

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1982, William R. Soldan grew up in and around the Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio, with a brief stint in the hills of southern Oregon. A high school dropout and college graduate, he holds a BA in English Literature from Youngstown State University and an MFA from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program. Over the years, he has been employed as a factory machinist, maintenance man, house painter, record store clerk, line-cook, bartender, bouncer, writing instructor, personal trainer, and a host of other things. William’s work draws greatly from the urban and rural landscapes of the post-industrial Midwest—the stark beauty, the resonant history, the strength and endurance of its grappling working-class.

Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, William’s work appears in publications such as Elm Leaves Journal, New World Writing, Jellyfish Review, Gordon Square ReviewCoffin Bell Thuglit, (b)OINK, Bending GenresAnomaly Literary Journal, Cowboy Jamboree’s All We Need of Hell: A Harry Crews Tribute, Mystery Tribune, The Best American Mystery Stories 2017Ohio’s Best Emerging Poets Anthology, and many others. 

William resides in Youngstown with his wife and two children and divides his time between being a fitness coach and teaching community writing workshops throughout the Youngstown area. He’s also the co-coordinator of The Strand Project, a staged set of dramatic monologues performed each spring at Selah Dinner Theatre.

Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin HouseThe Washington PostPacific StandardVol. 1 BrooklynThe New Ohio ReviewBrevity, and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.

Sundress Reads: Review of Defacing the Monument

Susan Briante’s Defacing the Monument (Noemi Press, 2020) is “part documentary act, part lyric essay, part criticism,” as its description reads. It includes collage and open-ended worksheets and invokes lyric, its prose occasionally veering into line breaks. These genres combine to form the book’s two main narratives. The first foregrounds migrants to the American Southwest, especially Arizona, where Briante teaches—Defacing opens with a description of Operation Streamline, which marked the criminalization of migration in 2005. The second narrative is Briante’s family history: her great-grandmother’s immigration from Italy in 1880 and her mother’s death.

With these subjects, Defacing writes itself into the lineage of documentary poetics that it simultaneously traces. The book is rooted in Muriel Rukeyser’s poetics, yet cites authors as varied as Wallace Stevens, Bhanu Kapil, Brenda Coultas, Audre Lorde, and M. NourbeSe Philip to highlight the artistic instinct and imperative to evaluate how we evaluate unreal realities. It defines documentary poetics as a return to primary sources that allows writers to rewrite, amend, contextualize, and ultimately fulfill Rukeyser’s proposal to “extend the document.”

In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Briante elaborates on her project: “I wanted this book to go beyond the trope of ‘watch me witnessing.’ I gesture to other writers and traditions, as well as give the reader a place to mark the limits and potential of all that I’m placing before and in relation to them.” Briante’s expansive conception of writing emerged as a direct response to her undergraduate studies in journalism, which she undertook “because I wanted to ‘give voice,’ as if a voice were anything to be ‘given.’” Therefore, documentary poetics is a viable and truthful alternative to journalism, free from the latter’s constraint of “presenting both sides.” 

Amid Briante’s web of references and reflections however, Defacing often feels like an homage, its narratives at times becoming secondary. As a result, the book eventually reads as a statement of intent, a set of guidelines, a tentative manifesto.

Honing in on a typographical choice helps illustrate the book’s tonal dissonance. The font Futura exploded in the 1980s, becoming the default for advertisers and representing “corporate identity,” as an Artsy article explains. Artists like Barbara Kruger and the Guerrilla Girls subsequently appropriated Futura in their critiques of a sexist and corporatized art world. “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”, the Guerrilla Girls asked in 1989, their question printed pointedly in Futura. On the poster, their motto follows their name: “Conscience of the Art World.” 

Throughout Defacing, Briante shifts into Futura, casting an aphoristic and conclusive quality onto select sentences. “Citizenship is a construct, a shelter that was never constructed to cover everyone equally, that may never have been constructed to cover everyone” she writes in Futura at one point. At another: “And although I live on occupied lands, nobody asks for my papers.” 

The presence of Futura aligns the text with a tradition of critique aimed at a wider audience; Kruger’s photographs and the Guerrilla Girls’ posters embody its potential for mass distribution and appeal, yet it’s slightly unclear who Briante’s declarations are for. Even without this context, readers might wonder about the intended effect of these marked, and often abrupt, statements in such a flexible, genre-bending work. In other words, is Briante an expert—“the conscience of the art world”—or a faultable, fallible explorer of a constantly-changing genre? Can she be both?

In the same vein of tone and audience, the use of Futura also makes clear the book’s own confusion as to what it is critiquing: traditional journalism’s representation of migrants, documentary poetics, documents themselves, the Trump administration, even “the military-prison-industrial-educational-kleptocracy we mistake for a nation,” as she remarks at one point. “The suffering of others—of ‘The Other’—is the central trope in [a]… harangue against things ranging from ‘racist, misogynist and capitalist oppression’ to the melting of polar ice and mass shootings. Those who enjoy this sort of thing will find this book invaluable,” reads a Kirkus review. While perhaps harsh in its minimization of Briante’s care towards migrant narratives as a “trope,” the review does identify the book’s dizzying scope. It lurches and pans, moving from demonstrations at Swarthmore College to disband fraternities to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in the same paragraph. The sheer range of topics can begin to feel like conflation between them.

Briante includes thought-provoking and often abstract questions and prompts throughout. Yet one prompt near the book’s end embodies this issue of scope and approach: “Write a 12-line rhythmically charged poem in which you slant rhyme (at least twice) the name of the last official indicted from the Trump administration. Reference the most recent climate-change related disaster. Address by first name one of the 24 migrants who have died in ICE custody since 2017. End with the instructions given to you by a parent or guardian on what you should do when waking from a nightmare.” Though undoubtedly intended to precipitate deep engagement with current events, the prompt ends up presenting a somewhat formulaic, Mad-Libs attitude towards massively complex issues. It undoes the book’s careful emphasis on the delicate work of documentary poetics.

The unintended result of the book’s range is that the main subject becomes Briante herself. For example, she cautions repeatedly that poets and documentarians should not fetishize the document. As a tool of the state, writes Briante, documents can be dehumanizing: “I used to believe the document tethered the poem to the earth, to soil that one could taste, that could be nutrient to more than one. / But a document can pull a nation out from under you.” The takeaway is one I wholeheartedly agree with—and it simultaneously appears definable by its naivete. At the least, the writer seems to speak to others who assume that language works for them by default. 

Partway into the book, I was struck by how often it seemed I was witnessing a brilliant writer slowly coming to terms with their own partiality. “Just as the document elides and erases, so does the poem and the poet,” she writes. In the same passage: “Whatever I show you is a representation, filtered and partial.” Another example comes when Briante describes migrants waiting to be processed for asylum: “Their bodies on the ground are not performance, are an act of concrete under flesh sacrifice, are subjected to the sanctioned rituals of the state.” This statement, appearing in Futura, is posited as a bold declaration, but the assertion that migrants’ reality cannot be minimized as “performance” should not, I hope, be fundamentally novel. 

She continues this train of thought, no longer in Futura: “And if I lay my white woman’s body on the border… I do not become migrant although I might feel the pinch and pressure of cement under my hips, might smell how the concrete carries the odor of sun and piss.” 

The book’s near-nearsightedness comes, though, with a steadfast honesty. “I do not know what story I hope to tell about capitalism or family, mothering or money, about cancer,” Briante writes in a late section about her family history. By the book’s end, she acknowledges that it reads as multiple projects at once. 

Perhaps, then, Defacing is best understood as an exercise of trust; that the reader will do something with this incomplete and imperfect document, just as Briante urges us to do something with state and archival documents. That over time, we can revise and extend these records into newly informative—and even beautiful—products. Part of this exercise of trust comes with the text’s own readiness for critique and change. “In some version of this book all the text would be erasable, every line open to your revision,” she writes. We should embrace Briante’s exhortation and invitation, first immersing ourselves in her work and then using it to move beyond.

Defacing the Monument is available at Noemi Press

Claire Shang is a freshman at Columbia University, where she is an editor with The Columbia Review. She is a writer of poetry and creative nonfiction, and a reader of mostly everything. Her work has appeared in or been recognized by Peach MagNoDear Magazine, and Smith College.