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.

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“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

Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries IV and V

vintage virginia

This is the third installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here and here.

Query IV: A notice of its mountains
Query V: Its cascades and caverns

I walked into Queries IV and V thinking Jefferson would use these sections to acknowledge the changeability of Virginia’s natural landscape, the dramatic variations of terrain that make it both beautiful and dangerous to traverse. I thought I’d compare Jefferson’s celebration of Virginia’s wild places to the notion of surprise in poetry, or maybe to resistance—that sense that the poem is getting lost somewhere in the middle, and you, the poet, have to invent a light (or a hatchet) to make your way through the draft.

I should have known better.Continue Reading

Listening to Baltimore

Maryland Army National Guard Soldiers and local law enforcement watch protesters gathered in front of City Hall, Baltimore, April 30, 2015. The marchers shouted slogans calling for justice, equality and peace for fellow Baltimore residents. The Maryland National Guard was activated for the first time since 1968 to assist with peacekeeping operations while unrest continues in Baltimore. (Photo by U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. Margaret Taylor, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Maryland Army National Guard Soldiers and local law enforcement watch protesters gathered in front of City Hall, Baltimore, April 30, 2015. The marchers shouted slogans calling for justice, equality and peace for fellow Baltimore residents. The Maryland National Guard was activated for the first time since 1968 to assist with peacekeeping operations while unrest continues in Baltimore. (Photo by U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. Margaret Taylor, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Meet your narrator: a white woman who runs a community-based literary organization for Black kids. Your setting? Baltimore.

A year ago, your narrator sat around with four other writers. Three of us white, one Black, one Asian. We were trying to figure out how to talk about the events of April 27, 2015. “Riot” fixated on property damage. “Protests” occurred, but those which took place after April 27 were organized in a way that the initial events weren’t.

By April 28, individuals present at Penn-North had coined the term “Baltimore Uprising.” Called thugs by the same media that praised Egyptians in 2011, the neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester felt an urgency to tell their own story. Their story begins long before April 12, the night of Freddie Gray’s arrest. Their story is framed by the 51.8% of residents ages 16 – 64 who are unemployed and the 33% of residential properties that sit vacant. But “coming up with a name and a hashtag was a luxury we didn’t have time to commit energy to while in the midst of it,” Dr. Herber Brown III, a Black pastor and prominent community organizer, told me.

As the events of April 27, 2015 are processed into history — in museums, in textbooks, in our collective imagination — we need to think about who the words belong to. And as a white woman, this is a place where the words do not belong to me.Continue Reading

Words of War: Poetry and Trauma

1-17th Infantry helps clear 120 kilometers to Shorabak [Image 6 of 22]  Sgt. Tim Martin, an infantryman with Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, shows evidence of the long journey after returning from Operation Buffalo Thunder II at Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, July 2, 2012. During the eight-day mission, Afghan and American forces cleared more than 120 kilometers of rugged terrain and escorted approximately 60 truckloads of humanitarian aid for distribution to the people of Shorabak. 117th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment (Hawaii) Photo by Staff Sgt. Brendan Mackie Date Taken:07.02.2012 Location:FORWARD OPERATING BASE SPIN BOLDAK, AF Read more: www.dvidshub.net/image/619195/1-17th-infantry-helps-clear...

117th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment (Hawaii) Photo by Staff Sgt. Brendan Mackie

“All a poet can do today is warn,” Wilfred Owen wrote during World War I. If one view of poetry holds it up as something filled with beauty or romance, the truth is that poetry found its first place more in images of violence and war—think of The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the last 100 years alone, poetry has been shaped and changed by war: from the WWI poets, such as Owen, to the more recent poems coming out (and that will surely be coming out more and more as these events are processed) about current wars. But, what about the idea of poetry as warning? Do the poems of World War I reflect on today’s wars? Are they still as applicable to us?

To examine this, I’ll bring up an example from my own experience. I teach composition and communication at the college level and when I first introduce textual rhetorical analysis, I usually do it by first broaching literary analysis (which is often something students are more familiar with rather than jumping straight into rhetoric). The way that I introduce it? By looking at Ivor Gurney’s poem “To His Love.”

Gurney, an astonishing poet, was traumatized by his time in WWI and spent the end of his life institutionalized. “To His Love” is arguably one of his finest works, and one that most clearly shows the trauma of his experience. The poem begins slowly, simply, it’s tightly rhymed structure making it seem like the most traditional of elegies:

He’s gone
and all our plans are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswold
where the sheep feed.

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The Best Poem I Read This Month: “A performance for intimate space with strangers” by Saretta Morgan



Saretta Morgan participates in “text-based writing,” and currently attends the interdisciplinary graduate writing program at Pratt Institute. Additionally, she’s a member of the Belladonna* Collective, a feminist avant-garde group founded in New York City. These affiliations begin to orient lenses and traditions through which to read her work; but “begin” is the operative word here, as I believe Saretta Morgan’s work doesn’t simply continue any one mode of writing, but works to permutate the orderings, genres, and possibilities for how text can function. In the past two years, I’ve been following her work, both critical and creative, as it’s published online, and am pleased today to link to one of her recent works through the Ploughshares blog.

Saretta Morgan’s newest untitled piece, recently published by TAGVVERK, records seven days in late 2015-early 2016 on eight closed “window shades” that serve as tablets. The text—simultaneously diary, day-keeper, “(A performance for intimate space with strangers),” catalogue, poem—looms forward by providing a series of peaks: its entirety features a few phrases or sentences per “slide,” and a black background becomes foregrounded by making up the majority of the space. Flipping Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” by charging the typically all-white page with black backdrops and white text, Saretta Morgan also invokes Hortense Spillers’s piece “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” to think through black womanhood, black feminism, and black motherhood. Morgan finishes this “performance for intimate space with strangers” with the claim: “This is a stage populated by white people throwing shit around if I say so.” Therefore, the page becomes a stage, in its representation and its critique: Morgan’s piece confronts personal and public articulations of blackness and daily entries of facts translated into theories and back again, as fragments of living.

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Preserving Intent: What’s Lost in the Cinematic Translation of Mrs. Dalloway


I like to follow up my reading of a text with its cinematic counterpart. After finishing Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, I rented the DVD of the same name with great anticipation. But after the credits rolled, I was unsatisfied: while the cinematic version of Woolf’s novel provides a touching and well-acted rendering of her vision, it fails to recognize and execute some critical themes from the hard copy novel.

In the film, the omission of a consistent concept of time was immediately recognizable. Yet, the novel is divided by eleven panels of time. The film occasionally shows Big Ben chiming the hour, but fails to highlight how Woolf saw the theme of time as absolutely critical to shaping the individual’s everyday experience. Entirely absent from the film is the concept of deep time, a reading of time that pre-dated conventional 24-hour time. One of her journal entries confirms her desire to produce such a concept in a work like Mrs. Dalloway: “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect…” This primordial illustration shows Woolf’s need to portray a sense of movement that simultaneously spans the modern convention of time, yet remains timeless. Although the film does shift between scenes from Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway’s childhood and the present, this sense of “time before time” is absent.

The “beautiful caves behind her characters” in Woolf’s novel lack complexity in the film version. Poignant scenes are cut, weakening the cinematic version. As in the novel, there’s a film scene where Mr.Dalloway is shown trying to decide what to get his wife for her birthday. But the angst Woolf writes into his action—buying his wife red roses—is completely passed over.Continue Reading

Reconstruction: How the Lyric Essay Rendered One Body After Trauma

Anatomy Class, 1920

I didn’t start writing lyric essays until I found out I had cancer. The melanoma buried in my right cheek was at first missed, and then misdiagnosed in its severity. Clark’s stage IV, they told me. Likely in my lymph nodes, but they wouldn’t know until my third surgery, the excision and biopsy.

I was coming out of a dry period in my writing. I had hardly written in the previous year since my brother’s death from complications arising from a rare genetic disorder. When I went back to the page, I couldn’t go back to it as I’d been there before, but I felt I must go back. I had something to say, and what if I didn’t have long to say it?

What If became my muse.

The poems became fragmented, full of white space.  I broke lines unexpectedly, at least for me. Out of tune, out of sync/syntax. I revised through redaction, cuts, excisions.  Everything seemed relevant and connected, even as everything seemed disjointed. Separate.

Text is solid or liquid, body or blood.1Continue Reading