Lyric Essentials: JP Howard Reads Cheryl Clarke

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! For this installment, JP Howard reads poems from Cheryl Clarke and talks about literary activism, the power of poetry, and the importance of black, lesbian voices in the community. Thank you for reading!

Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read these poems by Cheryl Clarke for Lyric Essentials?

I know that the Lyric Essentials series provides writers an opportunity to pay homage to poets that have guided us and transformed our work and Cheryl Clarke and her work have spoken to me for many decades. Her writing has consistently inspired my own poetry. I first discovered Clarke’s work when I was a freshman attending Barnard College. I’m pretty sure “Of Althea and Flaxie” was one of the very first poems of Clarke’s that I read. I loved that it was bold and that it celebrated an out-loud love between two women. The time period at the start of the poem (1943) lets the reader know from the start that this was a love that was not easily swayed by society or society’s expectations. Her entry into the poem is quite exquisite with her narrative description of the couple; she paints a portrait of a butch-femme couple who are proud of their relationship. This book was written in the early 80’s  and I believe it was significant and empowering to note that Cheryl Clarke, like Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, all fierce black activist lesbian poets writing during that time period, wrote unapologetically about lesbian love. I choose this poem, in particular, because Clarke painted this couple so vividly on the page, that many years went by before I read the poem again, yet I clearly remembered Althea and Flaxie. It was as if I had actually met them at some point in my life. I also chose this poem to honor my 18 year old self. It’s a way of saying “JP you are still here. You are still living your life out loud too!” The poetry of Clarke, Lorde and Parker, all gave me the  courage to come out to my own family, soon after discovering their work while at Barnard. Ultimately, this is a classic Clarke narrative poem that deserves to be both read and heard. 

JP Howard reads “Of Althea and Flaxie” by Cheryl Clarke

“i come to the city” wasn’t a poem of Clarke’s that I was familiar with, yet it had a strong New York energy that drew me into the poem. It reminds me of the vibe of New York lesbian clubs and bars, that once were in abundance, but sadly, no longer are. This poem, while concise, effectively captures all the promise and sensuality of women making connections in a big city, like New York or San Francisco. It is also infused with Clarke’s acerbic wit and determination in the ending lines “I been in love/six times in the last six months/and ain’t done trying yet.” I think it’s a poem of lesbian desire/longing that many can relate to—also the ending and the speaker’s determination “ain’t done trying yet” makes the reader chuckle to herself! 

JP Howard reads “i come to the city” by Cheryl Clarke

EH: Has Clarke’s work influenced your own work as a writer or educator? 

JPH: Clarke’s work has influenced me tremendously, both as writer and educator. She continues to speak her truth. I love that she is a black lesbian activist poet speaking her truth through generations and to new generations. She proudly refers to herself as a “queer black troublemaker” and I love that description! It’s so on point. Her poems are honest, incredibly sexy, consistency political and often challenge the reader to think about all the intersections in our lives. She makes the reader work and I love her poems for doing that. Her work has and continues to challenge me to speak my truth and also to consistently teach her work, along with other black lesbian activist poets, so that writers of all generations can be exposed to Clarke’s early work and her current work. Much of my own poetry is political and deals with the intersections of being a black lesbian activist poet in America—I try to always bring my full self to the page, the stage and to the classrooms and/or to writing workshops that I facilitate.

Much of my writing and how I move through the world as an activist poet, I owe to Clarke. Discovering her work at a young age made me realize I too can speak my truth and maybe someone will read my work one day, the way I was reading and being influenced by her work. I’m fortunate to now also call Cheryl Clarke friend. During this past April during National Poetry Month (NaPoMo), we were in a small online writing group, Elma’s Heart Circle, founded by another dynamic black lesbian poet, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor. Our small group of women poets exchanged poems daily. Cheryl Clarke’s new poems were political, unwavering in their directness, and often gut-wrenching in their ability to shine a light on painful Her/Histories. She continues to speak her truth and inspire me as a writer and as a friend. 

EH: Clarke’s life’s work is an example of the power of poetry—how important do you think it is to share and highlight the work of such influential activists like her?

JPH: I think it is absolutely crucial to share and highlight the work of influential activists like Cheryl Clarke. Her poetry, her essays, her political activism, her current work as co-founder, with her sister Breena Clarke, of the Hobart Festival of Women Writers, are all models of literary activism. She not only speaks her truth, but each year brings hundreds of women writers together to share their stories and their words at this annual women writer’s festival that centers and celebrates women writers. I think it is important to also highlight when poets and writers are giving back to our writing communities—literary activism is crucial and inspiring. 

EH: Is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with readers? 

JPH: I’m delighted that one of my praise poems was recently selected by Tracy K. Smith, former Poet Laureate of the U.S. for The Slowdown, Smith’s daily weekday podcast series. I’m not sure what day it will be arriving in peoples inboxes, but folks can subscribe on Apple and Google podcasts. I’m working on completing edits for two poetry manuscripts, one full length and the other a chapbook. I’m excited for my second full length collection to find a home. I’m the proud curator and nurturer of Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, a monthly literary series that usually meets in New York. Since March, I’ve been busy reimagining and bringing the Salon & Open Mic series online during this current pandemic while many of us are sheltering-in. The responses to the online iteration have been incredible. While our online gatherings confirm my belief in the healing power of poetry and community, I still fiercely miss our monthly in-person gatherings. 

Cheryl Clarke is a widely recognized black lesbian poet, essayist, educator and community activist who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement in Washington D.C. Her work is known for its significant cultural impact in black, lesbian, and feminist communities, and has been anthologized and featured in various journals such as The Black Scholar, The Kenyon Review, The World in Us: An Anthology of Lesbian and Gay Poetry, and many others. She is the author of five poetry books, including her most recent, By My Precise Haircut (2016); her book Experimental Love (Firebrand Books, 1993) wasnominated for a 1994 Lambda Literary Award. She holds a B.A. from Howard University and an M.A., M.S.W., and Ph.D. from Rutgers University, and she works as the Director of the Office of Diverse Community Affairs and Lesbian-Gay Concerns at Rutgers, and co-organizer of the Hobart Festival of Women Writers. She lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Hobart, New York with her life partner.

Further reading:

Purchase Clarke’s most recent book of poetry By My Precise Haircut.
Read an interview of Clarke in Out History
Visit the Rutgers Archives for oral history recordings of Clarke.

JP Howard is an author, educator, literary activist, curator and community builder. She curates Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, in New York and herdebut poetry collection, SAY/MIRROR (The Operating System)was a 2016 Lambda Literary Award finalist. She is also the author of bury your love poems here (Belladonna*) and co-editor of Sinister Wisdom Journal Black Lesbians—We Are the Revolution! JP is a 2020 featured author in Lambda Literary’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools program and was a Split this Rock Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism finalist. She is also featured in the Lesbian Poet Trading Card Series from Headmistress Press and was the recipient of Lambda Literary’s Judith A. Markowitz Emerging Writer Award. JP’s work is widely anthologized and poetry and essays have appeared (or forthcoming) in The Academy of American Poets poem-a-day series,The Slowdown podcast,Anomaly, Apogee Journal, The Feminist Wire, Split this Rock, Muzzle Magazine, The Best American Poetry Blog, Nepantla: A Journal for Queer Poets of Color, Talking Writing, Connotation Press and others. JP is the Editor-at-Large at Mom Egg Review VOX online and holds a BA from Barnard College, an MFA in Creative Writing from The City College of New York and a JD from Brooklyn Law School.  

Further reading:

Subscribe to The Slowdown to listen to Howard’s feature on the podcast with Tracy K. Smith.
Purchase Howard’s latest collection, SAY/MIRROR.
Learn more about JP Howard and keep up with her work at her personal website.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at

Sundress Reads: Review of Everything Turns Into Something Else

The book, Everything Turns Into Something Else (BookBaby, 2020) hits readers directly in their heart center. This collection of brutal poetry spans animals to touch; covers glass to the heaviness of being while lodging teeth inside lungs, leaving organs lopsided. Jeanne Wagner takes us on a ride that fills our entire heart-centers. From speaking about the gaze of dogs to discussing emotional turns historical characters make, Wagner allows us access into a special world where the minutia of everything comes alive, and where readers can lean into spaces that challenge and inspire them to think in new and non-binary ways. 

In the opening poem, “Dogs That Look Like Wolves,” Wagner interrogates the symbolism between wolf and dog, how the two echo one another. The speaker of this poem asserts, “I’ve always loved dogs that look like wolves, / loved stories of wolves: the alphas, the bullies, the bachelors.” Wagner helps readers explore the ways in which dogs are compared to other things, how they occupy and change space. 

Each of Wagner’s poems explores a motif of noticing. Whether Wagner is exploring the way things feel, how things resonate in the world, or simply how things transform and turn into “something else,” the writing is stunning, evocative, and perplexing. Wagner invites us into thinking about how we participate in our humanity alongside other living and breathing entities. Each poem operates as a separate entity, inside of a container, and spans its own lifetime. Wagner illustrates the extent of their emotional deftness, how their images give life to a myriad of feelings including sadness, hunger, pain, and love. Wagner is bold in the assertion of urgency and in how they conjure a sense of things that happens outside of the page completely.

Wagner’s writing encourages readers to lean into their own minds, to melt into their bodies as the words are being read. Readers are challenged to see beyond the lens of the words, to see beyond the worlds in which the stanzas live. Wagner forces us to bend as the poetry, too, bends, as we are implored to continue looking further. The beauty of Wagner’s writing is that it keeps us dreaming, it keeps us balancing reality and the space we go right before we fall asleep. Wagner doesn’t let us forget for one second the sharpness of the tongue that is used, how Wagner vividly describes to us the very heart and essence of what is happening before us. Wagner’s writing cuts us open and halves us—it forces us to sit with our humanity in new and confronting ways.

The hallmark of this poetry collection is centered around the usage of the everyday riddled with the fantastical, how a single thought is expanded into a micro-story. The hallmark of Wagner’s poetry takes to places where the entities of the poems are journeys and destinations contained inside themselves. Wagner does not give us the privilege of a quiet read; we are forced to reckon with parts of our humanity that might be hurt. We are forced to lap up the darkness, to submerge ourselves in the parts of us that might not be congruent with who we want to be. 

Wagner begs us all to occupy a different perspective, to see things through a new lens. Wagner invites us into worlds completely new and fascinating, and allows us to move through its time at our own pace. This collection is raw. These collections make us emotionally bleed. These collections are not here to make us comfortable, but rather to help us confront the reality of ourselves. Wagner supports us in letting ourselves dare to dream, and to consider things beyond the scope of what we are used to. 

The best part of this book is how Wagner keeps us hanging on every word until the end. There is no shortage of shock or electricity throughout this collection. Readers are hooked onto every line, are immersed in the world of topics. There is diversity and such innovative language used in this piece—it never fails to put things for us right in our faces. The speaker in the poem, “A Personal History of Glass” speaks about how ice forms its own relationship with the body, changing it and putting it through its own unique chemical process.

These poems require our attention, they exist on the page and inside of us as well. Wagner does what so many brilliant writers do, makes something live on inside of us long after we have read it on the page. Wagner allows all of us to exist in a space within and outside of ourselves. These pieces bring us closer to our individual selves and our collective selves. These pieces help us to understand ourselves through a lens that saves us from our comfort—allowing us to dig deep and stay there. 

More about this book on Google Books.

Sabrina Sarro is a social worker in the state of NY. They hold an LMSW from Columbia University and are currently pursuing an MFA from the City College of New York—CUNY. As a queer non-binary writer of color, they are most interested in investigating the intersectionalities of life and engaging in self-reflection and introspection. They are an alumnus of the LAMBDA Literary Emerging Voices for LGBTQIA* Writers Retreat, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Yale Writers’ Workshop, and many others. They have received scholarships from The Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.

Sundress Publications Seeks Editorial Interns

Editorial Internship Sundress Publications

Sundress Publications is an entirely volunteer-run 501(c)(3) nonprofit publishing collective founded in 2000 that hosts a variety of online journals and publishes chapbooks, full-length collections, and literary anthologies in both print and digital formats. Sundress also publishes the annual Best of the Net Anthology, celebrating the best work published online, runs Poets in Pajamas, an online reading series, and the Gone Dark Archives, preserving online journals that have reached the end of their run. 

The editorial internship position will run from July 1 to January 1, 2021. The editorial intern’s responsibilities can include writing press releases, composing blog posts and promotional emails, proofreading manuscripts, assembling press kits, collating editorial data, research, managing spreadsheets, and more. The intern may also be responsible for writing copy, conducting interviews with Sundress authors, and promoting our catalog of titles.

Preferred qualifications include:

  • A keen eye for proofreading
  • Strong written communication skills 
  • Familiarity with WordPress, Word, and the Google Suite
  • Ability to work under a deadline and multitask
  • Knowledge of and interest in contemporary literature a plus

This is a REMOTE internship with the team communicating primarily via email and text messages and is therefore not restricted to applicants living in any particular geographic area. Interns are asked to devote 10 hours per week to their assignments.

While this is an unpaid internship, all interns will gain real-world experience in the ins and outs of independent publishing with a nationally recognized press while creating a portfolio of work for future employment opportunities. Interns will also be able to attend all workshops at the Sundress Academy for the Arts at cost. 

We welcome, encourage, and are enthusiastic to see a diverse array of applicants in all areas including race, ethnicity, disability, gender, class, religion, education, immigration status, and more. 

To apply, please send a resume and a brief cover letter detailing your interest in the position to our Staff Director, Anna Black at by June 1, 2020. 

For more information about our work, please visit 

2020 Poetry Broadside Contest Winner Announced

Sundress Publications is thrilled to announce the results of the 2020 Poetry Broadside Contest. This year’s winner is D. M. Spratley with the poem “Each Morning an Animal.” Spratley’s poem will be letterpress-printed as an 8.5” x 11” broadside and made available for sale on our online store. Orders for our broadsides will be open later this summer.

D. M. Spratley (she/her) is a mixed-race, Black, queer, Southern poet. Her poems have appeared in POETRY, 32 Poems, Shenandoah, Drunken Boat, and the Lambda Literary Poetry Spotlight, among other journals. She has received awards from the North Carolina Arts Council, Princeton University, and Rattle. She is currently at work on a full-length poetry manuscript and a fiction project, and her micro-chapbook Some Tricks I Was Born Knowing is forthcoming from Ghost City Press in August 2020. Find her online at and on Twitter @dmsprat.

Thank you to everyone who sent us their work.
Finalists and semifinalists include:


“The Murdered Woman Visits Antarctica,” Megan Alpert
“March 2020,” Jennifer Franklin
“Love to the Ground Like Berries,” Amelia Gorman
“Eating Ortolans,” Kate Leland Henricks
“In My Mind’s Coral, Mother Still Calls Us from Inside,” Jennifer G. Lai
“The World Is Ending, Endless,” Wheeler Light
“anxiety shit,” Jasmine Lomax
“Lake House,” Rachel Marie Patterson
 “Hear Me Out,” Michele Parker Randall
“Killing Eve,” Sreshtha Sen
“This Is Not a Poem About My Mother,” Sreshtha Sen


“Letter to My Long-Distance Lover While Lying to Myself,” Caitlin Cowan
“How to Run Away,” Jesica Davis
“Harrow,” James Ducat
“Simone de Beauvoir Sends Trump a Sext,” Sandra L. Faulkner
“Ode to the Tropical Storm I Slept Through,” Brett Hanley
“All the Men Who Own My Underwear,” Kate Leland Henricks
“Anthems for Losers,” Jennifer G. Lai
“Come Clean,” Joshua Nguyen
“Dog,” Jennifer Perrine
“qarrtsiluni,” Anda Peterson
“Vital Signs,” Remi Recchia
“To the Astronomer,” Jessica Reidy
“Just a Sliver Back Then,” Annie Robertson
“Birthplace,” Amy Small-McKinney
“Eulogy for Ntozake Shange,” Cynthia Young

A 501(c)(3) non-profit literary press collective founded in 2000, Sundress Publications is an entirely volunteer-run press that publishes chapbooks and full-length collections in both print and digital formats, and hosts numerous literary journals, an online reading series, and the Best of the Net Anthology.

Sundress Reads: Review of Cradle and Grave

Despite the world’s current predicament, I’ve been reading a lot of apocalypse-themed literature. Funny enough, I am taking a class on apocalypse literature and have a newfound fascination for subgenres that exist within the genre.

Anya Ow’s Cradle and Grave is set in a post-apocalyptic future ravaged by a genetic mutation-based plague called the Change. Immediately, the premise attracted me because I have presented research on genetic fiction, taken notes on plague apocalypse, and read up on bio-punk. Cradle and Grave fits the bill for all of these sub-genres, creating an intricate narrative chalked full of engaging details. 

From the first page, the reader becomes enraptured by Dar Lien—the main character of the novella who is an experienced scout who has gone on supply runs through a dangerous, yet picturesque landscape called the Scab. She is hired to lead Yusuf and the enigmatic Servertu through the Scab for a generous sum of taels. Along the way, they encounter unpredictable creatures affected by the change, as well as facing conflicts that could alter the course of the Change.

Ow is masterful when it comes to describing the land and her unique characters. The descriptions of the Scab are hauntingly grey and bleak; it’s an atmosphere entangled with horrifying moments, yet I’m drawn in, not willing to miss a word. 

The characters keep the readers engaged every step through the Scab from bickering to proverbs that unveil more about this world devastated by mutations that technology can barely rein in from fully turning someone into their worst nightmare. 

For readers fascinated by new worlds, Cradle and Grave is full of engaging post-apocalyptic details with a fresh mix of subgenres perfectly captured in precise words.

Remember, an apocalypse does not define an end; it’s how a society begins anew to survive. Hope can ring, even at the bleakest moments. 

Cradle and Grave is available at Neon Hemlock.

Born in Singapore, Anya Ow moved to Melbourne to practice law, and now works in advertising. Her short stories have appeared in venues such as Strange Horizons, Uncanny, and Daily SF. She can be found on twitter @anyasy and otherwise at


Emma Hudson is currently a third year student at the University of Tennessee working on her double concentration BA in English: Rhetoric and Creative Writing, along with a minor in retail consumer science. She’s a busy bee; she is the Editor-in-Chief of the up-and-coming Honey Magazine. Emma is also a long-time member and leader in UTK’s Creative Writing Club and on the Executive Board for UTK’s Sigma Tau Delta, Alpha Epsilon chapter. In her free time, she figures out how to include K-Pop group BTS into her research projects and watches “reality” tv shows.

Stirring Call for Submissions

Stirring Themed Issue:
Digital Defense, Celebrating Work from 2020 graduates

Stirring: A Literary Collection is calling for submissions from the 2020 graduating class of both undergraduate and graduate student writers and visual artists.

When graduate students, and some undergraduate students, come to the conclusion of their degree pursuits, they are often asked to defend their understanding of the field and showcase their work. This comes in many forms, depending on the focus of the degree, and can be performed through a book-length dissertation, an exhibition of their creative work, an oral presentation, or even a reading of creative work.

Usually this season is a time of celebrating achievements with friends, family, peers, and mentors, but the class of 2020 has been faced with a particular challenge in the current climate of social distancing. At Stirring, we want to take the time to celebrate this work with our summer themed issue: Digital Defense.

If you are a 2020 graduate wishing to celebrate your work, please send:

Please include a bio, website link (if applicable), and the school and degree program from which you are graduating.

Deadline for submissions is June 1, 2020. Please include the words “DIGITAL DEFENSE” in the subject line of your email submission. If you would like to read full submission guidelines, visit

More info at

Interview with Chera Hammons, Author of Maps of Injury


Ahead of the release of Maps of Injury, her latest collection of poems, Chera Hammons spoke with editorial intern Kanika Lawton. Here, they discussed living with chronic illness, the relationship between memory and pain, our responsibility to each other and the creatures we share the earth with, as well as the importance of holding onto the unknown beauty of tomorrow.

Kanika Lawton: What are “maps of injury,” and what can they show us?

Chera Hammons: I hope that the poems in this collection are broad enough for readers to be reminded of and accept, in a healing way, their own versions of maps of injury, whatever they may be. But “maps of injury,” to me, are the physical, emotional, and spiritual scars that mark a body’s history, while also forming certain boundaries that had to be crossed in order for life to continue. In that way, they can show progress.

There are large chunks of my life I can’t remember because of my illness, and though I do remember some moments of intense happiness, most of what I can remember is accessible to me because it was frightening or sad enough to make an impression. I wish it weren’t that way, but I’ve read that it’s human nature; we remember the things that hurt us so that we can avoid them in the future. With the neurological issues inherent in Lyme disease, I forget a lot of information nearly as soon as I learn it. My attention span has gotten much, much shorter as time has passed. Because my memory is so bad, I sometimes can’t remember what happened at the beginning of a movie well enough to care about the end.

In “Black Horse I am Breaking,” near the end of the book, there’s a line about making each day “leave its own bruise.” I feel like the book is, in a way, an effort to remember and reclaim some of the occurrences that would usually be viewed as negative and use them, instead, as another way to mark passage. A way to keep moving ahead, to not get stuck.

KL: Maps of Injury is split into sections such as “Skin and Limb” and “Heart; Stomach.” How did you determine which poems belonged in each section?

CH: Arranging a manuscript is part of the poetry process I really enjoy. It’s sort of like a making a mixtape, but with more complexity and higher stakes. I also feel like most of my poems are stronger with their companions than they are alone.

I wanted to introduce the illness, which was the framework for the rest, early on. So I strove to put the diagnosis-type poems in the first half of the manuscript. And the second has the aftermath poems—the realizations and the consequences, and learning to live with them.

The horse poems go in chronological order, as far as the training process is concerned, ending with the horse’s first ride.

I always try to design my poetry collections to tell a story that has some kind of resolution. Some of the arrangement of the book was straightforward. For example, it’s obvious that the poem “Ribs” belongs in the section called Bone. I think anyone who looks will find clues in each poem for why it is where it is, though interested parties should know that, if a poem could fit into two sections but contributed more to the narrative arc in one section than another, that’s the one it went into.

KL: Jan Clausen writes that your words have a “faithfulness that feels devotional,” and I agree. Tell me more about your use of faith in this collection.

CH: I grew up in the thick of the Bible Belt, so of course the first thing that comes to mind with this question is the  religious faith that is alluded to in this book, especially as it shows up in poems like “Calling In,” “Bible Belt,” “Youth Group,” “Shriven,” and “New Hay.”

I don’t think Jan Clausen (who is a wonderful person and writer—everyone should read her work!) was referring to religious faith, though. I think the “faithfulness that feels devotional” is a really lovely way of saying the poems look reverently and intensely at a very few, really important things. I am devoted to certain entities—my loved ones, my home, my horses—for which I’d do just about anything. I am glad that some of what could have come across as an abundance of fervor or even obsession on the speaker’s part was viewed with kindness and understanding, more in line with the root of the devotion itself, with how I do actually want to hold what I value.

KL: Throughout these poems animals die at the hands of humans, such as the deer and rabbits struck by passing cars. How did you weave their stories into a grander narrative on mortality?

CH: No matter what sort of life a person lives, it would be impossible to live one that was either all good or all bad. We are all going to do some damage, even if it’s inadvertent. We might as well come to terms with it and try to do our best anyway. The animals are put at risk unintentionally or through carelessness, not through active malice—the rabbits hit by cars, the livestock caught in fires, the horses abandoned during the floods. And where possible, people try to save them, even if doing so risks their own lives.

The bigger context of this is that we all have a responsibility to each other in life and in death. That we are to take whatever care we can to avoid causing damage, and to mitigate it when we see it.

I will admit, too, that I find it comforting that the same thing happens to all of us. Person or animal, we all experience the same phenomenon. Let us, for that reason and many others, be merciful.

KL: How did you thread different types of tragedies together, such as the Germanwings Flight 9525 disaster? What was your composition process like?

CH: I was probably about halfway through writing the poems in the book before I realized quite what I was doing, that I was leaving markers throughout my own history based on some of the scars I had, but that I wasn’t thinking of that kind of trauma as negative, per se—It was simply a way to remember, to try to hold onto what I had experienced, and to try to plan ahead. I kept thinking, if my illness had been diagnosed earlier, who knows how my experience would have been different? Who knows what I might have been able to do? Or where I’d be? Whether I would have been happier than I am now, or perhaps not as happy?

I found that living with illness, especially early in the treatment process, made my world very small. If you’re in pain, it’s hard to focus on anything but your pain. But sometimes something would happen that cut through the fog unexpectedly, like the Germanwings disaster, and remind me that the world was bigger than what I saw around me every day. Had more people in it than those in my tiny circle. And those moments were of vital importance for so many reasons, not least because that they reminded me of the larger context of life, and both my significance and insignificance within it. How so many people are trying to help others, and so many are grieving; the comfort in knowing you aren’t the first person to arrive in a place; how important kindness is, because you never know what’s going on in another person’s life.

I was echoing my own experience through writing the wider disaster poems—the sudden and unpredictable jarring out of what I’d come to accept, like moving through trees into a clearing. They added a scope I felt was vital to what I wanted to accomplish with the book.

KL: You speak about living in a harsh environment where “everything is against us,” yet you do not leave. What does it mean to be tied to your home, even when it no longer feels like one?

CH: I’ve always had a complicated relationship with my home. I love the wide open sky, the fascinating plants and animals that have adapted to live here, the rainbow grasshoppers and pronghorns and horned lizards and yuccas. The harsh weather that scours the prairie, the way you can see for miles—I think those things give people who live in the Texas Panhandle qualities of practicality and tenacity. But I have never felt at all like I fit in here, just like I often don’t feel like I belong in my unwieldy body. I can love where I live, though, despite the imperfections. My home is what I know, what I have, and where I have invested my time and heart and energy. My relationship with it is as alive as my relationships with people I hold dear. If I wouldn’t abandon a person or an animal that I love, why would I abandon a place? There’s a Cavafy poem I’ve always appreciated called “The City” that says, “You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore. / This city will always pursue you.” This place will always be with me; I can’t change that.

Who’s to say I would feel at home anywhere, if not here? Doesn’t this place need people who care about it? In the words of the wise poet Maggie Smith, “[We] could make this place beautiful.”

KL: Can you speak about the horses that populate this book, especially the black colt?

CH: When I realized I was seriously ill, but I didn’t know the reason, I began to mark things off my “bucket list.” Besides writing a novel, riding a Friesian (those big black horses with feathered legs one always sees in movies), and holding a falcon, I had always wanted to break my own horse to ride. The kind local people who let me ride their Friesian mare also raised registered Tennessee Walking Horses. One of the horses I lingered over was a beautiful solid black yearling colt with an Alaska-shaped star and a forelock floating like a storm cloud above his eyes. He was sweet tempered and beautiful. I had always wanted a horse like him. When they said they were only asking a few hundred dollars for him, I nearly fainted. I had a decently paying job at the time, and though I was worried about being able to keep it, a few hundred dollars was something I could handle just then. I rode the colt’s sire before I bought the colt and as I felt his canter sweep underneath me I thought, If that colt turns out anything like this horse, he’ll be the nicest horse I’ve ever had.

I named the colt Rocket because he had a habit of launching himself straight into the air when he was playing. I spent every spare moment with him and was so careful with how I handled him. He had never been afraid of people and I never wanted him to learn that kind of fear. I wanted him to be my riding horse for a long, long time— however long I had, at least. But something always bothered me, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I’d stay up for hours every night worrying about him in the dark pasture outside. The first thing I did every morning was check on him and make sure he was okay.

As training progressed, our relationship grew into one where we could have conversations. And I could tell Rocket to do something (“Go over there and pick up that tarp!”) and he’d do it, even though I had never taught him to do it. It was uncanny. I knew without a doubt that that he loved me.

I began riding him at two and a half and the breaking process, though I was nervous about it, was uneventful. He was one of those horses cowboys say are “born broke.” I only rode him for 10 or 15 minutes at a time at a walk, partly because that was all I could handle myself, and I didn’t want to push him, anyway. But even though he was wonderfully gentle, he felt so unsteady. Ever since I’d gotten him, I’d stand at the windows and watch him playing in the pasture and often saw him fall. He’d get right back up, but I was uneasy. He began to toss his head under saddle or to balk when I asked him to walk out. I knew he was a willing horse, so I never thought it was a behavioral issue. Something had to be wrong.

I had a chiropractor look at him and she said he had bone calcification in one shoulder and marked it as a grade one lameness. He had no back soreness, only soreness in his hips. “What would cause that?” I asked. “Learning to collect. Learning to carry himself,” she told me.

The taller Rocket got, the worse his symptoms got. At three, we started gaiting under saddle, and it was glorious. He gaited just like his sire. He was silky smooth and actually easy for me to ride. But he also started to tell me “no” when I asked him to do things. And there was obvious weakness in his back end. Sometimes his fetlock would knuckle under; it felt like he had stepped in a hole.

I had lots of people out to look at him, including his breeder, and everyone told me that it was just young horse weakness, young horse lack of balance—he’d grow out of it. I quit riding him until I could figure out what was going on. This was sad for us both; he loved working, and he got depressed when we stopped. But I didn’t want to work him if he was in pain.

Eventually a veterinarian came out and did a neurological exam based on a video I had sent. We ruled out EPM and eventually realized what he had must be mild Wobblers Syndrome, a calcification of the spine that causes pressure on the spinal column. He had been falling because he couldn’t feel his legs, and the taller he grew, the more pressure was placed on the spinal column. Geldings are predisposed to it, as are Tennessee Walkers, and horses with long necks, and horses with line breeding. He had all the risk factors; he never had a chance. The surgery would cost about what a new car would have and only provided a 50% chance of recovery, so it was out of the question. Rocket wasn’t generally in pain, though he was uncomfortable carrying weight, and he wouldn’t ever be safe to ride because he could fall on his rider.

My parents, who live a few miles south of me and have a soft, grassy, flat pasture (as opposed to our rocky, hilly one) agreed to take him in for me because I was worried about him hurting himself on the rocks at our place. We ended up having to lift his legs into the trailer with our hands and with ropes because he couldn’t judge how high to step up into it. He was patient and good, as he always had been. We took his best donkey friend to my parents’ with him so that he would have company. He and the donkey are both alive and well, though I haven’t gotten to see them much the last few months—I often feel too overwhelmed to make it there.

I can’t read that poem—the “Black Horse I am Breaking” poem—out loud because I wrote it after our first ride, it has such hope in it, and I know how it turned out. But that doesn’t invalidate the poem. You never know exactly what is going to happen when you try something new, something that matters to you. Everything has a risk attached to it. That something might fail is no reason not to try it. I would take this journey with Rocket again in a second. My time with him as my riding partner was brief but golden, made me feel more capable and less alone than I was used to feeling. He taught me some of the skills I’ll need again when I start breaking my formerly wild mustang mare to ride—she is a lovely creature, but unusually smart, sassy, bossy, and far less patient than Rocket was.

KL: Does your work reflect an attempt to hold onto hope in the face of uncertainty and pain?

CH: Oh, yes. I wrote the majority of this book frantically. I was having a lot of cardiac issues and didn’t know why, at first; I really believed I wouldn’t live to finish writing it. Besides that, my ability to think and make connections became less and less reliable. I remember telling one of my previous doctors, who kept telling me that the cause of my symptoms was depression, that I couldn’t think anymore, and the panic I felt when he laughed at me for saying that, as if it were a joke. As if it were normal. It was terrifying. I couldn’t orient myself to anything around me. When the brain fog eased occasionally for an hour or two I had to write as much as I could as quickly as I could, because I never knew when I’d be able to do so again.

Eventually I found out what was wrong and had to start living with the diagnosis, understanding what it meant. Some of the things in my past began to make sense. I had been sick for a long time, nearly as long as I could remember, but I had reached a point where I just couldn’t keep going anymore. My whole world seemed like it had fallen down around me, and I felt like I couldn’t control anything, that I was a burden to those I loved. I had to quit my job as a college instructor, which I had worked towards for a long time after years working in IT and accounting jobs, because I stopped being able to drive, and I was so exhausted, I couldn’t remember what I had said in class, or who people were, or even where I lived. I realized how bad it had gotten one day when I got home and passed out in my car in the garage. My husband Daniel found me when he came home. I couldn’t explain why I was there; I had just been so tired. Fortunately I had turned off the car before falling asleep. I didn’t remember it. Every day became such a struggle that, for a long time, I had to consciously find reasons to keep going. I kept a list of them. For a time, that list was only my husband, my parents, and my horses, and sometimes I still felt very distant from them.

I wrote this book for several reasons. The first couple are selfish ones, and they are:1. I write in order to understand my world and what happens in it. To process it. So writing helped me to understand what was happening; and 2. I didn’t trust my brain to keep holding memories or impressions, and I wanted to get some of them on paper. As I got a bit into it and found out that individual poems were being used by doctors in the Mayo Clinic and at medical school residences, I realized that the book could help other people going through the same thing I was to feel less alone, because illness can be so isolating. But really there are many of us, and our lives are meaningful and valuable, even if we have to step back for a while and take a breath. I also hoped it would build some understanding for people with illness like this by showing, albeit in a small, personal way, what living with illness is like.

I think sometimes of how often I have wanted to quit, how hard I have held onto what I could without sometimes even knowing why, and why I’m glad I am here. Beautiful unforeseeable things happen every day. I think that this struggle is one worth enduring.

KL: What do you mean by “let the dangerous world in,” and how can we do that?

CH: About a million things come to mind, but I think, for me, it means—Don’t disappear. Try to take up the right amount of space—neither too much nor too little. The right amount. Love fiercely, without holding back.

Pre-order Maps of Injury today.


Chera Hammons is West Texas A&M University’s Writer-in-Residence. Her work appears or is forthcoming in publications such as Beloit Poetry Journal, Foundry, The Penn Review, Ruminate, The Sun, The Texas Observer, and Tupelo Quarterly. She is a winner of the PEN Southwest Book Award. Maps of Injury is her fourth book of poetry. A novel is forthcoming through Torrey House Press.


Kanika Lawton holds a BA in Psychology with a Minor in Film Studies from the University of British Columbia and an MA from the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute. She is the Editor-In-Chief of L’Éphémère Review, a 2018 Pink Door Fellow, and a 2020 BOAAT Writer’s Retreat Poetry Fellow. Her work has appeared in Ricepaper Magazine, Vagabond City Literary Journal, Glass Poetry, and Cosmonauts Avenue, among others.

Project Bookshelf: Kanika Lawton

When my parents moved from Vancouver, Canada to Washington last year, they asked for my help because, in their words, “You’re good at organizing and getting rid of stuff.” It’s true, except it only really applies to clothes; fashion comes and goes, and I don’t fit into a lot of my older clothes now, so I don’t feel a sentimental attachment to them.

I can’t say the same about books. Books helped me get through large parts of my childhood and teenage years, so the thought of letting go of any of them is unthinkable. So much of my life and memories are stitched within their pages, so getting rid of them feels like getting rid of parts of myself.

I’m good at organizing until it comes to my books, which you can see in my little bookshelf in my apartment in Toronto. I moved to Toronto in the summer of 2018 for grad school, studying and teaching cinema studies at the University of Toronto.

A lot of the books here are tied directly to my degree: on one shelf you’ll see books on film criticism and theory, peer-reviewed film journals, Film Art: An Introduction, a textbook I used as an undergrad (my edition has Inglourious Basterds on the cover), an encyclopedia of essential films, and so on. Cinema studies owes a lot to philosophy, so I also have books from Deleuze, Irigaray, Derrida, and Foucault (shout out to one of my friends who helped me complete my collection of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, which brings me to another thing; I have to make sure any books I get in a series match one another!).

Even though a lot of my books here are academic because, well, I moved to Toronto for academics, I also managed to grow my fiction and poetry collections. One thing I love about Toronto is how many used bookstores there are. I can usually be found wandering around BMV Books near campus, leafing through their huge selection of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction books. This is where I was introduced to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (one of my favorite collections of poetry) and Ursula K. Le Guin’s essays on utopia. Also, since I practically lived in the library while writing my master’s thesis, I took advantage of the library’s numerous used book sales, which is how I got my biographies on the Borgias and Lord Byron. I group anything that isn’t strictly academic together, so this shelf has a nice mix of poetry and short story collections, graphic novels, anthologies, and fiction.

This bookshelf isn’t nearly as big as the one I had in our old house, so I started playing Tetris with my books. You can see them piling on top of one another, and I have stacks of books strewn all around my bedroom. Still, I love growing my own personal library, especially since I can trace who I was through their cherished pages.

This bookshelf holds just a fraction of my collection. I’m currently in our new house in Olympia, Washington, my childhood favorites pushed up against my bedroom walls. I’ve started sorting through the boxes and boxes of books the movers packed for us, reminiscing on how much they impacted me. How many times did I reread Master and Margarita to the point where the spine is falling apart? How many summer days did I spend nose-deep in one of my favorite encyclopedias, absorbing information? (Yes, I collected encyclopedias and books of lists as a child). Just the other day we bought new bookshelves, which will inevitably house the books I’m currently surrounded by. Even so, I can’t help but feel a surge of nostalgic contentment whenever I turn the pages of the books I spent so much of my time with. I can’t part with such memories, especially when I can pick them up whenever I want.

Kanika Lawton holds a BA in Psychology with a Minor in Film Studies from the University of British Columbia and an MA from the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute. She is the Editor-In-Chief of L’Éphémère Review, a 2018 Pink Door Fellow, and a 2020 BOAAT Writer’s Retreat Poetry Fellow. Her work has appeared in Ricepaper MagazineVagabond City Literary JournalGlass Poetry, and Cosmonauts Avenue, among others. 

Lyric Essentials: Lucian Mattison Reads Juan Gelman


Thank you for joining us at Lyric Essentials! This week, poet and translator Lucian Mattison reads for us Juan Gelman as he discusses history within Argentinian poetry and the bridge that connects people through poetry translation. Thanks for reading!

Erica Hoffmeister: What is your relationship with Juan Gelman’s work? Has his work influenced your own writing at all?


Lucian Mattison: Although Gelman is a heavyweight back in Argentina, I am quite new to his work. I started off with this book Unthinkable Tenderness because it highlights different time periods in his life in its different sections. In this format, you see his writing actively moving with him and grappling with his being exiled from the country and his son becoming one of the desaparecidos, the victims who were “disappeared” by the anti-communist, military government of the time. My mother grew up in Argentina during the same time and told me stories about living during a time where at any point, one could be snatched from their home if they were seen as sympathetic to radical opposition groups like The Montoneros. The book provides me with another poetic lens through which to view these same kinds of stories which I have always heard about through anecdotes and depictions in movies. As he is a newer addition to my library, I cannot say where [his influence is] exactly just yet. But I can, without a doubt, say he has and is currently doing so.

Lucian Mattison reads “VIII” by Juan Gelman

EH: Of all of Gelman’s collections, why did you choose to read these two poems, both from Unthinkable Tenderness?

LM: I chose to read these two poems because they both deal with the feeling of being exiled in spirit. Gelman wrote these poems between 1974-1980, as he was being chased out of Buenos Aires and finding refuge in Rome. Not being able to go back to his motherland and see his family and children, he worried constantly for their safety, and rightfully so. His son and wife were disappeared in 1976. While other poems directly reference the heartbreak and acidity related to the family tragedy, these two poems bookend the tragedy. The first poem represents a time while there was a certain romance to the persecution, which he defies with the persistence of love and beauty. The later poem comes from a time where he identifies with the deferred dream of an immigrant, where his heart is both displaced and without any place to return. I chose these poems because they are both insistent in their repetition, but come from two very different places, both physically and emotionally.

Lucian Mattison reads “What They Don’t Know” by Juan Gelman

EH: How does your role as a translator and role as a poet work together?

LM: I have been translating poetry from Spanish to English only since 2016, but I’ve been translating my whole life having grown up in bilingual household. In the small amount of time that I’ve been translating poetry, it became much clearer to me just how much Spanish influences my relationship to sound and sentence structure in English. Just like any poet, I defer to sound in a way that is specific to my experience of my languages. The simple fact is, my brand of Spanish is different from the rest of South America’s and, as a result, I relate differently to the world because I’ve been describing it with those terms for as long as I can remember. As a translator, the hardest work is preserving some of the emotional/experiential context inside a voice while working to keep it in line with contemporary English poetics. Being a poet who writes in English, I feel like it is my duty to use my experience in English poetry and craft, and my emotional relationship to my mother language to find an acceptable form for a translated work. I do it because it is important to hear the voices of our contemporaries across the globe and I am lucky enough to be able to build bridges like these.

EH: Are there any creative projects you are working on right now that you’d like to tell us about?

LM: Yes! I am currently looking for a publisher for a translation of Diego Alfaro Palma’s 2015 Santiago Literary Prize-winning collection of poetry, Tordo, published in Buenos Aires in 2016. This is his second collection of original poetry and the first translation of one of his books into English. As far as my own work, I am sending out my third collection of poems titled “Curare” for consideration at publishing houses. I am also writing a novellette that I hope to finish by the end of the year and, as always, I’m writing short stories.

Juan Gelman is an Argentinian poet, translator, journalist, and political activist who lived from 1930 to 2014, spending the last half of his life in political exile. Publishing over twenty books of poetry in his lifetime, he has earned several awards and accolades, including the 1997 Argentine Poetry Prize and the 2007 Cervantes Prize. Gelman is also a widely celebrated political journalist and human rights activist. Upon his death in Mexico City at age 83, Argentina’s president declared three days of national mourning.

Further reading:

Purchase Unthinkable Tenderness by Juan Gelman.
Read this piece on the life of Juan Gelman by Caroline Brothers.
Learn more about translation and Gelman’s poetry specifically at Reading in Translation.

Lucian Mattison is an U.S.-Argentinian poet and translator and author of two books of poetry, Reaper’s Milonga (YesYes Books, 2018) and Peregrine Nation (Dynamo Verlag, 2017), winner of the 2014 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize. He is currently based out of Washington, DC, where he is an associate editor of poetry for Barrelhouse. He won the Puerto Del Sol Poetry Prize and has poetry, short fiction, and translations that appear in numerous journals including CutBank, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hobart, The Offing, Sixth Finch, Third Coast, and have been featured on

Further reading:

Learn more about Lucian at his personal website.
Buy Lucian’s most recent poetry collection Reaper’s Milonga from YesYes Books.
Read the announcement naming Mattison the recipient of the 2014 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at

Sundress Reads: Review of Savage Pageant

How do you trace the genealogy—let alone the geography—of a place that no longer exists? In Jessica Q. Stark’s sharp and subversive new collection Savage Pageant (Birds LLC, 2020), her poems, accounts, and sketches simultaneously collapse and expand what we mean when we speak about the archive—of living things, places, and collective and private histories, as well as the traces and ghosts that haunt the spaces we move through. Here, narratives fold onto themselves, histories repeat, and points-of-view shift dizzily around us, affecting how we remember the past and move into unstable futures. The success of this collection hinges on its refusal of categorization: part-archive, part-history, part-memoir, Stark paints a startling portrait of American spectacle, celebrity culture, collective pain, and unwritten narratives. It’s unlike any collection you will ever come across, which makes it all the better. Through her strange yet oddly comforting poems, Stark speaks to the unspoken spaces between us, of “the body on display: / a public domain of choices made,” while guiding us through the unwritten, unheard, and unremembered parts of our histories. The traces of this book will stay with you long after you close its pages. In her hands, we arrive transformed.

Savage Pageant recounts the strange history of the defunct Jungleland, a private zoo in Thousand Oaks, California that housed Hollywood’s show animals and marketed itself as “a kind of Disneyland with Live Animals.” Bankruptcy, runaway animals, and tragedy followed the zoo from its beginnings as a family home in the mid-1800s to its financial collapse in 1969, where more than 1,800 of its animals sold at auction. Rather than walk us through a straightforward retelling of Jungleland’s rise and fall, Starks slips across its historical lines, adding her unwavering voice to the anonymous mass that has built a collective archive to its memory, leaking with communal sentimentality. 

In “Trace Leakage: Jungleland,” anonymous commentators across time and place congregate, sharing personal memories of this bizarre monument to America’s reverie for exotic animals and spectacle. It is fitting, then, that these archival traces are archived themselves, each misspelling and retraction and “wait, does anyone else remember this?” serving as an alternative form of history-making, of history-making as history-remembering, looped within a network of knowledge that relies on everything that came before and after it. “The imagination is ceaselessly imagining and enriching itself with new images” so, eventually, we will begin where we once ended. Stark’s assured words moves through histories, speaking to the cycles we find ourselves in. Each Act in Savage Pageant begins with an epigraph from Society of the Spectacle (La société du spectacle) by Guy Debord, framing our incoming knowledge within the spectacle of spectacle-making. Afterwards, a sketch of Jungleland’s history—Leo the MGM Lion roaring for the cameras, a lion trainer, a woman riding an elephant, American flag in hand—before we come across aerial maps of where Jungleland once stood; clues to where its specters still roam.

Then, a series of genealogies: “Jungleland: A Genealogy, 1803-1915,” “Jungleland: A Genealogy: 1956-1969.” Here, Stark cuts into the archives, makes space “to remember what was never written.” Louis Goebel’s drive to make sure Hollywood productions use his exotic animals transforms him into “the spiraled being, who, from outside, appears to be a well-invested center, will never reach his center.” Zoltan Hargitay, Jayne Mansfield’s son who was mauled by a lion becomes a game of telephone, blame bouncing off of him, his mother, the lion, its cage, its lack of care, celebrity worship, Jungleland, Jungleland’s ability to exist only in America, only in this moment of history. “At times when we believe we are studying something, we are only being receptive to a kind of day-dreaming,” a collective unconsciousness, “of constructing the house, in the very pains we take to keep it alive, to give it all its essential clarity” even if we do not yet know how to construct it or remember its history the right way—written out, slotted in place, tucked away.

“Call it mania for a collective / breakdown a stress response against a line of history / that speeds fast like red metal towards dense fog,” Stark writes on the phenomenon of conversion disorders, mass psychogenic illness, the dumping of nuclear waste in the Burn Pits, psychological conflict taking its pains out on the body. She dedicates “Mass Psychogenic Illness” “for the archive,” for where else could you place the laughter of dozens of schoolgirls during the 1962 Tanganyika laughing epidemic except shut away in the annals? “…but here is the affliction / from stories better left unsaid: / the spectacle in the archive of harm” or, as Debord puts it in the epigraph that precedes Act I, “the spectacle’s essential character reveals it to be a visible negation of life—a negation that has taken on a visible form.” What Stark has achieved with Savage Pageant is an astute reimagining of the archive and the spectacle folded around it; if history is the practice of looking, then Stark has turned our eyes elsewhere, towards new possibilities and ways of knowing, where “now we are carving mythology out of unremembered time.”

Savage Pageant is available through Birds, LLC.

Kanika Lawton holds a BA in Psychology with a Minor in Film Studies from the University of British Columbia and an MA from the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute. She is the Editor-In-Chief of L’Éphémère Review, a 2018 Pink Door Fellow, and a 2020 BOAAT Writer’s Retreat Poetry Fellow. Her work has appeared in Ricepaper Magazine, Vagabond City Literary Journal, Glass Poetry, and Cosmonauts Avenue, among others.