In Escape of Light, Deborah Kahan Kolb merges modern contemplations with grounding visuals to persuade the reader into a state of ever-present attention. While Kobe’s collection collides concepts such as identity, personal exploration, social issues, and inherent connection, she allows for intermittent moments of air between her stanzas: a place for careful breaths of introspection as her speaker explores the depth of the world surrounding them.
Carefully and with genuine precision, Kolb’s Escape of Lightunearths a world forged from moments of unraveling. A world of striving to find answers within its own questioning: what is emergence? Where are the limitations of exploration, of breaking open? And are we allowed inside them? Grief and contemplation, rage and loss, are all balanced to form a staple connection between each poem, linking the thesis of exploration on each page. Escape of Lightis a collection of revealing consequences just as it is one of action; each of Kolb’s poems are movement, action backed by vivid scenery that beckons their reader closer to ask: what, in all of this, is coming through? Questions of what remains are molded within the perspective of the speaker’s strength, positing that, in wake of the violence done, there is still connection: there is still hope.
Kolb’s collection opens with an emergence, an action of revealing a personhood apart from a sense of finality. Emergence, Kolb argues, is a process of creation: collected moments of driven action that do not end in a simply packaged result.Escape of Light’s first poem begins the collection with a center of continuous evolution, allowing the reader to take a breath just as strong as the speaker themself: “What must the torpid caterpillar do to emerge / from its glistening chrysalis a laurel-crowned monarch?” Here, the speaker directs the reader’s attention to the pained practice of emergence. Again, the process of becoming is presented as a pathway to creation. Emergence becomes not a pathway to an end result but rather a focus on the continuous process and its varying details: “Self-immolation, it seems, is a requirement / for emerging.”
Awareness of the self, of gaining a self, is also something Kolb’s collection manifests well. The “bleeding knuckles” and “tamped / down spirit” become noted costs of this self-actualization within the process of “emerging.” What then, Kolb’s speaker poses, makes the process worth it? Well, in a collection that thrives from its ability to find an answer already in its question, the next stanza presents the daunting answer: “be prepared to extinguish / yourself in a phoenix fire before you can emerge. / Established.” The cost, Kolb’s speaker states, is a heavy burden, but one that the speaker strives to redefine and exhibit in all its trials. “Emerging, Art of,” is a poem that not only succeeds in setting a tone for the collection but one that captures the hefty process of unearthing. This process of becoming allows for a connection to be made between speaker and reader; a tether spanning the gap between desire and action, with the speaker beckoning from the other side.
There were multiple instances where Kolb’s collection left me speechless. Witnessing her ability to evoke carefully crafted images, ones that welcomed as well as educated the reader, was an enthralling experience. Kolb does not shy away from difficult concepts or experiences; rather, she faces them in ways that allow her speaker spaces for grief and reclamation. Poems like “Psalm for a Son’s Burial” and “Showering at the Swiss Hotel” address difficult concepts in the form of complex poetics. They allow the speaker to emerge from the confines enforced on them and to speak and feel the injustices and horrific experiences imposed upon them: “You understand, dear guest, neutral is no more. / We are obliged to prevent / your / stain / from / spreading.”
Kolb’s ability to condense these moments of horrific injustice into potent stanzas enthralled me as I read along. I was heartsick; I was furious. Escape of Light’s speaker embraced humanity in its full view, revealing its naked face and offering its readers the opportunity to behold it. Kolb’s speaker seems to tell us: Look. What I have seen, you must also face. And who are we to look away? See what I have seen, Kolb’s speaker argues, and be aware. It is, after all, the least we can pay as readers: to both engage and learn from the consumed work. In this way, Escape of Light is both a warning and a revelation of emergence; perhaps what strengthens the collection further is the blend of these aspects. As readers, we are left to wonder whether the speaker is sharing these moments of introspection to warn of these great griefs or to welcome the potential of a changed, more humane future. Kolb ensures this everlasting presence of thought in her linkage between poems, between the personal and the collective. Whatever the “correct” answer may be is relative in comparison to the collection’s lasting image, arguing that, regardless of this answer, one aspect of Escape of Light is for certain: no one who enters the collection is left untouched.
Mary Sims is an undergraduate senior at Kennesaw State University working towards her BA in English. She is a poetry editor at Waymark Literary Magazine and has been published in Josephine Quarterly, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Poetry Annals, and more. Currently, she splits her time between working as a student editor, piling her shelves with poetry collections, and laughing over raspberry cappuccinos with friends.
One of my favorite pastimes to this day is exploring local second-hand bookstores. In middle school, my mom would take me to a small store close to our house, blending our time there with the small coffee shop across the street. My summers were spent rotating between them both and my local library, which was also within walking distance. After all of these years, I can’t count how many books I have bought from that store, but I know it was enough to have filled my childhood bookshelf.
Presently, I still visit that bookstore, and I love it just as much. Perhaps the biggest change I’ve experienced in the routine is the shift in content on my bookshelves. My days of Percy Jackson and John Green were left behind for my growing love of classics and poetry. Woolf and Wilde replaced Rowling; Mary Oliver and Danez Smith took the place of C.S Lewis. My break from middle school was marked by my transition into new genres. I became obsessed with classic literature and contemporary poetry. Kay Ryan’s The Best of It was the beginning collection that steered me into poetry. Even now, the book is still on my shelf, crowded against the more recent collections I’ve enjoyed.
In taking one look at my bookshelf, my favorites become obvious. Poetry and plays litter the upper shelf, organized carefully so that no author overshadows another. Sarah Kane is able to meet Tiana Clark without distraction and Mary Oliver sits beside Franny Choi in an organized chaos of styles. This shelf is not only important to me because of the community they represent, but because these collections have inspired me to pursue poetry. Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris introduced me to the importance of movement within a poem. I would spend my time reading this collection between my classes and job, marveling at her ability to shift within her stanzas; I remember sitting out on my university library’s steps and highlighting lines in the sunlight.
In addition to Gluck’s collection, Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf is one of my most treasured books. This collection was my gateway into contemporary poetry as it showed me how to love poetry in all its different forms. I was fortunate enough to get it signed in January and keep it displayed proudly. Sitting beside Akbar’s poems is another one of my more recent purchases: Franny Choi’s Soft Science. This collection taught me the imperative role form plays in conducting the message of a poem. Beyond what I have learned from it, this collection holds a special place in my heart as it contains one of my favorite poems: Introduction to Quantum Theory. The first time I read this poem, I felt the world around me melt away. Predictably, reading Soft Science had the same effect as I tore through it.
Many other notable books I still find myself enraptured by are Richard Siken’s War of the Foxes, Araclis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia, Sarah Kane’s collected plays, and Hieu Minh Nguyen’s This Way To The Sugar. Siken’s collection was a gift I received two Christmases ago after I had devoured his first collection Crush in under a day. His ability to condense emotion into action devastated me, and I simply had to have more of it. The relationship of the speaker and the reader seemed foundational to Siken’s emotional construction. Oftentimes, his poems gave the impression of an intentionally fragile structure, waiting to be torn apart. Similarly, Girmay’s collection is one I had on my list for a long time. I finally purchased my copy for a directed study course I took with one of my favorite professors. As expected, her collection was hypnotic. I was fixated on her use of images to place her reader into each poem as well as remove them just as quick. Her ability to deconstruct interaction within her own work was breathtaking, and I couldn’t tear myself away.
This past fall I was able to visit with family friends in Seattle, Washington — one of my favorite places to be — where I picked up a copy of Nguyen’s book at a local bookstore I come to each time I’m in the city. I carried his collection across the city and then over the ocean as I started to read it. Of course, it’s no surprise how quickly i became immersed. Nguyen’s use of careful violence in each poem entangled me, leading me to continuously marvel at each image he crafted. Sarah Kane’s plays were something I discovered indirectly, but I am very glad I did. Last summer I came across her work in a short quote shared by a book-review blogger I follow. I was so entranced; I hadn’t read many plays outside of school assignments, and I wanted to correct that. I ordered her collection, finishing the whole thing in two days. I was torn apart; I was resurrected. There is no other way to describe how I felt reading her work.
My second shelf is a little more disorganized, which also reflects my relationship with fiction. There is a blend of university assigned readings, high school fascinations, and ‘to-read’ piles all pressed together. This shelf contains my collected fiction and non-fiction. Writers like Jamaica Kincaid and Bram Stoker meet each other within the chaos. Last year I became very invested in non-fiction; I picked up the exploration that was Cat Marnell’s How to Murder Your Life and snowballed from there. On my bookshelf is one of Terry Tempest Williams’ books Refuge, which continues to inspire me even a year after my first reading. I was stunned by her ability to blend dreamscapes with reality while remaining within her non-fiction genre. The structure of each realization throughout was framed by a careful preciseness, leaving the reader with a constant impression of standing at the edge of a cliff and refusing to look directly downwards.
My love for fiction fluctuates between fixation and fascination. During my sophomore year of university I set a challenge to read fifty books I hadn’t read before. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher and the Rye was something I had been recommended by a friend in passing and thus became the first on my list. Though the novel is surrounded by controversy, it is still one of my favorite classics. Stream of consciousness is something I lean heavily towards — my annotated copy of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway speaks for itself — so it may come as no surprise that I found Holden Caulfield’s narrative intriguing and relatable. Lastly, lying beside Catcher in the Rye is another classic that influenced me heavily— Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. I started this novel in high school after one of my best friends recommended it to me; I would finish my classwork early to read it at my desk, glancing over at my friend occasionally as if to say, can you believe this? She would simply raise one eyebrow across the room, and I knew we were in agreement.
Literature is an imperative piece of the person I am. If I were to explain my personality in objects, books would certainly be a necessary part of the picture. I am sure these pictures of my bookshelf reveal more about me than I have written, but I do hope that the stories I’ve tied to each book help to shape a perspective. I think the most important part in my journey with literature is where it started. I didn’t learn the importance of literature from my school system growing up, but rather I learned it from who I discovered each genre with. I found literature with the people I care most about: my mother and that bookstore, my best friend and Wilde, my coworkers and I arguing over Stephen King’s inability to write a decent ending.
Mary Sims is an undergraduate writer working towards her BA in English at Kennesaw State University. She is currently a poetry editor for Waymark Literary Magazine and a former student editor for the Atlanta based magazine Muse/A. Her work has appeared in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Poetry Annals, Peach Mag, and more. She can often be found filling her shelves with poetry collections, roaming antique stores, or laughing over raspberry cappuccinos with friends.
Karen Poppy’s stunning collection Every Possible Thing begins with an opening of offerings. Proposed by imagery dominated exchanges, her use of themes such as sacrifice, transformation, and renewal offer her readers an immediate sense of connection to her work. Her collection’s first poem “Every Possible Thing” begins with this same sense of sacrifice and renewal by immersing her audience in the imaginative and hypnotic exchange between the speaker and their subject.
The collection’s opening line sets a tone of intention throughout, displaying a sense of coated devotion unique to the poem’s own movement: “What I promised, I gave you: / Silver-skinned gloves, my hands / Loosened from life became twin fish.” From there, the speaker catalogues devotion through their physical actions and movements. Throughout her collection, Poppy continues to employ this same precise movement to embrace the action within each of her poems. No poem, Poppy assures us early-on, is ever stagnant.
Every Possible Thing is never still. The collection begins in motion and continues to guide its reader by cataloging the duality of action and movement. This use of movement throughout her work offers insight into the depth of implication. Poppy’s poem “Your Words” is an opening to the collection’s themes, but it is also a record of just how carefully emotion channels through action.
When communicating with the reader, the speaker offers more than physical objects or images to converse. In fact, the speaker’s sense of dedication is painted behind the physical action of each offering, a new unique twist behind every new image displayed: “I want you / To speak to me, / In fact, / As you would speak / To your animals.” “Your Words” is a poem of communication as much as it is of desire. There is a need to be seen, to be regarded as gravely as can be allowed. The speaker directs us to see her, and who are we to turn away?
As I read Poppy’s collection, I found myself immersed in her use of mythology. Even more so in her use of it in creating reclamation narratives. Her poem “Badass Mermaid” explores the complexities and empowerment of transformation through the lens of a mythological mermaid within Odysseus’s tale. The speaker reclaims her narrative outside of Odysseus’s story and establishes the idea that her agency does not stem from being an ‘accessory’ to a hero’s quest but rather her own power outside of it: “Homer’s / Odysseus / Told it wrong, / Or his men / Told it, / Innocent.” It is here that we see the speaker reclaim her own identity within Odysseus’ story after being alienated from the tale.
The speaker retells her story by crafting her own narrative in wake of the chaos left by Odysseus, thus attaching a sense of authority to her own lost story. Agency, Poppy tells her audience, is more than a necessity; rather, it is a value that cannot afford to be overlooked. The speaker’s narrative is one of power, of danger, and more than ready to peel out of the confines of her established erasure.
Poppy’s use of line breaks within the poem further add to these implications of power. Every moment is calculated; every space, line break, and punctuation are brimming with not only intention but with assurance that truth is lurking around the corner, waiting for an opening to break into.
In addition to mythology and reclamation narratives, connection is a vital theme within Every Possible Thing. The ability to join together, to meld ideas and images, is not only a powerful device Poppy employs. Rather, it is also the basis of understanding in a place where the mere idea seems impossible. Her poem “What We Find” exemplifies this concept openly: “Our own voice, / Each other. / To sing uniquely, but not alone. / Eerie electricity. Connection. / Through the song: / Everything is the right choice.” The poem, like her collection, becomes a moment of connection, reaching out to include the reader in this narrative of understanding.
Through her collection, Karen Poppy draws in her audience by the speaker’s ability to not only connect but their desire to understand. Searches for understanding, the power of reclamation, and the concept of connection litter the pages, leaving the reader haunted even after the collection has been finished. There is something warm and vulnerable within Poppy’s use of connection. Her poem “I Like When You Speak” perhaps displays this best as the speaker weaves a moment of pure humanity: “I like when you speak / When you are here / Saying all that you want to say, and nothing more.” There is an ever-present ache buried between the lines, a moment so openly human we cannot turn ourselves away from the carefulness of the moment.
Where Every Possible Thingis a collection of connection and understanding, it is also a journey of being human. Reclamation narratives, paths of renewal, and movements shaped in the form of devotion collide to create a bond so intricate it becomes innate. All of these multitudes and more, Every Possible Thingis a conversation between speaker and reader– an opening made just small enough for the reader to want to join, without having to be invited directly. Poppy’s collection is a meticulous warmth. More than anything, it is an invitation into the experiences of humanity and an exploration to all of the crushing and beautiful depth they offer.
Mary Sims is an undergraduate senior at Kennesaw State University working towards her BA in English. She is a poetry editor at Waymark Literary Magazine and has been published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Poetry Annals, Peach Mag, Kingdoms of the Wild, Rising Phoenix Review, and more. Currently, she splits her time between working as a student editor, piling her shelves with poetry collections, and laughing over raspberry cappuccinos with friends.
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.
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 www.anyasy.com.
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.
Sundress Publications announces the pre-release of MR Sheffield’s new collection, Marvels. An “irreducible kind of book that pivots on every page, refuses to be pinned down” says Julie Marie Wade, author of Catechism: A Love Story and SIX, cautioning that “this book will wild you, Reader, gently.”
MR Sheffield’s Marvels is a séance; a chant of snake bites, wrens, and spiders, nesting and untangling; the instinct of a mother disoriented by her grief; a daughter finding her way in sex and obsession; a family broken and searching for something to pull it back together. Sheffield utilizes H.D. Northrop’s found poems, which describe various creatures, to reveal the wild, instinctive nature of human emotion by repurposing Northrop’s descriptions and applying them to a family. Sheffield couples the poems with manipulated original images from Northrop’s text to drive the skepticism of the poems. Multiplied spiders in the wrong color, transposed boa constrictors, and streaked antelope eyes are juxtaposed with poems about familial grief and resentment, alerting the reader to her instincts. This is the collection that steps back and reveals that instead of visiting an exhibit, admiring the lifelike animals from the soft fur to the magnetizing eyes, we are the exhibit, propped up and trapped behind the glass.
“When the narrator of MR Sheffield’s collection imagines “making a nest of you,” we are invited to make a nest back. Each word and image in this text builds a found and invented structure, layer by layer, for us to writhe around inside of. This multimodal work aims to enthrall us with a nontraditional, visual magic, both human and animal.”
— Nicole Oquendo, author of Telomeres and some prophets
“‘…there is no grief like this and no name for it,’ Sheffield’s speaker confesses in ‘the boa-constrictor,’ which, like all poems inside Marvels, uncoils to reveal monstrous truths about love and loss in a wilderness haunted by the familial. I have yet to find my way out of Sheffield’s collection, months after entering—I don’t believe I’ll ever want to. Between admiring the partnering images and found language from H.D. Northrop’s book of the same name, this collection asks readers—no, dares them—to put their face close to its glass and tap.”
— James A.H. White
MR Sheffield’s work has been published in Black Warrior Review, Hayden’s FerryReview, The Florida Review, and other publications. This is her first book.
Sundress Publications is pleased to announce the publication of Charlie Bondhus’ new book, Divining Bones.
Boys become crones; baked bread becomes a baby; electricity turns out to be Jesus; a first grade class stages Oedipus Rex. At the center of it all stands Baba Yaga, the child-eating forest witch and earth goddess of Russian folklore. Under her tutelage, Charlie Bondhus uses the occult and the magical to explore the fluidity of age, gender, and self-perception in this radical and playful book.
CAConrad, author of While Standing in Line for Death, had this to say about Bondhus’ book:
“Where divination meets poetry in extraordinary fashion! After awhile you can look to this book for answers, opening and closing it nine times with a question in mind, the poet Charlie Bondhus leading the way. Magic spells and paranormal experiences abound among beautifully written lines by a poet we will all want to share and know. I love this book!”
Charlie Bondhusis the author of All the Heat We Could Carry, winner of the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. His work has appeared in Poetry, The Missouri Review, Columbia Journal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Nimrod, and Copper Nickel. He has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Sundress Academy for the Arts, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers. He is associate professor of English at Raritan Valley Community College (NJ).
Tania Runyan, author of What Will Soon Take Place, had this to say about Craigo’s book:
“I’ve been reading Passing Through Humansville during a time of despair, and they are among the few written words that have comforted me. Emboldened me. Spoken. These poems explore marriage and family, nature and politics, and faith and doubt from a wellspring of compassionate wisdom and grace—a still, small (but not timid) voice of a life lived and loved with intention. ‘There are so many / ways to move across Earth’s face and I / would just as gladly move or sit with you,’ Craigo writes. I feel the same way about this book. It’s a companion whose side I won’t leave for long.”
Karen Craigo is the author of two Sundress titles, No More Milk (2016), and Passing Through Humansville (2018). She is also the author of Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (forthcoming from Tolson Books, 2018), and three chapbooks. She is the editor of a weekly newspaper, The Marshfield (Missouri) Mail, and she maintains Better View of the Moon, a blog on writing and creativity. She lives in Springfield, Missouri.
Pre-order your copy here! And now through August 15th, your pre-order also allows you to submit a manuscript to our open reading period for free!
Tania Runyan, author of What Will Soon Take Place had this to say about Craigo’s book:
“I’ve been reading Passing Through Humansville during a time of despair, and they are among the few written words that have comforted me. Emboldened me. Spoken. These poems explore marriage and family, nature and politics, and faith and doubt from a wellspring of compassionate wisdom and grace—a still, small (but not timid) voice of a life lived and loved with intention. ‘There are so many / ways to move across Earth’s face and I / would just as gladly move or sit with you,’ Craigo writes. I feel the same way about this book, it’s a companion whose side I won’t leave for long.
Other advance readers include Sarah Freligh, author of Sad Math, who said:
“In Passing Through Humansville, Karen Craigo is the best kind of tour guide—wise, tender, funny and keenly observant of the moments life serves up however large or small. Who among us cannot identify with the weary speaker in “Advent” who finds herself siding with the innkeeper who turned away Mary and Joseph: ‘Damn / but a hard day’s work / should earn us a little rest, / not crisis after crisis.’ I don’t know of another poet who is able to balance feminism, faith, and motherhood as deftly as Craigo does in these poems. These are wonderful meditations on the fierceness of love and the meaning of the word “humankind.”
Karen Craigo is the author of two Sundress Publications titles, No More Milk (2016) and Passing Through Humansville (2018). She is also the author of Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (forthcoming from Tolson Books, 2018), and three chapbooks. She is the editor of a weekly newspaper, The Marshfield (Missouri) Mail, and she maintains Better View of the Moon, a blog on writing and creativity. She lives in Springfield, Missouri.
Laura Villareal: I love the way Phantom Tongue weaves together religion, family, queerness, memory, and a complicated relationship with Mexican culture. With so many thematic strands, what was your approach to putting this manuscript together?
Steven Sanchez: In the beginning, I focused on writing into my obsessions rather than on creating a book—each poem was more important to me than figuring out how any particular poem might fit in with what I already wrote. My poems kept returning to the same themes and images, and my mentor Corrinne (Connie) Clegg Hales said that I should trust my subconscious, that there’s probably a reason why I kept obsessing over these particular topics. When it was time to put my thesis together, I printed all my poems out and started tracking what the main threads seemed to be and had a hard time separating them from each other.
My very first draft of Phantom Tongue had three sections. Connie asked me why I decided to use sections, and I didn’t really have a reason, other than it felt like a book should have sections. She said she didn’t really see a need for sections in this collection and I agreed with her. Then a couple of years later, I wrote more poems, replaced older poems, and tried out sections again—it was actually accepted by Sundress as a sectioned book. Sara Henning, my editor, actually brought up similar concerns about my sectioning and I re-read through Phantom Tongue and decided that the sections needed to go.
At first, I organized my poems based on their topics, but that felt too neat and sterile—I didn’t want a book that had a section of Queer poems, a section of family poems, a section of love poems, and a section of poems about language and internalized racism because those categories aren’t exclusive to each other—these categories, I realized, actually inform each other.
“On the Seventh Day” seemed like the best choice to open Phantom Tongue because a lot of the themes in the book appear in it. Next, I read that poem followed by several potential second poems in the collection until one seemed to fit, then I read that second poem followed by several third poem options, then the third followed by several fourth poem options, and repeated this process until I had a tentative order for the whole collection. (I ended up with dozens of different organizational possibilities to choose from.) The whole process reminded me of when I used to play Guitar Hero—you see the rows and rows of buttons coming towards you on the screen, but you just have to focus on playing the row of buttons closest to you. Eventually, the closest row disappears, then you can focus on the next row, then the next row, until you end up playing an entire song.
Laura Villareal: You have two chapbooks, To My Body (Glass Poetry Press, 2016) & Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions, 2017), was the process of putting together those manuscripts different from organizing your full-length?
Steven Sanchez: I feel like I totally approached each chapbook with the Guitar Hero strategy. I definitely couldn’t focus on as many threads in each chapbook, though. For To My Body, I ended up finding all of my poems that relied on body-related imagery. For Photographs, I focused more on poems revolving around memory. Even with those two different organizational focuses, each chapbook still tried to address internalized racism and internalized homophobia, which ended up becoming the backbone of Phantom Tongue.
Laura Villareal: While writing Phantom Tongue were there any books that you drew inspiration from? What are some books that you love and recommend?
Steven Sanchez: Two of the books that had a huge influence on me, especially when working on Phantom Tongue, were Rafael Campo’s What the Body Told and Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language.
Campo handles bodies, particularly Queer and brown bodies, with such tenderness and compassion. His book was the first book I’d ever read by a QPOC and it blew me away by showing me the different ways a body is labeled, identified, and understood. It also encouraged me to figure out the stories my own body has told and continues to tell—it empowered me interrogate who shape(d)/(s) my body’s narratives.
Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language lead me to question not just the narratives assigned to bodies, but how language is a dangerous (yet necessary) tool. What’s named can be weaponized. But, what’s named can also give somebody control over their own identity. Dream of a Common Language begins with one of my favorite poems, “Power.” In this poem, the speaker observes that Marie Curie gained her agency through her research on radioactivity. The speaker also observes that her hands-on approach with radioactive materials ultimately killed her. In this poem, power comes from our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable to the subjects that are most difficult to handle. While writing Phantom Tongue, I kept returning to “Power,” and as a result, I still find myself returning to it in newer poems I’ve been working on—I’ve adopted it as my own personal ars poetica.
In addition to these two books, a few more books I absolutely love and continue to learn from are Coal by Audre Lorde, Slow Lightning by Eduardo C.Corral, A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying by Laurie Ann Guerrero, Butterfly Boy by Rigoberto González, Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey, For Want of Water by Sasha Pimentel, My Alexandria by Mark Doty, Goodbye, Flicker by Carmen Giménez Smith, and The Taxidermist’s Cut by Rajiv Mohabir.
Laura Villareal: Something I admire about your writing is how you confront your relationship to Mexican culture. As a Latinx who can’t speak Spanish, I sometimes feel fraudulent or conflicted about my identity. I love the lines “small pigeons flying from her tongue, / carrying rolled R’s like small parcels / I’ve never been able to unwrap” in your poem “Past Tense”. I’m grateful for moments like those in your book. I guess I’m wondering, do you have any advice for confronting identity in poems when the relationship you have to it is complicated?
Steven Sanchez: That makes me really happy that you connected with “Past Tense,” I was really nervous writing that poem, especially because I felt like I was “outing” myself as a Pocho. I’ve been thinking a lot about my Pocho-ness, what it means for me to identify as a Pocho, and how this particular identity fits into larger systems of power. I don’t know if I have any advice, exactly, but I can totally share how I approached writing about my relationship to being Mexican and some of the things I got from that experience.
When I first started writing about my relationship to Mexican culture, one particular mentor was very encouraging. He pushed me to start including more Spanish in my poems, pushed me to start incorporating foods like nopales, tamales, and chorizo in my poems. He would say things like “This is so specific to your particular experiences and it’s great. You’ve really found your stride, keep it up.” And I did for a while, until I found myself writing poems to satisfy his expectations rather than writing poems that I felt genuinely connected to—I realized I was exoticizing myself and my poems to fit in with what he expected Latinx writers to write about.
Ironically, when I started writing about my queerness, he told me to stop letting my sexuality define my work and me.
I started understanding that when I was writing, I was writing with a straight, white audience in mind. I was making a Latino caricature of myself in my poems and downplaying queerness in order to reaffirm what some people think is an “authentic” representation of Latinidad. I think I fell into that trap because in workshop, we often discussed the “accessibility” of a poem, but whenever that word was thrown around, I didn’t comprehend that “accessible” has political implications—accessible for whom? People of color? Queer people? White people? Straight people?
When I started questioning who I wanted to access my poems, I realized I didn’t want to write for an audience who had a litmus test for the “authenticity” of my identities. I felt relieved, in a way, because it opened up a space for me to begin interrogating my own concerns about internalized racism, internalized homophobia, my inability to speak Spanish, and how those all affected me.
If I could give my younger-self advice, I would tell him that nobody has a monopoly over any identity. Not speaking Spanish doesn’t make you any less Latino. Write poems that matter to you. No matter what you write, people will label you whatever they’re going to label you, and that’s no longer your concern.
Laura Villareal: You reference religion quite a bit in your book. I feel like often religion and queerness can be at odds. I love where you say “Never forget what the Bible says: / when two people worship together, / they create a church / no matter where they are— ” in “What I Didn’t Tell You.” What’s your connection to religion and how do you feel it’s shaped your writing, if at all?
Steven Sanchez: I grew up as a nondenominational Christian, went to church every Sunday, was a member of a bunch of different Christian youth groups, and made sure to memorize the bible verse we were assigned each week in Sunday school—at one point I had memorized close to 300 verses. The interesting thing about the church I went to is that it was bilingual. The children’s Sunday school was exclusively in English, but the sermon afterwards for the whole church was entirely in Spanish, although the pastor occasionally translated some of his sermon into English. Prayers were almost exclusively in Spanish. That church also explicitly condemned homosexuality and banned open homosexuals from serving the church in any sort of capacity. In high school, I was the president of the Hanford High Christian Club and regularly attended services and youth events.
Needless to say, religion had a monumental impact on me growing up. You mention that Queerness and religion are often at odds, and that was definitely the case in my experience. When I started writing about homophobia, I noticed that religious imagery started creeping in without me even really intending for that to happen. When I started writing about internalized racism, religion also started creeping in. Religious imagery helped me interrogate the aspects of myself I was afraid to look at—as I was writing, it felt like internalized racism, internalized homophobia, and Christianity were inseparable. But, at the same time, I think my way of understanding the sacred is very much informed by Christianity even if I’m no longer Christian. I think, at least in some moments, using religious imagery in the context of Queerness was my way to reclaim and define for myself what is actually sacred.
Laura Villareal: The image system of your book is so tight. The visceral language makes it feel intensely intimate and resonate. All poets have linguistic obsessions, what are some of yours?
Steven Sanchez: Wow, thank you! I think one of my biggest linguistic obsessions, both now and when I was writing Phantom Tongue, is using “you.” I love the authority and force that comes from a direct address, especially in rough drafts. When I was writing about things that were particularly difficult, the second person address created a helpful distance between the subject and me. The second person made me feel inclined to write declarative sentences, and those declarative sentences built up my confidence as the draft progressed until, at some point in the poem, I gained enough confidence to trust my language, trust my images, and trust that what I had to say was important. Sometimes, the second person stays even after the initial drafts.
I think another reason I love the second person is because it fits with how I usually (attempt to) enter a poem—instead of thinking of a general audience for the poem, I find it more helpful to imagine that I’m writing the poem to a specific person—the images and language I use become my way of understanding my relationship to that person (and whatever topic that poem is trying to address). That being said, I think I’m particularly obsessed with fire, water, trees, and birds—those images made it easier to interrogate my relationships to some of the “you’s” I was writing to.
Another linguistic obsession I’ve noticed is that I love to list things in groups of three; I think it might be because of the way I was taught to end each prayer—“in the name of the son, father, and holy spirit.” It feels familiar and I get a sense of closure.
Laura Villareal: In June you’ll be teaching a month long workshop with Lemon Star Magazine focused on persona and social justice poetry, what made you choose those topics?
Steven Sanchez: I’m super stoked for that workshop! A few years back, Gary Jackson visited my school to read from his awesome book, Missing You, Metropolis—it’s a collection of super villain and super hero persona poems. One of my favorite poems in there is “Magneto Eyes Strange Fruit.” In that poem, the speaker is Magneto (of the X-Men) and he comes across two children who have been lynched on swing set for being mutants. The poem is a powerful response to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and it ends with Magneto imagining how he will destroy the world.
Somebody asked him why he wanted to inhabit the voices of so many villains in his book. He responded by saying that poems, ultimately, are a tool of empathy. When we read poems, we are forced to see ourselves in the speaker. But, nobody wants to see themselves in the face of villains, nobody wants to know the horrible things we are all capable of, nobody wants to see themselves complicit in violence and oppression. I think about that all the time, which is actually what pushed me write “The Gunman” in Phantom Tongue—placing myself in the mindset of Omar Mateen in the moments leading to the Pulse shooting scared me, but by the end of it, I knew I couldn’t have written that poem any other way.
Another poet, Maggie Smith, said something else about persona poems that I’ve been thinking about a lot. She was on an AWP panel in Florida and an audience member asked the question (and I’m roughly paraphrasing), “How do I, as a person with relative privilege, write about racism and the experiences of people who are subject to systemic oppression?” Smith responded by saying that if we’re entering a conversation from a relative place of privilege, why don’t we place ourselves in the poem as the oppressor rather than the oppressed? We have more to gain (and risk) by inhabiting the persona of the oppressor—systemic oppression and violence isn’t just magically inflicted upon marginalized groups, it’s perpetrated by specific individuals and when we refuse to name and identify their role in oppression, we are missing our opportunity to actually learn from and understand systemic oppression in a more nuanced way. (Of course, Maggie Smith conveyed these ideas much more eloquently.)
I wanted to lead a Persona Poetry and Social Justice Workshop because I think Jackson and Smith are both absolutely right: we need to be willing to see ourselves in the villains of the world, because then it will help us understand how each of us, regardless of who we are, are complicit in systemic oppression.
Laura Villareal: I know Phantom Tongue is just coming out this month, but are you working on anything new?
Steven Sanchez: I am! It’s actually related to the workshop I’m leading. I’m trying to interrogate my own privilege and the ways I contribute to systemic oppression, even as a QPOC. I’ve attempted some persona poems, I’ve leaned into the “you” a lot, and I’ve been journaling a lot about it. Nothing’s even close to ready, but I feel like these drafts—my new obsessions—are leading me to my next collection.
Steven Sanchez is the author of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications, 2018), selected by Mark Doty as the winner of Marsh Hawk Press’ Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. A recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo and the Lambda Literary Foundation, his poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Nimrod, Muzzle, Tahoma Literary Review, Crab Creek Review, Glass: a Journal of Poetry, and other publications.
Laura Villareal earned an MFA from Rutgers University-Newark. Her writing has appeared most recently in: The Acentos Review, Freezeray, Reservoir, The Boiler, and elsewhere. She has received scholarships from The Highlights Foundation and Key West Literary Seminar.
Sundress Publications Open for Full-Length Poetry Manuscripts
Sundress Publications is opening for submissions of full-length manuscripts. All authors are welcome to submit qualifying manuscripts during our reading period, which runs from June 1st to August 15th, 2018.
We are looking for manuscripts of forty-eight to eighty (48-80) single-spaced pages of poetry; front matter does not count toward your page count. Individual pieces or selections may have been previously published in anthologies, chapbooks, print journals, online journals, etc., but cannot have appeared in any full-length collection, including self-published collections. Single-author and collaborative author manuscripts will be considered. Manuscripts translated from another language will not be accepted. Simultaneous submissions are fine, but we ask that authors notify us immediately if their work has been accepted elsewhere.
The reading fee is $13 per manuscript, though the fee will be waived for entrants who purchase or pre-order any Sundress title or broadside. We will also accept nominations for entrants, provided the nominating person either pays the reading fee or makes a qualifying purchase. Authors may submit and/or nominate as many manuscripts as they would like, so long as each is accompanied by a separate reading fee or purchase/pre-order. Entrants and nominators can place book orders or pay submission fees at our store at https://squareup.com/market/sundress-publications.
All manuscripts will be read by members of our editorial board, and we will choose at least two manuscripts for publication. We strive to further our commitment to diversity and seek to encounter as many unique and important voices as possible. We are actively seeking collections from writers of color, trans and nonbinary writers, writers with disabilities, and others whose voices are underrepresented in literary publishing. Selected manuscripts will be offered a standard publication contract, which includes 25 copies of the published book, as well as any additional copies at cost.
To submit, email your Sundress store receipt for submission fee or book purchase, along with your manuscript (DOC, DOCX, or PDF), to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to note both your name and the title of the manuscript in your email header. For those nominating others for our reading period, please include the name of nominee as well as an email address; we will solicit the manuscript directly.
A 501(c)3 non-profit literary press collective founded in 2000, Sundress Publications is entirely volunteer-run. We publish chapbooks and full-length works in both print and digital formats, and host a variety of online journals. We are a non-discriminatory publishing group focused on promoting artists regardless of race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, education, etc.