Doubleback Books announces the release of Michael Meyerhofer’s What To Do If You’re Buried Alive. The poems in this collection are tenderly masculine, self-deprecating and humorous. They are the poems of an adult male poet looking back at childhood and puberty with anything but rose-colored glasses. He shows us how we see ourselves often through time—with a mixture of cringe and understanding.
Mary Biddinger, author of A Sunny Place with Adequate Water, writes, “With a compassionate eye, and his trademark sense of humor that hooks readers from the very first page, Meyerhofer sends us back to our earliest memories, and shows us a world of heartbreak and wonder.” And Jon Tribble, author of Natural State, adds “Through pain and loss, Meyerhofer’s poems are harrowing prayers searching for ‘the charms of language’ that might lead to forgiveness, to redemption, to love.”
Michael Meyerhofer is the author of five poetry books, six poetry chapbooks, and two fantasy trilogies. He has won the James Wright Poetry Award, the Liam Rector First Book Prize, the Whirling Prize, and other honors. He earned his B.A. from the University of Iowa and his M.F.A. from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He grew up in Iowa, where he learned the value of reading novels, lifting weights, and not getting his hopes up. He currently serves as the Poetry Editor of Atticus Review and lives in Fresno, California. For more information and at least one embarrassing childhood photo, visit www.troublewithhammers.com.
Stephanie Sauer’s Almonds are Members of the Peach Family (Noemi Press, 2019) is a masterful multimedia project that weaves together prose and craftsmanship, bringing light to buried historical narratives. While this is her second traditional prose book, Sauer also has multiple art books that demonstrate her experience with a wide variety of mediums, such as quilting, archiving other’s works, and stitching, specifically of clothing. Her writing is skillful, untangling her family’s history, but it merely accompanies the quilt she crafts throughout the book, the true star of the show. This quilt serves as a work of healing as she begins to reconcile the history all around her.
From the first paragraph, Sauer establishes the idea of quilting as suture, a word typically used for stitches used to hold a wound together. Her first chapter, “Patchwork” opens with pictures of the messy back stitching of something Sauer has sewed. Counterposing these images, Sauer moves readers to Rio, one of the many places the author has lived through her travels. She describes the city as hungry, its sharp mouths constantly searching for bones and blood. She writes, “I bump into one on the way to buy groceries and it slices my arm. I hold the cut with my opposing hand and an incision form from the inside of my skin, letting air in but no blood out” (Sauer 4). Sauer uses suture here to refer to her attempts to find healing via crafting.
She returns to the concept again on page 103, acknowledging that she can not be the first woman to make this connection. Sauer always makes sure to credit those who came before, saying, “Education, I find, has less to do with knowing things and more to do with the crafting and recrafting of oneself” (Sauer 104). She references Dr. Gladys-Marie Fy’s Preface to Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Ante-Bellum South, which documents how slave women would quilt their diaries due to being denied traditional educations.
As a whole, Almonds are Members of the Peach Family pulls historical vignettes through time. Sauer carefully intertwines the story of her grandparents with her own life. Their lives mostly exist in Nevada County, California, where readers are introduced to the version of her grandmother, or Billimae, that Sauer is most familiar with—the caretaker: “She ladles the brine into a bowl and serves it with oyster crackers. She spreads the heart with a butter knife on toast and tells the child to eat, to help herself to more” (Sauer 8). Sauer’s writing peels back these small, tender moments for readers to reveal their quiet intimacy.
The descriptions are transparently honest, transitioning from the above heart-wrenching moment of connection between a younger Sauer and her grandmother, to her grandmother’s description of domestic abuse at the hands of her husband. The transition is jarring, laying out her Grandpa’s veteran status and referencing a friend once saying, “‘Where is my purple heart? My father got one in Vietnam, but what about the rest of us who still have to fight the war he brought back home?’” (Sauer 9). The audience isn’t spared her grandparents’ suffering, and by the end of the section readers are primed to see Sauer coping by way of the sound of her sewing machine.
The collection expands as it continues, becoming less interdisciplinary and more plain prose as Sauer tells Billimae’s tale. Here, the writing is truly given a chance to breathe comfortably, showcasing every side of Billimae, even the uglier ones. “It is family shorthand to call Grandma crazy. The screaming, the secrets, the lies, the sneaking of sweet things into hidden places all over the house, into her mouth. The cussing at and blaming of Grandpa for everything,” Sauer explains (59). The family villainizes this woman in her old age, some waving away any mention of domestic abuse towards her as fabricated. Sauer writes, “Now, Grandma is crazy because calling her this is easier on us. Pinning it on the woman excuses our own complicity in the normalizing of her pain” (59). She criticizes this simplification of everything her grandmother is, recognizing the depth in her past that has shaped her into who she is now.
Sauer is constantly reckoning with her history and family lineage, crafting and writing in an attempt to find some kind of answer. Between stories, readers watch her turn “pulp into pages… stitch linen thread between their creases and bind them to one another” (Sauer 71). Her language around the act is gorgeous, finding imagery in the household chores she idolizes through her words, reclaiming work that patriarchal society deems less than. For example, “I haul up bones from the river and sit, listen to the screaming left in them. I hold up each bone to the light, wipe it clean of debris, realign it back into its skeletal form” (Sauer 146). While her word choice turns morbid at points, it only adds to the passion behind her work and her desire to make something of it all.
Things do not end for Sauer here. After uncovering the bones from the graveyard, one can never truly be the same. Seams weaken over time, and eventually they’ll need to be reinforced: “I wake up late (6:50am), read for a few hours. I make coffee, toast a slice of bread, scrub the sink with borax, shoo away ants, re-hang the quilt, write in my slip, alternate between pushing back and suturing a heartache” (Sauer 149). In the face of it all, though, what Sauer has to do, and what we all have to do, is keep on living.
Izzy Astuto (he/they) is a writer majoring in Creative Writing at Emerson College, with a specific interest in screenwriting. When not in Boston for college, they live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His work has previously been published by Hearth and Coffin, Sage Cigarettes, and Renesme Literary, amongst others. He currently works as an intern for Sundress Publications, and a reader for journals such as hand picked poetry, PRISM international, and Alien Magazine. You can find more of their work on their website, at https://izzyastuto.weebly.com/. Their Instagram is izzyastuto2.0 and Twitter is adivine_tragedy.
In his debut collection,In the Hands of the River (Hub City Press, 2022), Lucien Darjeun Meadows’ poetry is richly textured with layers of imagery and verdant detail that explores the complexities of growing up queer in Appalachia, a place marked by contradictions and misconceptions—the nexus at which the speaker exists. Through exacting and lush lyric poems Meadows spins a delicate, haunting, and dauntless delineation of this difficult yet beautiful place and what it’s like to grow up queer there. While many poems touch on difficult subject matter, Meadows skillfully intersperses kernels of light and hope in the midst of tragedy and fear by turning to the effusive beauty of nature, “We are always searching for light / And finding a hoofprint, a heartbeat, the moment / A hill disappears and the tunnels of your blood / Vibrate a golden song just a little too late.”
The speaker exists at an intersection of identities that are ostensibly at odds being that he is of both Cherokee and European ancestors and is Appalachian and queer. He reaches back into thorny memories of a haunted childhood, bringing his ancestors, both long past and immediate, back to the hollers with him as a way of reconciling the difficulties of his upbringing as a “boy made of shards.” It is clear that things like queerness are not often discussed in Appalachia, “Ten thousand silenced stories / Under every tree, / a home / For a tongue: our exchange.” People’s stories and pain are swept not just under the rug, but underneath the earth. Ultimately, the speaker comes to a resting place with himself—realizing each seemingly disparate shard makes him who he is and he can indeed be all of those things at once.
These poems sprawl across time as vestiges of the past cling to the speaker’s present and the impact of humans threatens the future for all species. Meadows explores multi-generational trauma both in human and environmental terms as he glides effortlessly through temporalities of experience. He is attuned to the flow and the strife of the flora and fauna around him and his ability to compress time is remarkable. In the opening poem “Rust,” Meadows captures feelings of nostalgia: “These yards become indistinguishable— / Porch swing, tomato patch, kiddie pool— / No matter if the kids have grown and gone—” then hits us with the gnawing ache of loss and change with “No matter. Every plastic swimming pool turns / From its original blue to rust pink in a year or two.” Childhood, growing up and leaving home condensed into a few lines. Near the end of the poem, Meadows makes a connection with nature, and the collection’s titular river, “Down by the river’s edge,” in order to link the distant past, “we slip back to Biblical,” with the ever-presence of death looming in the future, “See death as the ultimate baptism—whether lungs fill / With the grit of a collapsing tunnel, riverwater, / Or both.” Meadows uses the long time of the river to elucidate the short time of humans, while also speaking to the reverberations of human exploitation of the landscape with the collapsing tunnel.
Meadows embodies the environment and writes with such precision and care for it. In the poem “Dragonfly,” Meadows writes: “I steal your body from a clutch of blue lupines.. And I swoon into my future corpse, my body / Your body, here, splayed under unforgiving light. / I detach your wings,” shrinking the perceived distance between humans and the natural world, reminding us that we are not hermetically sealed off from it, and ever-so-gently reorienting us with the interconnection of everything.
I would categorize this collection as queer ecopoetry, an unofficial new limb of poetry that reimagines the heteronormative relationship between humans and the environment. In this unflinching yet tender work, Meadows presents us with a new relationship between humans and nature: a queer relationship. This collection illuminates a way of interacting with nature that is not about control, violence, and endless extraction; that is not patriarchal, heteronormative, and capitalistic. Rather, Meadows provides a path through the Anthropocene landscape of Appalachia, that has been muddied and polluted by mining and greed, that is steeped in love, attention, and care.
Meadows is doing important work in this collection in bringing to light a queer narrative from West Virginia, a place that is too often overlooked. This collection comes at a crucial moment and is much-needed as queerness and transness are increasingly under attack. Stories like this show the multitude of queer experience. Queer people exist everywhere and this collection underscores the importance of poetry and stories from places like West Virginia that are largely neglected or dismissed due to prejudiced assumptions. In this soaring and incisive debut, Meadows challenges the dominant narratives of West Virginia by providing a precise and aching view of life in a place that is marked by hardship and brutality, yes, but also by the fierce resilience of the people and other species that call the scarred yet luscious and beautiful landscape home.
Max Stone has an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of Nevada, Reno, from where he also has a BA in English with a minor in Book Arts and Publication. He is originally from Reno, but has lived in many other places since including, most recently, New York City, and hopes to leave again soon. He has a chapbook, The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful, forthcoming this summer with Ghost City Press. His poetry has been published in fifth wheel press, &Change, Black Moon Magazine, Sandpiper Review, Night Coffee Lit, Caustic Frolic, and elsewhere. Max is also a book artist and retired college soccer player.
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.
Sundress Publications is seeking a social media intern. The social media internship position will run from July 1 to December 31, 2023. The intern’s responsibilities include scheduling and posting promotional materials on our social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), maintaining our newsletter, and promoting our various open reading periods, workshops, readings, and catalog of titles. This will also include creating promotional graphics, digital flyers, logos, and social media images. Applicants for this internship must be self-motivated and be able to work on a strict deadline.
Preferred qualifications include:
Familiarity with Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and/or Canva
Familiarity with social media scheduling tools
Ability to work under a deadline and multitask
Strong written communication skills
Knowledge of and interest in contemporary literature a plus
This is a REMOTE internship with the team communicating primarily via email and text messages and is therefore not restricted to applicants living in any particular geographic area. Interns are asked to devote up to 10 hours per week to their assignments.
While this is an unpaid internship, all interns will gain real-world experience of the ins and outs of independent publishing with a nationally recognized press while creating a portfolio of work for future employment opportunities. Interns will also be able to attend all retreats and residencies at the Sundress Academy for the Arts at a significantly discounted cost.
We welcome, encourage, and are enthusiastic to see a diverse array of applicants in all areas, including race, ethnicity, disability, gender, class, religion, education, immigration status, age, and more.
To apply, please send a resume and cover letter detailing your interest in the position to Staff Director Kanika Lawton at firstname.lastname@example.org by May 18, 2023.
When people come to visit, they always tend to say a variation of two things in the same sequence:
Wow, that’s a lot of books. Have you read them all?
How do you sleep with that clown staring at you?
I love answering those questions, though sometimes it gets old convincing people that clowns* and I get on quite well. When you actually take a look inside this 1955 board book, you find it to be filled with amusing little quatrains bent on explicating the different ways various clowns use their physical bodies to produce laughter. Yes, The Wonder Book of Clowns is a children’s book, a product of a time when clowns—both as a concept and a vessel—functioned as a repository of/for humor. However juvenile, this thirty-five cent picture book serves as a reminder of the brilliant worlds that literature opens for exploration.
Although I recall a number of books from my childhood, I remember most of them all together in a big blob of language that encouraged my continued exploration of the literary arts. I do remember reading, however, one poem in one story in the November/December 2007 issue of American Girl Magazine: “Snow Angel.” The story is quite simple, with one sister plagiarizing another sister’s old poetry assignment, getting in too deep with the lie, and eventually coming clean and writing her own poem and gaining a new perspective on herself and her creative abilities. But that poem. That poem! Simply titled “A Christmas Acrostic,” the story’s central poem cemented itself to my heart and fascinated me to no end. Poems could spell words with their lines? Poems could invoke the senses? Poems could be written in color? Already armed with the power of language in stories, my nine-year-old self now recognized that the abilities of language extended beyond the words themselves.
That recognition encouraged me to search out poetry that used language holistically and artistically. Rather than words static on a page, the words on the page had to move, glow, invoke the senses. To encourage thought, make me laugh, make me angry. To make me. The frenetic nature of my new craving for poetry reflects itself in the kitsch and stacks of books organized in an outwardly haphazard yet carefully tender abandon. One of the highlights from my bookshelf is Derrick Harriell’sStripper in Wonderland, an intimate exploration of time and new fatherhood in the event of birth. The book itself serves as a moment in time, a memory of the day Harriell and I talked about poetry over tacos with other poets and some of my professors. His poetry struck me in a similar way as David Bowie’s Hunky Dory: a self-contained world of thought shown sensorially through lyric. Once I read Harriell, I couldn’t stop the force that is poetry. My bookshelf gained lots of new friends to hold, plus another bookshelf to its left to share the weight.
I suppose it’s time for me to answer those questions from the start, though I think you already know the answers I will provide:
Yes, that is a lot of books. I don’t know if I’ll make it through all of them, but I’m certainly going to let the books that need me take me where I need to go.
It’s not the clown that prevents my sleep. It’s the excitement of tomorrow’s poetry that makes me a restless bedmate.
*NOTE: I would certainly be remiss to ignore the United States’ instances of clownery, past and present, used for racist caricature and the maintenance of oppression. Clowns in concept, history, and practice exist for multiple purposes, and I wholly and actively do not support any instances of clownery for the purposes of systemic racism, harmful stereotyping, and the mockery of marginalized communities.
Jillian A. Fantin (they/them) is a poet with roots in the American South and north central England. They are a 2021 Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Poet Fellow, a 2020 Jefferson County Memorial Project Research Fellow, and the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of RENESME LITERARY. Jillian received BAs in English and Political Science with an emphasis in Political Theory from a small university in Birmingham, Alabama, and an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus in Poetry and a graduate minor in Gender Studies from the University of Notre Dame. Their writing appears or is forthcoming in American Journal of Poetry, Spectra Poets, Barrelhouse, and poetry.onl, among others.
Sundress Publications announces the release of Athena Nassar’s Little Houses. Nassar’s poetry is bold, and walks readers down a harrowing, heartfelt, passionate road.
“a part of you wants to stay wedged / in the throat of what will kill you.”
Athena Nassar’s piercing debut full-length collection, Little Houses, unravels one American family’s conflicted Southern existence. Nassar’s speaker first surfaces from an alligator’s mouth to beckon readers through a series of revolving doors. Behind one door, she reckons with a complex history of colonization; behind another, Princess Peach mourns her own hard-coded impotence. In this way, Nassar does not shy from exploring all sides of her speaker’s sexuality, heritage, and familial connections. To occupy her Little Houses is to find freedom in contradiction.
Kevin Prufer, author of The Art of Fiction writes, “In Little Houses, Athena Nassar meditates with unusual clarity on the complexities of race and displacement, the pervasiveness of violence, and the vagaries of love and sex. In poems at once deeply personal and vast in scope, the weight of history and memory hangs heavy—imperial, ancient, familial, and personal. This is a marvelous debut collection by a poet deeply attuned to the possibilities of language and introspection.”
Athena Nassar, author of Little Houses (Sundress Publications, 2023), is an Egyptian-American poet, essayist, and short story writer from Atlanta, Georgia. A finalist for the 2021 Poets Out Loud Prize, she is the winner of the 2021 Academy of American Poets College Prize, and the 2019 Scholastic National Gold Medal Portfolio Award among other honors. Her work has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, The Missouri Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Salt Hill, Lake Effect, The McNeese Review, New Orleans Review, Zone 3, The Los Angeles Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, PANK, and elsewhere. She attends Emerson College, where she is the Poetry Editor of The Emerson Review.
Welcome back to Lyric Essentials, where we invite writers to read the work of their favorite poets. This month, Anthony DiPietro joins us to discuss the work of Diane Seuss and line length in poetry, the intersection of play and rules, and insight regarding the perks of writing prompts. As always, we hope you enjoy reading as much as we did.
Ryleigh Wann: When was the first time you read Diane Seuss’s work? Why did it stand out to you then?
Anthony DiPietro: Diane Seuss taught at The Frost Place in 2017 while I was assisting the director, and I had the chance to study in her class. Before we all arrived in New Hampshire, while she was reading my packet of work, I was reading her book Four Legged Girl. When she arrived, she walked up to me to check in, and the director introduced us. She told me she dug my poems, which really bowled me over, and all I could say was “I like yours too.” Later in the week, she gave a reading and afterwards signed my copy of her book with a kind note and a lipstick kiss on the title page. I went on to read just about everything she’s written.
When I was first discovering her poems, I was drawn to her play between titles and first lines as well as her often long lines that run together. There’s almost a tease sometimes that this poem will be one long sentence. What that’s really about is an exuberance of voice, a confidence. She jumps headlong into a poem, and you just have to go along for the ride. If you look at “Either everything is sexual,” sometimes she chooses to end the sentence with a period, and that stop has certainty–a certainty of tone if not of fact. Other times, she strings sentences together with commas, including the final question that ends the poem, as if the momentum of her poem-story won’t let her reach a full stop. Sometimes there are fragments parading as sentences, which would suggest an incomplete thought, but she has a way of eventually coming back to complete every thought later, which is super satisfying. I think I saw her playing on the page, and it reminded me that when we write, we can sometimes return to our kindergarten self: we know no rules when we’re first learning to write or draw or sing. Creativity is just for expression. I’m making it sound like she doesn’t care for rules, but she’s also said that she selects each word with the care of a jeweler–and that is immediately apparent in any Diane Seuss poem. She’s making choices everywhere. You see them and you feel them on a gut level. Ultimately, I feel a kinship to Diane Seuss because she’s doing what I imagine all great poets do, or maybe it’s just the clan of poets in what I consider my lineage, which is to turn the raw material of our life, our biography, into a mythology. To do that is to generate image systems we keep drawing from. And to sound slick doing it.
RW: Why did you choose to read these poems specifically?
AD: I chose poems that I felt had something in common with my own work. “I aborted two daughters,” reminds me of my poem “A few years ago, I got a ticket for being exposed” which starts with me naked on a beach where I shouldn’t have been naked. I wrote it after reading Dolly Lemke’s poem “I never went to that movie at 12:45” in Best American Poetry 2010, where her liner notes say, “I have pretty much laid out all my faults, mistakes, and negative attributes for everyone to read.” I took those instructions as a prompt to enter directly into the vein of confessional poetry. Alongside the bigger sins, Lemke and I both pepper our lists with mundane references–coffee, shopping, shoes, sugar. In Seuss’s first line, the poem appears to respond to that same impulse: I’m about to tell you the worst thing about me (or the worst thing I’ve ever done). But in fact the poem goes to completely unpredictable places.
The same could be said for the poem “Either everything is sexual, or nothing is.” I love a poem that sets itself up that way: such an absolute, black and white statement that it can only be a false hypothesis. The title reads as a demand for an argument, and the poem answers that demand. And more than an argument, it becomes a sort of manifesto–or am I just projecting here? Sex ranks first on my list of writerly obsessions, so it’s possible. And this argument or manifesto takes the form of this positively luscious, exuberant list of images. I love list poems; I think every poem I write is based around some form of list. Around the time I met this poem, I was beginning to think of my aesthetic as embracing the idea that more is more–which is supposed to be against the rules in poetry–but I believe that a queer or camp aesthetic is built on an over-the-top quality. I have tried to write as over-the-top as this poem goes, and I can’t get there. I’m beat.
The third poem, “I fell on an incline,” I chose because of the way the poem travels. With almost impossible compression, the poem literally criss-crosses the continent while also time traveling to memories from different decades. I’m often reaching for a similar effect in my poems. When it works, it feels like you’ve actually traveled all these places, like you’ve danced yourself dizzy. You’ve been dropped off somewhere disorienting, but it turns out to be nirvana. The self-address in her last three words of this poem are signature Diane Seuss, just fully and unmistakably her voice. I can’t quite put into words where that little gesture takes me, but I get there every time I read it.
RW: Seuss’s latest poetry collection is made up entirely of sonnets. What do you think the benefits of writing formal poetry can be? How does your own writing interact with different forms, musicality, meter, etc.?
AD: One poem in that book begins, “The sonnet, like poverty, teaches you what you can do / without.” Which apart from being a brilliant line break seems to be a clue about one of the reasons she’s drawn to the form. I’m definitely aligned with Seuss in this–I like to make use of forms.
I believe that a good prompt brings together an expansive element to help you generate words and ideas, plus at least one constraining element, something that limits you. Without the limiting element, you might be making a grocery list rather than writing poetry. Writing in forms, or against a form, however you choose to think of it, is a constraining element. It becomes the box that you try to think outside of. When you start to write up against those limits, you suddenly find yourself saying what you didn’t expect to and wouldn’t have otherwise, which gives the poem a pulse of surprise or discovery.
That being said, as much as I’m a fan of forms, I don’t want something too strict, particularly a strict meter. I want my cadence to feel like mine. Musicality is not what I consider my strength or natural gift. Some poets have an ear for the music in the language, some write by ear and only later bring in sense–the logic, the drama, whatever meaning-making is happening in the poem. I’m quite the opposite. Sense comes first, and at some stage I revise to make sure its music works. Possibly, for this reason, I’m drawn to contemporary forms that invite you to test their limits and try to break them. For example, I find sestinas too dense, so I invented a form that borrows the sestina’s patterns but has 18 lines rather than 39.
RW: What have you been up to lately (life, work, anything!)? Got any news to share?
AD: Most exciting is that my debut poetry collection, kiss & release, is under contract to be published in 2024. While I wait for that, I’m working on another poetry book. I’m playing with persona in a different way from my past work, which is great fun. And I’m planning to attend one or more writing residencies next year to get some more focused time with that manuscript. Something a little more unexpected is that I’m also working on my first screenplay, a gay romantic comedy. We were just talking about forms, and romantic comedies are another example. They’re totally formulaic but seem to be able to hold an infinite number of combinations of characters and circumstances that lead to different results–some are more funny, some are more romantic, sometimes one partner has to grow, sometimes both, etc. You have to understand the form deeply to be able to do something new within it. That’s why I’ve been writing this since I think 2019. Also it became a little harder to finish when, in life, I got to the ending of my own romantic comedy when I met my partner in 2020 and moved in together last year.
Diane Seuss is poet, teacher, and the author of five books of poetry, including frank: sonnets (Graywolf Press, 2021), winner of the 2022 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (Graywolf Press, 2018), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry; Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf Press, 2015), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), recipient of the Juniper Prize for Poetry. Seuss lives in Michigan.
Anthony DiPietro is a gay Rhode Island-born writer and arts administrator now living in Worcester, MA. He earned a creative writing MFA at Stony Brook University, where he also taught courses and planned and diversified arts programming. He now serves as deputy director of Rose Art Museum. His first chapbook, And Walk Through, a series of poems composed on a typewriter during the pandemic lockdowns, is now available, and his full-length poetry collection, kiss & release, will appear from Unsolicited Press in 2024. His website is www.AnthonyWriter.com
Ryleigh Wann earned her 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. Ryleigh currently lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @wannderfullll or read her publications at ryleighwann.com
The Sundress Academy for the Arts is excited to present “The Elegiac Hybrid,” a workshop led by Mary Leauna Christensen on July 13, 2022, from 6-7:30 PM. This event will be held over Zoom. Participants can access the event at tiny.utk.edu/sundress (password: safta).
This workshop will reflect on the poetic tradition of elegy, while experimenting with what it means to elegize. The subject of an elegy might be a concrete person or thing, or the loss of language, ancestral land, or even personal agency. Reading the work of poets such as Layli Long Solider, Jake Skeets, and Donika Kelly, we will give attention to historically silenced voices, while discussing how experimentation with genre, form, and the use of the blank page allows more avenues for elegizing and the processing of grief.
Grief is, of course, non-linear. By considering elegy as a possible experimental or hybrid form, we will consider the importance of writing at the line level. We will discover ways individual lines interact with each other as well as how what we write interacts with the page itself. Using guiding prompts and example poems, participants will generate new work.
While there is no fee to participate in this workshop, those who are able and appreciative may make donations directly to Mary Leauna Christensen via Venmo at @Mleauna or via PayPal to email@example.com.
Mary Leauna Christensen, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is a PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi. Mary is Managing Editor of The Swamp Literary Magazine. Her work can be found in New Ohio Review, Puerto del Sol, Cream City Review, The Laurel Review, Southern Humanities Review, and Denver Quarterly. She has also recently been named an Indigenous Nations Poets fellow for the inaugural In-Na-Po retreat.
Stephanie Niu’s chapbook, She Has Dreamt Again of Water (Diode Editions, 2022), conjures both a dreamer’s perspective and longing for freedom, as well as a clear-eyed understanding of how it can be restricted. She searches for some balance between nourishing other people and relationships, and self-preservation. No answer to that question could be straightforward, and Niu’s thoughtful exploration of it ensures its emotional dimensions remain intact.
The first two poems of the collection (following a mythic sort of prologue) immediately set up some essential themes, with the motif of water carrying particular weight. “Water Dreams” pulls the central mother-daughter connection in and out of focus, like a tide. “Her relief that I can conjure, / even in sleep, what she cannot give me—good rest, / good luck, an ocean to dream in.” This care, as well as the discomfort of it at times, is evident throughout the chapbook, with the speaker frequently drawn in and away from the mother’s gravity. “She is always in motion, urgent for something / she cannot name.”
Both qualities of the relationship become more apparent in “Midden / Appetite,” the first of many poems that center less around water and more around themes of food and, more significantly, “trash” or “garbage,” as the mother identifies herself. These more potent metaphors reappear throughout the poems. Love is intertwined in what is consumed, as when the speaker notes the mother “eats what we won’t,” despite her complaint that “no one wants to be garbage.” Later, the mother wishes, “If someone loved me more, / maybe I wouldn’t gain weight.”
Finding a connection between the mystic ocean themes and the more mundane question of nourishment, Niu draws a sketch of a dead whale’s remains becoming an “ecosystem,” contradicting her mother’s wish not to “become food”—illustrating a fear that love means being consumed. What power do we have, or do we not have, to choose to linger in the lives of others? To sustain our loved ones in whatever way they may need?
In the next poem, “Garbage Boogie,” the speaker notes that she has “trash guilt” and will “discard what [she] can’t carry”—a stark contrast. More crucially, she believes that “the system / can’t need us to be superhuman” as she watches “the ways we still overflow / with hunger, so much hunger / with nowhere to go.” It doesn’t feel quite like a judgment on the mother, but perhaps a rejection of that model for herself after witnessing the wear on her bones.
Later, in “Before Desire,” the speaker makes this conflict a bit clearer. She uses the metaphor of pelicans filling their mouths with fish, accepting that “our way of being in the world / was the only one we wanted,” knowing that “we had no dreams.” The reader can’t help but think of the collection’s title, however, and the speaker’s insistence on dreaming, even if it’s almost apologetic.
In later poems, the speaker’s father appears to be the opposite, somehow: struggling to find the right way to nourish those in his care, misfeeding parakeets who don’t know to “keep their bellies full” like chickens do—an apparent metaphor for himself. In the next poem, however, the speaker reconsiders, noting that “he has learned to fly,” thoughtfully providing her two pears for travel; they have the “sharp crunch of water” and nourish her more fully, while being more acceptable on a plane than liquids.
The narrative of her father is clearer than that of the mother, perhaps. But maybe painting such a clear portrait of each of them is enough.
Through the three parts of “Diver Walks into the Sea and Stays,” the speaker finally creates a narrative for herself, slowly “learn[ing] to clear [her] ears,” and then beginning to explore, finding “everything […] worthy of devotion.” She concludes, “I need / nothing. I survive” in the image of an angler fish. Then, in the collection’s titular poem, she longs for exile, for the moon (“What better home / for her lonely body than another lonely, / celestial body?”)
One of the chapbook’s highlights, “Migration,” carries the reader from that longing and exploration into the collection’s final quiet moments. The poem is a sestina, using the end-words of each line to pull together many thematic elements and details that have flowed like driftwood through the collection, like “mother” and “free” and “swell.”
In one stanza, the speaker’s mother seems to accept her “early desire to be free,” at which the mother “swell[s]/with pride;” later, that acceptance is reciprocated, when the speaker realizes, “I wish I could say what I needed to be free/from, what thing. Not any particular, even my mother.” She promises to “show [her] mother the swells” of the ocean someday.
Clear, cleansing prose runs through these poems like a river. They are not simple or transparent, yet the reader’s mind doesn’t stumble over the words. They are musical, but also purer than that, spoken with a clear throat yet an exploring mind. The language invites us to spend time with it, inside of it, like opening our eyes underwater and examining an unknown landscape. The vision is sharp, translucent.
Much of this language is used to create the ethereal atmosphere of many poems, a similar magic to the title. At other times, though, it finds other purposes, even play. “Garbage boogie,” for instance, is aptly named after its musical qualities: “the sound of hollow boxes” dancing with “and old bottles of booze / lulls me, confused, into its groove”; “culpable” ricocheting off of “compost” and “recyclables”—all this just in the first few moments of the poem.
Although the ocean metaphors were unsurprising, I didn’t anticipate the themes centered around food and remains. At times, there is emptiness and hunger, while at others, fullness and the act of consuming. There is a clear contrast in these themes, the mysticism of water and the practical care of feeding. Yet, moments of connection are scattered throughout, such as the whale’s corpse becoming sustenance. In other cases, food and water act as both sources of life and nourishment (literal food, and metaphorical spiritual freedom of the ocean) as well as, perhaps, suffocation (consumed and being consumed; dreams being put to rest).
The final poem, “I Drive As My Family Sleeps,” offers some resolution of these themes. The images of this poem are quiet, nearly still, except for the lullaby hum of the road beneath the words. Something intangible lingers there, in the space this family creates for each other. “But for now, /this quiet mile is the only thing on earth that is ours.”
Laurel Elizabeth is a writing tutor and success coach for Kennebec Valley Community College’s TRIO program, where she recently earned an associate degree in liberal arts. Additionally, she is a graduate of Vassar College’s Exploring Transfer summer program, and aims to begin a BA in English this fall. An emerging writer and aspiring English teacher, she has a special interest in the role of creative empowerment in education.