Sundress Reads: Review of The Temple

Michael Bazzett’s The Temple (Bull City Press, 2020) invites readers to enter a realm where the stone is rolled away, revealing a space for musings, mystery, curiosity, and the type of humor that feels wise and natural. Bazzett effortlessly grapples with the bewilderment that the body has in a world where very few things are certain, and everything is waiting.

In a collection of 20 short poems, The Temple introduces a God who is equipped with dark humor, a nonchalant attitude, and even a cigar. Made up of two parts, the collection explores the stance I imagine many people come across with the topic of faith: how it sways from strong truth to a subtle wondering to, sometimes, disbelief. I imagine the speaker of these poems has walked a beach and searched for a set of footprints but instead saw only the crest of a swell wash them away. With this use of imagery and language, it’s no wonder American poet Maggie Smith says of the book, “Of poets writing today, I can’t think of any whose metaphors are more satisfying than Michael Bazzett—and The Temple is his best work yet.”

Belief is the heart of the collection and appears in the poem it’s named after, but these poems are accessible to anyone—including those without a background in religion. Pondering belief and meaning—the same unknowns that make us all human—its concerns surround the actual body we possess and the places we take them and leave them, momentarily, curious about what any of it will result in or for what purpose.

These poems are part confessional, part dramatic monologue, part history, part cryptid tale bestowed from a place of wisdom, all making the collection strange and inspiring. The musicality of the pieces flow and spill over the page and onto the lap of the reader. Here, anything is possible: an empty city living inside the body, a dog writing poetry, a blue-toothed woman, miracles. The narratives in these poems are so evocative you could reach out and touch them, or mistake the voices for someone you know intimately well, forcing both reader and poem to sit together in grief, a desperate longing, or casual conversation. Here, a God eats old candy and compares it to tinfoil, “All that aching naked hope.”

The poem “My Body Tells Me What To Do” spits the reader into the thickness of vulnerable honesty with the lines “There is still a meaty part of me / that yearns to rest / in dirt and grow soft as a mashed root.” The piece then wanders into the ponderings of turning to ash, going under the ground, and the eventual and unavoidable concept of nothingness. “The Ones Who Aren’t Mentioned” introduces characters like the dog of a serial killer, a small mouse witnessing a city burn, and a God with a reluctance to self-identify, ending on the lines “Imagine laying down / a rusty knife and calling it love.”

Many of the poems include running titles that lead into the first line, yet each piece in this book feels as if you are at a sermon rediscovering your deepest self, your soul split open to the will of the words, imagery, and rhythm. Bazzett begins The Temple with a poem titled “The End,” which is a giveaway for how topsy turvy the world is within this surreal collection. The Temple symbolizes all the things people often worship, whether it be religion, a God, a body, or a place. The title of the collection couldn’t be more fitting, with Bazzett acting as its interpreter. The complexity of this writing is wrapped up in such a brief collection gracefully, with the ending poem “The Follower” encountering a run in with an older version of the self but choosing to watch them disappear. This ending ultimately leaves the reader with a different version of themselves prior to reading it, as we sit with our body, reflecting on the exquisite peculiarities in our own lives we choose to worship or believe in. Reading this book will encourage you to reflect on what resigns within your own temple.

The Temple is available at Bull City Press

Ryleigh Wann (she/her/hers) is an MFA poetry candidate at UNC Wilmington. Her past experiences include reading poetry for Ecotone, editing with Lookout Books, teaching creative writing, and working for the Parks and Recreation Department in Michigan. Her writing can be found in Rejection Letters, Flypaper Lit, and Kissing Dynamite Poetry, among others.

Project Bookshelf: Saoirse

Three wooden bookshelves side by side against a white wall. They are completely filled with book and have built 3D puzzled on top of them.
The bookshelf I shared with my parents

I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of building collections recently. As much as I love to see a cupboard (or an apartment or a house or a life) full of books, an empty bookshelf holds such wonderful possibilities. I’ve never had to build (read: populate) a bookshelf from scratch until this last year. As a child, I first began reading by dipping into my parents’ books—with or without their permission—and adding my own to their collection. I wasn’t allowed to read any books my parents wouldn’t read themselves. Our books were shared and thus, so were our tastes in reading material.

So many people talk of finding their voice at college but I found my ears. Finally, the chance to have a bookshelf of my own helped me develop a reading sensibility informed by my own identity, experiences, and preferences. Between readings at the Rose O’Neill Literary House, visits to the Dodge Poetry Festival, and research trips to New York, East Anglia, and Havana, I picked up an extensive collection of books that could serve as an introduction to me on its own.

Multiple large stacks of books on a desk.
Some of the books I left in storage

Until May 2020, when I received a call from the Indian Embassy. They said they would be airlifting me from the States back to India. My flight was to take off in five days. My first thought: what am I going to do with my extensive book collection? So, I painstakingly chose a handful of books to bring with me that have since created the foundations of my current bookshelf. (The rest are safe in storage, don’t worry).

A book (A Brief History of Fruit by Kimberly Quiogue Andrews) on a desk with an apple and a small bottle of orange juice next to it.
A quarantine breakfast

The first three books I chose because of my admiration of both the contents and its creators: A Brief History of Fruit by the inimitable Kimberly Quiogue Andrews, The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin and translated by the inspirational Anton Hur, and finally, Bla_k by no other than M. Nourbese Philip. A book of poetry, a translated novel, and a collection of nonfiction. I was clearly working hard to curate as varied a list of texts as possible written/translated/created by folks of extraordinary character.

If there is one thing I can confidently say about my current book collection (other than its diminutive size), is that it continues to speak to my identity and current lived reality. I read books almost immediately after acquiring them, and thus, my book purchases reflect my priorities. Given the socio-political realities of the pandemic in India and the world writ large, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents have become Afrofuturist necessities. So has Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, trans. Stephen Snyder. I have also taken to engaging with my books on a more involved level by writing them out longhand so you will find a stack of notebooks containing (part of) Toni Morrison’s Beloved written in my hand on the bottom shelf. A benefit of repatriation: my shelves now also hold classic books from my homeland that are hard to find in the US, like फ़ैज़ अहमद “फ़ैज़” जी की मेरे दिल मेरे मुसाफ़िर (My Heart, My Traveller by Faiz Ahmed Faiz).

I must admit, I am cautiously enjoying this short liminal period of having a half-empty bookshelf. It’s so full of possibilities and wonder. Every so often, I feel a jab of resentment or irritation, finding myself wishing I’d packed a specific book or wishing I hadn’t had to leave my life behind. The thrill of curating a new collection tempers the loss of the old but it never truly resolves it. Someday, I will open those boxes again and perhaps rediscover a younger version of myself in those pages. Perhaps even combine these collections despite the Pacific Ocean in the way. Until then, on to the next one!

a brown femme person sits at a table. They have a drink in their hand and a tattoo on their wrist. They are wearing spectacles. They have shoulder length black hair.

Saoirse‘s name and passion are the same: freedom. As an exophonic writer, their academic interests revolve around linguistic power dynamics, especially in connection to the land. They are always trying to write, and find, poetry that breaks the English language into articulating its own colonial violence. They are a freelance editor and serve as the Guest Editor for Emerging Voices in Poetry at Oyster River Pages. They are a 2021 Brooklyn Poets Fellow and a finalist for the Sophie Kerr Prize. They find excitement in travel, comfort in a good cup of coffee, and love in their newly adopted puppy, Malaika. Find them at or on Twitter @saoirseedits.

Sundress Reads: Review of Tell Me How You Got Here

Emily Franklin’s Tell Me How You Got Here (Terrapin Books, 2021) is a well-crafted, deep dive into the human experience and the bounds of time. The storytelling of this poetry collection is fragmented like a kaleidoscope of disordered vignettes; reflective of life’s absurdity and the feelings that come with digging up the past. The collection begins in the middle of a memory, the retelling of it implicated by the knowledge and feelings of Franklin’s present. 

The opening poem recalls a beautiful and emotionally charged experience, characterized by Franklin’s grief. She captures her heart-wrenching need to keep these memories alive when she says, “This is what we need: take only / what your hands can keep. Maybe that / is pain’s definition: Only one person / retaining memory for two.” As she takes on the burden of remembering, she uncovers the deep-set roots of grief and time within her own life. Suddenly, Franklin’s past is filled with lessons in mourning that sometimes foreshadow the things that later go wrong in her life. Further into the collection, in “Morning in Ushuaia (After the Court Hearings),” she asks, “How much of my current, earthbound self is built on earlier disasters?” Franklin continues to ask her past self similar questions throughout the book, knowing only her future self has the answers.

This concept of multiple selves continues to appear throughout Tell Me How You Got Here, where each version of herself, or each version of her loved ones, is defined by time. In another poem, Franklin writes “Standing in the kitchen I’m with my mother and all / of her former selves I will never meet at the cocktail party / of photo boxes unearthed in the basement”. Here, each self represents the stories and memories that she can never fully grasp, preventing her from knowing her mother deeply. 

In the same poem, she says, “We are all in some kitchen somewhere / missing our mothers—the one we had or wished we had / plus all our selves. Can we all fit at the table, fit our faces around / the stovetop to taste a simmering sauce? Having arrived too late, / daughters will never know all the selves of their mothers, but mothers know / us.” This is one of the poems that really moved me. Becoming a mother opens up a whole new understanding of what the role entails. As Franklin looks back, she recognizes how much she changed in the face of motherhood. Just as Franklin cannot truly know all her mother’s past selves, she realizes her own children will experience this unknowing with her. Tell Me How You Got Here is painfully and beautifully existential in its exploration of loss, time, and identity.

At the forefront of Franklin’s storytelling are her relationships with her loved ones. She reflects on a different kind of loss as she thinks of her own children and how they will not stop getting older. In “Biking to Uncle Teddy’s Farm So Late in June It Feels Like July”, a poem about a morning spent with her son, she writes: “It will have to be enough, this morning, / just knowing whatever it is / in front of me.” Throughout the piece, she paints their morning with beautiful imagery while also experiencing small flashbacks to other points of her son’s life when he was even younger. She writes “I want always to be here”, “And I memorize you— / it’s not enough.” So many more moving quotes from this poem captures the familiar notion of kids growing up too fast. 

Franklin grasps at the memories and time she has with her children in an attempt to immortalize their youth. In other poems, Franklin mourns the ways her children’s lives could have been different, with less suffering. The lines “and I am on the porch, re-re-renacting / how I save you this time” are a declaration of Franklin’s pain in watching her son struggle in the aftermath of a traumatic experience. The heartbreaking poem illustrates how parents do what they can to protect their children yet still come out powerless. Here, Franklin’s sorrow lies with her son and how she wishes she could have done more, to have known what her future self knew to protect him.

Her battle against time continues as Franklin revisits seemingly mundane moments of life, now treasured as the experiences she wishes to relive the most. For instance, “In Praise” is an ode to the nostril and the ability to smell. This poem cherishes and appreciates the ways memories take up space in our brains, even as smells that remind us of things we love. Many similar poems appear throughout the collection as Franklin depicts the weight of grief in its many forms using descriptive imagery, extended metaphors, and scientific references. 

How much have you forgotten? How much do we truly know of each other? What stories will no longer live because they no longer live through you? Franklin tackles these existential questions and more. The need to be remembered, to leave something behind, to exist beyond death, to keep loved ones alive through memory; Tell Me How You Got Here encompasses all of these aspects of mourning in a profound and thought-provoking way. This collection was a heavy, but welcome read and I know that these are poems I will return to time and time again.

Tell Me How You Got Here is available at Terrapin Books

Iqra Abid (she/her) is a young, Pakistani, Muslim writer based in Canada. She is currently a student at McMaster University studying Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour. She is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Kiwi Collective Magazine. Her work can be found in various publications such as Stone Fruit Magazine, Tiny Spoon Lit Magazine, Scorpion Magazine, and more.

Sundress Reads: A Review of Nesting Habits of Flightless Birds

Chris Haven’s debut story collection, Nesting Habits of Flightless Birds (Tailwinds Press, 2020), pulls no punches. Out of seventeen stories that span the course of 192 pages, I’ve underlined something (or, more often, many somethings) in every story. Fourteen of them have earned “!!” in the margins, and six have proper, illegible notes excitedly scrawled onto them in hopes that I’ll manage to hold onto it all. My copy is, after just one read, earmarked and annotated to an extent such that I won’t be able to lend it to a friend; the mark, for me, of an arresting title. Time and again, Nesting Habits of Flightless Birds delivers blows, straight to the chin and the eye and the gut. 

The relatively simple and matter-of-fact tone of Haven’s prose throughout feels both at odds and in easy rhythm with the collection’s quieter undertones—ones that invoke a sense, despite its consistent grounding in the mundane and everyday, of something odd and deep and just a little bit, beautifully, off. Haven reminds us in every story that there’s always something else, something more to every situation—something that’s everything-but-simple. A sprawling portrait of the “defiantly mundane” bits of life, the collection serves to remind us that things are never only as they seem—we just have to look, and Haven looks so well. 

At every beat, Nesting Habits of Flightless Birds looks discomfort quietly, indignantly in the face. The weird neighbor we wish would move away, the greasy salesman who’s maybe an okay guy but still, the moths the size of bats. The sorts of things we purposefully look away from in our everyday lives are at the forefront of Haven’s stories, and we’re made to look them in the face, decide what they mean to us, decide why. While I’m not sure the mechanics of it all, just how Haven manages to pull his stories in this way, his willingness and determination for dealing in the uncomfortable leaves readers feeling uprooted in violent and utterly refreshing ways. “‘Don’t worry, child,’” Haven writes, in his opening story. “‘We don’t choose what haunts us.’” At times, though, I feel like Haven has an eerily good handle on choosing what will haunt his readers. 

In thinking it through, I found myself fighting the urge to regard the collection as being pocked with elements of magical realism, because I know it’s not strictly true. It is true, however, that Haven manages to look at the world and even its simplest moments with a lens that sees through the easy parts, through the attitudes and views with which we tend to move through our everyday, non-literary lives. In this, Haven betrays a sort of magic that, as he points us toward so adeptly, exists below the surface. 

The collection debuted mid-pandemic, and there’s a bit of contextual irony at play in this fact that adds to these stories’ weight in the end. In a time and a year and a world where nothing is usual, Haven’s stories look at life’s usual moments—and remind us that nothing is usual there, either. In “Moths,” a story that comes at the middle of the collection, our narrator thinks, “And I’d done it, I’d made it happen, something strange and wonderful. . ..” Haven’s done it, too. 

Kathryn Davis is a writer and editor from Michigan, as well as one of two current Sundress Academy for the Arts interns. She graduated in 2018 from Grand Valley State University, where she studied Creative Writing with an emphasis in Fiction, and served as editor-in-chief of the university’s literary journal, fishladder. She enjoys photography, her cats, and her dog (who might as well be a cat). You can follow her on Twitter at @kathrvndavis.

Meet Our New Intern: Ryleigh Wann

I’ve always been a storyteller. As a child, I wrote my first poem about the changing leaves in Michigan autumns. I would spend my afternoons writing and illustrating stories, complete with hole punches on the side and glittery ribbon intertwined to bind them. I would write newsletters for my small family and write descriptive menus for Thanksgiving dinners. In high school, I took my first creative writing workshop and the teacher told me my writing was too sad, which should have been my first instinct that I would eventually become a poet. 

I went to the University of Toledo and was planning on getting a degree in Adolescent/Young Adult Education with a concentration in Language Arts. I worked multiple jobs, including bartending at the local zoo, being a poll worker around election time, a librarian on campus, and as a counselor for a kids camp with the Michigan Parks and Recreation Department. I was always chatty in the workplace and thrived on communication and getting to know the stories of the people around me. When I took my first workshop my sophomore year, the professor told me I had a talent and should keep taking workshops. It wasn’t long after that I switched majors to Creative Writing and began learning about the publishing industry and modern poets. In college, I took a book building class with my mentor, and printed 75 copies of a poet’s manuscript on a Vandercook SP15 Press. I printed the poems on Mohawk Superfine paper and saddle stitched every copy. I didn’t realize MFA programs even existed until my mentor suggested I apply to them. I knew I had an interest in learning more about publishing and book building while also focusing my attention on my manuscript, which made UNC Wilmington one of my top choices.

My MFA has given me ample time to write my manuscript and multiple opportunities to learn about publishing. I have read poetry for Ecotone, interned with Lookout Books, and edited with Chautauqua. These experiences opened a door for me to see the surface of the publishing world and I’m so excited to be here with Sundress, a nonprofit whose mission I have such respect for. My personal stakes in working in publishing have grown from my aspiration and commitment to being an integral part of the writing community and continue to practice literary citizenship while recognizing my privilege of being in this industry. I want to be an active part of the ecosystem and community writers operate in, and strive to take great care of contributors’ words when reading or editing, just like the attention I hope other readers give to my work. I look forward to reading the stories here at Sundress Publications and witnessing the important relationships between the author and the publisher.

Ryleigh Wann is an MFA poetry candidate at UNC Wilmington. Her past experiences include reading poetry for Ecotone, editing with Lookout Books, teaching creative writing, and working for the Parks and Recreation Department in Michigan. Her writing can be found in Rejection Letters, Flypaper Lit, and Kissing Dynamite Poetry, among others.

Sundress Reads: Review of Grieving for Guava

In her collection of short stories Grieving for Guava (The University Press of Kentucky, 2020), Cecilia M. Fernandez captures the grief, longing, and hope of Cuban immigrants and diaspora in 10 poignant vignettes. These stories, though different in length, style, and perspective, are connected by lingering yearning and loss. The title Grieving for Guava hints at the evocative imagery that highlights the vivid, small details that the characters long for—that sweet scent of guava in their homes.

Home. The word, though often unspoken, permeates these stories, which span the divide between two countries, offering glimpses into the lives of those who are leaving, have left, or are returning to Cuba. The nostalgia-tinged prose of each narrative allows readers to experience the sense of both community and isolation felt by immigrants old and young and in between. 

In her foreword, Fernandez speaks about capturing the stories of the past before it is “utterly lost.” Although fictional stories, the truth of each family’s struggle comes through; so much so that one feels as if they are reading real-life accounts of various lives. Fernandez’s love—for her family, for these first waves of Cuban people coming to America, for these lives—is evident in her thoughtful, earnest prose and detailed characterization. 

Grieving for Guava opens with the story of the three Marusas in “Marusa’s Beach.” Both memories and yearning span their generations, where Cuban immigrants find community with each other amidst their own dashed hopes, struggles, and dreams. Multiple families are broken—both during and after the move to Cuba—and many are separated by distance, time, or beliefs. The story ends with a sense of irrevocable change, grief, and regret that carries through the rest of the stories.

The next stories, “Mad Magi” and “The Last Girl,” surprised me. They move from the powerful first story’s thoughtful, reflective grief into an ever-present sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction. These stories detail the stagnancy and confusion of trying to adapt to lives different than what one may have hoped for and expected. As the book moves forward, so do the characters, and watching them realize that what has changed is not only their circumstances but also themselves is striking.

“Summer of My Father’s Gun” focuses on another young girl trying desperately to regain stability, safety, and belonging. She lives in a neighborhood of many Cubans, and Fernandez briefly but effectively tells stories within this story, detailing the backgrounds of each family in the community. Though the story is from one person’s perspective, it showcases an experience shared by many. I felt the communion of shared past and present similarities, and the division that even those can cause.

“Button Box” shows the trailing sense of loss and confusion upheavals leave behind. The story gives us our first real-time glimpse within the book at Cuba, which has changed significantly since Castro’s takeover. Details and plot unfold to reveal the loss felt by both those who left and those left behind, along with the solace of memories and loved ones as we watch someone visit the island and reunite with family. The character’s hope kept me hooked. Seeing her revisit previously familiar places and people reminded me of my own trips to my mother’s home country where I grew up—that fear that everything will have changed, combined with the knowledge that some things inevitably have already, is one I imagine is familiar to many immigrant families.

“Where Do You Go, My Lovely?” veers back to younger diaspora, this time painting the differences between generations of immigrants. Whereas the Marusas are connected by their longing for home, Susana and her parents and grandparents grapple with their contrasting backgrounds and goals. Fernandez shows how the struggles and stories of first-generation immigrants sometimes get lost down the road, harkening back to the foreword’s statement that the past must be written before it is lost. Susana’s story itself seemed symbolic of this, a way to preserve the past while moving forward.

In two former lovers’ dual perspectives, “Flags and Rafts” crosses back and forth between the port of Cojímar and the shores of Miami. One left for America near the beginning of Castro’s takeover, while the other stayed, yet both hoped for a better future. The story is a tribute to the hopes maintained and thwarted over time, uniting Cuban people on and off the island even while separating them, and the endurance of hope sustained through love. :Flags and Rafts” delves into old loves, while “Rocking Chair Love” explores the discovery of new love after loss, painting a picture of renewal found even through grief.

“Dime-Store Date” reveals the trickling effect of an older generation’s struggles and trauma. Amid the disappointment and isolation of a broken family is a younger teenager driven by the same desire for love and belonging and wounded by its loss. The glimpse into young Mari’s world traces a day that Mari will not remember but that I and other readers certainly will. With subtle heartbreak and narrative, Fernandez implores readers not to forget.

The stories come full circle with “Here in Havana.” Decades after the events of “Marusa’s Beach,” Iraidita continues to hold close her memories of the day, her longing for home, and her hope for a better life. As we make the journey with her back to Havana, seeing Cuba and the world change through her eyes, we learn what it means to rediscover home.

Overall, the collection is full of gripping, moving vignettes that tugged at my heartstrings. I felt deeply invested in many of the characters, feeling as if I were hoping, grieving, and wondering with them. Fernandez painted a vivid picture of that unsettling restlessness that comes with the yearning for something we can’t have; in the characters’ case, it’s their old lives. Whenever I’ve missed the smell of Taiwanese pork chop or the sweetness of aiyu, what I’ve really missed is home. This collection took me through every step of that vivid nostalgia. In Grieving for Guava, all the details—the smells of local guava, the sounds of family members in casual conversation, the sights of the ocean from a Cuban coast—captured the pervasiveness of the constant longing that stays forever, and the comfort of all that’s left.

Grieving for Guava is available at The University Press of Kentucky

Stephi Cham holds a BM in Music Therapy with a Minor in Psychology from Southern Methodist University. She is currently working toward her MA in Publishing at Rosemont College, where she manages the publishing program’s communications as a graduate assistant. She is a freelance editor and the author of the Great Asian-American series published by Capstone Press, and her work has appeared in Strange Horizons.

Project Bookshelf: Iqra Abid

I cleaned out my bookshelf last summer, donating and gifting books I’ve had for years. It’s now half the size it used to be with the stories I have outgrown sitting warmly in new homes.

In an attempt to save money though, I have not refilled my shelves. This year, I hope to rebuild my collection but I want to explore new genres. In the past, I mostly read poetry and young adult novels. More recently, I have been more interested in memoirs and essay collections. But I am still reading a lot of poetry—that I can’t let go of.

To me, a good book is lyrical and the storytelling is creative and passionate. Part of this may be why I have been so drawn to memoirs lately. If you care about these characteristics when picking out a book, you might be interested in some of my recommendations. Here are some of my favourite titles from my bookshelf.

Memoirs and Poetry Books

Girl in Need of a Tourniquet: Memoir of a Borderline Personality by Merri Lisa Johnson

Girl in Need of a Tourniquet by Merri Lisa Johnson is a fantastically written memoir of the author’s experiences living with borderline personality disorder. It is written in the form of lyrical essays, each one more thought-provoking than the last. We follow Johnson as she untangles herself from the mess that her diagnosis worsens as she strives for clarity. Johnson’s writing captures the immensity of her emotions and accurately reflects the thought process of someone with borderline personality disorder. I was drawn to the book because of Johnson’s writing style, something most readers struggle with because it jumps from place to place, but I can say it did not disappoint.

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib

This memoir was one of my most anticipated reads. Queer Muslim representation is rare and while this is changing now, Samra Habib’s We Have Always Been Here will always be a revolutionary staple for queer Muslim representation. The book begins with Habib’s childhood in Pakistan and her experiences as an Ahamdi Muslim (a persecuted Muslim minority) from which she learned that some parts of her identity must be hidden to survive. As a refugee, she arrives in Canada, where she faces bullying, racism, an arranged marriage, and more. Eventually, she begins to explore her queerness and rekindles her faith at an LGBTQ+ friendly mosque in the face of all her struggles. Habib’s story is an inspiring and resilient one. We Have Always Been Here is the grown-up, queer Muslim, coming-of-age story that so many queer Muslims around the world have needed.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Night Sky With Exit Wounds is Ocean Vuong’s first full-length poetry collection. The book won the T.S Eliot Prize in 2017 and continues to have a significant impact on the literary scene today. With powerful imagery and haunting metaphors, Vuong depicts stories of war and immigration, captures intergenerational trauma, and grounds itself in the human experience. Night Sky With Exit Wounds examines themes of family, gender, sexuality, war, violence, and even self-actualization. This collection is an emotional and memorable exploration of humanity, practically a perfect encapsulation of it. Even if you are not someone who enjoys poetry, all of Ocean Vuong’s books are a must-read.

Other pictured books:

Homie by Danez Smith: To-be-read poetry collection about friendship

Beyond The Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon: Nonfiction, educational book about gender and deconstructing the gender binary to imagine a world without it

The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison: A collection of speeches, essays and reflections on music, life, and society

Glass, Irony & God by Anne Carson: A collection of personal essays written in verse, commenting on life and depicting a journey of self-understanding

Red Doc by Anne Carson: A sequel to Carson’s Autobiography of Red, a novel in verse reimagining the myth of Geryon from Herkles’s ten labours


Chapbooks are short collections of poetry, typically 40 pages. They’re excellent for introducing yourself to poetry or a poet or if you don’t have all that much time to read. The following title is my most favourite addition to my poetry collection.

Lonelieness and Other Bodies of Water by N. K. Said

Loneliness and Other Bodies of Water is hands-down the best chapbook I have ever read. N. K. Said has a strong and well-dveloped narrative voice, something that can be rare to see in chapbooks. Her poems delve into the healing process with careful precision. Said effectively recreates the loneliness of learning to understand yourself, pulling on your heartstrings and truly giving meaning to the phrase “feeling blue”. It is beautiful, it is delicate and it is profound. N. K. Said is most definitely a poet to watch.

Other pictured chapbooks:

Shurma by L. Akhter: Recently released, and only just received in the mail but a very anticipated read

dead girl walking by Dez Levier: Out of print, explicit reflections of trauma and living with bipolar disorder


I love magazines, specifically those that are art-focused. These are the magazines I have bought this year.

Reconstructed Magazine – Volume 2: Bodies

Reconstructed Magazine is a creative magazine that highlights Muslim creators, particularly those marginalized within and outside of Islam. It is filled with gorgeous art and writing of all different mediums (textiles, sculptures, photography, paintings, essays, interviews, etc.). I am absolutely obsessed with the issue and love the questions it explores regarding bodies (human, divine, etc.).

Pitch Magazine – Issue two

Pitch Magazine is a publication by and for Black creators. Their works is a celebration of Black creativity and expression and their second issue emphasizes unfiltered Blackness. It is beautifully designed and curated, filled with art and writing that resonates deeply with its readers.

Asahmed Magazine – BLCK PWER

Ashamed Magazine is a pioneer in the world of publications that uplift marginalized voices. BLCK PWER is their first print issue, now out of print. It covers a wide range of topics including Black liberation and prison abolition, Black beauty and feminism, navigating white spaces while Black, and the Black Lives Matter movement. In the form of art, poetry, essays, articles, and interviews, BLCK PWR is a revolutionary collection of Black stories and perspectives.

Iqra Abid (she/her) is a young, Pakistani, Muslim writer based in Canada. She is currently a student at McMaster University studying Psychology Neuroscience, and Behaviour. She is also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Kiwi Collective Magazine. Her work can be found in various publications such as Stone Fruit Magazine, Tiny Spoon Lit Magazine, Scorpion Magazine, and more.

Meet Our New Intern: Hannah Olsson

Books have always held a lively and supportive presence in my life. When I was young, my parents read to me every night. I remember this was an especially important ritual for my father and I, as it was by reading Swedish books that I felt like I could retain the language my father grew up with. I still, with gratitude, recognize these books (particularly an adorable story about ocean-swimming lambs called Gittan och Fårskallarna) as the anchors that secured me to a background I may have otherwise forgotten.

I always had my nose in a book as a kid, but writing became a space of true solace for me especially during my high school years. At the time, I was enrolled in the only International Baccalaureate program available in my dusty hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado, and that came with an incredible amount of pressure. High school became a space where I felt my value was based on percentages and letter grades; it always seemed crucial to appear like I had everything under control. In the midst of it all, I turned to writing to express any anxiety or depression I felt like I had to hide from everyone else. It was cathartic, therapeutic. It was how I first learned to express myself. It was also how I first connected to cinema.

In a spontaneous decision to enroll in a film class at my high school, I watched Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and fell in love with the resonance that comes from interweaving fairy tales and images. Since then, I’ve always felt like I look at writing the same way I look through a camera.

When I enrolled at the University of Iowa to study Cinema and Creative Writing English, my writing transformed into something even more surprising. I remember taking an International Literature class and meeting Kurdish poet Bejan Matur. In listening to her, I found that Bejan aimed to write about both personal pain and moments of resolution, allowing her to write as if her poetry were its own mutating body, expanding with every life it touches. At the same time, I was also reading books by Swedish author Frederik Backman, writing that was like pure magic simply in the way it seemed to reveal the quirky and breath-catching thoughts people rarely speak out loud. And of course, I also began obsessively following Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, where Stiefvater’s artistic renderings of fantastical characters would somehow always translate vividly into her written narratives until they just felt real.

Through all these experiences, my love of reading transformed into a love for translation—not just literal translation in magazines like University of Iowa’s boundless, but also the translation of internal emotions to external communication, the translation of conceptual fantasies to written realities of distorted beauty, the translation of unspoken secrets to honest admittances speak to our own form of gritty humanness. This type of translated, warping, growing, beauty is what I love to foster by helping others share their own stories. I am so happy to be joining Sundress Publications to promote both the literal and figurative, written and spoken translations that so many writers foster in an effort to connect us all.

Hannah Olsson holds a double BA in Cinema and Creative Writing English from the University of Iowa. During her time in Iowa, Hannah was the president of The Translate Iowa Project and its publication boundless, a magazine devoted to publishing translated poetry, drama, and prose. Her work, both in English and Swedish, has been featured in boundless, earthwords magazine, InkLit Mag, and the University of Iowa’s Ten-Minute Play Festival, among others. Hannah really enjoys works that tell stories of distorted wonders. She also really loves ravens, and, naturally, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle.

Sundress Academy for the Arts Presents Our August Poetry Xfit

The Sundress Academy for the Arts is excited to present Poetry Xfit hosted by Victoria Mullins. This generative workshop event will take place on Sunday, August 22nd, 2021 from 2 to 4 pm EST via Zoom. Join us at the link 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!

Victoria Mullins is the Staff Director for Sundress Academy for the Arts and is East TN born. She is currently working on her first collection of poetry and is enjoying all the learning and toiling over it. In her spare time, she enjoys rock climbing, mediocre cooking, and over preparing.

While this is a free workshop, donations can be made to the Sundress Academy for the Arts here:

Each month half of our Xfit donations are shared with ourcommunity partner. Our community partner for August is East TN Harm Reduction. East TN Harm Reduction is a mutual aid partner in Knoxville that provides free Harm Reduction supplies as well as community education, such as Narcan training, which helps to save lives. East TN Harm Reduction receives donations on their cashapp and Venmo with the username Easttnharmredux .

Sundress Reads: A Review of ‘Peaces’

It’s been days since I’ve finished Helen Oyeyemi’s newest novel, Peaces (Riverhead Books, 2021), and I’m still trying to process the story I read. While looking for my next book, my hope was to find a whimsical escape from the not-so-whimsical world we’ve been living in the past year and a half. If you’re looking for the same thing, Peaces checks that box and so many more.

While Oyeyemi’s unusual, often non-linear adventure may require some acclimation from readers, her eloquent, witty, and imaginative voice succeeds in constructing her labyrinthine narrative and intriguing characters. Somehow, she is able to communicate Peaces’s undoubtedly abstract themes of perception and memory through intensely colorful, concrete devices. Peaces is a beautifully haphazard collection of some of life’s greatest wonders, including but not limited to: a rich aunt, trains with complicated pasts, theremin music, asphyxiation via emeralds, Czech ex-boyfriends, and no less than two mongooses.

The story opens on the first day of Otto and Xavier Shin’s non-honeymoon honeymoon, as they refer to it– a four day train journey along the “Lakes and Mountains Route,” which you soon learn will feature very few lakes or mountains. Immediately, we are introduced to the book’s central figure, The Lucky Day, a possibly magical former tea-smuggling train that functions as both a setting and character. Save for flashbacks and backstories, the first half of Peaces is surprisingly slow burning and uneventful. We gradually get to know The Lucky Day’s permanent residents– a quirky, all-female trio: Laura De Souza, a French-Canadian drifter, Allegra Yu, the train’s fashionable part-time operator, and Ava Kapoor, an enigmatic musician and member of the so-called Empty Room Club. Together, these passengers work to understand the significance of their individual paths and why they happened to cross onboard The Lucky Day.

As a reader, you’re often kept in the dark, but that’s half the fun. The best way to read this story is with no expectations and one of Laura’s first lines kept in mind: “Things always take some kind of crazy turn when you say ‘definitely.'”

While it may take another few days of contemplation (and possibly another reading) to fully appreciate Oyeyemi’s wild train ride, I‘m certain that most readers would agree Peaces is memorable, pleasantly far-fetched, and almost violently thought-provoking. 

Peaces is available through Penguin Random House.

Alexa White is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the city where she grew up, and is pursuing a BA in Creative Writing with a Studio Art minor. She has enjoyed reading and writing, especially poetry, for most of her life and has had both art and poetry published in UTK’s Phoenix literary magazine.