Tag Archives: narrative

The Pinko Commie Dyke Kills / an interview with poet Julie R. Enszer

The Pinko Commie Dyke Kills

by Julie R. Enszer

babies on street corners
with the steel speculum
she has been carrying
since she was nineteen
and gazing at her cervix
with a group of women

now with the Kumbaya of
body exploration passed
abortion docs in demand
commanding high fees
for a simple D & C
so the pinko commie dyke
helps women dilate and
evacuate their own uteri
as women have for ages
with herbs or pebbles or poultices

a thin metal line
pierces the endometrium
like rupturing the yolk
of an egg menses slither
through the cervix
down the uterine wall
sloughing that baby
into the toilet
creating a vast empty space
in the womb where
the woman now child-free
can move in
kick back
have a cocktail
and enjoy herself

The pinko commie dyke takes one life
and gives another in return

First published by Impossible Archetype 2018.

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Photo Credit: Steffan Declue.

Julie R. Enszer, PhD, is a scholar and a poet. Her book manuscript, A Fine Bind, is a history of lesbian-feminist presses from 1969 until 2009. Her scholarly work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Cultures, Journal of Lesbian Studies, American Periodicals, WSQ, and Frontiers. She is the author of four poetry collections, Avowed (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016), Lilith’s Demons (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2015), Sisterhood (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013) and Handmade Love (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2010). She is editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker (Sinister Wisdom/A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2016), which won the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2011), which was a finalist for the 2012 Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry. She has her MFA and PhD from the University of Maryland. Enszer edits and publishes Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and is a regular book reviewer for The Rumpus and Calyx.

Of her style, Julie says, “I generally describe myself as a narrative, lyrical poet. My poetry explores the lyric moment with an important investment in narrative and storytelling. I admire formal poetry enormously and at some points in my work, I feel the influence of the sonnet keenly. Recently, for a new project, I have been reading more experimental work and admiring that work anew, particularly how poets invest in challenging language and breaking it to remake it.”

Julie gave Bekah her first poetry acceptance back in 2012 when she chose Bekah’s poem, “Stuck in a Web,” for issue 87 of Sinister Wisdom, a tribute to Adrienne Rich. Here is our interview with Julie.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem we’ve included with your interview. Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~I’ve selected a poem from a more recent collection of work that has obsessed me for the past year. The character of the pinko commie dyke, who is sometimes me and other times other women walking through the world, has been speaking to me in a series of poems that muse on contemporary life and the issues and ideas that are important in the world today. In some ways, I think that this series is representative of my work, which is invested in lyricism and also narrative. I also am interested in personae and exploring where the lyrical ‘I’ overlaps with the poet and where it does not. The disjuncture between the lyrical ‘I’ and the poet fascinate me much more today than they did ten years ago.

Q~You’ve published several books of poetry, but you seem to be focused more recently on your academic writing and have a book forthcoming about lesbian-feminist publishing, Can you tell us more about that project? Also, how do you think this work has or will influence your own poetry?

A~Great question. I finished my MFA in 2008 and from that work, I had a lot of poetry that took shape in Handmade Love, Sisterhood and Avowed, three of my full-length collections. Immediately after my MFA, I entered a PhD program in Women’s Studies, and the research and work into lesbian-feminist publishing came as a part of that degree, which I finished in 2013.

My work now is immersed in both poetry and the scholarly work. I am working very hard to finish the history of lesbian-feminist publishing (and am getting closer!). This book tells stories about lesbian-feminist publishing and how it both inspired and energized a variety of lesbian-feminist poets and what function that publishing work has in relationship to the broader formations of feminism. There are so many rich stories of women publishing amazing work and reaching readers with that work that I hope to do justice to them all!

Throughout my PhD research and writing, I have been writing poems. I am working on a new collection of poetry and have a chapbook coming out sometime this year with a new selection of poems about the “Pinko Commie Dyke.” Some of these poems have been published here and here.

While readers tend to think in terms of genre, as a writer and a thinker, I find that the scholarly work, the editing work, the essay writing work, and the poetry work all blend together and feed one another.

Q~It meant so much to Bekah to be included in the Adrienne Rich tribute issue of Sinister Wisdom. Can you tell us more about putting that issue together, and also feel free to speak more broadly on Rich’s influence?

A~I remember so clearly learning that Adrienne Rich had died and feeling an immense sense of loss as a reader and writer of her presence in the world—of loss in the future of the books that she might write and of loss of her persistent moral presence in our world. It took a few days of processing that loss to recognize that it was important for Sinister Wisdom to mark her life and her contributions to the journal in a meaningful way and the issue grew from that impulse.

It turned out to be a beautiful issue, that now has sadly sold out. Rich’s work and influence continues to be palpable for me in the daily work of Sinister Wisdom, which carries on some of her vision and commitments in the world. I’ve been reveling in the new volumes of her work coming out from W. W. Norton that allow us to revisit her work in new bindings and new arrangements with new people exploring how she inspired and influenced them.

Rich demanded an intellectual rigor and a moral rigor in her work, at least in my reading of it. I am interested in holding to her demands of herself and of others around her in my own work.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~There were many first loves. As a youngster and even today, I read voraciously. When I was a teenager, I loved the journals and the poems of May Sarton. As a young reader in college I discovered Rich, Mary Oliver (this was many years before she came out, acknowledging her long-term relationship with Molly Malone Cook), Audre Lorde, Marilyn Hacker, Pat Parker, Elizabeth Bishop, and Muriel Rukeyser. All of these poets loom large in my mind and in my early reading years.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~I still wait eagerly for new collections from Marilyn Hacker, Maureen McLane, Alicia Ostriker, among others. Recently, I’ve been reading the new collection by Eileen Myles, first collections by Jenny Johnson, Alicia Mountain, and Jenny George. Nickole Brown’s new chapbook, To Those Who Were Our First Gods, made me weep with joy and empathy and pain and all of the feelings that poetry raises. I’ve also been reading new work by Dawn Martin Lundy and Duriel Harris and appreciating the work they do in the world.

 Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

 A~I try to update my personal website regularly. For information about the journal I edit, visit www.SinisterWisdom.org. My critical writing appears in a variety of places, particularly The Rumpus and Lambda Literary. You can also connect with me on Facebook and Twitter.

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Barista / An interview with poet Caroline Johnson

Barista

by Caroline Johnson

Henry says the Lakota called it black medicine.
I can imagine Black Elk drinking from a gourd,
huddling around a teepee with a peace pipe
sometime in July when the cherries are ripe.

Henry looks at each customer with green eyes
full of gourmet hot chocolate and caramel mochas.
He moves his arms across the espresso machine,
steaming milk, whirling words with a smile.

His eyes sail through you like a windjammer,
as if you’ve been caught by a cool island breeze.
He hums as he scrubs stubborn stains off of soup
kettles, stocks the pantry, or pours steamed milk.

He shakes his head and his braids rustle round him.
I work the register, exchanging money for drinks.
The smell of French Roast perfumes the air.
You can hear the crackle of beans as they grind.

The line is long:  a mother with a stroller, a boy
in a wheelchair, two ladies with Gucci bags.
Two wealthy ladies talk of sconces in their new
living rooms, a young couple orders hot chocolate,

and a lone man with dark black hair stands at the back
of the café wearing a T-shirt, his arms exposed to reveal
a green tattoo:  “I-R-A-Q” neatly printed across his skin.
Henry talks to them all as they huddle around, waiting

for their black medicine. Henry makes everything look easy.
He can do three things at once. Yet Henry’s not easy.
He’s just trying to figure life out before it passes him by.

First appeared as the winner of the February 2015 Poetry Challenge on Wilda Morris’s Poetry Blog.

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Caroline Johnson has two poetry chapbooks, Where the Street Ends and My Mother’s Artwork, and more than 100 poems in print.  Nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, her first full-length poetry book, The Caregiver (Holy Cow! Press, 2018), was inspired by years of family caregiving.

Caroline says of her style, “I was told I write mostly narrative poems, but I think of myself as a work in progress. I have written lyrical and form poems (sestinas, the occasional sonnet or villanelle), but I do think I like to tell some kind of story.”

Bekah and Caroline’s work, including the poem above, recently appeared together in Highland Park Poetry’s Summer 2018 Muses Gallery: Coffee, Tea and Other Beverages. We wanted to know more about Caroline and her work, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem, “Barista.” The poem won Wilda Morris’s blog challenge. Did you write to the prompt or did it just happen to fit what she was looking for?

A~I did not write to the prompt. In general, I do not like prompts. I did, however, revise the poem to make it better before submitting it. Barista” is a narrative poem that gives a portrait of someone I really worked with when I was a barista at Borders. I was motivated to write the poem because of Henry, who worked so hard and had such a good attitude. Working as a barista is hard work, and you need to be cheerful as well as you constantly work with customers. I wrote the poem 15 years ago, and I actually gave him the poem at that time as a sort of gift when I was leaving. I significantly rewrote the poem two years ago and added the bit about Black Elk as I was reading Black Elk Speaks.

Q~Did the poem come easily to you or was it hard to write? 

A~The first draft came fairly easily as I just thought of Henry…however, when I rewrote it two years later and inserted the part about Black Elk, that was more difficult. I find significantly revising a piece is sometimes more difficult than writing the first draft of the poem, but it is a very important part of the poetic process.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~I sit down with an idea. I generally don’t do as well with prompts. Luckily, I usually have no problem coming up with ideas. I write the ideas down when I get them, and return to them when I have the time to write the poem. Luckily, I really have no problem hashing out a first draft. More often than not, I need to revise the poem. Sometimes I do it immediately; sometimes as I type up the poem I edit it; and sometimes when I’m getting ready to send it out I work on seriously revising it.

Q~What are your poetry likes/dislikes?

A~LIKES: Fresh imagery; occasionally, unique rhymes; any poem that makes you think profoundly, or feel compassionately; an unexpected turn in a poem. DISLIKES: Trite rhyming or meter; abstract poetry that is unapproachable; poetry written just for shock effect.

Q~A poem from your latest collection was the inspiration for the June blog challenge on caregiving at Wilda Morris’s blog. How did that come about? Also, please tell us more about your collection. 

A~Wilda is a colleague of mine and a terrific poet. I’ve learned a lot through her about how to take my work seriously, how to revise, and how to critique other’s work. She was one of the earlier reviewers of my manuscript, The Caregiver, before it got published. The collection was written over a 15-year span of time when I served as family caregiver to both of my parents, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Encephalitis. The poems are narrative and tell their story, but I believe they speak to anyone who has seen their loved ones age, or suffer from debilitating illnesses.

Q~Are you involved in your local poetry scene? What’s it like?

A~YES. I am currently president of Poets and Patrons of Chicago, and have been involved with the organization for more than 10 years. We provide critiquing workshops, writing workshops, and two annual international contests. See our website at www.poetsandpatrons.net for more information. In addition, I am a facilitator for a bi-monthly critiquing group as part of the Illinois State Poetry Society. Both of these groups provide wonderful stimulation and motivation to write and submit. I also have my own private weekly poetry writing group that I value immensely. It is very important to find a group that you trust. I think something that has really expanded my work a lot in the last 5 years is staying loyal to a small committed writing group, and reading a vast number of poets who interest me. I also have challenged myself to write in the style of some of these famous poets, and thus their writing rubs off on me. 

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~I love Philip Levine, James Wright, William Stafford, Amy Clampitt. I have a book of sonnets written by Terrence Hayes and another book by Tracy Smith on hold at the local library right now. Every week I check out different poetry books. All the librarians know me, lol.

Q~Who was your poetry first love? 

A~I don’t necessarily have a “first poetry love,” except that I will say I fell in love with John Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn” in high school, and when I read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” for the first time in the 1990s, I felt transformed. I felt the power of poetry. I tried to emulate that feeling in the last poem of my book, The Caregiver, which is dedicated to Ginsberg and written in the style of “Howl.”

Q~What do you believe is the poet’s role in society?

 A~I believe in Carolyn Forche’s philosophy to be a “poet of witness.” You have to write about what you see, what you witness. We have to be voices for those who can’t speak. It is a vital role, and I am still working on it.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~My new website, www.caroline-johnson.com, has a page with many links to poems I have published online. It also has information about how to order my first full-length poetry book, The Caregiver (Holy Cow! Press, 2018). You can also connect with me on Facebook and Twitter.

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Maybe / an interview with poet Kay Bell

Maybe

by Kay Bell

Maybe, we all got on the flight to America;
our sister and I shared the window seat;
you sat on mummy’s lap
and then she left us.
Maybe, you will have your first birthday in Apt 5A.
Cake, ice cream and our sister’s cries
balanced on the rooftop of grandma’s bad temper.
Then, we grow up sitting stone faced on top of the blue velvet sofa,
silent talking, believing: “mum’s coming back.”
We brave the brown leather straps; eat Dinty Moore beef stew,
and read stories about siblings who were abandoned
but still humane enough to leave bread for the birds.
I can see us all now; checks stamped to our foreheads,
overweight and voiceless;
Maybe we will love each other?
Subsequently, mum will return with war stories
by courtesy of her husband who proudly smashes her face against the seasons.
But then again, you can always pretend it never happened;
slip out of mummy’s lap,
cry on the white beach of Barbados, pick up your packages from the Mail service,
eat Avocados out of your backyard
and write Christmas cards to the 17-year-old that birthed you…

First appeared in Free Library of the Internet Void 2018.

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Kay Bell has been published in the book Brown Molasses Sunday: An Anthology of Black Women Writers, Moko: Caribbean Arts and Letters, The Write Launch, as well as other venues. She considers herself a bibliophile and lives in the Bronx with her sons, Zaire and Morocco, and their tabby cat, Chad.

Kay says, “My style of writing is autobiographical but also very confessional. It’s like, ‘I may have never said this to your face, but here it is.’ Sometimes I’m just confessing to myself, truths I refuse to say aloud. I tend to have a hard time verbally expressing myself, but poetry helps me to articulate my feelings.”

Bekah and Kay’s work—including the poem above—both recently appeared together in Collection II of Free Library of the Internet Void. We wanted to know more about Kay and her work, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about “Maybe.” Is there a backstory you want to share? How is the poem representative of your work?

A~The poem “Maybe” is a good example of what I mean by writing autobiographical confessionals. This poem is a conversation I wanted to have with my brother about my life coming to America. My siblings and I were born in the Caribbean. However, my mother made the decision to bring my sister and me to America and leave my brother back home with family. My brother resented my sister and me because he often thought we had a better life here in America. I never told him how I felt about what he felt, but “Maybe” is my response to his feelings. I think this poem is not only representative of my work because it’s declares something I never said aloud, but also because my poetry tends to always become a narrative. It’s also important to me that people have questions after reading my work.

Q~In your bio at Internet Void you said, “If it makes me cry, sweat or bleed, then it is worth writing about.” Can you tell us why you feel this way?

A~Nothing is off limits. If it is something I have experienced, it is worth writing about.

Q~Do you find yourself returning to certain themes or subjects in your work? What are they and why do they resonate with you?

A~Absolutely. I think I’m constantly returning to family life in my work. I have always been intrigued with the family life and how it functions and the personalities and identities of all the people that work together to make it a unit. I am equally fascinated by how fragile it can be, and I often find myself examining its dysfunctionality.

 Q~How has your family reacted to your poetry?

 A~They are not familiar with my work. I have tried to read to them but it kind of goes over their heads. They don’t understand it or maybe choose not to.

 Q~Why do you write poetry?

 A~I have always loved all types of music, and that has helped my passion for poetry develop. Growing up in my house there was always music playing. Mostly reggae. My uncle was a disc jockey, and he helped raised me. My mother loved playing reggae tunes while cooking, cleaning and just to lighten the vibe at home. I took my love for music and started writing poems. I hear music when I write, poetry is my music.

 Q~What song is on repeat on your MP3 player right now?

 A~It’s actually a tie between Tori Kelly’s “It Should have Been Us” and a song named “Texting” by Wstrn featuring Alkaline.

 Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~My first poetry love was Nikki Giovanni. Her work is so practical, honest and revolutionary. When I tumbled across her poetry in a college library during my first years of undergrad, I had never heard a black woman so self-assured and intelligent. Her poetry not only showed me how to better use my words, but it helped me mature as a black woman and writer. Ms. Giovanni’s work taught me confidence, sincerity, and how to be relatable.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~I just picked up Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds and cannot put it down. I was also just reading Charles Simic’s Scribbled in the Dark.  I like contemporary poetry, but I really appreciate classics, too. I am also looking forward to reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s Americanah before summer ends.

Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?

A~The poem will never be perfect. I often hear people say that they have never submitted a piece of work to a publisher because they have been editing it for a year. I’m like, “let go and give it to someone who needs it.” We write not only for ourselves but because there is someone who needs to hear it. I think as writers we tend to get obsessed with our work. If you can take a deep breath, close your eyes, and feel calm after editing your work a few times, let it go.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~My website is www.iamkaybell.com. There are published and unpublished poems there, as well as a tab that will connect you to a list of places where I am published. You can also find me on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Learning to Drive In Pulaski, Wisconsin / an interview with poet Crystal Ignatowski

Learning To Drive In Pulaski, Wisconsin

by Crystal Ignatowski

It was August. Heat rose off the cement in
deep breaths, thick and heavy waves.
We had the windows cranked

down and I could see the skinny
road behind us in the side view mirror.
I couldn’t seem to keep the car straight

and you kept cracking jokes,
saying we sure were lucky Pulaski
only had a population of 45. I gritted

my teeth, ready to make you proud.
Your arm hung out the window,
but all of me was inside: sweating,

trying not to blink, holding my breath
inside my 16-year-old rib cage. I didn’t
know you well. But then,

when we rolled to the only stop sign in town,
I experienced your patience: long, unrestless,
true, and I saw something crack open inside you

like an egg, and all the yellow poured out.
You pulled your arm inside and let the window
frame the landscape: all the wheat, all

the overgrown pasture trying to be
a painting, all the cows with their beady
eyes. You had lived here all your life, fallen

in love, said goodbyes, shot your first deer,
grown your first garden, watched her die,

and for me this was just a stopping-
through, a half-home, a place
to learn to drive.

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Crystal Ignatowski’s poetry has been featured or is forthcoming in Contemporary Haibun Online, One Sentence Poems, Tuck Magazine, Right Hand Pointing, and more. She lives and writes in Oregon.

Crystal describes her style as “free verse, narrative, autobiographical.” She says, “I mostly write about normal, everyday things in my life: my family, driving through town, going to the beach, watching a TV show, etc. I try to write what I know and create a story from it. I draw inspiration from poets like Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, and Ada Limon. Sometimes I challenge myself by writing a poem in traditional verse (this year I had a poem published in Contemporary Haibun Online, which was exciting) or about an abstract idea, but it isn’t usually what I usually gravitate to. I gravitate towards what I know, what I lived that day.”

Crystal and Bekah connected via The 2018 Poet Bloggers Revival Tour. We wanted to know more about her and her writing, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem, “Learning To Drive In Pulaski, Wisconsin.” How is it representative of your work? What’s the backstory?

A~If you opened my poetry journal, this is the type of poem you would regularly see: it is drawn from an experience in my life, a very simple experience (learning how to drive), but the poem itself goes deep. This poem is exactly as the title sounds: learning to drive in Pulaski, Wisconsin. My dad’s side of my family lives there, and this poem is about my uncle. We live on the opposite ends of the country, so I don’t feel like I know him as well as I know my family who lives close to me. But, there are times when I visit when I see into him, into a little opening or a crevice, and he makes sense to me, and I feel like I know him better than anyone I’ve ever known. Leaving Wisconsin always makes me sad and that is what this poem is ultimately about.

Q~Did it come easily to you or was it hard to write?

A~This poem came very easy for me to write. I workshopped it in my writing group, as well as with another wonderful poet, and the critiques also came easy. When people critique a poem that has come naturally for me, I feel less defensive about it. I feel like the poem just came to me, and therefore, I have to honor what came.

Q~How has workshopping helped your writing? What advice can you share?

A~Two pieces of advice that I have been reminded of lately: “Write for yourself, and you will reach the most people,” and “It really isn’t about the publications.”

I recently tried writing a poem about race. I workshopped it with two women of color and it was a very intense, powerful, yet intimate conversation. One of the women reminded me that I should stick with what I know and write for myself. She could tell I was struggling with this poem, and we talked about how sometimes it is okay to not write about the things that seem big and worldly right now. I have a desire to write about politics, race, gun violence, all these things, but deep down, I just want to write about my everyday life. I just want to write about driving in Pulaski with my uncle. She reminded me to stick with what I want to write because those things are going to resonate with the most people. Write smaller, reach wider.

This year I made a goal to get 100 rejection letters. What I learned is that submitting your work is a full time job! Just the habit of researching publications, workshopping poems, and sending them out into the world has been a wonderful experience. I have gained confidence in myself and my writing. And, with so many rejections, they don’t hurt or sting as bad! But, what I learned most is that it isn’t about the publications. It isn’t about the rejections or the acceptances. It is about the writing. I recently have been giving out a lot of poems to family members for birthdays, Mother’s Day, etc, and seeing a family member cry from receiving a poem about them, wow, that is bigger than any publication.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~I don’t set a schedule for my writing. The only “set” part of my writing is that I write every Tuesday and Thursday at Dragonfly Coffee House in Portland before I intern at Tin House. Other days, I just let the writing come. This might get me in trouble some day, but my best writing comes while I am driving. I have a notebook in my car, and I literally write in the car as I’m driving. (So bad, I know!) The writing is all messy and goes all over the page, but sometimes I just have to get the sentences down! Before they leave me!

Q~Oh my. What has interning at Tin House taught you?

This could amount to a novel if I truly answered the question, but since I am a poet, I will try to keep my answer concise. Tin House has taught me how to engage with other like-minded people. Over the last 5 years I have kind of been hermitting with my writing, with my passion of books and literature, and with my excitement to get back into the publishing industry. Interning at Tin House has provided me a platform to break out of my shell. I am eternally grateful for all the feedback I have received, the skills I have learned, and the support I have been given from every person at Tin House. They are the dream team.

Q~You also joined the Poet Bloggers Revival this year, which Dave Bonta digests weekly on Via Negativa. How has this impacted you?

A~I’ve been blogging since 2011. I mostly just blog poems I have been working on and don’t intend to send out to publications. Joining the Poet Bloggers Revival has allowed me to see how diverse poets are (and think) when given something to work toward. I have continued to simply post my “work in progress” poems. Each week, though, I see poets who are doing new things: perhaps it is an interview or maybe it is a deep rumination about their craft or something they have been needing to get off their chest, or maybe they comment on a worldly issue that has recently happened. I’m really impressed to see so many different takes on the week from every individual.

Q~Why are you drawn to poetry?

A~Poetry is razor sharp; it has the power to engage, inspire, and change someone’s perspective in just a few moments. There are few things in this world that can do that today.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~Hands down, Sharon Olds. I will forever be a fan. I also have a big soft spot in my heart for Andrea Gibson because they taught me it is okay to push the envelope with my writing. They also taught me repetition can be the ending to a poem…even if your partner doesn’t think so! I think I’ve seen Andrea live six times, and I love them more and more each time.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~Books beside my bed right now include: Matthew Dickman’s Mayakovsky’s Revolver (re-reading this because it is so incredible), Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, and Oliva Gatwood’s New American Best Friend.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~I regularly post to my poetry blog on Tumblr. You can also find me on Twitter .

Bimbo, a Deer Story / an interview with poet Risa Denenberg

Bimbo, a Deer Story

by Risa Denenberg

For she had no body odor and lay motionless
beside the dead doe, and so
you took her home and fed her goat’s milk.

This you did: collared and tethered her, named her
Bimbo, a pet wandering a yard strewn with cars
on blocks and old oil tanks.

Your darling: adopted, broken, stroked, chosen.
And who am I, trussed and bound to a fault line,
who shadowed not her own mother, nor knows
how she is meant to be.

originally published in Menacing Hedge 2014.

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Risa Denenberg is a working nurse practitioner and poet with 6 published poetry collections. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press, a small independent publisher of poetry by lesbians. Her most recent collection is slight faith, just released from MoonPath Press.

Of her style, Risa says, “I write mostly free verse, a combination of lyrical and narrative, with attention to poetic devises such as assonance, alliteration, enjambment, repetition, lists, and anaphora. I have tried my hand at some forms such as sonnets, haiku, and villanelles. I often write poems using equal lined stanzas that hold a shape, but also abstractly-shaped poems with very different line lengths. I also write prose poems. I try to query the poem to see what shape it wants to be.”

Risa and Bekah connected via The 2018 Poet Bloggers Revival Tour. We wanted to know more about her and her writing, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem, “Bimbo, a Deer Story.” Is there a back story you want to share?

A~It was originally published in Menacing Hedge and is included in slight faith.  It came to me after reading a news item that described an eccentric woman who had found a fawn beside her dead mother and took her into her home, treating her like a child. The details (feeding her goat’s milk, naming her Bimbo, etc.) are directly from the news story. It made me realize that any sentient creature, taken out of her natural environment, would probably never become who she was meant to be. I identified with that concept, not because I was adopted, but because I often wonder who I was meant to be. The poem hints at a troubled relationship between the narrator and her mother, but prefers to leave much to the reader’s imagination. I think the poem is similar to others of my poems in that it has a certain restraint, rather than being “in your face,” it shows (rather than describing) emotions, and hints of darkness without specificity.

Q~How is the poem representative of your new collection?

A~slight faith is a collection of poems that consider ways of creating and finding meaning, ways of seeing the world in all its horror and still wanting to live. The story that my poem, “Bimbo: a Deer Story,” is based on looks to the natural world (a dead doe, the fawn helpless at her corpse) and positions the fawn in an unnatural environment (a woman’s home). The story is simultaneously heartwarming and anomalous. In the poem, the narrator tries to understand who she is under the circumstances she has been dealt. She looks for meaning, which I believe has its core in faith. Many of us who are not drenched in religious life have difficulty talking about concepts like faith, and yet these tropes are found everywhere in art. I’ve learned “god language” through my work in end-of-life care, as a way of connecting with people who speak it. My own experience of faith vacillates between feeling authentic (faithful) and feeling hopeless (faithless). At core, faith says there is meaning. I lose and recover meaning all the time. slight faith is a way of finding peace in that dilemma.

Q~You mentioned your work in end-of-life care, how much does your “day job” influence your writing?

A~There is no doubt that my years as a nurse, witnessing illness, suffering and death, has been a bedrock of my need to write. It has also given me experiences to write about, as I have done in my chapbooks What We Owe Each Other and In My Exam Room (both published by The Lives You Touch Publications). When life seems suffused with sadness, despair and even alienation, poetry carves out a place for these difficult emotions in the world.

Q~How do you balance your work at Headmistress Press with focusing on your own writing?

A~It can be difficult. I not only spend many hours a week running Headmistress Press with Mary Meriam, I also work full time and volunteer with End of Life Washington, the advocacy group for Washington State’s Death With Dignity Law. Being an introvert and living alone helps me to carve out time for writing. I try to write first thing in the morning before other things clamor for my attention. I also go on retreats two or three times a year where I focus exclusively on a writing project.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~I write in spurts, sometimes daily, but sometimes not at all for weeks. I typically start with jumbled thoughts/emotions, unformatted, like journaling. I usually let it sit, but if there is a spark of truth there, later I might interrogate the writing by asking: what is it I am trying to say here? My goal in shaping and revising a poem is to strip away any words or codicils that feel false or so private that they are unlikely to speak in any viable way to a reader, and then to locate specificity of language by inviting the lines and stanzas to dialog. I read the work out loud to see if it has rhythm or musicality. Typically, writing poems is my attempt at meaningful conversations with myself, that I deeply hope will communicate meaningfully to someone out there.

Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?

 A~Just write the poems. Let the rest take care of itself. Support other poets; buy their books; attend readings and poetry events. Read as much poetry as you can, and learn how to read your own poems aloud.

Q~When you say, “learn how to read your own poems aloud,” do you mean as part of the writing process or were you talking about poetry readings?

 A~Poetry is about the sounds of words. When I’m reading others’ poems, if a poem excites me, I will often stand up and read it aloud. When I’m writing, I stop and read a stanza or a line aloud many times as I am revising and working on the poem. I don’t enjoy it until it “sounds” right. What I was referring to as advice, however, is that any poet who has the opportunity to read their work for others should, first of all, do it (!), and second, rehearse reading the poems aloud many times. A reading opportunity usually comes with some sort of time limitation, so it’s also very important to time the reading. Misusing the gift of time is very poor manners. Finally, with practice and deep familiarity with the words, I think most poets could give a convincing, strong reading. Personally, although I’m an introvert, I totally love reading my work for an audience.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~When I was nine, I had pneumonia and had to stay home alone for several weeks, since my parents both worked. I had Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse with me in bed, and it was a wonderful comfort to read poems about children that felt like they could have been about me (when I was sick and lay abed, I had two pillows at my head). I also have to credit reading the Hebrew Psalms and connecting with their deep sorrow, lamentation, and longing. In high school, I fell in love with Emily Dickinson, started reading the beat poets, and was introduced to Sylvia Plath and the confessional poets. I greatly expanded my reading list after high school, but these introductory poets were very formative in my love of poetry.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~I have been gob smacked by so many contemporary poets, and in particular, LGBTQ poets. I have bought so many books of poetry in the past year that I fear I’ll never find time to read them all. Lesbian feminists held sway with me in previous decades (Rich, Lorde, Jordan, Cheryl Clarke, Marilyn Hacker, Pat Parker, so many others), but lately the gay boys have really knocked me off my feet. I only have room here to name a few: Mark Doty; Danez Smith, Philip B Williams, Jericho Brown, Richard Silken, Saeed Jones, Carl Philips, Spencer Reece; Ocean Vuong. I must say that I also adore Natalie Diaz, Sharon Olds, Ilya Kaminsky, and Greg Pardlo.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~My books are available on Amazon or at my website. I also have a blog, and you connect with me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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The Order of Things / An interview with poet Soledad Caballero

The Order of Things

by M. Soledad Caballero

As with all things now, I want order.
I want to take the strings of chaos, the
lonely stamp, the left over paper,
the bruised, too ripe peach, the thick
flyaway grey hairs and stack them.
Stack them in a row. Put them in a box.
Label each part, taking time to make
sure I noted the skin of the peach, the
wire tangle of the hair, the missing
colors on the faded stamp. I want
to make them whole again, full and
not dead or dying. Order is a place
of rest and stopping. Long ago I said
I wanted to be light, the way silk feels
light against the heat of the sun.
I imagined floating in this world, always
sure of how beautiful the mess would be.

But I have learned cells can grow to wild
proportions. Along the inside pulsing parts
of the body, carving their path with serrated
blades along muscle tissue, the pink inside
of the breast. Under the arm, reaching for
the small, jellyfish glands. This was more
than a mess. Those cells, an aching
mouth of angst and blood, urgent for
the rest of it, the rest of me. And I alone
in this jungle of living, a stumbling
wanderer. This is not the story I wanted.

First published in Memoryhouse Magazine 2018.

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M. Soledad Caballero is associate professor of English at Allegheny College. She is a 2017 CantoMundo fellow, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, a New Poet’s Prize, and has been a finalist for The Missouri Review’s Jeffry E. Smith poetry prize and  Mississippi Review’s annual editor’s prize. Her work has appeared in the Missouri Review, the Mississippi Review,  Iron Horse Literary Review, Memorius,  Crab Orchard Review, Anomaly, and other venues.

Soledad says she is drawn to narrative verse. She says, “I think my style tends, generally, to reflect this. I think my style can be over the top and I get really caught up in images that are ‘big,’ for lack of a better term. I like big sweeping poems, poems that make me gasp out loud after I’ve read through them, epic in their emotional qualities, and I am drawn to that in my writing. But, more recently, I have also been trying to be more muted and understated, more contained in my form. There is power to that kind of slow-burning in poems, too.”

Soledad and Bekah’s work—including the above poem—recently appeared together in Memoryhouse Magazine’s “Wander” issue. We wanted to know more about Soledad and her writing, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem, “The Order of Things.” How is it representative of your work?

A~“The Orders of Things” is representative of a move in my work to be more structured in form and in images. I am trying to be less unruly in some ways, so I can tap into unruliness in others, if that makes sense. I wanted this poem to be muted since it was such a big thing I was writing about, cancer, my cancer and what it has meant to think through being sick.

Q~Did it come easily to you or was it hard to write?

A~This poem felt like it came very easily, but that is only because I was sick for a long time, and I was in some ways writing it even while I was sick.  In terms of drafting, I had the form in my head, and I had the first line.  Usually, if I have the first line of a poem or the sound of the first line, its music, I’m ready to start drafting.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~I wish I could say I have this very disciplined writing process for poetry, but I don’t! For my scholarly essays I am very disciplined: research, drafting, more research, more reading and drafting. I get the sense of an arc there.

For poetry writing, I guess it’s more seasonal, but there’s no way to say what the seasons really are. I get an inkling, like a gut feeling, and that often starts the process. I just read a news article about the possible extinction of the North Atlantic Whale, that captured something for me. I do not usually write about nature in a traditional sense, but the ocean is something that really grabs me, so I started thinking about images for this poem. I like being in the world a lot and then seeing what feels like it sparks something. Another way I have done sustained writing is taking workshops. That kind of writing really forces me out of my usual subjects and forms. I’m taking a workshop right now, and it’s been very good for me, just to practice using different poetry muscles.

Q~Why are you drawn to poetry?

A~I learned English as a girl, and I actually hated all the strange rules of it. English seemed like very alien, and I think writing poetry was, when I was a girl, a way to get closer to it. Now, it seems to be the best way to capture the strange extraordinariness of living. I think reading poetry for me is like taking in something so rich and beautiful, as if I didn’t even realize how thirsty I was until I read poetry.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~When I turned fifteen years, my mother gave me Pablo Neruda’s Veinte Poemas y una Canción Desesperada and said, “Estas lista para esto, hija.” It was her copy, a bilingual edition. But, even before that, when I was a very little girl, four or five, my mother had me memorize long poems in Spanish. I think that’s something that kids used to do in Chile once upon a time. She did it as a girl, and so she wanted me to do it. I still have memories of reciting those poems after dinner and at dinner parties when I was very young in Chile. I don’t remember the poems now but I remember the cadences of reciting long, beautiful words. That is how I fell in love with poetry I think, Neruda and Mistral just cemented my life long affair!

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~I am just finishing Nikky Finney. I also just finished Empire by Xochiquetzal Candelaria. On my list is the rest of Beast Meridian by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, Scar on/Scar Off by Jennifer McCauley, and Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied. I’m reading my CantoMundo gente as much as I can.

Q~What is the poet’s role in society?

A~By training I’m a British Romanticist, so I am sucker for Percy Bysshe Shelley’s idea that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world and of William Wordsworth’s idea that a poet is like all other people but also more attentive to things. I think we are living in an era of amazing poetry and poets. The list I mentioned above is just a small taste of that reality. I think we are seeing that poets and poetry are able to make connections across time and communities in unique, complicated, beautiful ways. Poetry is compact and packs a lot in it. That matters right now. I think Jimmy Santiago Baca said that poetry saved his life. Lots of poets and writers think of poetry that way. I know that sometimes people are scared of poetry or think they don’t “get it,” like poetry is an elite thing only for some people. I know why there is that feeling. After all the history of education in our country is hardly conducive to anyone thinking there’s equity and justice there. But, I wish for poetry to be everywhere, for everyone, just like movies or pop culture might be. I think we need it because it’s a striking mirror that shows us who we are, what we want and aspire to, and how we might be there as communities.

Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?

A~Honestly, rejection is simply awful. I think we undervalue that pain a little bit. Or, we make jokes about it. Or, we individualize or internalize it so it’s secret and silently shameful.  I think we need to be honest and open about that pain. For me, poetry is some of the most personal writing I do. Getting rejections, and I get a lot of them, is hard. It takes emotional effort to shake it off and keep writing. I think we need to be okay with feeling that pain, the pain of rejection. I think that honoring that pain more and being receptive to its truth may make it easier to pick yourself up the next day or next week and keep writing.

I write because I can’t not write, but that doesn’t mean it’s not painful. In some ways, it’s only more painful not to write than to write, and that pain isn’t only about that internal critic we all have. Rejections of our writing hurt. I really find it frustrating that there’s sometimes a denial of that pain. My advice is not to smother or deny that it hurts a lot to get rejections, and it make take you a minute to get back to your work or the page. That’s okay. I had to stop working on my manuscript for a while, several months, because it’s gotten a lot of rejections. I still haven’t sent it out again. Have compassion for yourself and for those folks in your communities who are getting all those rejections, too.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~Here are links to some of my poems in The Missouri Review, Memorius, Origins Journal and Memoryhouse.

When Trying to Return Home / an interview with poet Jennifer Maritza McCauley

When Trying to Return Home

by Jennifer Maritza McCauley

In the morning, I leave a panaderia on SW 137th
and a Miami browngirl sees my face
and says de dónde eres Miami or Not?
And I say Not, because I live in this blue city now
but she means where are your  parents from
and I tell her I have a Daddy who is Lou-born
and coal-dark and looks like me and I have a Mami
who is from Puerto Rico and looks like the trigena
in front of us who is buying piraquas for her yellow children.

The browngirl says eres Latina at least, and I say at least
in English. I look down at my skin, which is black, but
smells blue by the shores of Biscayne. She thinks my skin could
speak Spanish, a los menos. I want to tell the browngirl I was not born
by ocean rims or white-scuffed waves. I was not born
beside browngirls who speak Miami’s itchy Spanish. I was born
where my culture rarely bloomed—amongst Northern steel-dust and
dead skies, where my two-colored parents stuck out at any
Pittsburgh party. I want to tell her, I would love to be the type of girl
that says soy de Somewhere and everyone says, “Girl, I see”
or “you’re una de las nuestras
or “you belong.”

I want to tell her, you are right, in this blue city, I look like everybody
and everybody looks like me, and this is the thing I’ve always wanted:
to be in a crowd where nobody remembers my skin. I’ve wanted
this when I was a child, amongst grey buildings and steel-dust
where they called me unloved and weird-colored but here, mija,
I smell like blue and people who look like Mami can say funny
things like at least, at least.

Instead, I smile at the browngirl and she does not smile back.
Instead she says, in Spanish: If you are Latina, you should be so,
speak Spanish to me. And I say, in English: Yes, I could
but I am afraid, and she laughs in no language and judges me.

I want to tell her the history of my family-gods. They are rainforest-hot,
cropland-warm, dark with every-colored skin. They have mouths
that sound like all kinds of countries. I want to tell her these gods
live wild and holy in me, in white and blue cities where my skin
is remembered or forgotten, in cities where I am always one thing, or
from anywhere.

I want to tell the browngirl this while she turns and walks off.
I want to tell her that when she came to me, thinking I was hers
in that moment we were together,

at least.

First appeared in Aspasiology 2016.

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Jennifer Maritza McCauley teaches at the University of Missouri, where she is pursuing a PhD in creative writing. She is also Contest Editor at The Missouri Review and poetry editor at Origins Literary Journal. She has received fellowships from the NEA, CantoMundo, and Kimbilio. Her work appears in PleiadesColumbia Journal, Passages North, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. Her collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF is available from Stalking Horse Press.

Jennifer says her style “depends on the subject matter, the genre I’m writing, or the speaker.” She says, “I enjoy free-verse and experimental poetry and I’m drawn to prose poem/lyric essay hybrids. With fiction or non-fiction, I like my narrative voice to fit the environment I’ve created. I generally have an interest in the pop and snap of language, and the intense focus on an image. I love playing around with linguistic mash-ups. My real-life voice code-switches often, and that impulse is reflected in my writing, I’m sure.”

Bekah and Jennifer connected after a review of Jennifer’s new collection, SCAR ON/SCAR OFF, appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. We wanted to know more about this fellow Missouri poet and her writing, so here is our interview with Jennifer.

Q~Tell us a little about “WhenTrying to Return Home.” How is it representative of your work?

A~I’m interested in narrative poetry, how a poem moves, and how color holds literal and metaphorical meaning. In this poem, I wanted to tell multiple stories that explore the intersections of Afro-Latinidad, and issues of belonging, race, and cultural displacement.

Q~Did this poem come easily or was it hard to write? Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~It took some time! I wasn’t sure if I was ready to write about my own cultural disconnections yet. I was reading poetry that forced me out of my comfort zone, namely Nancy Morejon, and Cherrie Moraga, who are fearless. A few months later, I was asked to write a poem for Aspasiology in tribute to the wonderful poet Raquel Salas Rivera. I was inspired by Rivera’s poem  “suprasegmentacionalidades,” which has this terrific line “you are so much more than your translation. My jumping off point was thinking about how we are “more than our translation.” “When Trying to Return Home” (slowly) emerged soon after.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~Scattershot! Some pieces come out fast, others take years. I like writing late at night, and during writing sessions I warm up by reading something completely unrelated to my creative leanings. I’m a day-reader, and a night writer, unless I have a deadline. During the day, I’ll usually read work that is related to my research, composition exams, or creative writing. When I have a writing session, and I’m especially stuck, I like to read a short bit of something, but preferably unrelated to my project, sonically or subject-wise. I like my brain clear of direct influences. It might be a weird process, but the tension between me trying to figure out some problem on the page myself versus reading something unrelated to the project, helps me find my voice purely and gets the creative juices flowing. And most literature channels the human experience, so regardless I find access points and inspiration.

Before I started writing my historical novel, for example, which is set in the South during the Reconstruction Era, I spent much of my time reading as much Southern and period lit as I could, while doing on-site research and poring over history texts. During the actual writing sessions, when I hit a wall, I’d read Ezra Pound, Percival Everett or Pynchon. Completely unlike how I write and generally unrelated to the book. Before I write fiction, I often read poetry and vice versa. Many of the poems in SCAR ON/SCAR OFF I wrote at various times over the past few years, but before the actual writing sessions, I remember reading Lao Tzu passages,Octavia Butler interviews and Stanisław Lem, to name a few. I encourage my students to read outside of their interests, and I like doing the same. This isn’t a set rule for me during the writing process, but I find the trick helpful.

Q~In the review of your book in the Post Dispatch, they said you illustrate “with lyrical resonance how deeply intertwined family and social history can be.” Can you talk a little bit about the importance of this to you?

A~A through-line in my work, and especially in SCAR ON/SCAR OFF is how history, political landscapes, and familial ties influence who we become. I also like using poetry and lyric essays to explore subjects that are intensely personal to me. In this book, I wanted to examine how our ancestors, cultural communities and our connections to them reveal why we have scars, and how we heal them. It was important to me to pick apart my relationship to the collective, the personal, and the familial.

Q~Why did you choose the title, SCAR ON / SCAR OFF?

A~The title is a reference to the Rosa Parks quote: “Have you ever been hurt and the place tries to heal a bit, and you just pull the scar off of it over and over again.” The “you” and the “place” in that quote haunted me. Who the “you” and what the “place” of hurt could be, reflexively, generally and specifically. In Parks’ life, in the lives of my family, friends and communities, and in my life. I thought about why scars show up on our bodies, and when. We can ignore them, but still know they’re there. We can willfully pick at them or let them heal. The process of acknowledging, feeling bound to, or ignoring our pasts is its own kind of strength because we are taking back our agency. And, the scars that haunt our bodies might not be our own.

I was working on an essay about not liking my name and being distantly related to Rosa Parks and when I found that quote, I was inspired. My late friend, Monica A. Hand, wrote brilliantly about how the women we look up to linger forever in our lives in her poem “dear nina.” Her quote “The women I am from are wild; beautiful/This is what I know/When Lucille died, I tell my grand daughter/We are like Lucille trouble in the waters can’t kill us…” addresses scar-sharing and love, and the regenerative, healing power of connecting with our families, heroes, and children. The Parks and Hand quotes are epigraphs in the book. So, the title references ideas I wanted dig into in this collection.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~Pablo Neruda, because my mother used to read his poetry to me as a kid, in Spanish and English. Toni Morrison, because her novels are like a tight hug; her prose is poetic.

Q~You’ve had a lot of experience editing literary journals including being a contest editor for the prestigious Missouri Review. What insights can you offer from this perspective?

A~I’ve been fortunate to work for journals with editors who give their staff, writers, and collaborators a great deal of creative space. In the editorial roles I’ve inhabited (The Missouri Review, Origins Literary Journal, Gulf Stream Magazine, The Florida Book Review, Sliver of Stone, and Fjords Review), there has been a genuine interest in developing the journal with the times, while maintaining a cohesive vision.

Working at The Missouri Review has been special. As Contest Editor, I coordinate our two annual contests, and, in the past, I’ve read general submissions and conducted audio interviews. Our editor Speer Morgan has a deep love for literature and enjoys talking to people about their day-to-day lives just as much as he loves reading. The whole staff is excited about what we publish and the submissions we read; it’s a fun, productive place to work.

Every journal has a different process for acceptance, and a unique vision for each issue. The Missouri Review has been around since 1978, and we get about 12,000 submissions per year. Submissions go through several rounds of review with interns and senior staff before they are published, and each contest has its own review procedures. There are many pieces that are almost accepted, but don’t make it for whatever reason. We don’t have room for everything we love, but writers who don’t get into TMR or place in the contest, often get into the journal later. We enjoy publishing unpublished, up-and-coming, and established writers. At the core Speer wants the essay, story, or poem to have an “about-ness” to it, that it can be analyzed from different angles and has something interesting to say about the human condition. At Origins, which is edited by the marvelous Dini Karasik, we like stories, poems, and essays that directly explore how identity and upbringing inform a literary work. I’m happy I worked for every literary journal I have, and I always encourage writers to read submissions for a magazine, literary agency or publishing house, even temporarily. You learn a lot about your own writing from the experience. And submit, submit, submit!

Q~There are lots of publications out there. What are some literary gems you feel deserve more attention? Why will we love them?

The Missouri Review is currently looking for submissions for our 11th annual audio contest, judged by Avery Trufelman. (Deadline, March 15). Origins Literary Journal is looking for submissions in all genres. Some of my other favorite journals are Pleiades, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, LunaLuna, Glass Poetry, Kenyon Review, PANK, Vinyl, Kweli, Chicago Quarterly Review,  The Journal, Sliver of Stone, Fjords Review, Gulf Stream Magazine, and TriQuarterly. My amazing friend Ashley M. Jones, is looking for submissions from Southern writers at Southern Humanities Review. These journals take an interest in writers from all backgrounds and styles, and the work they publish is consistently engaging.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~My book is available on Stalking Horse Press’s website, on Amazon.com. Links to my work are on my website. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

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