The chapbook is a strange and protean form, flickering somewhere between long poem and short book, and though they get little love from reviewers, prize committees and large publishers, many of us write, publish and love them. So, in January, I sat down with three poets whose chapbooks I’ve really enjoyed, to talk with them about our experiences writing (and shilling for) these little fascicles, and how we did (or did not) weave them into full-length books. Conor Bracken
Conor Bracken is the author of Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour (Bull City Press, 2017), selected by Diane Seuss as winner of the fifth annual Frost Place Chapbook Competition, and The Enemy of My Enemy is Me (Diode Editions, June 2021), winner of the 2020 Diode Editions Book Prize. He is also the translator of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s Scorpionic Sun (CSU Poetry Center, 2019). His work has earned fellowships from Bread Loaf, the Community of Writers, the Frost Place, Inprint, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and has appeared in places like BOMB, jubilat, New England Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and Sixth Finch, among others. He lives with his wife, daughter, and dog in Ohio.
What the Chapbook Allows For
“[The chapbook was] a more dense approach. [The poems] are more focused… Because I am so blobular and sprawly…the chapbook helped me so much with the [full length] book… You know when cells sort of… create an internal circle and expel something? Endocytosis! This little nucleus started forming within the blob [of a bigger idea], and that became the chapbook. That helped me center around a specific object, and a specific line of thought, and it became a guiding principle. A concrete thing to work around. [The chapbook] helped me in eliminating all the things that did not belong to it.” Ananda Lima
Ananda Lima’s poetry collection Mother/land was the winner of the 2020 Hudson Prize and is forthcoming in 2021 (Black Lawrence Press). She is also the author of the poetry chapbooks Amblyopia (Bull City Press – Inch series, 2020) and Translation (Paper Nautilus, 2019, winner of the Vella Chapbook Prize), and the fiction chapbook Tropicália (Newfound, forthcoming in 2021, winner of the Newfound Prose Prize). Her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Poets.org, Kenyon Review Online, Gulf Coast, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. She has an MA in Linguistics from UCLA and an MFA in Creative Writing in Fiction from Rutgers University, Newark.
“For me, too, [the chapbook] was so much more fun…! The chapbook is just a really wonderful time. It’s really one of my favorite parts of my writing life so far.” Taneum Bambrick
Taneum Bambrick is the author of VANTAGE, which won the 2019 APR Honickman First Book Award. Her chapbook, Reservoir, was selected for the 2017 Yemassee Chapbook Prize. A graduate of the University of Arizona’s MFA program and a 2020 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in The Nation, The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Rumpus and elsewhere. She teaches at Central Washington University.
“There was something more fun about the chapbook process, because it almost felt like you didn’t know what the expectations were… Because the big book is like “This is the BIG BOOK… Oftentimes we’re so used to seeing our poems in our Microsoft Word frame-world, that it was such a huge thing to me when Ross sent me my first mockup of my book… Going through those small processes, having the object, giving your first reading with the book, and going through all those on a smaller level, to me was such an added boost in getting to the big book process.” Tiana Clark
Tiana Clark is the author of the poetry collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Clark is a winner for the 2020 Kate Tufts Discovery Award (Claremont Graduate University), a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow, a recipient of a 2019 Pushcart Prize, a winner of the 2017 Furious Flower’s Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. She was the 2017-2018 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing.
“I looked at each of the sections of my big book as actually three different chapbooks. And that helped me break down the aerial view into sizeable chunks to help me manage it mentally and emotionally.” TC
“I’m writing these poems and then I see that there’s a sort of theme emerging, and there’s a lot of poems that are talking to each other and are tending towards certain subject matter or a mood. At first I’m just thinking of the poem as a poem, and then I’m thinking of this blob… This is my book—the blob!
For me, the difference between the blob and the chapbook was just that there was a conversation crystallizing around this nucleus… Find and create bridge poems: Look for poems you might have thought about including in your chapbook, but decided not to because they veered away from the chapbook’s core. You can also do this with new work, work-in-progress, and even notes on poems-to-come. The goal is to find poems that speak to the work in the chapbook, but don’t neatly fit into it. Use that intersection to expand the work into new threads to be explored for the full length.” AL
“Think about your favorite book of poems. There’s probably only 5 or 6 poems that come to your head… If you have 5 or 6 fire poems, then you’re ready to go… Also…make sure everything looks beautiful and perfect. It starts from the table of contents. Those are like little chapter novels!” TC
“What do you feel is missing? I don’t mean “missing” in a negative way, but rather as gaps where more risk, information, and urgency might enter into the project. What did you carve out through the editing process? Do you still have those drafts? Who told you to throw them away? The process of editing a chapbook, at least for me, was so influenced by institutions: some of what I removed initially, or didn’t feel brave enough to pursue, were poems and essays that represented the most authentic parts of the experiences I was describing.” TB
“Thinking about the audience in the process of composition and even assemblage can be paralyzing. I love how chapbooks can unfetter us from our own expectations of ourselves so that we can write without an audience, that doesn’t even exist, breathing down our necks…and can also give us this kind of tailwind we need for the next stage.” CB
“I did a mini-chapbook tour…and I was reading at mostly bars in random places…and I was just writing down questions people had for me, so I would hear where the gaps were, [the] places where I was resisting something that felt risky or where I hadn’t written yet something that might be the most vulnerable.” TB
“I often don’t think about the audience, even in general. I saw Terrance Hayes in an interview talk about how in his first drafts the audience is never in the room, it’s just [him]and [his] shadows and [he’s]just exorcising everything out. Obviously, we think about the audience at some point, which for me is revision, or publication. I always tell my students there’s the poems you write and the poems you publish.” TC
“Using submissions as a thing in your writing process …is very true for me too. I find that the revisions I do before the deadline are so much better than the ones I’ve been doing for months. That’s when the audience comes in… It makes it easier to imagine other eyes reading that.” AL
“I was unable to publish the poems individually because my book is very much narrative-driven, so if you extract individual parts, they don’t really make sense. I was encouraged by my workshop leaders at the University of Arizona to pursue chapbook publication.” TB
“[The thought process was] I think I have 15-20 poems in conversation, let me submit to a chapbook competition. I make it sound so haphazard but that’s kind of how I was… I looked at submission deadlines at the time as a way for me to help with my revision process.” TC
“Having that editing process helped me understand what I had here [in this chapbook] that belonged to the other [bigger] book.” AL
“I got a handwritten rejection from Bull City. It was so cute! I remember carrying that handwritten note around. I had it on my wall in my room because it was so important to me. It was the first time anywhere that I considered to be a really big deal publishing place had ever spoken to me. It was this intense breakthrough that gave me the motivation to submit it… I look back on how dramatically that changed my idea of myself. From that note on, I went from writing by myself to writing in community.” TB
“If you got a personal rejection, whether that’s for an individual submission or for a chapbook or for a big book prize…the fact that someone took the time is a really big thing, and it’s also a sign you’re getting closer. I love that quote from Sylvia Plath: ‘I love my rejection letters, they’re signs that I tried.’” TC
How much of the chapbook became ‘the Big Book’?
“When it got to the Big Book for me, [the big book] definitely had a theme…after you do the mini-tour [for the chapbook] and get the little amuse-bouche of what’s happening, then it helps you for the Big Book. I was like, what conversations do I want to be having, what do I want to answer in Q&As and interviews, because I got a taste of that with the chapbook… [For the chapbook and the big book] I let those voices haunt me in a different way.” TC
“[I had] my fears about having too many of the same poems in the chap and the full-length, and worrying about the audience in that way and trying to figure out how to make [the poems] different. I ended up with almost all the poems from my chapbook in my full-length, so that felt like a really big risk… My chapbook had a quieter reception, so it didn’t really matter that much. But the biggest difference is that I was really interested in hybridity and including essays alongside poems… The difference between the chapbook and my book is pretty much the risk of hybridity and the risk of engaging in those traumatic, scarier, more personal details.” TB
“I was worried that everyone had read some of these poems. Because it felt like more of a book than a chapbook for me, I kind of let it go. “This is its own thing.” The full-length became a challenge of creating a newer object and I want them to have two separate worlds. I think I only have 2.5 poems…from the chapbook in the big book. What are poems that are absolutely in this other conversation? But I gave myself permission to let my chapbook be its own thing and just kind of put it on a boat and pushed it away.” TC
“What are some guiding principles? ‘Every good book—whether that be a novel, a linked short story collection, or a sequence of poems—starts with an unanswerable question.’ And the protagonist…struggles with that, trying to answer that question, and never does, but it’s that tension that creates the narrative arc.” Charles Baxter via TC
“Having good teachers is really important for [learning to embrace risk] and identify what [you’re] avoiding.” TB
“The workshop is a voice but not the voice. [It can] sanitize risk.” TC
“One thing my professor [Mark Jarman told me about impostor syndrome], this grand professor with all these books, he was like “oh, you’ll have that for the rest of your life.” He said it so matter-of-factly and there was something about that that was so comforting, so I was like oh, so this is not something to overcome and the fact that I’m feeling that is very much in line with being a writer. Once I realized it was insurmountable, I was like oh, I got this. So I alchemized that energy.” TC
“Find unexplored threads in your chapbook: Talk through your poems with a generous friend (or an imaginary friend, if you are good at pretending). Go through each of the poems in your chapbook and have fun geeking out on what you did (eg. “the line break here does X, isn’t that cool?”, “I used this word here because it can also mean X,” etc). Sometimes talking about poems in the way, you find themes that are under the surface, that you could explore them in more depth in a full collection. The friend can stay silent or they can ask questions (eg. “where do you think this word is going?”), as long as you both understand that this is not a workshop but a generative exercise looking for nascent threads in the chapbook.
[In terms of emotional management] Feel great about yourself and your accomplishment. You wrote a chapbook and that is awesome. Remind yourself when you didn’t have a chapbook at all and the time when you were anxious about a fledgling something in your hands, unsure of where it would go. Remember this and use it to keep yourself going through some similar anxieties when writing your full-length collection.” AL
K.K. Fox lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Iron Horse, NELLE, Joyland, Kenyon Review Online, and others. She is a fiction editor for Los Angeles Review.
Hananah Zaheer’s writing has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, SmokeLong, Southwest Review, AGNI, Michigan Quarterly Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. A flash chapbook, Lovebirds, is forthcoming from Bull City Press. She is fiction editor for Los Angeles Review and is currently working on a novel. You can reach her at @hananahzaheer.
It wasn’t like you think. Charlie Todd was one of the most popular candidates going through Rush that year, even with a limp and a useless hand. We tried not to stare, but her left arm was lifeless, paralyzed, and her hand curled at the end like a comma. She hit her head in a car wreck just before high school. We heard it from Brea Loveless who knew her before it all happened.
That year, we held seminars at Rush Retreat about the importance of diversity and acceptance on the University of Tennessee’s campus. The school was pressuring Panhellenic to be more open, but our sorority was ready. There was a mixed girl going through Rush, and not only was she gorgeous, but a lot of girls didn’t even notice she was any different from us until we pointed it out. We hoped a Muslim girl might apply, but they usually stuck to International Club, and we couldn’t do a Greek mixer with a club. But we asked the AKA girls to choreograph our step routine for the Panhellenic Dance-off last year, and we felt really good about that.
The University of Tennessee had fourteen Greek sororities, but there was an unofficial top four. The Zeta Thetas, or the Zluts, were local Knoxville girls. The Chi Omicron Phis, or the Chi Babies, were all cotton money from Memphis. The Eta Eta Etas, or Eat Eat Eats, were chubby rich girls from out of state. And the Kappa Omegas, or the Knock Offs, were Nashville private school girls who couldn’t get into Vanderbilt. If those four wanted Charlie Todd, then the rest did, too. And since Charlie Todd was from Nashville and her younger sister was already a Kappa Omega, they acted like Charlie was theirs. But we knew the rumors—that Mamie and Charlie weren’t even close. That Mamie didn’t want her sister around in high school, so she wouldn’t want her in college, either.
They used to be close, or so Brea Loveless told it. She said they were once almost like twins, laying hands on each other’s arms like they were extensions of their own. Access to each other’s minds so that they didn’t need words. But something changed in the accident—Charlie did. Mamie didn’t have any injuries, but she got fat and quit the color guard. We heard it straight from Brea.
Since Charlie was the only special needs girl going through Rush, she basically had her pick. She didn’t need a wheelchair, but we all had ramps and elevators in our sororities because our houses were new. Tennessee used to have this law that if seven or more women lived in a house, it was considered a brothel, an old law never struck from the books. But donors speak louder than old laws, so UT finally let us build Sorority Hill, just like Fraternity Row. The frat houses were outdated, filthy brick boxes from the 70s. But the sorority houses were state of the art, totally accessible for the handicapped, and decorated with the principles of feng shui.
During Rush, the candidates came to our house for three different rounds. When Charlie showed up, she was wearing jeans and a pink gingham top. It was a little informal next to all the sundresses on the other pledges, but we still guided her to a wingback chair that faced the party—total privileged status. Girls of least importance had to stand in the middle of the room. We knew which candidates needed more attention and gave the others a passing hello because we only had so much time. It just wasn’t possible to love everyone equally.
The mixed girl, Nicole, and Charlie came through the same party that round, which meant we had to buzz back and forth between them. We needed to keep Nicole and Charlie’s undivided attention so they didn’t have time to look around. Or think. We needed them to choose us.
“They could have put them in different groups,” Mindy Thompson said. “That makes the most sense.”
Nicole was a rising freshman from Knoxville, and so she was friends with all the Zetas. We had a lot of work to do. We showed her our median GPA was higher than the rest of the sororities’ and that our house was the smallest on Sorority Hill only because it was first. Our Nationals built us a house when the other sororities had to raise funds locally. They weren’t strong at other universities like Alabama, Ole Miss, or Texas. Not like us. We preferred being a sorority whose national presence mattered more than one single chapter in Knoxville. We told her we were part of something bigger and more important with lots of different kinds of people.
“Do you ever do anything with the other chapters?” she asked.
“If you see another sister in public, you do a secret sign. If she sees you, she does it back.”
“Oh, so then do you introduce yourself?” she asked. “Like is that how you meet each other?”
“Well, no,” we said. “You just smile at each other and keep going.”
“Then why do it?” she asked. Every time we saw someone in a T-shirt with our letters at the airport, we made an O with our fingers and thumb and held it over our heart hoping the girl would notice. If she did, she would do it back, and we had that thrill of a mutual secret.
“It’s fun to show each other we’re the same,” we said.
Nicole looked down at her hands and picked at her nails. They were unpolished and short. A biter.
“So you like being a part of the same club.”
“Exactly,” we said. “Who doesn’t?”
As a rising junior, Charlie was an unusual candidate. She was a year older than her sister, waiting until after Mamie joined a sorority to do so herself. We gave most of our pledges to freshmen because they could invest a full four years in the chapter. Becoming one of the best sororities was about consistency and lower turnover, but including someone with a disability would show just how inclusive we were, unlike everybody else. If we wanted the chapter to survive, we had to show the world that we weren’t just shallow, pretty girls who threw great parties. We were open-minded; we were inclusive. Anyway, no two people were completely alike, so really, we were all the same in that.
“What’s your major?” we asked, and Charlie said it was interior design. We thought that sounded feminine. She was a talker, which was great, because it can be hard to think of things to say with girl after girl after girl. As Charlie talked, she pulled on her paralyzed hand with the other one, stretching out the stiff fingers and massaging the wrist.
“Does it hurt?” we asked, and she said she was supposed to wear a brace, but she didn’t like the way it looked. We all could understand that.
“Beauty is pain,” we laughed. We couldn’t wait for lunch.
That night, whispers spread from house to house. No one was supposed to have any contact with pledges outside of the Rush parties, including real sisters like Mamie and Charlie Todd. However, a Rho Chi said she saw Charlie and Mamie go into Gus’ Good Times Deli together and that Mamie hugged Charlie as they stood in line to order.
“That’s against the rules,” we cried. We heard the rumors, that they didn’t normally hang out. That they weren’t close. This felt like Mamie trying to make up for lost time, trying to win her sister over only to get her into her sorority. Mamie had her whole life to be nicer to her sister. We weren’t supposed to talk to the Rho Chis either, but everyone broke that rule, and everyone knew everyone broke that rule, so that was different.
“Just because they’re sisters doesn’t mean they have to be in the same sorority,” the Rho Chi said. “They’ll always be sisters.”
“That’s it,” we said. We knew exactly how to convince Charlie to leave hers.
During the next Rush party, Charlie arrived in a pencil skirt, white blouse, and kitten heels. She looked like she was going to a job interview, but some of the freshmen were showing too much cleavage, so Charlie looked classy by comparison. And if she joined our chapter, there would be plenty of time for style advice.
She wobbled in her heels as we guided her to her seat. This was the round where we performed a show about our chapter, a skit passed down since the early 90s. We had a mermaid who looked like Ariel. She floats about trying to figure out where she belongs. She finds her sorority home in a chapter filled with all kinds of other sisters: mermaids and humans and sea creatures. The skit emphasized our tradition of diversity.
“You know,” we said to Charlie. “Ariel could have gone to the sorority with all the mermaids she already knew, but that’s not what finding a sorority is about.”
“I love the costumes,” Charlie said, smoothing her tight skirt with her right hand as if it, too, were a fin.
“You’ll find all kinds of people in our chapter,” we said, just as we practiced. “Your friends will always be your friends, and your family will always be your family.” We let this last part sink in for a moment. “Joining a sorority is about finding the right place for you.”
“Everyone I’ve met during Rush has been so nice,” Charlie said. “I’m not used to it. It’s like I suddenly have something that other people want.”
“Not suddenly at all,” we cried. “We just want you. And we sure hope we will see you back here for Preference Night.”
“Oh, yes,” Charlie said. “Preference.”
After the party, and after we closed the door behind the last candidate, we thought through what Charlie said. Would she cut us? Would she come back? Only the Chi Babies had cut Charlie so far. That sorority would cut a girl just so the girl couldn’t cut them first. They were afraid of rejection, of risk. But how else do you become sisters?
When we got the list of returning candidates and Charlie’s name was on it, we clapped and squealed. Apparently, she had chosen Eta Eta Eta, Kappa Omega, and us as her top three. We couldn’t believe it. We were bummed that Nicole had cut us, but we knew the Zetas were hardcore rushing her since she’d gone to high school with half of them. She must not have cared the Zetas weren’t progressive, not like us. Maybe she was as predictable as any other girl.
The Kappa Omegas still had the best chance of getting Charlie because they had her sister, but we were determined to make her think twice. She arrived on Preference Night wearing a lacy mint green dress that stopped just below her knees, an awkward length, as if she had gone into her mother’s closet and picked one of her dresses. Her shoes were flats, no more heels this time, so no worrying about her turning an ankle as we crossed the room. We gave Charlie the best seat in the house, at the front but to the side so she could see the rest of the desirable candidates around her. They would all have a front row view of Mindy Thompson, our soloist, who would sing a moving song sure to make them all cry.
Every candidate had one of our sisters sitting at her feet, talking to her about the sorority and how excited we would be to have that candidate run through our door on Bid Day. Kat O’Donnell sat on her knees in front of Charlie where she could touch Charlie’s knees and hands like they were old friends. Kat was the best sister for the job, because she pledged a different sorority than her older sister. Granted, they went to different colleges—not like Charlie and Mamie Todd. But it was our best chance to convince Charlie she didn’t have to pledge a sorority out of obligation.
“I thought a lot about my decision,” Kat said, who raised up on her knees, leaned in to Charlie. “But I knew when I met these girls that this was the place for me.”
“I’ve met so many, it’s kinda hard for me to tell them apart,” Charlie said, and she looked around at our candles, our flowers, our balloon arch with a microphone stand. The entire patio smelled of gardenias, both in the vases as centerpieces and the perfume we sprayed all over the tablecloths. Next to Charlie was a teacake with her name scrawled across it in icing. Charlie took a big bite, and our stomachs rumbled. Usually, the candidates were too nervous to eat much of their teacakes, so as soon as they left the party, we swarmed the tables, scarfing up their leftovers before clearing the plates and setting down new cakes for the next party. We were both hungry and concerned watching Charlie eat her cake with her one good hand and lick her fingers. An appetite was never a good sign.
“You know,” Kat said. She was about to deliver our final whammy for winning Charlie over. “My sister got to pick her own sorority. Why shouldn’t I have that opportunity, too?”
Charlie chewed the remainder of the teacake in her mouth while nodding. Then she swallowed. “Well, I guess it’s the one time you actually can choose your family.”
Kat’s mouth fell open a little, and we all stopped breathing. Kat sat back down on her heels, flustered. Then, Mindy started humming under the balloon arch with a hand to the microphone. She looked at her feet while the speaker played a Steven Curtis Chapman song. She swayed with the intro and opened her eyes on the first piano note.
Mindy was good at this. As a senior, this was her last Preference Night. We fretted over who would do it next year. A freshman would be best, someone who could deliver the same performance for three straight years. Our Rush process had to be honed for results. Sure enough, the girls near the front dabbed at their eyes with their napkins, their uneaten teacakes in our periphery. One pledge near the back was in full sobs, and we felt bad, because she was just a seat filler. Not every girl can get a bid, but empty seats look bad, so unlike Chi O we kept a few around who were easy to vote out. Some of the seniors were crying genuine tears and hugging each other, as this was their last Preference Night before their last year of date parties and chapter meetings before going separate ways into the world. But Kat O’Donnell turned on the water works like we knew she could. She looked up at Charlie as a few tears—but not too many—slipped down her cheeks. She squeezed Charlie’s curled hand between her two. With the other hand, Charlie finished off her teacake, crumbs landing on her pooched belly as she relaxed in her chair. She probably couldn’t work out very well with her condition, but we could help her understand nutrition when she was eating meals in the house with us. She took a sip of punch.
At the end, Kat walked Charlie to the door last. We all reached out, tapped Charlie’s shoulder, waved goodbye. We used her name.
But when we closed the door, Kat O’Donnell broke down in real sobs, sinking into a nearby chair. We crowded around her, petting her head and offering her tissues.
“What’s wrong?” we asked, and Kat looked up, mascara streaking down her face that was crumpled in an ugly cry.
“I didn’t choose my family,” she said.
The next morning, we got our list of confirmed pledges. We scanned for Charlie’s name first and slumped when we didn’t see it.
“That’s okay, girls,” our Vice President of Membership said as we stood in the chapter room holding hands in a circle while wearing matching pink Bid Day shirts. “We tried our best. Just know it’s not our fault.”
We stood on the front lawn and faced the courtyard where the next generation of pledges were barricaded behind curtains of crepe paper ribbons. On the Rho Chi’s count, the pledges burst through the streamers and ran full speed to their new homes. We greeted them with hugs and squeals and matching T-shirts.
Charlie couldn’t run, so she limped along last, shuffling toward the Kappa Omega house. We knew it. We just knew it. They had her actual sister; we could never compete with that. It was so unfair. We spent all that time on her for nothing.
Our new class of pledges bounced around us, blond highlights flying about. We couldn’t help but look over their shoulders as Mamie met Charlie between the courtyard and the Kappa Omega lawn. They stood inches away, but they didn’t hug. Mamie was saying something, then put her face in her hands like she was crying. Charlie moved forward and wrapped the one arm she could around her sister. They stood like that for a minute, and it looked sad, and for a brief moment we wondered if maybe Kappa Omega had not given Charlie a bid after all.
But then Mamie took Charlie’s good hand in her own, and they walked back to the Knock Offs, who all started swinging their right arms with fists in the air, singing their sorority song: Drink a toast! To the Kappa O’s! The greatest girls I know…
Charlie joined them, swinging her arm, too, her fist in the air, certain and proud. The KO’s swarmed her with their ponytails and tears. We watched her until we couldn’t, until she blended in to the crowd and became a Kappa, too. They were all moving the same direction at the same time in the same way.
That’s when Kat O’Donnell clapped her hands and stomped her right foot. We stomped along as our new pledges looked at us with wonder, so happy that we chose them, as if we would never choose anyone else. We would never choose differently. And so we circled them, everyone crying and laughing and hugging, and we sang louder and louder so the other sororities could hear us. So that our own voice was unmistakable. We sang so that they would know just how happy we were.
Ever since Abba died, a girl has been living in my mouth. Mostly, she sits on my tongue and watches me do my homework or make houses with old cereal boxes. When Amma makes me write receipts for the laundry business she runs out of our living room, the girl helps me count.
“I want to have fun,” she says some days. “Don’t you want to have fun?”
I tell her this is all the fun we can have right now. If Abba was still alive, we would go to the park and sit on the carousel and go around and around till the sky tilts. With Amma, I only get to watch as she walks from sofa to sofa, making foul-smelling hills out of other people’s clothes.
“Imagine if she was the one who died,” the girl says. “Do you think your father would come back to life?
Sometimes the girl doesn’t like being made to eat daal four days in a row or doesn’t want us to go to school or doesn’t want Amma to try to suffocate us with her hug and then she gets angry. She slides down my throat and sits on my heart, her legs wrapped around it. When she squeezes, I have to breathe deeply to keep from crying.
“What’s gotten into you,” Amma keeps saying and stares at me hard like she can tell I am hiding something. I squeeze my lips together tightly so she can’t see inside my mouth. She would send the girl away and I can’t have that: the girl is my only friend.
One morning when Amma says we are going to Billy’s house because his mother has died, the girl jumps into my stomach and pinches my lungs.
“Let’s go,” she says. “I have an idea.”
Billy is the luckiest boy in my grade, maybe in the world. Everyone at school likes him. He comes to school in a white Corolla with his father, who smells like oranges and wears sunglasses and looks like the man on the movie poster at the theater across the street from my house. Sometimes, Billy’s father stops by our house with a bag full of dirty clothes and while Amma and he discuss business in the bedroom, I sit with Billy on the balcony and pretend he likes me. He tells me he loves scary movies. Once he told me he watched a movie where one man hooked up a tube to another man’s arm and drank all his blood.
“Took all his power,” said Billy and snapped his fingers. “All his luck, too. I have two copies of the DVD at home.”
“Can I come over to watch?” I asked, and he looked at me like he ate something rotten.
“What if he was right?” the girl in my mouth says now. “What if you could change your luck by tasting the blood of someone lucky?” She crawls along the sides of my teeth.
Amma points at the plastic bag someone dropped off only the night before. “Wear the black dress,” she says. “I’ll clean it later.”
The wool still smells like its owner’s sweat. I hold my breath when I squeeze in. Then I slide Amma’s pearl hairpin into my hair.
“Please,” I say when she frowns. When she turns, I slip it into my pocket.
The whole taxi ride from the other side of I-40, the girl leaps from my stomach to throat to heart. She plans.
I imagine Billy’s blood will taste like thick honey. I imagine this of all the kids at Julius West Elementary. They are loud and happy and play only with each other.
“It’s because they’re different,” the girl tells me. “You can’t do anything about that.”
Most days, at recess, I hide behind a bench and poke my own palm with the pearl hairpin until red dots ooze out. I lick the dots and wish for something spectacular to happen to me: to break my leg or to become so sick I have to spend weeks in the hospital, to get electrocuted and wake up in a world where Abba isn’t gone; he is just visiting some place he had always wanted to see—New York, Arizona, Los Angeles. Then, the girl would have never come to live in my chest.
At the end of the gravel driveway to Billy’s house, Amma fixes her makeup. I feel the hairpin in my pocket.
“Behave like we belong,” Amma says. She dabs perfume onto her wrists and behind her ears. Her breath smells of onions and toothpaste. I hold my arm out.
“Not for little girls.” Amma pulls her hand away, tucks the perfume deep inside her bag. Then she knocks at the door.
“Stupid bitch,” says the girl.
Billy is in the living room, his bony legs look like an unsteady colt’s. The grownups can’t keep their hands to themselves. He is getting hugged and kissed and offered tiny sandwiches. When we walk to him, he crosses his arms and kicks the leg of the coffee table. His mouth puckers. My face gets five-slaps hot. At home, Amma made me practice saying, “I’m sorry about your mom.”
“Don’t say it,” says the girl. I listen. Instead, I gather my hair under my chin and bite the ends.
“Don’t you want the kids in school to make you a big card, to crowd around you at lunch?” asks the girl.
Amma stands close to Billy and his father, their three pairs of feet nearly touching. I peer at the bottom of Amma’s chin. The skin near the bone is thin, like the veiny bubble of a frog’s throat. Bruises appear on it easily: mosquito bites or finger marks or a blood spatter like a tiny man had fallen off a balcony onto a tiny sidewalk inside her neck, cracking his head open.
I could pierce it easily when she sleeps quietly on the couch, I’ve told the girl. But she tells me I don’t need Amma’s blood.
“She’s just as unlucky as you,” says the girl.
Billy’s eyes are wet. His hair falls onto his pumpkin forehead. He pulls at the end of his too-big, too-long shirt. The girl starts climbing up to my throat.
“Why are you here?” Billy’s neck is red and splotchy. His seems sad and small, nothing like the boy from last week when he had led a half-circle around me in a chant. Daughter of a bitch is a bitch, bitch, bitch.
“No one likes her,” he says and points at me.
My knee is still a thick scab from fighting him to the ground.
“Last warning,” Principal Miller had frowned when Amma came to pick me up after the fight. “One more incident like this and you’re gone.”
“Tell Fatface Miller to shut up,” the girl had said.
“I don’t care,” I had said, instead.
Outside the school, Amma called a taxi and we rode home silently. Before bed that night, she breathed prayers into a glass of water.
“Drink this,” she said. “Maybe it makes you nicer.”
Amma’s palm is against Billy’s cheek. “This is a sad time.” She is using her bedtime-story voice. “It’s okay to be angry.”
I’ve heard this voice before. When we were new to America and I missed the stray cats outside my grandparent’s house in Lahore, she used that voice to tell me the cats missed me too. Later, I would hear her calm Abba on the other side of my bedroom wall. When she stopped using the voice was when everything went wrong. Abba got angrier. Amma started shouting at him. I move closer to her.
Billy’s face twists and then his entire body pulls away.
“Oh,” Amma says, and it looks like a deep sadness is pulling at her lips from the inside. She retracts her hand, holds it against her chest.
The girls says, “She would have swung it against your cheek if that had been you.”
“Son.” Billy’s father taps his head in warning.
“It’s okay,” Amma says. “When someone close to you is gone, you feel abandoned, angry. I understand.”
“She doesn’t understand you,” says the girl.
I pull at Amma’s sleeve, the girl in my stomach. “I’m hungry.”
“I’m sorry,” Billy’s father says.
“I’ve been there,” Amma says again.
The girl is unhappy. She twists inside my throat. I can feel her climbing to the back of my mouth. I imagine she’s on some sort of knotted rope.
“You’re not going to take that,” says the girl. “Say something.”
I shake my head.
“You can’t come to my house,” Billy says to me. His father squeezes his shoulder.
Amma is looking at me. I wish she would say something nice to me, but she looks like she is ashamed, saddened that I could make someone else so upset.
“She only cares about him,” says the girl, and swings against the roof of my mouth. “Everyone cares about him. Tell him to go to hell.”
“I can go where I want,” I say to Billy. I open my mouth wide to show him the girl swinging wildly.
“Stop it,” Amma says.
“Weirdo,” Billy says.
“Kick him,” the girl says.
I do. The kick is loud, Billy’s cry even louder, and before I know it, he has run away somewhere and everyone is looking at me and the skin on my arms is burning in Amma’s grip.
“What is wrong with you?” Her eyes are dark. “Why can’t you be normal?”
The room goes quiet. I can hear everyone’s breaths, in out, in out. The girl is angry. She wants to climb out of my mouth, to fly around the room and kick everything in sight. I squeeze my lips together.
“Go, apologize.” Amma’s jaw is tight again.
“I don’t know what to do with her.” She says this to Billy’s father and they both look at me in the same, disappointed, way.
Behind the door with a blue rocket ship, Billy is in a caterpillar curl on his bed. He is crying.
“He’s stupid,” says the girl.
“You’re stupid,” I say, not knowing what else to do.
“This house is stupid,” the girl says.
“Your house is stupid,” I say.
“Go away,” Billy says.
“Stay,” says the girl.
I close the door behind me. Billy is clutching his stomach.
“I hate you,” he says. I know he means to be angry but his chin trembles, and he sounds weak. On his bedside is a picture of his mother and him. They are standing in front of the Statue of Liberty. They are smiling.
I sit down next to him. Billy wipes the trickle from his nose on the too-big sleeve of his shirt. I trace the edge of the spaceship on his bedcover. He tucks his hands between his knees.
“He misses his mommy,” the girl says.
I pinch the skin on my hand and wonder what Billy’s eyes would look like if I pricked his neck.
“Here we go,” the girl says. She is sitting on my teeth now. She is nudging my tongue with her feet. I pull the hairpin out of my pocket.
“Are you going to cry?” I ask Billy.
“What do you want?” A tear falls down his cheek, then more.
His face is doing ugly, sad things. I can feel the end of the pin in my palm. Abba would have wiped my eyes if he saw me looking like Billy. Abba would have held my face. My chin quivers.
“Stab him,” says the girl. “Do it.”
I want to. I want to listen to the girl and stick the pin in him. I want Abba to come back. But he looks so tiny and sad, I can’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I lean in and kiss him. I press my lips against his wet slug mouth.
“Ew.” Billy’s head jerks back and he wipes his lips. “What are you doing?” Then he laughs, a small laugh that sounds a lot like his laugh from the playground, like he is better than me, like I could never be like him.
His face is still ugly, but he no longer looks sad. I imagine he will tell everyone at school about this. I imagine they will all whisper about me at lunch. My ears already burn. The girl is awhirl inside my head. Somehow she is in my arms and my legs and my stomach all at once.
I grab Billy’s shoulder and lean in and bite him. Then he punches me in my chest.
“You’re crazy,” he screams and scrambles off the bed. He is holding his mouth.
“You’ve done it,” the girl says. “We’ve done it.”
I can’t breathe because now the girl is dancing. She is in my chest and then in my stomach and then in my legs and back in my throat. Billy is still screaming. His blood tastes just like mine: coins and salt and water. There are footsteps thudding up the stairs. I slide the hairpin into my hair, just above my ear. I imagine Amma will slap me five times, six times. She will take me home in silence and lock me inside my room. And tomorrow, I will be lucky.
Rosalie Moffett is the author of Nervous System (Ecco) which was chosen by Monica Youn for the National Poetry Series Prize, and listed by the New York Times as a New and Notable book. She is also the author of June in Eden (OSU Press). She has been awarded the “Discovery”/Boston Review prize, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing from Stanford University, and scholarships from the Tin House and Bread Loaf writing workshops. Her poems and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Believer, New England Review, Narrative, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor at the University of Southern Indiana.
IN SOUND MIND
A jet drags its noise
across my side of town, trawling
for something. Its shadow,
a small black insect, crawls
across house after house. Up and up, over
and over, a lithe little dark thought. I, too
have had a weeviling-through, my sunny
sensibility bedeviled by a pest. Up there, sky-high,
do you, as you go, know the feeling
you slough? Here, when you heft a sack
of flour and watch it cough
into the air one brown moth,
is your knee-jerk reaction Finally!
Some honesty! A thought can worm
and worm its own tangle of unseen tunnel
in the mind for years before things begin
to collapse. Before a word is allowed
out, flapping towards a lamp. Those dummies,
given the rotten meat up-teeming
with maggots, assumed spontaneous generation.
Now we know: flies. Humming thing aloft
in the air. Something descending
to seed a swarm of drear: what
even is the point or so what or what
have you: ruinous little voice-over. I drown
it out however I can. Once, I resorted
to a colander, accidentally fluffed
up a cloud as I sifted mealworms
from flour. Are you, like me, uneasy
with ruin? Do you feel a pity for the blue
your jet plane rakes through, or for me,
whose single-edition sky is getting striped
with white scrapes? Listen, I need to stop
making up gods to talk to
who can’t hear me. Sorry for conjuring you
too aloof, earmuffed and far—
I don’t know how else to be
authentic to my experience. Forgive
me my mind’s circumscribed
design of you, made quick in the shadow
of a small, harmless darkness. Sometimes
one bleak thought breeds in the mind.
No one actually knows, I was shocked
to learn, why moths spiral
towards artificial light—perhaps
they are making
the same mistake as me, desiring
just one moment to speak with
what ruins them.
ODE TO JESSICA
For Jessica Farquhar
If you’re ever in trouble,
find a mother, said Jessica
to her child, refreshing
my predilection for animal videos
where one is raising another’s young,
e.g. the cat with kittens
plus a duckling & the voice
behind the camera announcing
in wonder: it arrived right as she gave birth, like,
get the timing right, a mother
will mother anything. Like,
flip the floodlight & everything
lit up is up for nurturing. Thousands of videos
like this, I swear, exist, inadvertently or deliberately
buttressing her advice in a world
where it’s unwise
to find a policeman or CEO or comedian
or president. America’s
fertility rate is down, the daunt
of saving enough to stave off
progeny-debt is enough
to stall even the reckless.
I’ve a dim view, but it’s true
my brain’s been re-routing frustration
and bungling through a process
that, magic-8-ball-like, produces
the solution: have a baby. Little wailing
thing. When feeling low, I scroll
through online lists of expenses
for the first year of life. It never fails
to make everything worse.
Once, I read an article
about a woman who joined
a search party searching for her. For hours,
she looked for herself.
I am supposed to be finding a mother.
I’m staring at the blank in my bank balance.
God knows the best prayers
one can say in America are to the patron saints
of student debt, of Ca$h for Gold,
of the lowest of the low
deductibles. Oh, God knows
I know the last thing
the world needs is more
people, it’s so full up with policemen,
gun nuts, florists, pundits, artists,
landfills, Jessica, kneeling
face-level with her son, Jessicas
ready to kneel face-level
with anyone’s son.
TAXES, ICECAPS, CROCUSES
In the bank account, it is
unseasonably mild. The businessmen
who live there rarely break
a sweat, whereas it is, elsewhere,
unseasonably disastrous. Wildfire.
Flooding. Diseases unreasonably
rising up, little ghosties, from
the permafrost melt. It is everything
anyone talks about, though the seasoned
businessmen never go anywhere
near the copier, the water-cooler, the arenas
of anyone. Meticulous, they maintain
their distance and their coin
-colored comb overs coiffed into hieroglyphs
of I’ll be dead before any of this
shit hits the fan. By many accounts, an account
is a story, and thus money is a moral
available solely to an upper crust mostly
into fan fiction: Goodnight moon. Goodnight
congressman. Sayonara taxes,
icecaps, crocuses. The bank account can be
summoned by the right spell of two
point authentication—presto: see the men
gazing through the boardroom
window at the view, which is the mountainous
horizon, which is a jagged line graph.
X-axis: months. Y-axis: the accrual
of funds. In the bank account,
there’s a potted plastic palm whose leaves
shift in the manner of blades catching light
in a knife-fight. The businessmen take
solace in the view, they take
turns watering the palm, they take money
and turn back to the window. They keep
the money. They keep watering. Water outside keeps
rising. Inside there’s a weird black spot
developing on the carpet. They were told it was there
to give them a sense of the exterior world.
They were informed that it was, for their safety
decorative. This was about the palm
whose faux trunk pokes down into styrofoam.
But in the bank account, they don’t listen, which is
corporate policy, which is for their safety
and to maintain their equilibrium in case
a message weasels in from the gate
intercom re: some faulty product, some leaky
lifeboat in the polar ice cap
melt. Despite that, and also though
they were sure they’d made, as young men,
strict provisions against such an act,
they were beguiled
by the idea that they might
nurture one quiet thing. They keep
watering. The mold loves the moisture, the micro-
fiber playground, it throws its personal confetti
of deadly spores. Even now, it advances
over the carpet, army-crawling
towards the loafers with the slit at the toe
where, tucked, is a hundred dollar bill. Suppose
this is a fable. Moreover, suppose there is a moral
to be made from the world
anyone can imagine, a lesson, a hinge
between it and the inside
of the mind. Suppose you entertain
this idea for your own comfort
in the manner of tending
to the kind of plant that, turns
out, grows more and more
suspect the longer
it neither blooms nor fruits.
Logging in to check the pie graph
of one’s 401K: boring miserly pastime
of the 21st century. No lovely clunk
of a gold doubloon, just Scrooge
and his TIAA CREFF password.
Just Scrooge McDuck and his new bird-body.
My first time in Georgia it was August
& I was aghast at the snow
floating in the blue sky. (Hide your eyes,
McDuck, each time we find ourselves
driving in the wake of a chicken truck.)
Point is, most miracles
can be pinned on other people
amassing money in offshore accounts.
Once, I saw rocks light up on the bank
as the surf crashed in: true phenomenon
of phosphorescent plankton. Once, the power
went out in a packed stadium,
and the ring of stands fired up with that exact
blue-white plankton-light from flipped
open flip phones. From above, there must’ve been
one shining eye in the pitch black
of the rest of Dakar. The pie graph
is a joke: it shows only what you have now
as if that’s enough to illuminate enough
of a patch of the quiet dark
of the future. Ah, Scrooge, I know
the balm of a tall stack of coins. I, like you,
have a nest of fear. I like you best
as a bird. I read how domestic ducks
neglect their eggs, which must be
electrically incubated. Warm bulb which nursed
current from the wall-socket to make you
take form, made you take all the currency & hold it
to the light to see if it could be changed
from coin to mirror, from mirror to periscope
to peer into the unknown. Ah, Scrooge, it feels
like it works, doesn’t it? You were the first
duck to dip your spatz into an olympic pool
of money—even as you dove, even as the children
rubbed, in disbelief, their fists across the dollar signs
in their eyes, someone watched
the scales shift, felt the digits of the budget
loosen their chokehold.
FWR: In my first read of “In Sound Mind”, I was struck by how you play with sound throughout the poem (such as the lines “Up there, sky-high,/ do you, as you go, know the feeling/ you slough?”). Can you speak about the growth of this poem? How does consonance (and dissonance!) influence your process– if at all?
Rosalie Moffett: I think I’ve been gravitating towards letting sound lead the way during this particular political period, and this pandemic—I’ve been angry, sad and with something overly simple to say stuck in my craw. Which makes a boring poem. A hallway you can see the end of from the beginning. But to let sound in as a guide gives that hallway some doors, some new avenues. There are then things behind doors that I have to shift in order to see. It opens rooms in my thoughts I didn’t know were there. Which certainly happened in this poem.
And (if you forgive me my wandering into some more conjectural territory) back in high school when I was obsessed with the weird experiments conducted in service of psychology and sociology, I remember learning about cognitive dissonance. In one study, participants were asked to either hold a pencil by pursing their lips, or in their teeth, like a rose. Rough approximations of a frown and a grin. They were then told jokes. Those with the pencil in their teeth found the jokes funnier. In short, the brain said “I must think these are funny, I’m smiling.” The brain likes to follow the body’s lead. Out loud, the mouth makes a rough smile in weeviling, feeling, bedeviled. Makes a rough frown when saying I don’t know, No one knows. I say all this not to claim my poems are smart enough to play these sounds like an emotional piano, but to offer that the sound of a poem might be working on our cognition in ways that are deeply layered and complex. I trust it to lead me through a poem.
FWR: There’s sly humor in these poems, particularly in “Nest Egg” with its addresses to Scrooge McDuck, that carves a new path to the emotional heart of each poem. It serves to buttress the associative leaps you make through the poems and expand on the emotional surprise. How do you see humor in your work?
Moffett: Humor is the PPE gear my mind wears, the way I can make something dark harmless enough to look at. There’s that old chestnut: tragedy + time = comedy. Often, when you’re too close to something, you can’t see the humor in it. If you train yourself to see the comedy, it’s like instant distance. (Instadistance™) You can see how humor could serve as a survival tactic, a jetpack out of actually facing something–and I think there’s a danger of that to be aware of in writing poems. But it’s also, I think, a useful way to gain perspective. Make something funny, and you can look down at it as if from a great height. What is also true is that this training (if you’ll let me call it that) makes a 2-way street. You can zoom in and see the tragic in something that, at first, seems funny. Scrooge McDuck? A duck obsessed with something he can’t eat? Swimming in coins? Oh, honey. What have we made.
Some of my zooming-in involves digging into granular and aspects of things populating my poems. Little of my “research” ends up in the poem (and I defy any algorithm to make sense of my internet searches). For this poem, I did a lot of reading about the character of Scrooge McDuck (yes, his was the first depiction of a swimming pool of money) and got to feel kind of close to him, a kinship. At some point in his history, he changed–someone took pity and shifted him from a miser (clinging to what he couldn’t even make use of) into a philanthropist. I wish that same hand would take pity on me.
FWR: I love your last images, whether Jessica kneeling with “anyone’s son” or the plant that neither “blooms nor fruits”. How do you know when you’ve ‘stuck the landing’ in a poem? Are there poems that you admire for their endings?
Moffett: If only, like in gymnastics, one could look up and see the score from judges!
I think what I look for is that feeling that my mind is standing, so to speak, on a new patch of land. A new vantage point. A poem, uniquely, is a negotiation with white space, with absence. Each line and stanza break are little perches from which to consider that absence. And that last line is where the reader stops, as if at the edge of a cliff, to look out. If there’s something still ringing, something hovering in the mind’s eye, demanding attention, OK. Good.
The cliff came up suddenly in Carrie Fountain’s poem “The Jungle” and then there I was, looking over the edge, ringing.
Looking to carve out some time for writing, find new ideas, or learn new ways your writing can respond to injustice? Watch and follow along with this recording of our October 15th Four Way Writes generative writing session with Anjanette Delgado:
Writing Protest: How to Use the Language of Truth-Telling, Protest, Anger, and Denunciation in Your Writing with Anjanette Delgado
In this session, we will practice excavating our truths, honing in on those things only we can say. We will also practice letting loose and holding back, and see for ourselves how restraint can be an angry writer’s best tool.
Dilruba Ahmed is the writer of Bring Now the Angels (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020) and Dhaka Dust (Graywolf 2011), which won the Bakeless Prize. Ahmed is the recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Prize, and she holds degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers.
FWR: In an interview with the New England Review, you stated that, “I’m interested in the ways that—particularly during difficult times—a seemingly small act can contribute to a greater purpose. And how those acts, even when they occur in relative isolation, can bind people together toward a common goal. While you made this comment while reflecting on the term “resistance” with respect to your poem, “Underground,” I think it speaks to the other poems in Bring Now the Angels, as well. Illness frames much of the text, as you reflect on “SickDad” and how cancer impacted your family with an eye towards the minute detail.
In the poem “Local Newspaper, Floating Photographer, Father’s Day Edition”, you describe images of vitality: “Describe your father. / Midnight scrambled eggs each New Year’s Eve. The insistence: ‘say yes to cake’ … Describe your father / Why do children keep growing, in their small and ignorant bliss?” Each of these small moments construct a man and a life, and by sharing these moments of specificity with your reader, you have brought us into this man’s life more effectively than broad strokes. In this movement from the broad (father; illness) to the keyhole (“pizza purchased for men searching dumpsters in Columbus”), did you find it easier to write about small moments? How did you find the lens with which to view these grander, binding moments?
Dilruba Ahmed: My new book, Bring Now the Angels: Poems, is an extended meditation on loss, both personal and public. In the personal realm, the poems mourn the many losses associated with chronic disease and terminal illness in the Western world. During a 3-year battle with multiple myeloma, my father lost his health, his mobility, and his typical daily activities. Some changes were sudden and dramatic; other losses accrued slowly.
The ripples kept growing. We experienced a loss of confidence in Western medicine, which both saved my father and destroyed him, and for me, in faith. The disappearance of our bearings and touchstones transformed the world into a place suddenly strange and unfamiliar.
The situation was painfully personal, but everything happened within a larger context. We witnessed firsthand the cost of being ill in America: the associated expenses, maltreatment, discriminatory practices, and reckless over-use of painkillers. Not to mention access issues to dialysis centers and the related questions about quality of treatment and quality of life. In each health care facility, for every deeply caring and attentive health care professional, there were physicians who were out of touch with their patients and the mission to heal. My family members and I experienced the corruption and carelessness of our country’s healthcare system even as a few shining stars gave my father the best possible medical attention he could have requested.
While small moments often sparked poems like this one, in my revisions I’ve tried to consider their larger contexts so I’m not just “zooming in” but also “panning out.” I’m making an effort to examine the layers surrounding personal moments by asking, “What are the social, cultural, and historical contexts relevant to this poem? Who has been represented here, and who has been erased?” Claudia Rankine has called for white writers to examine how the racist history of our country has shaped mainstream thinking about both whites and people of color—and our representations of both. From the intersections of my identity, there’s still work to do as well.
These questions have led to deeper revisions, as with the title poem of my new book, “Bring Now the Angels,” which began as a measured acceptance of a terminal diagnosis and the adjustments accompanying physical and cognitive losses. In subsequent revisions, I situated personal loss in more universal ways, focusing less on the diagnosis and more on the indictment of a society that permits the vulnerable to suffer under dismal conditions, with poor medical treatment and exorbitant costs. I revised from a first-person narrator to an oracular, choral voice that bears witness to maltreatment, misuse of addictive painkillers, and debt.
FWR: In the poem ” With Affirmative Action and All’ , you write, “in any given American town, / there is a room inside a room inside a room/ where thought shapes word shapes action”. Several of your poems, such as this one, or “Self-Guided Tour”, wrestle with what it means to be in America, and what America means in a globalized world. Did you look to other poets for guidance in writing about the political in our current state?
RA: Yes! I have many inspirations informing my poems – sometimes overtly, sometimes playing it the background like a poetic playlist.
In some poems in Bring Now the Angels, I was experimenting with W.H. Auden’s notion of “indirect communication” with the reader. Auden believed art couldn’t move people to faith, for example, but that it held power to show them their despair. My explorations led to poems such as “Choke,” which recasts “Jack and the Beanstalk” in two voices: an unidentified interviewer and an Indian farmer. In the poem, I envision the effects of large-scale corruption on the individual, with hopes of eliciting awareness. In “The Process,” I try to channel the distanced tones of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” to critique our shared complacency, hoping readers will realize our collective agency. In “The Children,” a poem meant to locate our heartbreak and humanity as immigration policies shift dramatically, I attempt to capture intimacies between parents and children in stark contrast to brutal family separations at our border.
One of the more overt influences on my politicized work includes Roque Dalton, a Salvadorean poet whose poem “OAS” holds both dry wit and bitterness. His work inspired my poem, “Self-Guided Tour.” More generally, Adrienne Rich’s writings frame my engagement with politicized material: “No true political poetry can be written with propaganda as an aim, to persuade others “out there” of some atrocity or injustice… it can come only from the poet’s need to identify her relationship to atrocities and injustice, the sources of her pain, fear, and anger, the meaning of her resistance.”1 In my writing, my hope is to embody resistance on multiple levels. For example, “Underground,” attempts to situate the resurgence of American civic engagement, including my own. Striving for a global perspective, I tried to broaden my focus beyond conventional actions such as public marches and activist phone calls. I wondered how might I witness courage and agency that goes unseen—actions not necessarily recognized as resistance.
My musings resulted in a poem about private and public resistance by Afghani women under Taliban rule. I strove to represent the women’s resistance as not only fighting back, but also finding ways to thrive under threatening circumstances. By engaging with this material, I hoped to lend perspective to the present American challenge of political organizing among work and family obligations—actions that occur, for many of us, within an existence of relative privilege and freedom.
There are many, many poets who make up my playlist when it comes to politicized poetry, including Claudia Rankine, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Rick Barot, Ilya Kaminsky, Matthew Olzmann, and Elizabeth Bishop….
FWR: In this vein, the poem “Incident” has haunted me long after I first read it, with its juxtaposition of maternal love and parental violence. It also seems to read as an ars poetica, with the lines : “If I love my sons— / their sleep-ruffled curls… with even more ferocity/ and mindfulness, can I erase / the girl’s pain?” It also reflects back the love and pain that is so often built into relationships within families. Could you speak to this poem?
RA: One of the questions fueling Bring Now the Angels is related to witnessing the suffering of others, and the resulting sense of powerlessness to enact change. I think that, for those of us who may feel overly porous to the world’s violence and the distress of others, everyday living can quickly become very overwhelming.
With my father’s sudden decline and subsequent diagnosis of multiple myeloma and end stage kidney failure, in many cases there was very little I could do to alleviate his suffering. But through it all, I’d like to believe that the loving presence of family members provided a healing force. In my poem,“Incident,” I was grappling with both a sense of powerlessness over other’s actions, and the possibility that greater harm could result from any apparent response from me. Because this poem was based on an actual incident, the poem also speaks to the ethical dilemma of failing to act—by not attempting to intervene as a situation cascaded into violence, did I in effect participate in that violence? I, too, remained haunted by this incident and have been unable to reconcile it for myself, despite the risk of unintended consequences for the person I felt compelled to help.
And you are right: the poem could be read as ars poetica that both laments the seemingly ineffectual nature of poetry to create change in the world even while trying to recenter the speaker’s energies on mindfulness and deep love. In the end, the poem implicitly yields to the fact the speaker only has power to effect change in the realm that is most directly hers, acting from a deep love that could, perhaps, hold the potential to ripple out beyond the immediate moment. But ultimately, the poem consists of a series of questions for which there are no answers.
FWR: Much of this collection wrestles with grief. How did you approach this experience in your writing? Did the poems emerge organically, or did you sit down to write about loss? Were there poets you looked to?
RA: In an interview with Terry Gross, poet Marie Howe says poetry is “a cup of language to hold what can’t be said,” explaining that “[e]very poem holds the unspeakable inside…The unsayable…that you can’t really say because it’s too complicated…too complex… Every poem has that silence deep in the center…”2 Writing about grief was very much a process of finding ways to access those deep silences.
To convey my emotional truths about chronic illness and loss, I tried different approaches—lyric, narrative, and prose poems, with tones ranging from deeply intimate to the distanced language of form letters, medical records, and Google’s autocompleted phrases. Restlessness regarding form and content’s relationship led me to write ghazals, as well as poems with less conventional structures–including one governed by a childhood toy, the Viewmaster.
Many of the poems emerged in a flood of writing about one year after my father’s death. As daughter and as a parent, I’d struggled with my understanding of mortality without finding ways to authentically engage with it in my writing. When an old story about my uncle’s childhood snakebite assumed mythic proportions, I found that the use of parable finally helped me to unlock some related emotional truths. The result was “Snake Oil, Snake Bite,” one of the first pieces I wrote about my father’s battle with cancer. I knew then that I’d made my way to the poems that would form the new book.
Literary heroes in this endeavor include Marie Howe, Agha Shahid Ali, Carl Phillips, Elizabeth Bishop, W. H. Auden, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Donald Justice…
FWR: I was struck by the shape of your poems. I am hoping you might speak to your process in a poem like “Vanishing Point” or perhaps your use of the ghazal form?
RA: “Vanishing Point” took on many shapes during my revision. In the end, I aimed for a shape to convey the slipperiness of memory and the general sense of unease. I will forever be a student of the ghazal form; this book represents my most recent efforts.
FWR: I always love to ask: what the poems or who are the poets you love to teach or share?
RA: There are many – Donald Justice, Elizabeth Bishop, Agha Shahid Ali, Ilya Kaminsky, Natasha Tretheway, Mathew Olzmann, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Rick Barot, Ann Carson, Craig Santos Perez, Jenny Johnson, Adam Zagajewski…
1. “Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman.” Introduction to The Work of a Common Woman: The Collected Poetry of Judy Grahn. Oakland, California: Diana Press, 1978; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. Reprinted in On Lies, Secrets and Silence, pp. 247-58
2. Poet Marie Howe On ‘What The Living Do’ After Loss https://news.wbfo.org/post/poet-marie-howe-what-living-do-after-loss Originally published on October 21, 2011 10:23 am
This summer, all the kids call themselves Zion. They come one by one and hang on the fence behind the backboard, then drift in until they’re standing under the basket, waiting for the rebound off my shot. Teams form by nods and dissolve at eleven or twenty-one, each of us breaking off into the veins of city streets and subway tunnels. The summer I emigrated, every kid on the courts wanted to be like Mike, and I was thrilled because that was my name, Mikhail. The last time my sister and I got chased home in Minsk, my parents decided: Israel or America, whichever we could reach first. Chubby, with harsh Russian dribbling down my chin, my second language became one of cuts and jumps, of lay-ups punctuated with a single English word. Dude! I cried, when my shot fell through the hoop, when I got fouled, when I slapped my sweaty hand against a tall teenager’s after a play. Dude, they always replied, their faces lit with sweat and admiration.
My sons are too young to join the pick-ups downtown, and I doubt they’ll want to anyway. My youngest is so loving he won’t throw the basketball at me. He hugs it and runs across the blacktop of the playground near Central Park. “Here, Daddy,” he says, and places it gently in my hands. My older one likes grass fields to fall on. He prefers to stick a foot between his opponent’s legs, then tumble to the ground before standing to defend his innocence. “I was going for the ball,” he shouts and throws his hands in the air. “Come on, he was going for the ball,” I yell at the soccer ref from the sidelines, though I know he wasn’t.
In our bright breakfast nook, a huge calendar hangs on the wall, the days divided into neat colored sections, the boys’ hours nestled safely inside the weeks that will carry them to adulthood. It resembles my own electronic one, blocked with meetings and calls, each hour traded for more money than my family had when we landed at JFK. On warm afternoons, I close my office door, shut down all three monitors and lie in the middle of the Isfahan rug. I recall a deep boredom, my sweating body splayed face-up before an English-squawking television, the laugh tracks breaking like waves while my parents were out searching for work. I remember the echo of the ball in the parking lot six stories below, and how I slammed it against the brown bricks of our apartment building, shooting into an invisible hoop again and again, beating away some unnamed thing while a wild hope climbed in me.
You’re just so darn cute
She tugged up the cheeks of my swimsuit
shown two small pears, fleshy & bright
bookending the neon green fabric—this was the 90s
my first two-piece & I thought I was a big girl
despite every comment about my size: petite, skinny,
thread-and-thimble thin, string bean. Strangers
would say so & that I was pleasingly blond
curly, a little Shirley with a temple, a future
temptation. She wanted me to claim what had been taken
from her body too young—she wanted me to claim it
by showing it off, flaunt it if you got it even if you’re six.
I loved her then, abandoning myself. I loved her
the way a dog pulls meat from a bone
the eyes like twin flames. Just another
animal. She said I love you
to anyone, my mother.
I hold on, I hold everything I can, to capacity
hold like the handle I wore paint from
bought for 50 on sale at Home
Depot & I liked it, slipping hands around it
liked it best in the moonlight throwing
silver on the snow, all the quiet hibernations
across from me a dark field of sage specked
by track lines. Not elk, surely too late
in the season for this altitude. The goats then
who else could wander silently as a group of houses
billowed chimneys behind them. Beyond the field
a team of mountains sleeping in a heap.
All that silent night, if I screamed into it, nothing
but echoes. I want to scream into it
because a room has never been big enough for me.
& I want the echo—I want the curse
the flame. When I wrap my fingers around
that solid handle which come to think of it I bought
at Farm & Fleet for 43 because same thing better deal
(the guy at the counter told me I’d have to swing it hard
if I didn’t keep it sharp) I start by measuring the log
in two with the edge of the blade, then wind up
I can’t claim to understand the violence but the tree
was dead before I found it—bringing down the head
the splinter & crack. I loved when it worked in one swoop
when it took 20 whacks to work around the knots
& branches which came out like arms, her pulling
my hair as she whispered rat’s nest,
bring it down into the big stump, to stoop
& gather shreds, pulling her from it as I leave
leaning her against the wall just inside the door
dropping the load xylophonic to the floor.
Our staff is located around the world and we pride ourselves on publishing writers representing a variety of voices and hometowns. However, as of September, three of our staff members now live in Tennessee.
TWO POEMS by Kendra DeColo
BLINDKEY POINT by Norris Eppes