A Review of “Steal It Back” by Sandra Simonds

9780991545490Sandra SimondsSteal It Back is a call to action for readers and a personal reflection that gives commentary on modern social topics including feminism, capitalism, and motherhood. Simonds takes the reader through her personal journey of stealing “it” back – everything from femininity to power, adventure to vulnerability – and along the way, readers are prompted through Simonds’ breathless, fierce writing to steal “it” back as well – whatever that may be to the reader.

The most unconventional poem of the collection is also one that best encompasses Simonds’ unique style. “Occupying” is a single paragraph that extends nearly seven pages without a single period. Though there is the occasional exclamation point or question mark, the lack of periods adds to Simonds’ quick-paced, intense voice and forces the reader to consume the poem in one breath. Simonds also utilizes repetition effectively in this poem, and in others of the collection. The line, “They are building a Catholic schoolgirl” is repeated throughout the poem. This draws the reader’s attention to Simonds’ idea that “they,” whether it be her parents or another authoritative figure in her life, tried to shape her into a good, Catholic girl, for better or worse. Simonds talks to the reader in meta fashion and seems to be replying to her critics, writing, “Oh you think this is so terrible? Well / you try to write a better one, friend.”

While it may seem like the nonstop, continuous, repetitive nature of such a poem could lose the reader’s interest, Simonds manages to transition between different subjects and scenes seamlessly; she recognizes when the reader’s mind may begin to trail off and regains traction with a fresh image or line.

Simonds’ most effective technique is to juxtapose heavy topics with the everyday. McDonalds, Sephora, and Lady Gaga all make appearances alongside feminism, the monotony of unfulfilling jobs, divorce, and the trials of motherhood. She uses her personal experiences while still relating to the larger issues at hand in the world. In the poem, “I Grade Online Humanities Tests” she writes about her complicated relationship with a mechanic, but also about the larger issue of men feeling entitled to things because they are used to being in power. She writes, “the guns are male because he owns the guns . . . and Home Depot is male because he owns and owns / and owns and all he can do is own / everything that will rot / like privacy or speech or porn or black swans / or my big tits.” While her poetry may have started out for Simonds as a release for her own emotions, she expands and touches on the bigger problems in society that her life experiences bring up.

One aspect of Simonds’ writing that may not appeal to all readers is her tendency to write poems that clearly show a passing of time during her writing process. She separates some of her poems into pieces on different pages and the subject changes slightly on each page. The disconnect suggests that she may have left the poem and returned at a different time to finish it. In “A Poem For Landlords,” Simonds outright states, “I am writing this so fast. / I will not be able to look / back at it but just now / I am looking back at it since I made / dinner and cleaned the house.” Some readers will be turned off by her blatancy in stating these actions and describing her writing process, however, it adds honesty and an interesting pacing of time to the poems. She may also be giving commentary on the futility of poetry in enacting change.

Simonds has created a collection that is not easy to digest, or to forget. By the time the reader reaches the final lines of the book, “I know what is real / and I know how to steal / back what is mine,” they won’t be able to resist the urging of Simonds to do the same.


sandra-simonds About the Author: Sandra Simonds’ poems have been included in the Best American Poetry consecutively in 2014 and 2015, and have appeared in many literary journals. She is an Associate professor of English and Humanities at Thomas University in Georgia, and lives in Tallahassee, Florida.

 

Review of “Yearling” by Lo Kwa Mei-En

Yearling

Yearling is a collection of poetry which delves deep into a complex network of introspective philosophy. Lo Kwa Mei-En wades through incredible, abstract language that leaves the reader to interpret her ambiguous scenes. There are times when the reader feels as if they had been dropped into an unfamiliar jungle, left to fend for themselves. For example, in her poem “The Jubilee Year of the Dead Inside of a Banyan Tree”:

            The underworld is what you thought it’d be,

but not where. We who know not what we are,

tick the record of animal loss off our fingers.

We give names to the faces: badger, black canary,

Mei-En’s style is fragmented and difficult to follow, yet enticing in its abstraction. Her work is dense with allusions to referential stories and animal symbolism. There is a darkness lurking behind every line, a mystery that begs to be discovered, explored, dissected. Mei-En drops the reader off within an unknown point of view. Who is the “you” referring to? What are our expectations of the underworld, and where does it reside? The reader begins asking questions immediately upon entering the first line. By the end of the first stanza, they’re stuck untangling the ambiguous identity of “we” and the purpose of the various animals invoked. But Mei-En does not allow for pause, the reader is whisked immediately into the next stanza. Later in the poem, Mei-En creates a metaphor for her reading audience:

            Oh phoenix. Come brighten. Wade

in the year of your acre and flood, a mere, lit fig

hung from your neck to lantern you back and forth

to a place where we will speak your name again.

Mei-En’s poems, like the banyan trees of her childhood, are “more stranger than strangler,” in that they approach recognizable issues on body image, immigration, and cultural symbolism. However, there are moments when the reader feels lost, like the traveler being led through a flooded field with nothing but a mere fig lantern to guide them.

That poem is but one example within a wonderful collection that begins with the foreshadowing lines “Temper, temper” and ends emphatically with the phrase: “How a wolf watching water is how I want / how I want to love the new apocalypse for good.” By the end of her book, the reader just believes that perhaps the best mindset is to embrace our inner animal and learn to love the pain of the coming apocalypse. Her poems are a mixture of self-deprecating and empowering. Fluctuating from images of imposed sexuality – “I thought myself ready, / restless in the register of hips and eyes” – to moments of empowering femininity – “The body that has something to say / knows better than that. / Lights everything on fire with one hand / and tends coals with the other.” There are moments depicting physical abuse where the narrator seems ambiguous as to her feelings about it. These poems are raw, and they are real. They do not flake away from the messy edges of her experience, nor do they indulge in mainstream Liberal didacticism. If Lo Kwa Mei-En’s poetry could be compared to a breath of fresh air, it would be like the first step out into city pollution after spending all day within a padded, sterile room; the air is dirty. Paradoxically, in her misdirecting metaphors, she reveals herself completely.

Lo Kwa Mei-En’s Yearling shows that she is an incredibly innovative and aspiring talent. She displays a mastery of poetic conventions, causing any sense of narrative to be speculative at best. Her poems are fragmented and rely on parataxis between seemingly abstract images, allowing for ambiguity and multiple readings. However, while this ambiguity is one of her greatest strengths, it also proves to be one of her greatest weaknesses. Mei-En’s poetry, while incredible, is not accessible. Each poem requires contemplation in order to decipher meaning; Mei-En makes no attempt to cater to the reader. Because of this, Mei-En’s poetry remains barred from most audiences, but within this lies her true power. Mei-En does not shy away from her intellectualism. Rather, she fully retreats into her dense, introspective language and provides a portraiture of her unique experience. This is a book of highly philosophical, intellectual poetry which is aimed at likeminded readers. Mei-En’s poetry is difficult in subject-matter and pyrotechnic in form; or, as she would say in her own words: “I’ll keep it real, go / hurt something to love it, real, good, find the center / of aurora in me, the second of ignition.”


lo kwa mei enAbout the Author: Lo Kwa Mei-en is a poet from Singapore and Ohio. Her first book, Yearling, won the 2013 Kundiman Poetry Prize and is available from Alice James Books. The Bees Make Money in the Lion, a new book of poems, won the CSU Poetry Center Open Competition and is available from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Other work includes Two Tales, a chapbook from Bloom Books, and The Romances, a chapbook forthcoming from The Lettered Streets Press.

Review of “There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé” by Morgan Parker

beyonce

Morgan Parker’s work, covering every topic from the first Black President to Beyoncé celebrating Black History Month, is dynamic and intriguing. It’s a testament to how dynamic poetry can be, and is.

The cover itself shows a woman sprawled on a couch with mascara rolling down her face. The image for me shows exactly what happens in the book: a person that is usually seen as a strong powerhouse, broken down and beaten, and shown in a new light.

For example, in the poem “The President Has Never Said The Word Black,” Parker thoughtfully goes through why it hurts so much that the first African American President of the United States never called himself “Black,” or referred to his “brothers and sisters” as “Black.” It’s a powerful piece that really brings to attention what it feels like to be a Black American. It’s also a wonderful example of the pain that can be felt when you don’t get your way, another example of intriguing work.

Another poem that is just as powerful is the piece “Afro.” In it, Parker explains the tragic ups and downs that make up being African American, or Black, in what feels like a mash up of this and the past century. It’s a creative piece, calling on “Auntie Angela,” “Miss Holiday,” “Michael,” and “Dave Chappelle,” all major African American and Black figures of yesterday and today. It’s a powerful piece with a title that evokes thoughts of strife and majesty.

The next poem that really zeros in on what it feels like to be a Black person in today’s society, particularly a woman, is “13 Ways Of Looking At A Black Girl.” The poem is what seems to be a randomized list of terms, names, and phrases that may come to mind when thinking of a Black woman. Parker throws out words and phrases like “dead,” “dying,” “carefree,” and “exotic;” phrases like “chickenhead,” “at risk,” and “I am hungry,” which show the negative and the positive sides of how society looks at a Black girl. Parker then throws in names of women such as Nikki Giovanni, Sandra Bland, Whitney Houston, and Shonda Rhimes. Powerful names. Names of significance to the Black community and society as a whole, again showing the ups and downs of what it is to be a Black woman.

The shortest poem in the book, “Beyoncé Celebrates Black History Month,” is only five lines, two short sentences, that perfectly makes up what it means to hold on to what some people call being “Black,” a term that can be used in both negative and positive terms:

 

I had almost

forgotten my roots

are not long

blonde. I had almost forgotten

what it means to be at sea.

 

As a whole, Parker’s work in the book is thoughtful, kind, yet brutally honest and thought provoking. “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé” is a fantastic read for anyone and everyone. If you’re in the “Beyhive,” don’t be offended at all; it’s a great read about a wonderful person!


Morgan ParkerAbout the Author: Morgan Parker is the author of There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Tin House Books, 2017) and Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books, 2015), which was selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize and a finalist for the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. Parker received her Bachelors in Anthropology and Creative Writing from Columbia University and her MFA in Poetry from NYU. Her poetry and essays have been published and anthologized in numerous publications, including The Paris Review, The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, Best American Poetry 2016The New York Times, and The Nation. Parker is the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment of the Arts Literature Fellowship, winner of a 2016 Pushcart Prize, and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. She is the creator and host of Reparations, Live! at the Ace Hotel in New York. With Tommy Pico, she co-curates the Poets With Attitude (PWA) reading series, and with Angel Nafis, she is The Other Black Girl Collective. She is a Sagittarius, and she lives in Brooklyn.

Ross White Group Interview Part 3

I think all three are born of a curiosity about the human condition and an unflappable belief that it is mutable. Mutable in the sense being apt, and perhaps likely, to change, but also in the sense of being inconstant in one’s affections. Editing is the act of allegiance to a manuscript while pushing for it to become something else, whether that something is a set of copy edits or a change in the project that steers it more clearly toward its true intention. Teaching is the act of allegiance to the student as a person, even as the education you provide changes who that person is. Writing is the act of allegiance to the human experience and a desire to transform it into something new.

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Ross White Group Interview Part 2

Becoming a publisher helped me redefine success in my own writing life. When I was starting out, editors were such mysterious creatures. I would invest a great deal of time in thinking about a journal and what its aesthetic is, agonizing over which of several poems would be the best ones to send in. I would take each rejection as a small failure– and, of course, let those failures pile up. Success seemed so far away.

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Ross White Group Interview Part 1

The press is a happy accident. I was working an office job with two friends, and we discovered blink, a tiny magazine Robert West had published for several years. Though we didn’t know it, the magazine had changed editors and gone defunct. But we were so entranced by it. We wrote to the editor and asked if we could become her staff, we sent in money for subscriptions. Several months passed. We asked again. Nothing. So we wrote to Robert and said, “We’d like to start a magazine like blink. If you’ll share your subscriber list with us, we’ll send our new magazine to them for a year.” He did.

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Review of “Dynamite” by Anders Carlson-Wee

The first poem in Carlson-Wee’s chapbook is titled, “Dynamite” and speaks of a childhood game he and his brother used to play, where everything they threw at each other was dynamite. They would hurl everything from pine cones to choke-chains at each other until they were bruised and bloody.

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Review of “The Anatomist” by Taryn Schwilling

In Taryn Schwilling’s book of poetry The Anatomist, the desire for the body and the desire for knowledge of the body dominate her collection of poems. The detailed descriptions of the human body, as well as graphic descriptions of the bodies of animals in the section “Meats,” sensualize and romanticize parts of the body that are often seen as repulsing. The Anatomist is a must read with its unique writing style, and gripping, forceful imagery.

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Interview with Joshua Robbins

robbinsJoshua Robbins is the author of Praise Nothing (University of Arkansas Press, 2013). His recognitions include the James Wright Poetry Award, the New South Prize, selection for the Best New Poets anthology, and a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship in poetry from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at University of the Incarnate Word. He lives in San Antonio. 


How did you get started writing? And did you always want to be a writer?

I suppose I started writing poems in high school, mostly imitations of Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds, David Bowie lyrics, as well as some fiction/prose modeled after William S. Burroughs and Jean-Paul Sartre. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing in terms of craft, nor did I plan on “becoming a writer.” But I do think those first steps were toward a path of apprenticeship in poetry that began in earnest in college and in my MFA program. I had no sense of writing as career choice until my poetry teacher in college, Laurie Lamon, pulled me aside and told me I could “make a career of poetry.” At the time, I was excited by the notion, but had no idea what that would mean for the future and the trajectory of my life in poetry.

 How long did you have to submit before you were published in a journal? 

I started submitting work in earnest around 2001 when I discovered that my MFA peers were doing so and finding success. I placed my first poem in The Canary River Review (which became The Canary and, later, Canarium Books) in 2002.

What advice do you have for young authors trying to get published?

Wait. Be patient. Don’t submit your work until it’s ready. (You’ll know when that is.) Focus on learning the craft. Read, read, read. Read widely and deeply. I realize none of my answer so far is about actually trying to get published, but I’m reticent to give nuts and bolts advice to young authors because I’ve found that, over the last 5-10 years, undergraduates are incredibly anxious about publishing, which is astonishing to me. It’s a considerable problem with the po-biz and the focus on being a career writer. Believe me: there’ll be plenty of opportunities for worrying and publishing later. Now’s the time for reading and studying, searching your own poetics and voice, figuring it out. But, if you do need me to answer directly, I’d say look to get involved with literary publishers and literary arts organizations in your area. It’s important, I think, to get a sense of how publishing works and how other writers do it. Get involved in your school’s literary arts journal. Put together a reading series with some friends. Share your work in public. Give your poems an opportunity to interact with the community of actual people around you, then you can look to submit for print publication.

 Do you think there are any special challenges associated with getting a poetry book, such as Praise Nothing, published, compared to a novel?

I’ll be honest and tell you that the process for publishing a novel is one I cannot relate to in any way. Sure, it’s all “writing,” but the business end of fiction is wholly different from poetry, for the most part. My fiction-writer friends talk about getting agents and landing contracts, “advances,” which don’t exist in poetry. (Especially the advances.) For me, publishing Praise Nothing was the result of submitting the manuscript to contests over a two-year period. Sometimes I think people don’t realize that, for poets, getting a book published within the contest system can cost a significant sum of money, which also, I think, results in slamming doors in the faces of many writers who can’t afford to participate in the game. It’s really unfortunate.

 Do you have any writing rituals?

I used to get up at 4am every morning, make coffee, and get down to business writing. If I had any “rituals” in the past, I suppose they were more object oriented, more like talismans: a particular coffee mug, earplugs, hooded sweatshirt, a specific pen and notebook. Now that I have children (three boys: 4, 2, and 3 months), time doesn’t afford rituals. Or talismans. I jot notes on whatever’s around: receipts, envelopes, my arm. I’ve recently started making notes in Evernote on my phone and have found that, when I do have an extended period of time to just write, I can get into drafting much more quickly because I already have the raw materials at hand.

Could you explain your writing process to us?

I usually begin drafting longhand in a large notebook or on a legal pad and listening for the emerging language’s cadence and the line’s natural measure. After that, it’s long process of making pass after pass over the poem: counting syllables and scrapping the excess. In the past, I would usually work toward a three- or four- or five-beat line. Now, that’s not so much the case. For me, though, the process of revising is how I come to figure out the poem’s content, movement, figuration, etc., and what questions I want the poem to ask, what arguments I want to make.

 Who or what influences your writing? Do you have literary heroes?

I think influences change over time. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, and Charles Wright, were very important to me when I first started writing. I’d put all of them on my “literary heroes” list. Most recently, I think what influences my poetry most are my readings in theology, particularly in the area of theodicy and theopoetics.

 I noticed that in a few of your poems, religion, specifically heaven, comes up. I noticed this first in “Heaven As Nothing but Distance.” Would you be willing to elaborate on how/why this topic seems to influence some of your writing?

 

I am, quite simply, obsessed with matters of faith and doubt, with what I believe is a broken connection to the transcendent. Always have been. Poetry is my means for considering and examining this struggle. And it’s really the only mode of artistic expression I’ve got. The act of writing, the process, is the means by which I can begin to approach and, maybe, understand the disorder of my day-to-day life and, perhaps, become a means to locate some order, to locate meaning in the confusion and chaos of being.

 


About the author of this post: Nicholas Drazenovic is currently a senior at North Central College and is a co-editor of 30 North. He is studying English with a concentration in Writing, as well as Computer Science. After graduation, he hopes to pursue a career in either technical writing or software development.

Interview with Brittany Cavallaro

cavallaroBrittany Cavallaro is a poet, fiction writer, and old school Sherlockian. She is the author of the Charlotte Holmes novels from HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books, including A STUDY IN CHARLOTTE and THE LAST OF AUGUST (forthcoming in February 2017). She’s also the author of the poetry collection GIRL-KING (University of Akron) and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She earned her BA in literature from Middlebury College and her MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she’s a PhD candidate in English literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband, cat, and collection of deerstalker caps.


How did you get started writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer—I was pretty serious about it from a young age. I attended an arts boarding school and then went on to study writing through undergrad and grad school. I used to be a little concerned that I was missing out by not really exploring other paths, but I’ve come to realize that writing is less of a job and more of a practice, a way you collect and organize your thoughts and obsessions.

What advice do you have for young authors trying to get published?

Focus for as long as you can on perfecting your craft. Read everything. Everything. Try to push yourself in new directions—write formally, write in genres you’re less comfortable in, take in different kinds of art. Try to wait until at least your last semester of undergrad before you’re really pushing to get published, so that you can focus until then on honing your work in a supportive environment.

Who or what influences your writing? Do you have literary heroes?

I think I have a lot of answers to this that aren’t necessarily the ‘right’ answer. I have writers whose work I love and admire—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, obviously, and Daphne du Maurier, John Berryman, A.S. Byatt. But I also read quite a bit of mass market fantasy (Mercedes Lackey, Jacqueline Carey), play a lot of immersive video games whose stories and characters get under my skin (Mass Effect, Bioshock), pull ideas from art history and YouTube and conversations with my husband. I think it’s really important to be honest about what inspires you, to try to be as porous as you can. There’s no reason to restrict yourself to loving things that other people have vetted as ‘important.’

Who are you currently reading that you find exciting?

I’m reading quite a bit of YA right now, which is always fun. I think that Parker Peevyhouse’s Where Futures End is an incredible, George Saunders/David Mitchell-inflected novel, and I really enjoyed Emily Henry’s The Love that Split the World.

Do you have any writing rituals? What does your process look like?

There are definitely things that I like to do or have around me when I’m setting up to write, though I try to be careful not to insist on them. Ultimately, I need to be able to work in a variety of places and situations! But I enjoy writing in my room, on my bed, with a candle burning. I try to light different candles for each project, which helps trigger some kind of sense memory. I also tend to play Dustin O’Halloran’s albums when I’m working—they’re familiar enough now that they serve as a kind of white noise, but they’re also atmospheric. I also do a lot of work in coffee shops, though, in the end, I find that’s better for more administrative tasks (email, email, email).

You’ve recently published your first young adult novel – congratulations! A Study in Charlotte (March 2016, Harpercollins) reimagines the classic tale of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson through the eyes of their young descendants Charlotte and Jamie. Were you a big Doyle fan growing up, or did you discover the fandom later in life?

Definitely a big Doyle fan when I was a kid, though my current obsession with Sherlockiana happened during grad school. I discovered the Granada television adaptation of the stories, and that led me back to the stories themselves. There was so much there. I felt like I could unpack them forever.

What inspired you to retell the story of Sherlock Holmes in a modern context?

Sherlock Holmes, as a character, has been reimagined in so many different ways—adaptations of the Doyle stories are really in vogue right now (though they’ve obviously never not been popular). But even though the story has been recast so many times, I was having a hard time finding an adaptation that was willing to imagine the genius as a woman. Which is crazy to me. When I have trouble finding a particular story, I try my hand at writing it. In the Charlotte Holmes books, I wanted to recast the detective as a troubled, morally ambiguous genius who happened to be a teenage girl, and then imagine how her life would be different because of it.

What do you want young readers to take away from A Study in Charlotte?

More than anything, I want to tell a good story that’s both an homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a feminist reworking of his stories. If A Study in Charlotte sends readers looking for the original Sherlock Holmes tales, I feel like I’ve done my job!


About the author of this post: Crystal Ice is a junior at North Central College where she studies English Writing, and is currently considering a program in Writing, Editing, & Publishing. A budding author, she enjoys writing in her spare time, and maintains two blogs while working on one of her many novels and poems.