Alicia Mountain’s new poetry collection Four in Hand(BOA Editions, 2023) is comprised of four heroic crown sonnets—a sequence of fifteen interlinking sonnets wherein the last line of the first sonnet is the first line of the next, and so on, and the fifteenth sonnet consists of the first lines of the previous fourteen. Quite a complicated structure indeed, and tricky to pull off, but Mountain does so masterfully. She weaves together eloquent, and at times archaic, language with urgent issues like late-stage capitalism, the pandemic, environmental devastation, LGBTQ issues and discrimination, drone strikes, the 2016 election, etc. with contemporary references and found text. Mountain also offers contemplations of familial structures, her gay poetic lineage, love and loss, as well as investigations of the self and place. Aside from the political undercurrents and heavier themes, Four in Hand is also tender and personal suffused with numerous kinds of love, including the lingering love that persists even after heartbreak, “I offer to trade you / a poem for the story of the place we pressed / our bodies together.” This book feels like a necessary antidote to the crushing pressures and anxieties facing us today.
A narrative thread is braided through the book, submerging then reemerging signaled by motifs like “train tracks,” “the queen,” and “violet,” “which operate as anchors that ground the poems and refocus the reader’s attention. The form lends itself to this loose, nonlinear narrative and though each heroic crown appears disparate at first you begin to notice the intricate patterns as you read further.
Each sonnet rolls effortlessly into the next, turning the meaning of its last line to mean something completely different—even opposite—when it becomes the first line of the next sonnet. For example, the last line of the ninth sonnet in the first sequence “Train Town Howl” reads “whomever you love. They belong beside you,” which seems to be a lament that their ex-lover likely has a new lover. But in the next sonnet, the same line reads as well-wishing towards the lover rather than lamentation—the speaker is now expressing to their past lover that they deserve to be with someone they love, whomever it may be, and be happy. Mountain achieves this reversal of meaning simply by changing the sentence structure. As a last line “whomever you love” is part of the sentence that begins in the previous line, but as the first line of the tenth stanza, “Whomever you love” is the beginning of the sentence, starting a thought rather than completing one. It’s a tiny change but has a significant impact, which is a testament to the virtuosity of Mountain’s. The syntax is delicately crafted and each period, comma, line break, and word, and is intentional.
On the note of intentionality, while many sonnets in the collection resemble traditional sonnets, the sonnet form never feels tired because of Mountain’s experimentation. In the second sequence “Sparingly,” she pushes the boundaries of the form: each line consists only of a single word. A traditional sonnet puts pressure on the line as a unit, by using one word per line Mountain zeroes in on the word, forcing us to linger with each word and really notice them, hold on to each syllable, savor the sounds.
Despite the dark cloud of political instability, environmental degradation, and loss that permeates, Mountain finds moments of lightness and hope, especially in the “elementary poets” the speaker is teaching poetry. They like “butts and cats and killing” and the girls are “purple princes too.” This childhood silliness and wonder contrasts the “The sinister lever-pull that will not right us / came swift in November,” meaning the election of Donald Trump and the dividedness of the nation. Mountain asks, “How long has it / been since you worked for an hourly wage?” exemplifying the disconnect between the wealthy and the politicians and the rest of us. By posing this question and then going to work with eight-year-old poets, the speaker is deciding to do not be crushed by despair and do the important work of investing hope in the future, represented by the children, and in small but not inconsequential actions. Such a kernel of optimism is found when “Eight-year-old writes, We befriend enemy / countries like we were never enemies.” A vision of a more peaceful world without senseless violence—a better world.
Four in Hand is an epic, ambitious work, the opulent landscapes, gentle intimacy, and acute awareness of corruption and destruction that we are complicit in, “Often, I forget I am a benefactor / of war by birthright,” will percolate in your brain long after you’ve put the book down. It is a perfect alchemy of the personal and the political, of abundance and sparsity, of the quotidian and the extraordinary. Mountain demonstrates dexterity in both form, lyric, and blank verse while retaining a pleasurable cohesiveness. This book is achingly beautiful and exemplifies the magic of poetry—how at its best, poetry can touch you deeply; make you feel, and think, and cry, and hope, and yearn, and be glad to be alive.
Max Stone is in his final semester as an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of Nevada, Reno. He received his BA in English with a minor in Book Arts and Publication from UNR in 2019. He is originally from Reno, but has lived in many other places since including, most recently, New York City. His poetry has been published in Black Moon Magazine, & Change, Fifth Wheel Press, Sandpiper Review, Night Coffee Lit, Caustic Frolic, and elsewhere. Max is also book artist and retired college soccer player.
Doubleback Books announces the release of Joy Ladin’s Impersonation. Previously published in 2015 from The Sheep Meadow Press, and a finalist for the Lamda Literary Award, Impersonation is a collection of poems that chronicles the messy, mysterious, profound, and idiosyncratic gender transition of the speaker. It is a book about the life-long process of becoming. The poems encompass shame and triumph, ecstasy and disappointment, the mundane humiliation of airport security screenings and the miraculous experience of incarnation and fully embodied love. This new edition of Impersonation has been edited with new poems, a new structure, and a new introduction by the author.
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 Anna (EOAGH); and Lambda 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.
Welcome back to Lyric Essentials, where we invite authors to share the work of their favorite poets. This month, Elizabeth Upshur joins us to discuss the work of Anuradha Bhowmik and how poetry can infiltrate girlhood, nostalgia, and reclaim it all. As always, we hope you enjoy as much as we did.
Ryleigh Wann: When was the first time you read Anuradha Bhowmik’s work? Why did it stand out to you then?
Elizabeth Upshur: 2016? Feels so long ago! I remember connecting with Bhowmik’s work because they are these incredibly poignant time capsules, little snapshots in black and white that you want to devour every little detail of, to see all the similarities and differences pointed out in the American experience. I remember writing my first syllabus in Kentucky for my kids in English 1010 and I knew that I could reach them through Elegy, 1998 to not only craft their own personal narrative but to gain a deeper understanding of an immigrant experience that wasn’t colored by Fox or the pulpit or what have you; it was the opportunity to see a person, a young person, like them.
EU: Bhowmik can be so unapologetically femme, glitter, lipgloss, Lisa Frank… I haven’t written like that since I first started writing. Her relationship with her mother… mines nothing like that, and yet I find myself relating hard. Being a teenage girl is fraught enough, adding in technology, being Othered, burgeoning bodies and desire—she’s literally deciphering the code so she can show you how it was, in all its naked pain and glory. And looking back at that foundation propels you to look forward too. What sort of woman are you, holding that smaller self, AND therapy AND a hope for the future? That’s a lot, but for me I keep coming back to the cover of Brown Girl Chromatography, one half of her traditional, one half American(ized). She’s a Janus figure looking us head on— which is fitting because she’s a December Capricorn!—we see who her mother wants to nurture her into versus who Bhowmik is by nature. We’re different browns (she’s Bangladeshi American, I’m African American) but that’s an aspect of culture and of codeswitching that continues to ring true for me, and I hope my writing addresses it as cleverly one day soon.
RW: Why did you choose to read these poems specifically?
EU: Well, I wanted to do a lil sampler, a poetry charcuterie (a poetrcuterie if you will). So I included one each from her series on AOL IM, which I’ve been calling demi-forms since it borrows the structure from that platform, but is also really expansive in the way she utilizes it. “Fieldnotes 1” is my favorite.
RW: What have you been up to lately (life, work, anything!)? Got any news to share?
EU: I’m sharing work with a few friends. Fingers crossed for a residency this year, and I’ve got a project simmering on the backburner. I was awarded a Hudson Valley Writers Center POC Scholarship, so I get to take a revision intensive workshop with January Gill O’Neil. Orchard just finished up their Crash Course on Forms by Black Writers for February and that was so fun. Definitely a highlight of Black History Month for me.
Anuradha Bhowmik is a Bangladeshi-American poet and writer from South Jersey. She is the 2021 winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize for her first collection Brown Girl Chromatography (Pitt Poetry Series, 2022). Bhowmik is a Kundiman Fellow and a 2018 AWP Intro Journals Project Winner in Poetry. She earned her MFA from Virginia Tech. Her poetry and prose have appeared in POETRY, The Sun, Quarterly West, and elsewhere.
Purchase her collection Brown Girl Chromatographyhere.
Elizabeth Upshur is a Black Southern writer. She is a proud Fulbright alumna, and Poetry Co-Editor at OkayDonkey Mag. She is the 2020 Gigantic Sequins winner for her flash “motherfucker” and has won prizes from Brown Sugar Lit and Colorism Healing for work that deals in race, place, and the speculative. Her writing lives in EcoTheo, Augur Mag, Pretty Owl Poetry, and others. She lives in rural Tennessee with her family and rumors of the occasional black bear. She tweets @lizzy5by5
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, The Shore, and elsewhere. You can visit her website at ryleighwann.com
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.
Every book, everywhere, all the time. I read several books at once, depending on what room of my apartment I’m in. There are bedside books, living room books, bathroom books. Endless audio books that never show up on the shelves.
I have a lot of poetry. Anne Carson is one of my favorites. I love her translations of Sappho and Autobiography of Red, which I read a long time ago when I was still pretending I didn’t want to be a writer.
I have even more fiction. I can’t remember who said that artists never admit who their real influences are. It would be just too embarrassing. I’m owning up to reading more fiction than poetry, despite calling myself a poet. I’ve read Wittgenstein’s Mistress so many times. It’s my emotional support book. I had to get a second copy after I spilled sunscreen all over the first one. It’s not exactly a traditional beach read, but I kept it and still open it sometimes for the olfactory memory of reading it at Folly Beach.
Everything I ever published as the editor of Rabbit Catastrophe Press is collected together here. It only takes up half a shelf. That half a shelf is a decade of my life. It was the most fun I ever had.
I also love this bin of zines I’ve collected over the years at festivals and books tours in basements and abandoned warehouses. Much has been said about the subversive nature of zines. I believe they contain the most experimental and interesting writing because they’re not (as) tied to the monetization of art. People can write in them what they need to write.
The last time I moved, it became clear I had TOO MANY BOOKS. I did a big pare down and gave myself a challenge: buy no books for a year. Instead, I used the library and had an elaborate network of borrowing books from people. I made exceptions if a friend put out a book (you have to support your friends) and if I went to a reading for someone on a book tour (working writers need gas money). I mostly rose to the challenge, and even though I have fewer books now, I think I look at, talk about, run a hand over, and browse through my bookshelves more than I used to. They are filled with books I love by the people I love.
Robin LaMer Rahija (she/her) did her MFA in poetry at the University of Kentucky. Her work has appeared in Puerto Del Sol, FENCE, Guernica, and elsewhere. She is an Editorial Intern at Sundress Publications. She loves books, trees, and Excel documents.
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
Sundress Publications is pleased to announce that the readers for our 2023 AWP off-site reading include Barbara Fant, Kimberly Ann Priest, Stacey Balkun, Athena Nassar, jason b. crawford, Sunni Wilkinson, Nicole Arocho Hernández, Amanda Galvan Huynh, Cynthia Guardado, Dani Putney, and Donna Vorreyer. The reading will take place on March 10th, 2023, from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM PST at Old Stove Brewing Co, 600 W. Nickerson St., Queen Anne, Seattle, WA 98119.
Amanda Galvan Huynh (She/Her) is a Xicana writer and educator from Texas. She is the author of Where My Umbilical is Buried (Sundress Publications 2023) and Co-Editor of Of Color: Poets’ Ways of Making: An Anthology of Essays on Transformative Poetics (The Operating System 2019).
Athena Nassar is an Egyptian-American poet, essayist, and short story writer from Atlanta, Georgia. She is the author of the debut poetry collection Little Houses, published by Sundress Publications. Her work has appeared in Academy of AmericanPoets,The Missouri Review,Southern Humanities Review, Pleiades,The Chattahoochee Review, Salt Hill, Lake Effect, New Orleans Review, Zone 3, The Los Angeles Review, PANK, and elsewhere.
Barbara Fant has been writing and performing for over 15 years. She has competed in nine National Poetry Slams and is a World Poetry Slam finalist. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Paint, Inside Out (2010) and Mouths of Garden (2022). Her work has been featured in the Academy of American Poets, McNeese Review, Button Poetry, and Def Poetry Jam, among others. She believes in the transformative power of art and considers poetry her ministry.
Cynthia Guardado (she/her/hers) is a Los-Angeles born queer Salvadoran poet and professor. She is the author of two collections of poetry: Cenizas, (University of Arizona Press 2022) and ENDEAVOR, (World Stage Press 2017).
Dani Putney is a queer, non-binary, mixed-race Filipinx, and neurodivergent writer originally from Sacramento, California. Their debut collection, Salamat sa Intersectionality (Okay Donkey Press, 2021), was a finalist for the 2022 Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Poetry. They’re also the author of the poetry chapbook Dela Torre (Sundress Publications, 2022).
Donna Vorreyer is the author of To Everything There Is (2020), Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016) and A House of Many Windows (2013), all from Sundress Publications. She hosts the monthly online reading series A Hundred Pitchers of Honey.
jason b. crawford (They/Them) was born in Washington DC and raised in Lansing, MI. Their debut Full-Length Year of the Unicorn Kidz is out from Sundress Publications. They are currently an MFA Candidate at The New School in Poetry.
Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Slaughter the One Bird, finalist in the American Best Book Awards, and chapbooks The Optimist Shelters in Place, Parrot Flower, and Still Life. She is an associate poetry editor for Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry and assistant professor at Michigan State University.
Nicole Arocho Hernández is a Puerto Rican poet and translator. Her poems have been published in The Acentos Review, Electric Literature, Honey Literary, The Academy of American Poets, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, I Have No Ocean, was published by Sundress Publications. She is the Translations Editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review and an MFA candidate at Arizona State University.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Sweetbitter & co-editor of Fiolet & Wing. Winner of the 2019 New South Writing Contest, her creative work has appeared in Best New Poets, Mississippi Review, Pleiades, & several other anthologies & journals. Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State & teaches online at The Poetry Barn and The Loft.
Sunni Brown Wilkinson is the author of The Marriage of the Moon and the Field (Black Lawrence Press) and The Ache & The Wing (winner of the Sundress Chapbook Prize). Her work has been awarded the New Ohio Review’s NORward Poetry Prize, the Joy Harjo Prize, and the Sherwin Howard Award.
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.
Sundress Publications is pleased to announce that the recipient of the Light Bill Incubator Microgrant is Vincente Perez. They will receive $500, a slot in Sundress’s reading series, and a residency at the Sundress Academy for the Arts in Knoxville, TN.
Vincente Perez is a poet, scholar, and writer working at the intersection of poetry, Hip-Hop, and digital culture. He makes work that refuses binary thinking, which allows him to be in conversation with people, places, and things that refuse to make sense in a Western framework.
He is currently a PhD Candidate in the Performance Studies program at UC Berkeley and holds a BA in Anthropology and Comparative Race & Ethnic Studies from The University of Chicago. They were a 2021-22 Poetry and the Senses Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center. Their poems have appeared in Poet Lore, poetry.onl, Honey Literary, Snarl Magazine, Digging Through the Fat, River and South Review, and more.
We would also like to recognize our finalists: Isaac Akanmu, Jakky Bankong-obi, Trace Howard DePass, Sedi Eastwood, Kei Vough Korede, Tamara J. Madison, Jessica Mehta, henry 7. reneau, jr., and Timi Sanni.