Ahead of the release of his debut full-length poetry collection, Age of Forgiveness, Caleb Curtiss spoke with Sundress Publications editorial intern Jen Gayda Gupta about the meaning of forgiveness, how memories rebuild, and the longing for stillness.
Jen Gayda Gupta: What does forgiveness mean to you? Whose responsibility is it to forgive?
Caleb Curtiss: In Judith Herman’s Trauma & Recovery, she writes, “true forgiveness cannot be granted until the perpetrator has sought and earned it through confession, repentance, and restitution.” I like her angle here. The onus lies with the perpetrator or the negligent party to be accountable to those they’ve harmed.
JGG: You write, “Like a body, or a memory, it has rebuilt itself over time.” How do you think memories rebuild themselves? What is the impact of this rebuilding on grief?
CC: Like dreams, I think memories have to be reconstructed in order for us to understand and grow from them. When we piece together our pasts, we do so with adult brains and in the highly-sensical language of adulthood. But when we experience loss, that highly-sensical language isn’t much use. We have to seek out new materials to build with, a language for our loss.
JGG: There appears to be a separation of the speaker from himself in poems like “Photo Shot on Undeveloped Film” and “I Am Whole, I Am Whole.” What does this separation do for the speaker?
CC: Because this book focuses so closely on my own personal loss, I was aware of, and maybe even sensitive to, how it might read to some as a kind of trauma dump. The poems you mention here, along with a handful of others, are meant to texture the connection between the authorial presence in Age of Forgiveness with its speaker. By presenting my speaker as a kind of character in these poems, I am encouraging my reader to hear him and his voice as a dramatic interpretation of the poems I’ve written for him.
JGG: There are five “Self-Portrait” poems and many references to photos in this collection. How do you believe photos—snapshots of moments—immortalize us and our loved ones?
CC: The simple act of recognition can be a powerful emotional experience. Even if I wasn’t present when the photo was taken, when I recognize the subject of a snapshot, it can transport me back to the moment it captures: spontaneous, fragile, and still somehow permanent. It’s either a mistake that the brain corrects within a few milliseconds, or a momentary little wish fulfillment that allows me to see people I have no way of seeing anymore, or a way to be in times and places that no longer exist.
Maybe you’ve felt this way before. It reminds me of the sensation I have the day after I receive bad news: right when I wake up, I can feel my brain contorting itself to keep the undesired knowledge out of my conscious mind, suspend it in the sludge of half-known truths so I can experience the world, just for a moment, as it is not.
JGG: Tell me about the visual poetry that separates each section. What is the significance of the rabbit that appears both on the cover and in each piece of art?
CC: One of the paradoxes I try to acknowledge in my process is language’s power to express the inexpressible even as it falls short of doing so completely. The visual erasures I made for Age of Forgiveness remind me, and hopefully my reader, of this paradox while also offering up a kind of shadow narrative that compliments and contextualizes each section. It might be helpful to think of the rabbit drawing I made as the main character of that shadow narrative.
JGG: Many poems contain imagined truths—reconstructions of things that happened out of the speaker’s sight. Can you talk about the role of truth and how it intersects with memory?
CC: Whether I like it or not, every day I have to concede that I share my own subjective reality with those held by the rest of the world. Poems that recall facts for the sake of bearing witness don’t interest me as much as those that aspire to build from their own subjective position an idea that resounds as truth.
JGG: There seems to be a longing for stillness in poems like “Possum” and “Still.” What is the benefit of being still?
CC: That’s a nice catch. I think I do feel drawn to stillness, especially when it appears unexpectedly. I remember when my little brother would pause the video tape I was watching to prank me. We did it to each other, I’m sure, but whenever he caught me, I would find myself in a kind of altered state, again, probably for only a millisecond or two.
It doesn’t entirely matter how long. What matters is, there was a moment when my brain would attempt telekinesis and will the tape forward before I’d catch myself. Moments like this are special, even if they’re a little scary, too: when the gears stop advancing the tape but light still passes through its transparency.
JGG: Can you speak about the role of absence in this collection? How does the absence of something or someone shape the space of our current moment?
CC: This collection looks at absence a lot like you or I might look at a blivet or a Magic Eye poster. There’s always something there.
JGG: You write, “the dead always, eventually, become tropes of the living.” What do you believe is the role of a writer in writing about the dead?
CC: I don’t think the living owe the dead anything. As it stands, they aren’t impacted when we express love or resentment or indifference to them. Of course, we are affected by these things. If anything, as a poet, I feel an obligation to the poem I am writing.
JGG: The final poem in this collection, “Doe,” captures a violence towards women that is shown in several earlier poems. What is the significance of the doe being mistaken for a buck?
CC: The rhetoric we generally use to discuss domestic abuse or gender-motivated violence comes from the necessity to determine and recognize accountability. In the world of “Doe” the rhetoric of justice, accountability, restoration, etc. doesn’t really exist. It’s a different place, different from any of the other places in the collection, even as it maps the book as a whole to some degree.
Could it be that the doe was in fact mistaken for a buck as it appears? It could be, but my hope with “Doe” is that its clarity grows, over time, out of its ambiguity.
When I started writing this one, the manuscript itself was still coming together. As it did, the poem changed quite a bit, from a sonnet to blank verse to hexametric couplets, and so on until it became a prose poem. The point being: as the book changed, “Doe” also changed.
Caleb Curtiss is a teacher and a poet from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. His poems, essays, fiction, and visual erasures have appeared in Image, American Short Fiction, New England Review, Passages North, Witch Craft Magazine, and The Southern Review. Age of Forgiveness is his first full-length collection.
Jen Gayda Gupta is a poet, educator, and wanderer. She earned her BA in English at the University of Connecticut and her MA in Teaching English from New York University. Jen lives, writes, and travels across the U.S. in a tiny camper with her husband and their dog. Her work has been published in Up the Staircase, Rattle, Jellyfish Review, Sky Island Journal, The Shore, and others. You can find her @jengaydagupta and jengaydagupta.com.
Following the release of our new e-anthology A Body You Talk To: An Anthology of Contemporary Disability our Editorial Intern Max Stone spoke with editor Tennison S. Black about the importance of sharing and amplifying work by disabled writers, their editorial vision for the anthology, the story behind the title, the inclusion of visual art in the collection, and more.
Max Stone: Could you talk about the title of the anthology? Why this title? Where did it come from and how do you see it unifying this collection of work?
Tennison S. Black: The thing about me that few realize is that I have to coach myself through chronic pain to complete basic tasks. Sometimes I’m really kind to myself, “Okay, here we go. You’ve got this.” And sometimes I’m irritable with the pain or outright inability to accomplish what I want, “Just do it. Oh for fu**’s sake.” But the thing is that I talk to my body all the time. Opening a car door requires a conversation in my mind, “Focus on the ring finger and let it do the work—don’t use the thumb—okay maybe just hook it then turn your shoulders and it’ll work as leverage.”
My primary disability seems hell-bent on taking out my hands, especially. Though I’ve had this disease since 2001, in recent years it’s increased the toll and I seem to be steadily losing my access to the use of my hands. So I talk to them a lot. But also to my knee, my left hip, my shoulders, neck, and spine. I guess it depends on the task but I coach my parts toward cooperation.
In the summer months there’s something about the way my bedroom door was originally hung and so when it swells in the heat, it’s really difficult to open. Every day is hard, but when you combine that with a flare in my hands, I can easily get stuck in my room because the doorknob and the strain of opening the door causes me extreme pain but also because I just can’t pull hard enough to get it to open anymore. At some level my instinct is to sit on the floor and have a good cry until I’m rescued. But no one is coming to rescue anyone else, it seems, and also, that’s not who I want to be in this life—I don’t want to give up. Except when I really really do. The way I bridge the difference is to talk to—I don’t know—the arm, the hand, the disease that puts me in that position, myself for eating something the night before that I know could cause me additional pain—all of it. The hot summer air and humidity that causes my door to do this. The inability to pay for someone to fix it—yes and yes and yes. So I have one of those bodies that you have to talk to just to get through the day. From opening a can or jar, yes even with tools, to carrying my bag, to pulling on my clothes, I need a coach so I coach myself. And in this way, I’m not alone.
MS: Why was it important to put together an anthology of poetry on contemporary disability at this current moment?
TSB: I haven’t always been good at saying I’m Disabled. It’s not in my nature to disclose my feelings or my struggles. There are a lot of reasons for this, but mostly I think it came from raising my kids as a single parent with no family or friends, and feeling utterly terrified that if anyone knew the amount of pain I was in on a daily basis, or how much I was struggling, I’d lose my kids. Now, that may seem irrational today, but I can’t overstate how alone I was in those years, and how I was just trying not to die. So it took a lot for me to even begin to understand my own disability, and what it may mean to be Disabled in the world, and also what to do with that information. I was trying to just get by, walking to food banks—got evicted, and on and on. Anyway, I’m not always great at it, and I struggle still, but I feel like I need to do better.
There’s not yet been a time when being Disabled wasn’t a radical act. Yet Disabled writers are still routinely excluded in many presses and open calls. Listen, there are several incredible anthologies of this type so we’re not breaking new ground here but until it’s routine and expected that a certain percentage of writers in every anthology are openly Disabled, we all (meaning presses) have work to do. As for Sundress, this won’t be our last effort toward this end, it’s just our most recent. But I still hear from publishers that Disabled writers are “difficult,” or that we “can’t handle touring and promotion,” and that we’re just “too much,” so we still have a long way to go.
MS: How do you see these poems contributing to the conversation on disability and creating more space and empathy for disabled people in the world?
TSB: Not all of the work in this anthology is about being Disabled except in as much as everything everyone does is influenced by their identity—Disabled and non-disabled alike. But this anthology is not necessarily intended to focus strictly on the experience of Disability as much as it’s intended to offer one more outlet, one more space for Disabled people to speak their minds or to place their art. It’s another marker saying that we’re here. In some cases these artists and writers are responding to other Disabled writers and artists. But in many cases they’re just representing themselves and saying hey, I want to be included in the conversation, please. And what else is there?
MS: Talk a little bit about your editorial vision for this book; what considerations did you make when choosing which poems to include? A variety of different voices, disabilities, intersecting identities, and poetic forms are represented; was this a conscious, deliberate choice that you made?
TSB: If I could have accepted every submission, I would have. But what was my vision—I mean here we sit in this world with fascism rising all around us, trying to gobble up and kill everything good. My daily vision is to defy that push, to offer space where people can be in love and in sorrow, in pain and in hope with each other. And to offer that space up to those who are living in defiance of all that is horrid and terrible in the world.
MS: Are there specific poems by different poets that you think speak to or resonate with each other? If so, which ones and how do they conversate, both in terms of content and form?
TSB: There are many pieces in this anthology that speak to one another. I’d prefer not to point them out because first I want the reader to have room here. But, too, I want every writer and artist herein to know that I value their work, none above any other, but with immense gratitude nonetheless for each. They’re all special to me and I chose them for that reason alone.
MS: The COVID-19 pandemic is a recurring theme in this anthology. Can you expand on the intersections of disability with the pandemic and the choices you made in selecting poems relating to the topic? Also, did you have an idea of how much of a presence you wanted the pandemic to have in the book going into it?
TSB: There hasn’t yet been enough said about the impact of the pandemic on our community. Personally, I spent the pandemic with a medically suppressed immune system because it was either that or lose my ability to walk as my disease ravaged my joints. And in fact, it took multiple specialists AND me losing my ability to walk for several months to finally agree to do it because of the pandemic. But my story is far from unique or extraordinary. If you faced the pandemic with a disability, you likely had increased pressure in all of the ways that everyone else had—just more so. From loneliness to financial pressure, to physical challenges and worries amid a potentially deadly pandemic to which many of us were more susceptible—especially to the worst outcomes. I didn’t feel that I could approach the topic of disability at this stage and not also talk about the impact of the pandemic—something many of us are still facing, even if most people have decided it’s over.
MS: Several art pieces are also included in the anthology. Can you speak about your thought process in choosing these pieces?
TSB: Honestly, if it weren’t for capitalism, we’d all be able to lay around and make art and write and tell stories. And I wouldn’t want to be a part of extricating one of these from another. Wherever my writing is, there will always be room for art. And I hope to include art in every editorial effort I undertake. My thoughts in the selection process here were to include pieces that spoke to or advanced the narrative of the whole and some of those were more visual than others.
MS: Disabilities that aren’t visible are often overlooked and ignored. How do you see A Body You Talk To tackling this issue and making such disabilities, and the people who experience them, more visible and acknowledged?
TSB: For twenty years I was invisibly Disabled. My disabilities have only become really visible in the last few years, and even then, they again can be invisible to those who don’t understand what they’re seeing. Like so many of us, I have been screamed at for parking in an accessible parking space, or for using the accessible stall in the restroom. I’ve been asked by a very prominent Disability rights advocate why I was there at a disability event and how they could know I was Disabled because I didn’t look disabled to them. It’s awful to be put in these positions so I just don’t think we need to justify ourselves. We don’t owe our medical information to anyone. It’s not really for me to make other Disabled people more visible but to offer them a platform to make themselves more visible (if they choose) is something I can do. And acknowledgement might be nice but what I want is universal accessibility. I want us all to be able to get in and out of buildings and to get around the world without so much difficulty or the need to justify ourselves to others. A Body You Talk To is a place for some Disabled writers and artists to be heard and to publish their work. That alone is, I hope, enough. It’s a room. The real work belongs to the writers and artists contained therein.
Tennison S. Black (they/she), a queer and multiply disabled autistic, is the author of Survival Strategies (winner of the National Poetry Series, UGA Press 2023). Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in SWWIM, Hotel Amerika, Booth, Wordgathering, and New Mobility, among others. They received an MFA at Arizona State University. They are the Managing Editor at Sundress Publications and Best of the Net. Though Sonoran born, they reside in Washington state.
Max Stone is a poet from Reno, Nevada. He has an MFA in poetry and a BA in English with a minor in Book Arts and Publication from the University of Nevada, Reno. He was born and raised in Reno, but has lived in various other places including New York City, where he played soccer at Queens College. He is the author of two chapbooks: Temporary Preparations (Bottlecap Press, June 2023) and The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful (Ghost City Press, forthcoming July 2023). His work has been published by & Change, just femme and dandy, fifth wheel press, Bender Zine, Black Moon Magazine, The Meadow, Night Coffee Lit, and elsewhere.
Following the republishing of her book Impersonation, Joy Ladin spoke with Doubleback Books editorial intern Pema Donnelly about the revision process of republishing, as well as how her gender transition and relationship with God and religion inspired her poetry.
Pema Donnelly: In your author’s note at the beginning of Impersonation, you talk about what revising was like for you. Could you talk a bit more about what it was like to work with these poems that were coming from all different stages of your transition?
Joy Ladin: My first response to re-reading the book after it was accepted by you was shock. Over the years since its publication, I had occasionally reread individual poems that became regulars at readings. But I hadn’t read it as a whole since the first edition was published in 2015. In addition to being struck by the need for an organization that would make it easier to see the connection between the relations to gender expressed when I wrote each poem, there were a number of poems that simultaneously seemed to cry out for revision, and feel too foreign to re-enter imaginatively. They were my poems, I remembered writing them, but after years of living as rather than struggling to become and grow into myself, they didn’t feel like mine any more.
As I worked on them, I realized how much my relation to gender when I wrote them had shaped my poetics. Poetics grow out of the problems we are wrestling with when we write—they are ways of using language to explore, or clarify, or navigate, or avoid, or resolve those problems. For example, the earliest poems in Impersonation were written when I was in the closet, hiding my trans identity behind a dissociated male persona. That created two poetics-shaping problems: though I wanted to write poems that were coherent and in some ways true, because I wasn’t present in my body or life, I had little vivid experience, feelings, or even memories to draw on, and because I was in the closet, I dared not say anything that revealed my gender dysphoria or female gender identification. These problems led me to write persona poems about feelings, experiences, and memories that weren’t mine, but which indirectly reflected an unspeakable sense of dislocation, loss, and (internal) exile which, after fifteen years of living as myself, seem like a bad dream. That made it excruciating to revise those poems – to once again approach writing as something that couldn’t reveal or even be about me.
There are three other poetics-defining relations to gender represented in the book. The poetics of my pre-transition poems were defined by trying to explore or express my struggles with gender in ways that are so abstracted that no one would recognize them. The transition poems were driven by a bundle of exciting new (to me) problems. I was trying to speak from a female subject position I hadn’t yet embodied, and to create language for feelings, fears, and losses that, so far as I knew, no trans poet had yet expressed. I was also, for the first time, trying to write as myself, the person I knew myself to be but had not yet grown into—a problem that lead to me writing a lot in what I think of as the prophetic second-person, as a future voice addressing my struggling, unformed self. Writing about a process of becoming I was in the midst of made it impossible to reach what I now think of as endings or conclusions—like fragments of existential rainbows, the poems begin and end in the middle. And finally, even as I was trying to express the excitement and ecstasy of becoming, because my transition was bound up with the breakup of my home, family, and marriage, I needed to do so in a way that acknowledged the sufferings of those I loved – sufferings I caused by finally being true to myself. I couldn’t revise these poems until I gave up trying to force on them a clarity and conclusion that, I realized, negated the problems that summoned them into being. The only section that was easy to revise was the last one, poems about living as, rather than becoming, an openly trans, female-identified person. Even though I don’t write much about that these days, that relation to gender, and representational problems that grow out of it, are much closer to those I live today.
PD: You mentioned that the “Transit of Venus” sequence felt very ambitious. What does this sequence mean to you, and how do you feel about it in relation to the book now?
JL: The “Transit of Venus” section represented what were then completely new ways of writing for me—writing about feelings in the present (actually, after 45 years in the closet, openly writing about my feelings was new to me); writing about my life in the midst of living it, rather than fictional lives or abstracted reflections of bits of my life; and what was then a new practice of writing poems composed solely from language sampled from women’s magazines, something which became a staple composition technique, but which then was an effort to learn what it meant to write from a female subject position, as a woman. Those poems were also among my earliest efforts to create language to express transgender experiences and interiority, particularly for the tumultuous emotions surrounding gender transition and the process of becoming. But in the personal sense, the most ambitious aspect of these poems was that they weren’t only efforts to represent and express transgender experience—they were efforts to imagine becoming myself and, in a real sense, my first experiences of being myself. To me, they were crucial parts of gender transition; in fact, I considered their earliest drafts as the beginning of my transition—a crucial test of whether I could write poetry as myself, and so—apologies for being so dramatic, but this was how I thought – of whether I could actually live as myself, or needed to die in order to end my life as a man.
PD: During the revision process, did any favorites emerge for you? Were there any surprises to revising? For instance, a poem you initially liked didn’t make the final cut, or the opposite, a poem you didn’t like initially made the cut with a few changes?
JL: My biggest surprises came when I went back to poems I cut out of the original manuscript—I have musician envy, so thought of them as outtakes from the original sessions—and found previously unpublished poems some, including “Unmaking Love, “Reincarnation,” and “Letter to the Gender Critical,” and the “Stories” sequence, that seemed relevant and strong enough to include.
I was also surprised that the father poems in the “Post Mortem” section felt important to me after all these years, and by the sharpness and vividness of some of the “Mind-Body Problem” poems, such as “Photograph 1934” and “To Say You Lived— they reminded me of a kind of concentration and distillation of image I left behind when I left the closet.
It was a relief to cut three poems I included in the original book even though I had misgivings about them – “Still a Guy,” “She,” and “Exegetical Fingers.” Leaving them out made the book better.
PD: One of my favorite poems while reading Impersonation was “Filibustier”. I think it stands out as one of the more overtly political poems in the collection as well. Was there any specific moment that inspired this piece?
JL: I don’t remember a moment that inspired “Filibustier.” It grew out of techniques I learned during the study of modernist American techniques that became my dissertation and book, Soldering the Abyss: Emily Dickinson and Modern American Poetry, in which I examined how Dickinson would fuse language representing different discourses together in ways that turned them into metaphors for one another. She does it much more concisely and mind-blowingly that I do, of course, but that technique gave me a way to express the intensely ambivalent experience of exploring gender transition while still being in the closet without veering, as I often did at the time, into shame or self-hatred. I suddenly realized that, like gender transition, voting (the metaphorical discourse that makes up most of the poem) is an act of self-expression that is done in private, a self-defining choice no one else witnesses or knows, a way of trying to change the world that may mean a lot to the individual (my mother was a devoted member of the League of Women Voters, and came from a refugee family that saw voting as a gift and sacred responsibility) but which is imperceptible to others. I feared that gender transition would cut me off from society. As I expanded the voting metaphor, the poem surprised me by speaking about gender transition in a way I hadn’t imagined—as a private commitment that would strengthen my social participation, a prophetic glimpse of what happened years later after I started living as myself.
PD: A lot of your poems tend to incorporate God or religious references in some way. What is your relationship to religion & how would you say it has changed & evolved over the course of writing Impersonation’s poems?
JL: I’ve written a lot about my relationship to God and religion (two different things!) and how they are bound up for me with my trans identity, including chunks of my memoir of gender transition, Through the Door of Life, which I wrote before Impersonation, and a book-length work of trans theology, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, which I wrote after it. Long story short, though my family wasn’t religious, I have always had a sense of God’s presence that sustained me through decades of gender-related suicidal depression. My family didn’t talk about God, and I learned as soon as I started taking writing workshops in junior high school that American poets aren’t supposed to talk about God either, unless we occasionally want to do so skeptically or angrily. So though I’ve always written poems with the word “God” in them, for most of my poetic career, I kept my actual relationship with God, like my female gender identification, in the closet. As I did about gender in my pre-transition poems, I wrote about God from a distance, in ways that make God seem like an idea I’m questioning rather than someone who feels like an important part of my life. You can see those closeted techniques for talking about God in several poems in Impersonation, including the first, “A Story About God,” and the last, “Making Love,” in which God is part of a metaphor for queer sexual ecstasy. But in “Gender is Not the Only Transition,” the sequence that makes up much of the post-transition section and was written after most of the rest of the book, I come close to directly representing parts of my actual relationship with God (though still through the veil of the voices to which the poems in the sequence are attributed).
PD: Finally, if you could, what would you like to say to those who are becoming?
JL: “All beginnings are hard”—that’s a Jewish saying that applies directly to becoming. Becoming new or truer versions of ourselves is hard, because it means living through a series of beginnings. Every time we come out to someone, it’s the beginning of a new relationship. Every time we re-examine our ways of living or thinking or talking or acting from the perspective of the selves we are growing into, it’s a new beginning. When I was in the throes of becoming, everything felt like a beginning: dressing, walking, talking, seeing old friends, going to the bank, sitting on the subway, kissing, waking up as myself rather than to male persona I had to suffer and maintain, even my emotions, felt new, beginnings of a life and self I was just discovering, making up as I went along.
Because all beginnings are hard, becoming takes toughness, courage, resilience, and hope—and it also takes compassion toward oneself and those who are affected by our becoming. We have to learn to enlist the most grown-up parts of ourselves in caring for the newborn parts of ourselves. As toddlers teach us when they are learning to walk, becoming takes falling down, getting hurt, pulling ourselves up, lurching forward again.
Most of all I want to tell those who are becoming that though the world may not be ready for you, though it may seem utterly hostile to you, it needs you—because you, and only you, can be the person you are becoming.
Joy Ladin has long worked at the tangled intersection of literature and trans identity. She has published ten books of poetry, including her latest collection, Shekhinah Speaks (Selva Oscura Press, 2022); 2021 National Jewish Book Award winner The Book of Ana (EOAGH); and Lamda Literary Award finalists Impersonation and Transmigration. A new collection, Family, is forthcoming from Persea in 2024. She has also published a memoir of gender transition, National Jewish Book Award finalist Through the Door of Life, and a groundbreaking work of trans theology, Lambda Literary and Triangle Award finalist, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective. Her writings have been recognized with a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship, among other honors. Many of her poems, essays, and videos of her presentations are available at joyladin.wordpress.com.
Pema Donnelly is a poet and interdisciplinary creative born and raised in Southern California. In her work, she explores representing queer joy, silver linings, and aspects of her own mental health journey. Today, Pema attends the University of California, Irvine, where she studies English and Education. When she is not studying, you may find her visiting your local estate sales or spending time with her senile tuxedo cat, Rose.
Zoë Fay-Stindt’sBird Body offers readers a fresh mythology, one that is avian and ardent, through which we may better understand ourselves. There are no black and white solutions, but there is humidity, desire, breath. The poems explain that, by accepting the harm our bodies have housed, we can find the wings to evolve, if not to escape. In their responses to my questions, Fay-Stindt discloses the transformations their manuscript underwent to become Bird Body.
Marah Hoffman: The collection’s three sections–the priming, distress signal, and finally soft places to land–and their accompanying epigraphs gracefully provide context for the poems. How did you decide on these sections?
Zoë Fay-Stindt: Thank you! I’m glad they land—no pun intended. As a trauma recovery narrative, non-linearity is a really important element of Bird Body’s structure, so organizing the poems into clean, legible sections seemed really strange. That said, finding clarity through the containers that each section offered was such a relief for me! I owe that relief, actually, to the literal floorboards of Sundress’ Firefly Farms: I had all but given up on Bird Body when I came to Sundress for a writing residency, and I decided to give the chapbook one last overhaul to see if it might be salvaged. Spreading the collection’s pages out on the floor let me step into the mess of the project for the first time in several years, and from that chaos, these three sections gathered themselves up. These are the magic moments of writing: when it feels like the work is more in charge of itself than you are and you just have to step back to let it do its thing.
MH: Specifically in the section the priming, the poems pulse with wanting and the shame that follows. In “the last summer of innocence” are the lines, “I the shameful/leader of our trespasses, horrified/at my appetite, blooming predator” (15). And in “pap smear,” “my consumption/far beyond the suggested amount” (17). As the collection progresses, consumption continues to be a theme. How can birds help us understand our desires?
ZFS: Mmm, that’s an interesting question. It makes sense that want, shame, and consumption show up a lot. Writing this chapbook, I was trying to wrestle with the lessons that the body—especially an AFAB body coming into sexuality, desire, queerness, and hunger—gets taught about its worth as a sexual object. This first section, the priming, tried to hold these ideas of shame and desire up to the light without offering any clear answers. The poems in here speak to the real messy process of trying to make sense of that “priming,” and the language of shame that I microdosed all through adolescence.
ZFS: To answer your question about the birds, I’m actually not sure I know how they can help us understand our desires! But in Bird Body, at least, they helped me find a surrealist escape that wasn’t anchored in dichotomies of good/bad or right/wrong. Moving beyond the human world, I could let go of the shame I had inherited around my body, my desire, and the violence I had experienced.
MH: There is a tone of reclamation that sparks in distress signal. The speaker proclaims, “In my mythology…” (24). Overall, the poems express invention: symbols metamorphose, archetypes take flight. I say all this to bring me to my question, what was your research process like? It’s clear that amidst your experimentation is an awareness of the Bible, fables, and mythology.
ZFS: The speaker in these poems—and the younger version of me—was really hungry for a mythology that could step outside of the virgin-whore complex and greet their body as the beautiful, confusing animal that it was. My research process wasn’t very structured for this project, actually, but I did tuck into a lot of varying mythology to think about how birds have been represented in religious texts across the centuries, and birds often appeared as creators—or at least present during the creation of life. If birds were our guides or creators rather than a man-like figure, what kind of possibilities could that offer to envisioning a world beyond violent legacies?
MH: Were your poems inspired by any particular landscapes and/or seasons? I noticed a few pieces describe settings that are warm and wet–traditional descriptors of fertile places, despite the collection’s complicated relationship with maternity. To add a second question, would you like to speak to this juxtaposition?
ZFS: Oh, yeah. I was raised humid: growing up in North Carolina swamp country, the world around me was a rich and thick place. I still feel most alive when I’m in sweat-wet places—so much living goes on there! I love that humidity seeped through the poems so much.
MH: I am a huge fan of the second person, and I noticed you are too! “You” has many different owners throughout the collection: birds, a lover, the speaker’s mother, the speaker themself. What were your goals for point of view (and pronouns) as you wrote Bird Body?
ZFS: I think I’d be lying if I said I had any explicit goals for this, but thank you for the generosity of your question! Thinking about it retroactively, second person often takes hold in my poetry as a response to an always-shifting sense of distance between myself and the “outside” world. The boundaries around me feel forever in flux, and second person allows me to simultaneously hold the world at arm’s length (with boundaries, even as they fluctuate) while still stepping into deep intimacy. Beyond the page, that feels true to my experience of the world: I’m always in direct address. Always in conversation with you—you, Marah, or you, heron, or you, Mom, or you, cypress. These beings crowd my sense of self—delightfully, strangely—and the second person lets all those creatures in. I love how even that phrase, the second person, acknowledges a presence. A doubling. That feels true.
MH: While acknowledging the aches and ruptures, Bird Body spotlights awe. The personification of good’s malleability seems to be the heron, this otherworldly creature that can both swallow baby birds and bless a horizon. Would you mind explaining why herons are significant to you? What do they have to say about the notion of ‘good’?
ZFS: Hmm, that’s a really interesting question. I think, as I mentioned before, that a lot of my process of writing Bird Body was trying to figure out what the hell “good” meant in this world. Also, what does that even mean? The heron in Bird Body often appears as a complicated figure—a healer, a companion, but also, as you point out, a creature who hunts, who hungers. This felt important to me to sit with, and to, once again, step into a reality that’s almost never as black and white as we’d like to imagine.
MH: Lastly, a question I always love to ask is, what was your revision process like? Any advice to other writers who are compiling a poetry manuscript?
ZFS: Whew! Yes. An important question with an always-messy answer. As I mentioned earlier on, my revision process usually involves a lot of printed versions of the collection to make sense of the work as an embodied, separate being. Who are these poems, and what are the conversations they’re having? Spread out on the floor, I can get a real sense of them. I also like to take myself to a café and sit down with my manuscript-in-process to meet her again: who is she? What is she doing? What’s she been up to while I was sleeping, eating, taking a bath? After gathering a draft of my manuscript together and putting it down for a while, I like to come back to the work, read through it as a whole, and write down my general sense of what the collection is working towards and what questions it’s raising. I’m almost always surprised. I think that’d be my general advice: leave your manuscript alone for a while. Go for a several months-long walk. Then let yourself listen to what the work is telling you beyond what you thought you wanted the work to say, and see how you can honor that.
Zoë Fay-Stindt is a queer, bicontinental poet with roots in both the French and American South. Their work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, featured or forthcoming in places such as Southern Humanities, Ninth Letter, and PoetLore, and gathered into a chapbook, Bird Body, winner of Cordella Press’ inaugural Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize. She lives in Ames, Iowa, where she is an MFA candidate at Iowa State University, poetry editor for the environmental journal, Flyway, and a community farm volunteer. You can learn more at www.zoefaystindt.com.
Marah Hoffman has a bachelor’s in English and Creative Writing from Lebanon Valley College. In college, she served as co-poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and Sigma Tau Delta English Honors Society president. From the LVC English department, she won The Green Blotter Writer Award. She has been featured in journals including Green Blotter, LURe Journal, Oakland Arts Review, Beyond Thought, and Asterism. Now, she supports Sundress Academy for the Arts through her role as Creative Director. Marah loves creative nonfiction, intertextuality, whimsicality, cats, lattes, distance running, and adding to her personal lexicon. Her list of favorite words grows every week.
Welcome back to Lyric Essentials, where we invite authors to share the work of their favorite poets. This month, Kelly Weber has joined us to discuss the poetry of Sara Henning and world building in poetry, evocative imagery, and memory’s relationship with lyricism. As always, we hope you enjoy as much as we did.
Ryleigh Wann: How has Sara Henning’s work inspired your own?
Kelly Weber: Henning’s collection was one of many I read as I was thinking about ways to build a sort of complicated family mythology in my first published book, We Are Changed to Deer at the Broken Place. She writes in an unflinching way about trauma and weaves the narrative structure of memory with a lyricism that moves so deftly on the page. There’s such an emotional honesty and directness with luscious sound play and distinctive imagery in her work.
RW: You’re the author of the recent publication, We Are Changed to Deer at the Broken Place (Tupelo Press, 2022). What was the process of creating this collection like? Where did your interest in mythology or formal poetry begin?
KW: This collection really grew out of trying to find a lyric shape and articulation for asexuality and aromanticism, and a lot of the book’s wrestling with the sonnet form and some of its amatonormative traditions are part of the crisis of that book. For a long time I struggled with traditional poetic forms and their restrictions–I still haven’t found a way to write into the sestina that feels genuinely inspiring, for example. But with this book, I realized I loved inventing my own formal changes on the page, like writing a poem with the ampersand as its primary and only piece of punctuation, or really skewing and strangling the traditional sonnet crown into something that was interesting to me. Ultimately the process of creating this collection was about finally finding what was interesting to me about the lyric poem on the page. The thematic concerns followed the formal experiments I was trying, and gradually the themes and shape of the book emerged from there.
RW: Why did you choose to read these poems specifically?
KW: “The Truth Only Starlings Will Speak” reminds me of the vivid, evocative description in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”–one of Henning’s many fine skills as a writer is her ability to articulate an image with such lush verbs and word choice. Images in that poem like “lymph nodes feverous / in their recursion. Bending to this rapture” are so perfectly observed in both sound and image. This poem is exemplary of her ability to slow down a narrative moment and find the highest lyric pitch within it. Too, she does this brilliantly in “Terra Inferna,” a poem I also love for the girl and the mare “wild enough / to end everything,” the power and agency within those figures. There’s also so much agency and power in “Once, I Prayed in the Water”–a poem that so beautifully celebrates the speaker’s desire, her autonomy, her sense of eroticism and pleasure and living life to the fullest that leads to that sudden, stunning turn to an elegy for the mother, the burial of the person the speaker once was, and a meditation on how “all things beautiful & terrible / begin to burn.” I love the tension of the water and the fire in this poem, their yoking together through shine.
RW: What have you been up to lately (life, work, anything!)? Got any news to share?
KW: I’m so thrilled that my first book, We Are Changed to Deer at the Broken Place from Tupelo Press, is now out in the world, and I’ve been busy with readings and events and workshops in support of that release. I’m also excited for my second book, You Bury the Birds in My Pelvis, coming out this fall with Omnidawn Press. It’s a lot happening at once but I’m so grateful for all of it.
Sara Henning is the author of Burn (Southern Illinois University Press, 2024), Terra Incognita (Ohio University Press, 2022), and View from True North (Southern Illinois University Press, 2018). She was awarded the 2015 Crazyhorse Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize, the 2019 Poetry Society of America’s George Bogin Memorial Award, First Prize in the 2020 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award (Passaic County Community College), and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship in poetry to the 2019 Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her work has appeared in journals such as Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southern Humanities Review, Witness, Meridian, and the Cincinnati Review. She is an assistant professor of English at Marshall University.
Purchase her latest collection Terra Incognita here.
Kelly Weber (she/they) is the author of We Are Changed to Deer at the Broken Place (Tupelo Press, 2022) and You Bury the Birds in My Pelvis, winner of the 2022 Omnidawn First/Second Book Prize (forthcoming October 2023). She is the reviews editor for Seneca Review. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in a Best American Poetry Author Spotlight, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Southeast Review, Salamander, The Journal, Passages North, Foglifter, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Colorado State University and lives with two rescue cats. Find them on Instagram and Twitter at @KellyWeberPoet
Purchase their debut collection We Are Changed to Deer at the Broken Place here.
Ryleigh Wann (she/her) hails from Michigan and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. She earned an MFA from UNC Wilmington where she taught poetry and served as the comics editor for Ecotone. Her writing can be found in The McNeese Review, Longleaf Review, Rejection Letters, and elsewhere. You can visit her website at ryleighwann.com
Ahead of the release of her debut full-length poetry collection, Little Houses, Athena Nassar spoke with Sundress Publications editorial intern Nicole Bethune Winters about her poetic choices, poems that were particularly difficult to write and those that Nassar is most connected to, as well as immigration, colonization, and the influence of Egypt, the [American] South, and Puerto Rico on this collection.
Nicole Bethune Winters: Did the organization of the manuscript into different “houses” come before or after deciding on the book’s title? What was the desired effect of presenting the collection in this way?
Athena Nassar: I had divided the sections into houses before I decided on the title of the collection, but the title fell into place soon after. I frequently return to questions of home and belonging throughout the collection, and after having completed the collection, I realize that I was asking myself whether it is possible to make a home out of the body. These houses function as isolated compartments of the self. Each house has its own identity and its own traumas.
NBW: Can you tell me more about the choices you made in poems like “Coming of Age” and “athena as the Garden of Eden”?
AN: The poem “Coming of Age” was conceived after this one time where my brother and I lost our dog when our parents were away. Although I don’t claim to be much of an “animal person,” the knowledge that my family was counting on me to take care of this living thing for a few hours and I failed was very jarring to me. The harsh enjambment and the lack of punctuation, which results in the sentences running into one another, is supposed to replicate a sort of heaving. In this poem, the speaker is submerged in a river searching for their dog who may have drowned, and by the end of the poem, it’s almost as if the speaker herself becomes this drowning dog gasping for air.
NBW: Speaking of “athena as the Garden of Eden,” there is a series of these “athena as” poems that run throughout the second and fourth houses of the collection. What function did you intend for these poems to serve?
AN: Being that these are persona poems, they are meant to function as a departure or an escape from the speaker’s reality, but in some of these poems, the speaker’s reality still manages to slip through. My poem “athena as princess peach,” where the speaker’s “crown has been mauled by a kitchen blender,” is one poem where this slippage occurs. On the other hand, the speaker in my poem “athena as villanelle” successfully escapes from the imposing patriarchal system and assumes another, more dominant role.
NBW: Capitalization seems to play a role in Little Houses—can you tell me more about the reasons you chose to employ it in some instances and not others? Was there a rule that dictated this throughout the collection or was it poem-specific? AN: There wasn’t necessarily a specific reason why I decided to capitalize some poems and leave other poems lowercase. I made those decisions based on what I thought looked the best on the page. Although, I do make sure to capitalize cities, places, and names most of the time.
NBW: Are there any poems that were particularly difficult to write/finish? Is there a specific poem that you feel most connected to?
AN: I wouldn’t say there were any poems that were difficult to write—there were just some that needed to be put away for a while before I could get at the meat of what I had to say. One scenario I can equate this to is when you have an argument with someone, and then you go home, and you think, well, I could’ve said _ , or _. Occasionally, I needed to return to the argument in order to flesh out, and sometimes rewrite, the poem. My poem “the performance,” for example, was one piece that was put away for a year before it occurred to me that it was a poem about reclaiming my sexuality as a woman of color. Suddenly, the “Hottentot Venus” entered the narrative, and it just clicked.
I am connected to all of these poems, but if I had to choose a few that I am most connected to, they would probably be “athena a s princess peach,” “Georgia bleeds,” “Avareh,” and “so i let you be a canvas.” I wrote “athena as princess peach” as a senior in boarding school, and although it does carry a lighthearted tone, it definitely reflects a time of my life when I was first being introduced to the value of agency, as well as questions like who is given power and who is not. “Georgia bleeds” is a piece that I toiled with for a while, but it evolved into a prose poem that encapsulates my upbringing in the South, as well as my Arab heritage, and it will forever be one of my favorites.
NBW: Does the visual component of your poems play a role in how you format them? If so, what aspects of a piece stand out to you the most, or what do you primarily fixate on while you’re writing?
AN: The visual component of my poems are largely impacted by the subject matter. My poem “ghost girls,” for example, has these caesuras scattered throughout the poem, because the speaker is being carried with the wind. In fact, the speaker is the wind itself. These girls cannot be held or felt, and I depict this in the format of this poem. As far as what I tend to fixate on while I’m writing, I am very conscious of the “flow” of the poem. With each line I add, I usually go back and read the whole poem outloud to myself. The flow of a piece is usually the result of a number of things working simultaneously—alliteration, enjambment, percussive sound, visceral imagery, and the selection of the “best” words. There are a few words in particular that I was drawn to in the process of writing the collection: pour, swallow, body, smoke, and tongue, among others.
NBW: In most of the poems, the speaker writes in first-person, yet in a few, like “Dreams Won’t Feed You Forever,” there is a departure from this. What is the desired impact of this perspective shift?
AN: I would say that the majority of these poems are largely autobiographical, and I frequently assume the role of the speaker, but I chose to create some distance in “Dreams Won’t Feed You Forever,” because this is a poem that focuses on my aunt grieving the loss of my grandmother.
NBW: Relationships appear to be constantly evaluated throughout the collection—where do you see the speaker in regards to their relationships with family, culture, and society?
AN: I am a major homebody. I go home to visit my parents in Georgia every chance I get, and this nostalgia seeps into the voice of the speaker in a lot of these poems. I do love my home and where I was raised, but in poems like “Little Houses” and “Georgia bleeds,” I also reflect on the contempt I have for Georgia’s history and its current political climate. The speaker vacillates between these feelings of nostalgia and contempt throughout the collection, and in most poems, the speaker feels both of these things simultaneously.
NBW: In Little Houses, you touch on immigration and colonization directly in some instances, but more subtly in others. What role did these shifts in address play in the writing of this collection?
AN: My father is an immigrant who was born in Cairo, Egypt. He won his visa in a lottery after being disowned by his mother for marrying my mom, who is not Egyptian or Muslim. My father’s background, him going from being the descendant of pharaohs to being disowned and having to be at the mercy of the US immigration system in order to stay here to study, majorly influenced the statement that I wanted my collection to make. My mother, on the other hand, i half Black and half White. In the South during the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan burned a six foot cross in my grandparents’ yard, threatening them to leave the town or be killed, because they were a biracial couple. They eventually decided to move to Puerto Rico, and as a result, my mother was raised there. All of these places weigh heavily on my collection—Egypt, the South, and Puerto Rico—because they are such a large part of where I come from and who I am.
NBW: There is an abundance of strong imagery in this collection—yet I noticed a specific reoccurrence of fruit-related images. Was this happenstance, or an intentional thread woven throughout these poems?
AN: I do tend to gravitate towards fruit imagery, I think, because the settings of a lot of these poems are very lush, warm places, and I feel like the fruit of a place is a huge symbol of the place itself. When I was a child, my father would always come back from the grocery store withthese large gallons of mango juice, which he would refer to as “the nectar of Egypt,” and I began to associate mangoes with Egypt and also my ancestry and my culture. Aside from the symbolic nature of fruit, there is also so much that fruit can contribute to a poem’s atmosphere—it can drip, it can tear open, it can stain, and so on.
Athena Nassar, author of Little Houses (Sundress Publications, 2023), is an Egyptian-American poet, essayist, and short story writer from Atlanta, Georgia. Her work has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, The Missouri Review, The McNeese Review, New Orleans Review, Zone 3, The Los Angeles Review,Up the Staircase Quarterly, PANK, and elsewhere.
Nicole Bethune Winters is a poet, writer and multi-faceted artist, though her primary love is working with clay. Her first book of poetry, brackish was published by Finishing Line Press, and her work has appeared in Backlash Journal, Wildroof Journal, and Seaborne Magazine. When she isn’t writing or wheel-throwing, Nicole is likely at the beach, on a trail, climbing, or exploring new landscapes with her dog. She currently resides in Southern California, where she works as a full-time artist from her home studio.
Dispatches from Frontier Schoolsis a memoir-in-poems where a teacher’s emotions are vividly rendered through scene, metaphor, dialogue, and commentary on the language that dominates public school systems. As the text progresses, the teacher—who once identified with bright color and bodily awareness—watches herself disappear. The aim of the text, then, is to proclaim personhood in the face of a system that strips it.
Reading Dispatches from Frontier Schools is like watching the strongest person you know rupture. It makes you ache. Thankfully, the salvation this teacher clutched was poetry. Now, the world has this book—a serrated testament to the reality of teaching, a crucial read.
In this interview, Sarah Beddow gives shape to her hopes and process with writing Dispatches.
Marah Hoffman: Teachers are rarely afforded the space to consider their wants and needs. Dispatches creates this crucial space—making sound where there has been noxious silence. Was diminishing such silence one of your goals when you set out to write Dispatches from Frontier Schools? Could you describe your motivations for writing the text?
Sarah Beddow: My job at Frontier was so difficult; I cried all the time and worked all the time. Work and cry, cry and work. Explaining why it was so hard often felt futile. I would sit down with one of a rotating cast of principals, and we would try to figure out how to streamline the work, usually by doing one of those important-urgent matrices. But the fact was that the work in the important/urgent quadrant alone was overwhelming. The worst part was that even though I would stump my principals with the course load they had saddled me with—proving my point that it was obviously too much—I still came away from the meetings feeling like nothing sounded that horrible, and I was just whining.
Back in the real world, I felt like my family and friends didn’t really understand either. Mostly they wondered why I didn’t just quit, and it was hard to explain how wonderful it feels when a lesson just hits or when you have a silly or heartfelt moment with a student you really like.
So, I started writing these poems as Facebook posts, titling each one “Dispatch” and numbering it in sequence. The goal started on a very personal, limited scale: see me and hear me, my loved ones. The goal remains personal in that I want people to understand my story
But I do think there is a whole missing cultural narrative about what it is like to teach day in and day out. I hope this book does some work towards broadening the narratives possible about teaching. (As an aside, Abbott Elementary is doing a great job of looking at the day-to-day lives of teachers. It is also much funnier than I am, and I’m not surprised that people are into it.)
MH: The details you include from your life are so palpable and jagged—their realness undeniable. I’m sure this was no easy feat since the days you describe occurred years ago. What was your process for recreating these experiences on the page? Did you keep journals while you were teaching? I also invite you to discuss your use of epigraphs while answering this question if you’d like.
SB: I drafted at least three-quarters of these poems on the day the events occurred. I also had a growing collection of scraps—post-its, unused half-handouts—where I wrote down the “moves” of a poem as the connections and resonances came to me, helping me write most of the remainder within weeks or months of the events happening. By the time I was in year four or so, I knew there was an arc to the story. By the time the pandemic set in during my fifth year at Frontier, I knew that reality had just given me an ending. From there, I ordered and arranged and looked for the holes that needed to be filled in. (See a picture of the whole manuscript, taped to my closet and colored coded, on my publisher Riot in Your Throat’s blog.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest hole was levity—all the love, friendship, and good work, but also the silliness. I wrote those final poems based on memory and all those little scraps of paper.
As to the epigraphs, I have a very practical answer: the book is filled with them because I taught English literature and lived with the same core set of texts over many years. I was very fortunate in that I got to choose my own books to teach, so I taught all stuff I love. I mean, except Hamlet, which felt more like an expediency given my students had to take an AP Lit test at the end of the year. But after five years of Hamlet, I even love that play! I still quote Hamlet pretty often—I literally can’t help it, the lines are inside of me. Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf is similarly embedded deep in my brain and heart. It was before I taught it, but now I think I will have chunks of it memorized until I die. My teaching was in conversation with those texts. It made sense to me, as I wrote, that my poems would also be in conversation with them.
MH: Language is a notable theme. Throughout Dispatches, you discuss how administrators patrol the language surrounding education, believing this will affect outcomes. For example, there is a shift to referring to students as “scholars.” Why is it important to consider the language used in school systems in a creative work about education?
SB: I am always a words person. I think it’s a reach to say that every word a person utters reveals something about them, but I don’t take people’s word choices lightly. The words that institutions use are especially telling because they are chosen very carefully, and they often work to insulate the institution from deserved criticism. I find the idea that you can call kids “scholars” and that this alone will change how everyone sees and treats them so fucked up. It’s a move that seems progressive and dedicated on the surface but in reality is distancing and weirdly dehumanizing. Students are not scholars! They are kids! And kids need things like art and music, physical activity, joy, and socializing. They need recess and access to green spaces. Scholars, however, do not need those things. Good thing, too, because the high schools of Frontier did not have robust arts programs, nor did my kids have access to fresh air during the day.
MH: The word “body” is used often, increasing in amount as the text progresses. This repetition is what I assume to be the attempted antidote to Dispatches’ cover art: a woman turned blur within the classroom. Would you be willing to expound upon the importance of the word “body” in this collection?
SB: I have always lived very much in my body. I was a gymnast from an early age, spending many hours in the gym. By the time I was a teenager, I had a very healthy libido and indulged it pretty much whenever I could. I have always understood that my body and my face are the way I move through the world. I’ve never been able to disappear wholly into my mind or my accomplishments. I write from my body because that’s the only way I know how.
Having a body while teaching is fraught. It’s an ordeal just to have enough time to go to the bathroom, and you often spend most of your day working a room or patrolling hallways. But teaching high school is especially fraught, because the students are increasingly aware of their own bodies and their bodies’ needs. Acknowledging that is like a third rail in educational spaces—often for good reason—but it was always hard for me to miss entirely. I once made an offhand remark about sex (the most generic remark, to be clear) and a student made an “ew” face and looked just shocked. “There are pictures of my kids on the wall!” I said, to which the student replied that it was gross that parents have sex. That was a real arrival for me, to finally be old enough to be seen as a “parent.” My years teaching before Frontier were marked by many high school boys hitting on me because I looked so very young. (Always a yikes!).
All of which is to say, I experienced teaching as intensely embodied, in part because I knew that the institution would rather I was some kind of robot and in part because the job literally put me on my ass more than once. It’s impossible to work that hard and not have your body give out. The longer I taught, the more it became crucial to me to acknowledge and own my physical needs as a kind of resistance.
MH: Motherhood is mentioned a few times in Dispatches. I am sure many other teachers struggle with being a mother and leading a classroom—“an artificial matriarchal space” (17). What was your thought process as you determined the presence you wanted motherhood to have in this text?
SB: I felt so guilty the whole time I was at Frontier, because I knew I was working too hard and missing out on my kids at home. I was not the best mother I could be to my own kids while I was teaching full-time. But also, I could never let go of the fact that other parents entrusted their kids to me (and my colleagues). That was always the impossible bind: I couldn’t do less because these are other people’s kids. I could not separate the responsibility I feel for my own kids from the one I felt toward my students. But I also couldn’t meet everyone’s needs. Those competing responsibilities come from the same place inside me, so there was no other way to write but to include my mothering.
MH: There are different types of danger described: the immediate, bodily danger of bomb threats and potential shooters; the slow-kill danger of losing your personhood within a suppressive school system; and the pervasive danger of being a woman in society. Why was it essential to include all three forms of danger? How do they compound each other in the life of an educator?
SB: I kind of feel like my answer to all of these questions is the same: all of these things are always completely wrapped up in each other. I taught 12th-grade English, and the course was designed around critical lenses. We studied feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, and reader response theories. I planned and taught my courses with my whole self, so I saw resonances among the theories, our texts, and current events all the time—and so brought them into the classroom. My students did, too. I taught a unit for a few years where students analyzed the goals and functions of American public education, and the kids had many eye-opening realizations. I had so many conversations with kids—in that unit but also more generally—where they knew they were being disserved by Frontier, but also that it wasn’t really better anywhere else. And they knew we as their teachers were getting ground up, too. Intersectionality was a topic of study, but it was also how all of us lived our lives because if you are in a failing institution, it’s hard not to see the cracks.
MH: I ask this question on behalf of writers who relate to the unrelenting absence of time to write. How did you find the time to write Dispatches?
SB: I wrote these poems because I was compelled, because it was not a choice. I wrote them as pain cries and flung them out into the universe. Most of the poems were written on stolen time, a half hour at a time. Then it was a pandemic, and my parents supported us financially so I wouldn’t have to return to a school building without knowing what the dangers were. That also meant I had—all of a sudden—an enormous amount of time.
MH: Finally, how did you consider audience while writing Dispatches? Is there anything specific you hope fellow educators glean from the text?
SB: I thought very hard about audience when I was assembling and revising the text, which led me to the first poem “Dispatch re: You.” I really wanted to write to the people who thought I was a saint for teaching in urban schools. I felt it was important to complicate the narrative about myself as a teacher—just as much or more so than it was to (continually) argue for the humanity of my students. As I point out in that poem, in conversation I would often try to humanize my kids for others, usually by pointing out that seniors everywhere get really excited about prom! They also get nervous about college, cheat by reading SparkNotes instead of the novel, and generally fuck around and find out. But I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the perception that I was out there Dangerous-Minds-ing and saving lost souls or some such. My students have stories and agency of their own and they do not need me to humanize them. They are human all on their own. My story, however, is mine to tell. And teachers are, sadly, I think, always in need of humanizing.
Many teachers have read the book and told me they recognize their experiences in it. I couldn’t ask for more, really, than having another educator read my story and say, “Yes. This is how it is. I rarely see anyone talk about it, so thank you for saying it out loud.” I’m still kind of waiting for someone to tell me about the mistakes I made when teaching or the mistakes I made when writing about my students; I think I will carry that anticipation forever. But I’ve made my peace with it (to the best of my ability). I did the best job I could as a teacher. And I did the best job I could when writing the book. Those mistakes are mine and I will own them—that in itself is an essential part of the project.
Thanks for all of these wonderful questions and your careful reading of my book. It means the world to me!
Sarah Beddow is a poet, essayist, and mother. She is the author of the memoir-in-poems Dispatches from Frontier Schools (Riot in Your Throat) and the chapbook What’s pink & shiny/what’s dark & hard (Porkbelly Press). Her poems and essays have appeared in Bone Bouquet, Rogue Agent, GlitterMOB, Lunch Ticket, and elsewhere, and she is on the board of Awesome Pittsburgh, which grants money – cold hard cash with no strings attached – to fund awesome projects in the Pittsburgh area. Find her online at impolitelines.com.
Marah Hoffman is a 2022 graduate with a bachelor’s in English and Creative Writing from Lebanon Valley College. In college, she served as co-poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and Sigma Tau Delta English Honors Society president. From the LVC English department, she won The Green Blotter Writer Award. She has been featured in journals including Green Blotter, LURe Journal, Oakland Arts Review, Beyond Thought, and Asterism. Now, she works for the Sundress Academy for the Arts, where she enjoys immersing herself in a new and radiant literary community. Marah loves creative nonfiction, intertextuality, whimsicality, cats, lattes, distance running, and adding to her personal lexicon. Her favorite word changes nearly every week.
summonings by Raena Shirali is a poetry collection with prismatic points of view, all screaming for society’s scapegoats to be seen as human again, for their blood—shed in the name of fear—to be seen at all. One of the poems, “at first, trying to reach those accused” describes the author researching the stories of the accused witches and trying to embody them, so much so that she swallows matchsticks, pages, wax, desire, and inevitably herself. The last lines are “i mouthed a name i’d never heard & felt her / like my own ghost. there was no magic: it was not profound.” This interview is a conversation on craft, but really it is an extension of this searing poem. It is about the horror Shirali swallowed in order to utter summonings.
Marah Hoffman: You say in the foreword that your book must be “grounded in the inevitable failure to embody the Other.” Readers can see this grounding in phrases like, “i’m too young / to be telling your story, & privileged.” Can you describe your understanding of ethos in telling these stories and explain how you sought to suffuse this ethos into your speakers?
Raena Shirali: Yeah, absolutely. Such a good question to start off on, and thank you so much for asking it. Ethos is a good word to start thinking about this. I think of it as credibility outside of only writing what you intimately know. That was a nice framework to go into these questions with. I think of the “write what you know” adage to be really limiting, and that is not how I approached the subject matter of this book. So, I modified it. I think ethos is not writing only what you know but speaking truthfully about what you can and cannot know. Letting those gaps in your ability to understand a phenomenon as grave and dire and horrific as this one exist—maybe those gaps are where the ethos comes in.
MH: I love your understanding of the word and what it implies. If we only wrote what we knew, the stories of those without the ability to share them would be lost. That’s why docu-poetry is so important.
RS: It’s so true. Every time I talk to someone about this, they ask, “How does fiction writing play in here?” I don’t think the artistic imagination should stop with only what you experience yourself. Whole genres would get demolished by a narrow understanding of ethos.
MH: You are so honest about what you are seeking to accomplish with your collection. You make it clear all the points of view you are using, and that the book doesn’t necessarily contain answers to the tragedies. Just summonings. Hence the title.
RS: Thank you for saying that. I’m glad it’s working. Always good to hear.
MH: Of course. My second question is about one of my favorite poems, “ghazal against [declining to name the subject].” In this poem, the title, punctuation, and use of brackets subvert the expectations associated with formal verse. The piece is emblematic of the entire collection’s refusal to express in shackles. There is intentionality in the way you utilize formal elements. Would you care to speak about your process for integrating (and extracting) formal elements?
RS: I love the phrasing in this question of “refusing to express in shackles.” One of the beautiful things about being interviewed is that people will say to you the things you have been trying so hard to express but haven’t found the clearest language for. This was one of those moments.
Your question speaks to me for a couple of reasons. It taps into the tension at the heart of writing the book—making these decisions around what formal components are and are not included and subverted. I decided I can’t do this without being extremely honest, extremely forthcoming. This is a huge preoccupation in the writing.
There are a few things to point out in your question. One is the use of brackets. Throughout the collection, brackets refer to research being included from anthropological sources. In this poem, it refers to a part of a quote from Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others. Here, by virtue of brackets being a formal component, it’s explicitly commenting on the theory of looking at violence that is not occurring to you. For me, brackets were an interesting way of showing my work but not to get credit for showing my work, more like showing my work as a way to bring the reader into the web of research I was living in. That formal choice came pretty late actually. I wasn’t sure I was going to use brackets or include this more theoretical language. But it became necessary. There was too much in my head that was not clear in a given poem.
Another important thing to point out is capitalization. Only the names of women who’ve been accused of being witches are capitalized here. That was a very intentional decision to make it clear that they are given more respect. They are real, brave, absolutely vulnerable voices. Everything that came from me felt like it needed to be lowercase.
There’s that play between formal cohesion and experiment throughout the book. The last thing that I’ll say about the ghazal is that it’s one of only a few poems in traditional form included in this text, and that’s because I tend to focus on form more through rhyme and music and sound, rather than through formal constraint. That goes back to ethos. The form itself imposes a constraint, but it only holds briefly. This poem is also a rare example where the subject, women who have been accused and tortured, is named. So the constraint exists, fleetingly, and it, too, is a failure that must necessarily be followed by its dissolution.
MH: Thank you for answering so many parts of that question. It’s clear that your thinking was expansive. Even the capitalizing of letters, it all speaks to the way you are amplifying these women.
RS: A lot of that is where the power of revision comes in. I think that’s so important to say in interviews. This is a very intimidating book. It’s intimidating for me to look at, and it was intimidating for me to revise. There was so much intentionality. Everything has some philosophical meaning behind it. Hopefully, that comes across. But I just want to reiterate that this comes from relentless revision.
MH: I can attest that it does come across. My next question also highlights your intentionality.
Point of view is an element that contributes to the power of the text. Considering the varying POVs that summonings adopts, I kept having one word come to mind—alchemic. The frequent yet fluctuating use of the first person plural strikes the root of the collection, which is that we must see ourselves as “we.” We must believe “Any woman’s death diminishes me,” the Adrienne Rich quote that set the scene for the collection. One of my favorite instances of this POV is, “they’ll think by us i mean daayans but you know i mean us : women : mistaken for all kinds of foliage. grasping root. wilting petals. Gentle weed.” Can you explain your goals/motives in using POV?
RS: I think it’s important to say that the first poems I wrote for this collection were personal poems, from the perspectives of daayans, the witch hunter and village priest, the villagers, and the mountains. That came from a prompt that I gave myself to write a personal poem from every part of the landscape that I was encountering in the research. I asked myself, “What does this act of violence look like from in the distance, from above?” I was doing a lot of kaleidoscopic thinking: painting a scene, trying to tell all sides of the story. In terms of why women are hunted, it’s not just misogyny. There are these long-standing inequities that people are desperate to justify. I didn’t want to write a book that was just surface-level. The first way that I thought I would go deeper was point of view.
Once I started doing that, it became clear to me that it’s impossible to access every single part of this landscape. That is where the inevitable failure entered into the project more broadly. Then POVs closer to my own came in as well as poems that are highly lyrical. Thinking about the different speakers isn’t the only method for coming to understand what I’m talking about, and it’s not all I’m talking about. I’m not just discussing India. The poems are cross-cultural.
The shifting POVs felt like the best way for me to encapsulate for a reader what it felt like to write the book, to dip in and out of research. You know how it is. You read something horrible, and then you carry it with you for the rest of your day. It affects the way you interpret the imagery around you, and then of course it’s there with you when you sit down to write.
You also had a great observation about the collective. There is an arc in the book intentionally toward using collective pronouns more, toward the spirit of that quote from Adrienne Rich. The last line of the last poem is that “no one follows us home.” It’s a prayer for all women or anyone who identifies as a woman or anyone who doesn’t feel safe in public, frankly. It’s for us and by us collectively.
MH: As a reader, I noticed the arc of the collective really shifting my thinking. I think it disrupts the reader’s ability to compartmentalize. As you said, the horror sits with you. For the daayans, the pain is constant. The pain we get from reading is only temporary, so the least we can do is feel it.
RS: I completely agree.
MH: My next question gets at the specific symbolism you use to highlight the themes of the text. There are many recurring symbols throughout the collection; my favorite among them is blood. A woman’s blood, specifically menstrual blood, is often a source of shame. Yet you embed strength and identity within it. Can you speak to your choice to use blood as a dominant symbol?
RS: The first thing with blood has to be menstruation. There’s a lot of fear of women’s sexuality and menstruation within the mythologies that inform the cultures where this takes place. There are ideologies I read about that quite explicitly say, “A woman is considered impure if she is menstruating near an image of the gods.” Women are not supposed to go near, into, or around temples on their period. There’s the notion that a woman who is naked and bleeding in public is suspicious and could be a witch. There are those specific and necessitated mentions of the word blood because it is part of the research. But also, I think blood is really important because it is part of what renders the subject of this book more real. I think about Salem first when I’m thinking about a Western audience for this book, which is very different than thinking about an Indian audience. I’m initially considering what kinds of tropes and rumors we have culturally about witches and how often is the visceral reality that someone’s skin is being punctured part of that. There are common myths that will feel familiar to readers. There’s a line that says, “If we float, if we float” which literally refers to a tradition, both in Indian and Western witch hunting, of filling a woman’s pockets with stones and putting her in a body of water and if she sinks, she’s not a witch, but she’s dead; and if she floats, she’s a witch, so you kill her. Those mythologies cover up the reality of the person underneath them. They’re being drowned. There’s a submersion that becomes almost figurative in lore, and not a lot of addressing the true horror. A lot of Indian women who are tortured for this are beheaded. There is a bloodletting and a lynching and a very real violence inflicted on these people. Including blood so often was probably me being a bit heavy-handed, but with a set of realism-fueled intentions.
MH: The subject matter demands there be bloodshed on the pages.
RS: I think so too. There are stories in the back matter of the book. Like the story of a 63-year-old woman who was dragged from her home and tortured and beheaded. These stories do not exist within a Western author’s mythic imagination, and that felt like something to take advantage of. They do exist within some Indian writer’s and reader’s imaginations, and that too felt like something to take advantage of. I wanted to remind people that it’s not some woman whose feet are facing backward, whose braid is wrapped around her waist, who ate husband’s heart. It was an old, innocent woman who was defenseless and was murdered. A big part of me pushing against the idea of witchiness being cool was me using the word blood so often.
MH: Your language definitely encourages readers to see the subjects as women, not witches.
RS: Our position as women is to live in a state of constant shame, in India and in America. That is a reality in both places. There is a defiance in the naming of it as opposed to owning it or claiming blood is sexy—some sort of positive affirmation version of it. There is power even in acknowledging blood is part of our reality, and we exist in a state of constant shame. That’s part of why we are not safe.
MH: Yes, blood needed to have a presence in the collection. This conversation actually leads us into my next question about how gender exists within the text. Because your collection is concerned with the very real issue of witch-hunting, gender is an important topic. One standout quote about gender is, “here, there is no archetype ungendered.” How did you grapple with notions of gender while composing the collection?
RS: The context within which the word “woman” is being wielded points to a series of Indian and American archetypes, myths, rumors, hierarchies, all of which result in women being victimized. And I want it to be clear that my intention in using the word “woman” is absolutely not to exclude anyone—whether that’s folks who identify with the word, or folks who don’t. In the later poems of the book—when my point of view enters more explicitly and so, too, does the Empire as a setting—I’m referring to anyone who does not feel safe in public spaces. I mean it to be an encompassing word.
Language is not perfect. I think that is one of the tropes of the book. We are so limited in our abilities to understand the highly complex phenomena that dictate the way we move through space and live our lives and write and read and research and have empathy or resist empathy. The word woman is just one word. I’ve encouraged listeners on tour to replace this with a word that they feel most seen by. In some poems, the word woman is very important, and in some poems the word woman is there for cohesion. Who is safe and who is not safe is different in each of these contexts. It’s part of steeping the reader in the discomfort of the research. It’s not pleasant to read how women are seen as less than, to track an evolution of their knowledge being suspicious rather than connected to the environment. The word woman is the word in the research, and so it’s the word here.
MH: I love listening to you discuss language because as I said earlier, intentionality was a word that kept coming to mind while reading. The voices in the poems make the diverse forms of oppression clear. I think that is unifying. Everyone will be alarmed by the suffering. You can’t read the book and not see that it is bringing everyone to the same understanding of pain.
RS: I think that the word alarm is really important. I thought the book had to be as alarming to a reader as it was for me to be a reader of the research. That was why I decided to include research itself. I thought, “Oh, I have to replicate this.” Research needs to be part of it, or the stories would only be artifice and nothing would point to the way we talk about these phenomena culturally. These are stories that we trade in, so the language that we use to even trade in them is really important to replicate and eventually interrogate. But first I had to replicate it.
It is important to note too that this isn’t isolated to India in modern day, in our moment. There are countries in Africa that still have a practice of witch hunting. In some cultures, they are more suspicious of children than women. It’s not always the same. Each place creates its own culture of suspicion, fear, and accusation. It is a way to make peace with living. There is a collective need for a scapegoat, something to explain why life is so awful. How that looks different in different cultures is such a fascinating apparatus to engage with. This book touches on so little of that. It’s a far more widespread, current phenomena than this book could ever hope to address.
MH: There are myriad searing images of female suffering throughout summonings. I personally felt haunted by these images as a reader. What was your emotional journey with this book?
RS: Searing is a good word. I felt seared. I feel seared, perpetually. I think that researching it was a really complicated emotional rollercoaster to go on daily, to pull myself out of whatever otherwise pleasant day I was having and sit with a 400-page book on the social hierarchies in tea plantations in West Bengal. Outside of the research being mentally taxing, it was emotionally searing.
The trick for me is that I write best when I am so enraged or disgusted with an inequality that I cannot possibly move on. That is the most surefire way to get a poem to come out of me. That was true in my first book too. In this book, my struggle was staying focused when I wanted so badly to look away. To get asked, “What’s for dinner?” in the middle of reading and then have to come back to a passage about a woman being killed as part of a land dispute was difficult. The research process, as a result, felt incredibly active. Every word felt like a decision, a decision to continue. Putting the books down felt like how dare I, because I can walk away from this and they can’t. I resisted the need for a break because of exactly what we’ve been talking about, because it feels wrong to complain that reading about a phenomenon is grueling when the phenomenon itself is someone on Earth being tortured.
In many ways, it being grueling is what kept my compass pointing North in terms of ethos, because the ethos was there in the research the entire time. That made certain poems have to exist, like “lucky inhabitant.” The more I researched, the more I realized the experience of the research is part of what the book is trying to capture for readers. I want readers to feel forever altered by what they learned in the text, because it has forever altered me.
Raena Shirali is the author of two collections of poetry. Her first book, GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), won the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award, and her second, summonings (Black Lawrence Press, 2022), won the 2021 Hudson Prize. Winner of a Pushcart Prize & a former Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University, Shirali is also the recipient of prizes and honors from VIDA, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, & Cosmonauts Avenue. Formerly a Co-Editor-in-Chief of Muzzle Magazine, Shirali now serves as Faculty Advisor for Folio—a literary magazine dedicated to publishing works by undergraduate students at the national level. She holds an MFA in Poetry from The Ohio State University and is an Assistant Professor of English at Holy Family University. The Indian American poet was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, and now lives in Philadelphia.
Marah Hoffman is a 2022 graduate with a bachelor’s in English and Creative Writing from Lebanon Valley College. In college, she served as co-poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and Sigma Tau Delta English Honors Society president. From the LVC English department, she won The Green Blotter Writer Award. She has been featured in journals including Green Blotter, LURe Journal, Oakland Arts Review, Beyond Thought, and Asterism. Now, she works for the Sundress Academy for the Arts, where she enjoys immersing herself in a new and radiant literary community. Marah loves creative nonfiction, intertextuality, whimsicality, cats, lattes, distance running, and adding to her personal lexicon. Her favorite word changes nearly every week.
Our editorial intern Anna-Quinn French sat down to talk with our newest Writer in Residence at the Sundress Academy for the Arts, Marah Hoffman, to learn more about her goals for her time at Firefly Farms.
Marah Hoffman is a 2022 graduate with bachelor’s in English and Creative Writing from Lebanon Valley College. In college, she served as co-poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and Sigma Tau Delta English Honors Society president. From the LVC English department, she won The Green Blotter Writer Award. She has been featured in journals including Green Blotter, LURe Journal, Oakland Arts Review, Beyond Thought, and Asterism. Now, she is discovering new literary communities and new methods of igniting creativity. She loves creative nonfiction, intertextuality, whimsicality, cats, lattes, distance running, and adding to her personal lexicon. Her favorite word changes nearly every week.
Anna-Quinn French: Your love for literature and language is brightly apparent in the writing you did for Project Bookshelf and Sundress Reads. If you were stuck with only one book for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Marah Hoffman: Thank you! What a wonderful and cruel question for a person who is currently reading four different books! I would have to choose The Best of Brevity edited by Zoe Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore. It was one of many impulse buys at AWP this past spring, and it does not disappoint. The collection celebrates Brevity’s 20th anniversary by compiling what the editors believe to be the best flash. It is likely the only book in the world that could satiate my fluctuating literary moods for the rest of my life. The themes, structures, voices, and economy of language are awe-inspiring. In my margin notes, I am writing wow over and over again. It masterfully showcases the spectrum of the form and humanity.
AQF: At what age or time in your life did you recognize that writing or an English-based profession was the path you wanted to take? What influences or inspirations led you to that realization?
MH: I can remember being in sixth grade, standing on a tiny stage in my school’s commons room reading a poem I had written called “Sunrise” where I compared the sun to a coin in the pocket of heaven. It was not a good poem. I was definitely not a prodigy. But the rush of fleshing an experience with words, of creating enticed me. I considered other career paths such as flower arranging and environmental science, but I always knew that English brought me the most joy. In high school, taking AP Language and Composition gave me permission to consider an English major seriously. The texts we read in that class, among the most noteworthy being The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan and Wild by Cheryl Strayed, convinced me that writing was something I needed. This was the same year I saw Dead Poets Society, and Mr. Keating’s words, “medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for,” really struck a chord with me.
AQF: I saw that you tutored throughout your undergrad, and I am in training right now to become a tutor at UTK! In what ways do you think tutoring and helping others with their writing aided in your own growth as a writer?
MH: That’s great! Tutoring is a fantastic way to improve as a writer. It is true what people say about explaining a concept to others being the true test of your own knowledge. Tutoring reminded me that writing, at its core, is an act of communication. I had to explain to fellow students how readers might respond to their argument, the holes they might find if they don’t include counterarguments and rebuttals. When writing my own papers, I would often hear my tutor-self correct my student-self who was about to make a mistake.
AQF: While I was reading your Intern Intro for Sundress, I related to the sentiments you stated about your father and the advice he gave you that has stuck with you through hard obstacles you’ve faced. Do you ever find yourself going through bouts of self-doubt or lack of fresh ideas? If so, how do you persevere through this type of writer’s block, and what advice would you give to new writers in overcoming similar difficulties?
MH: Throughout college, there were semesters where creativity struck me frequently and at the worst moments. I would have to force myself to finish my reading instead of starting a poem. There were also semesters where my brain felt trapped in analytical mode, unable to invent. The difference between the two, I am almost certain, was what I was reading. When I am reading the kinds of things I aspire to write, I find myself inspired and invigorated. This summer, I purposefully chose to read essay collections because I have been writing a lot of essays.
AQF: I also noted your long history in writing poetry and that creative nonfiction has been a new outlet for you. What aspects or changes in your life led you to this interest in writing personal essays?
MH: Good question! I have an easy answer. In the fall of my senior year, I took Writing a Life which focused on creative nonfiction. That was definitely the genesis of this interest. The previous year, I had done a deep dive into the history of the personal essay, reading the work of pioneers like Michel de Montaigne and Francis Bacon. But Writing a Life exposed me to fresh, lush essays that I became obsessed with emulating. I still write poems, but my default seems to be more essays now which I never expected.
AQF: Congratulations on your long-term residency at the farm! What projects are you currently working on or hoping to write? Do you have any specific themes or topics you are focusing on?
MH: Thank you! I’m mainly working on MFA applications, composing my personal statement, trying to make my writing sample as strong as it can be. A theme I can’t seem to get away from is ephemerality. The farm is a great place to ruminate on this theme because caring for animals showcases all sides of Mother Nature.
Anna-Quinn French is a junior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where she studies English, with a concentration in literature and a minor in Philosophy, and works as a student tutor in the Judith Anderson Herbert Writing Center. She is a sucker for fantasy romance novels and romantic poetry and is constantly on the hunt for the next story that she can fixate on for months.