Mexican Indigeneous

indigenous mexican lit

It might be considered anathema to our neighbors south of the Rio Grande but Phoneme Media is having a veritable publishing celebration of indigenous Mexican poetry. This small, indie publisher with one of the coolest catalogues of world lit understands what Anthony Seidman wrote recently in World Literature Today yet it still wants to bring U.S readers two books of indigenous material.  

“The message is clear: the poetry that really matters in Mexico that which is written in Spanish,” says Seidman. In fact, making these Phoneme titles even more compelling, he tells us that Mexicans “express ambivalence or disdain for contemporary poetry written in Zapotec, Nahuatl, etc.”

Editorial director David Shook disagrees. “I have found that Mexican Americans are interested in mestizaje and their own indigenous heritage. It’s an exciting time to be publishing translated literature, because there is a real enthusiasm among the reading public, in my experience. I’ve found that readers are often excited to discover new indigenous voices.”

Surely the release of Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry and The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems should be celebrated for their rich, highly rewarding content, the extensive efforts to compile the material, and the beauty of the books themselves. Continue Reading

Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries VII, VIII, and IX

vintage virginia

This is the fifth installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia.

Query VII: A notice of all that can increase the progress of human knowledge
Query VIII: The number of its inhabitants
Query IX: The number and condition of the militia and regular troops, and their pay

In these three queries, Jefferson attempts to distill the complex meteorological, demographic, and military features of Virginia into a series of data points. His prose—supplemented by graphical tables tracking everything from rainfall to carriage wheels—draws a fine grid over the natural and human activities of the Commonwealth. These particular sections of Notes bridge Jefferson’s study of natural law with his meditations on systems of government, so it makes sense that tabulation is the main rhetorical strategy here. Jefferson values numbers as a means for describing all sorts of observations—elemental, mechanical, animal, etc.—and for delineating change over time.

In much of Anglophone poetry, accentual-syllabic verse organizes language (yes, even free verse!) into stressed and unstressed syllables. Like Jefferson’s tabulations, a poem’s meter, or system of accentual stress, makes a compositional pattern that we can observe and experience over time. Meter divides and unifies a poem, making the space of the page a contained realm within which the mind of the poet may move like weather. Scansion is the practice of measuring and describing the metrical patterns at work in a poem, but you can apply its principles to any unit of language. One of my favorite teaching activities is to have students scan their own names to find the metrical music in them. Thomas, for example, is a trochee because it’s comprised of a stressed first syllable and an unstressed final syllable. The inverse of a trochee is an iamb, a pattern that some scholars believe mimics the natural patterns of Anglophone speech or even the da-DUM of a beating heart. The trochee, by contrast, is more performative. It has roots in the Greek term trokhaios pous, the running or spinning foot.

So, our Thomas is a sprinter.Continue Reading

The Best Poem I Read This Month: Nikki Wallschlaeger’s “Blues for A Bar So Low That It Became a Cage”

Nikki Wallschlaeger is the author of the collection Houses and the graphic chapbook I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel, two arrangements that undercut artifice and underline activation energies. This month, I dove into one of her new poems from the most recent incarnation of The Journal Petra, an experimental online biannual featuring five poets. The poems by Brandon Shimoda, Jasmine Gibson, Sara Wainscott, and Johanna Hedva in Petra’s new issue all deserve exclamation and exuberant examination, but I was drawn to Wallschlaeger’s “Blues for A Bar So Low That It Became a Cage,” especially after seeing her perform a month ago at the Poetry Project with 남 은송. Reading her new work resulted in a reverberation I needed to record and scatter. Wallschlaeger’s poems sometimes manifest as sonnets and in other instances as memes bound in hand-sewn books. While I’m apprehensive at the idea of defining Wallschlaeger’s poetics singly, crisscrossing the Internet and soil begins a conjure-formation to initiate a reading.
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Day Mark/Night Signature: Ginger Ko’s Motherlover

mother lover

Workshopping individual poems is one thing; working on a full chapbook or book manuscript is quite another. For the reader or writer who wants to put away the notion of poems as discrete, and to look for a demonstration of poems as part of a fuller structure or a continuous line, away from the pressures of easy boundaries or the idea of individually-wrapped units, Motherlover is a good place to be.

Ginger Ko is the author of Motherlover from Bloof Books, and her chapbook Inherit is also forthcoming from Bloof. Another chapbook by Ko, Comorbid, is available from Lark Books. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Georgia’s creative writing program and her poems have been published in Jellyfish Magazine, The Wanderer (Harlot), and The Poetry Society of America’s website among many other venues.   

In Motherlover, the poems’ often long lines operate on the level of deliberate sensory experiences, stark records of tedium, grime amidst joy, and discomfort, instead of a more commonly found density of sound and structure. The cover design and the book pages make room for the long lines across the page, often containing one full end-stopped sentence each or containing full clauses, ending where they end. And the book’s first half contains individual poems; some with amazing titles such as “Get the fuck out woodland creatures, get the fuck out low hanging fruit” and “Stay Away From My Windows No One Is Welcome”; and its second half is split into poems that are titled either “Day Mark” or “Night Signature”.Continue Reading

“The poems toggle between wreckages”: An Interview with Kerrin McCadden

nice-1236772_960_720Kerrin McCadden’s poems illuminate life’s sharp-edged particulars, making the touchstones of this physical world resonate with the meditative music of our everyday existence. She’s the author of Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes, winner of the 2015 Vermont Book Award and the 2013 New Issues Poetry Prize, as well as the recipient of an NEA Literature Fellowship. A graduate of The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, she teaches English and creative writing at Montpelier High School in Montpelier, Vermont. After being dazzled by two of Kerrin’s poems in The American Poetry Review, I rushed out to buy her book, then quickly reached out to see if I could ask a few questions about her beautiful, startling, unforgettable poems.

Matthew Thorburn: How did Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes come together? Would you talk about your process for putting your poems together as a book manuscript?

Kerrin McCadden: The first time I built this book, it was on the floor of an empty room above an airplane hangar. I called it “The Middle Distance” and promptly sent it out, which probably was an act of great hubris. A day with a pile of poems… and presto? I profited from discovering what would become the book’s central concern through this process: the sudden loneliness of divorce.Continue Reading

Planetary Poetry


It’s a comet, no it’s a planet, no it’s not a planet, yes it is. What is it about Pluto that so draws us to it? Is it that Pluto is so far away? Or is it just that we always pull for the underdog? Over the past few years, especially, as Pluto’s planetary status has been called into question, the adoration for the planet has only risen. Perhaps, there’s something to the idea of distance, of the unknowable vastness that stretches between us on Earth and the surface of this planet (or dwarf planet or whatever). It is in this expanse, that poetry seems to have found a way to talk about other distances—more of the metaphorical and emotional nature— through the use of planets.

In his poem, “Pluto’s Loss,” poet Paul Guest begins with the line: “Little star, how lost to us you are already” and goes on to elegize Pluto as something that is so small and far away and cold that it’s easy for humans to forget, to not think about, to push out of the mind. However, Guest then brings the poem around to his own thoughts. It’s easier to remember the distances between our own memories—a lost love, perhaps—than it is to think about the distances between planets.

In the end of the poem, though, Guest then makes another twist: it’s also easy, he argues, for humans to be small and distant and forgotten by the heavens. The poems ends: “In that moment, and in this one, I could not be/ more human, to the dead sky/ making apologies heard by no one, by nothing.” Maybe, we identify with Pluto because we too can feel so small and cold and easily pushed out of the mind.Continue Reading

L’Appel du Vide: On Visual Caesuras and Erasure

Stoddard Title - Au Sable Chasm - Jacob's Well, looking out

I take the five students of my poetry micro-workshop outside to discuss Claudia Emerson’s latest collection Impossible Bottle. As we sit in the sun, bending over the brilliant bright book pages, a student points to the poem “Metastasis: Web” and volunteers to read it aloud before our analysis of the author’s craft choices. You—join us. Lend your voice to the poem too. It’s meant for the ear.

Metastasis: Web

no mistake   this web’s expanse
near invisible

in cornered light     the screened porch-door
open year round   the world’s

entrance to it   the wren’s
discovery   the accident

the web become larder   the spider
grocer   its lovely apron

filament   parcels of the air
asleep   and bound   and you

approve   somehow of the commerce
as though   agreed to

the ease of deft return   the joy
such   swift   excision

(“Metastasis: Web” is used with permission of Louisiana State University Press)

Thank you. How quickly did you read the poem? Did you pause in the middle of lines? Where? Did you read through the lines for the syntax, as we’re taught? Or did you end every line, every break as if it’s a question? (Poet voice, ahem.)Continue Reading

We miss out when US publishers lag behind in adopting global titles: an Interview with Jim Pascual Agustin


Why and when did you move from the Philippines to South Africa and how does one choose South Africa in particular?

The quick answer would be because of a girl I met on holiday in the mountainous regions Philippines of the north. When I flew to South Africa on 22 October 1994, I only meant to visit, to see her again. I always feel like a time traveler each time I try to explain how I ended up practically halfway around the planet from where my feet first touched ground. I go backwards and forwards, sometimes I get a clearer view, while at other times the weight of regret muddles the present, darkens the future. I knew close to nothing about the country before arriving, just Hollywood-manufactured images and whatever I gathered from books by JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Christopher Hope, and Dennis Brutus. The heart has its own logic, its own manner of making you do unexpected things.

In the end I didn’t really choose South Africa. Only after a few years of living here would I begin to see the land for its own captivating wonders and promise, even as I try to understand the dark past that haunts its people. You could say I left one troubled land for another. But now I have two homes, and it comes as both a gift and a burden not many may understand.

I ended up marrying this amazing girl who would change my life forever.

Continue Reading

“I really wanted to just drive and talk with someone”: An Interview with John Gallaher

pexels-photoJohn Gallaher’s book-length poem In A Landscape has the feel of a long, wide-ranging conversation with an old friend. It’s like one of those cross-country car ride conversations when there’s time to talk about anything and everything: the tiny details of day-to-day living and the meaning-of-life questions that keep us up at night. His other books include Ghost / Landscape, with Kristina Marie Darling; Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, with G.C. Waldrep; Map of the Folded World; and The Little Book of Guesses. He lives in Maryville, Missouri, where he teaches at Northwest Missouri State University and co-edits The Laurel Review.

Matthew Thorburn: How did In A Landscape start? Did you set out with the idea of a book-length poem, or did that emerge as you were writing?

John Gallaher: It was all by accident. I started writing one day in October 2009 with no plan, nothing at all on my mind. I had just finished a collaborative manuscript with G.C. Waldrep, and I was in some way, I think, tired of “artistic thoughts.” That’s not a great way to say it. It wasn’t even a full thought. So I just started writing and then, after a while, it kind of fell into a form, so I stuck with it. Continue Reading

Interview with Grace Shuyi Liew, author of Prop



Grace Shuyi Liew is the author of the chapbook Prop (Ahsahta Press, 2016) and Book of Interludes (Anomalous Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in cream city review, PANK, Bone Bouquet, West Branch, and other journals. She is a contributing editor for Waxwing and an alum of Aspen Summer Words, Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, and the Watering Hole.

Grace is from Malaysia and now resides in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she works as a teaching artist while completing her MFA at Louisiana State University. I interviewed her on the release of Prop, which was selected by Kerri Webster as winner of the 2015 Ahsahta Chapbook Award.

How did the sequence and its pauses and divisions come about?

I was thinking about western canons and the lineages they pass down without question. Then the set of poems slowly sprawled into a kind of alternative origin story—a bit expansive, a bit mythical, a bit hysterical about banishment. So connectivity quickly became important. The two sisters that share a tail move from undersea to dry caves to suburbia to nationlessness. Continuity and discontinuity became important. And: movement versus stasis, resignation versus vengeance, longing versus rejecting.

At the time I was also a bit obsessed with sentences. I was paying all my attention to sentences-as-lines, and how they can be unyielding and demanding but also sometimes, paradoxically, they open up a habitable place. Then at one point I started to mistrust them and forced myself to resist this habitable place. So a lot of the pauses and divisions were me trying to write against this sentence-ness. Some poems are choppier, enjambed, ruptured, contingent on immediate focus rather than cumulative attention. Continue Reading