REVIEW: Tradition by Daniel Khalastchi


by Eric Howerton

No one can accuse Daniel Khalastchi’s second collection of poetry—provocatively named Tradition—of failing to fully embrace its post-modern conceit. At times the risks in Tradition reward the tolerant reader’s pathos, but mostly these poems tickle our sly, inner appreciation for the unanticipated chaos of modern life.

Comprised by mostly narrative poems, this collection is unflinching in its satire from the very first poem to the tongue-in-cheek cover, which features the visage of a rather stern-looking, hatted Hasidic gentleman with the word “tradition” angularly lacing throughout his beard. Rather than revering tradition and the time-honored customs of yesteryear, Khalastchi’s work labors to dismantle the very notion of tradition so as to scrutinize tradition’s relevance amidst the instability of an ever-fluxing, ever-diversifying world, a world where the need for arch-narratives and moral templates seems waning, unwanted and anti-progressive.

The traditions Khalastchi most often deflates are those of Judaism, most notably Jewish conversions for marriage purposes, which here more resemble a weekend with your dilettantish uncle than anything having to do with spiritual tutelage. If the cover of the collection doesn’t communicate a tone of near-total irreverence, Khalastchi ensures that no one misses out on the joke immediately in the collection’s first poem, “I Want Jew So Badly”:

The conversion Rabbi comes to my door holding
a box of unwrapped dildos and a wood-handled

cement chisel…

The conversion Rabbi and his convert appear regularly throughout the collection, though they won’t be caught doing anything remotely “orthodox.” While readers might expect the conversion poems to address the difficulty of reading and speaking Hebrew, familiarizing oneself with holy texts, or psychologically preparing for certain dietary prohibitions, these poems instead show the Rabbi and his ward receiving facials at the Clinique counter and shopping at Costco, as well as committing crimes in public restrooms. While each of the conversion Rabbi poems has a rather unfortunate pun as its title (e.g. “Jew and I Travel to the Beat of a Different Drum,” “Lover, Jew Should Have Come Over,” etc), they do float above their comic origins by asking whether modern consumer behaviors have loosely become traditions in and of themselves? And if so, are these traditions any less deterministic or confining than the antiquated moral restrictions openly mocked elsewhere in the book?

Khalastchi takes jabs not only preservation of tradition, but at its evolution too. How tradition interfaces with and is warped by modern preoccupation is perhaps the collection’s chief concern. In a moment where the Rabbi and his convert are discussing burial practices, the Rabbi offers a startlingly contradictory consolation in order to procure a sale:

When you stop shaking
we can go to the basement and I’ll teach you how to knock clean

Hebrew names into the dark marble of a headstone. Plus,
he says, removing a blueprint of black x’s and circles

from his satin breast pocket, if you commit to buying
your cemetery plot today, I’ll let you sleep for ten

minutes believing in the resurrection.…

For as many blows as it takes, religion is not the only target of ironic entanglement here, as Khalastchi is an equal-opportunity lampooner. In the midst of poems that poke fun at religious practice and custom, Poetry with a capital P receives just as must criticism for the assertion of its own dogmas.

For example, many of Khalastchi’s poems bite their thumb at what most readers and writers of poetry have been taught to regard as “rules” that should be broken only with ample justification. Khalastchi often abandons the strategic use of enjambment as emphasis or to double a line’s meaning, and instead bluntly ends his lines on articles (a, the) and prepositions (on, to) that do little to reinforce a poem’s theme. The aesthetic inclusion of a clumsy tedium does not, however, mean that the poem itself becomes uninteresting or fails to accomplish its aim simply because its enjambment is not of a “recommended” variety. Rather, these poems present themselves as aggressivity in the face of tradition and orthodox method, as alternatives to blind adherence and stylistic rigidity. The 28-line poems that Khalastchi dubs “sonnets” earn their titles by positing romance, however these poems intentionally lack strict meter and make more turns than a revolving door. Time shifts and time leaps that might be a turn in a 14-line sonnet here serve to reemphasize the fact that everything is always turning all the time, always moving away from the patterns of what was into the patterns of what will be. The traditions of tomorrow will be born from the same mouth that chewed on, deformed, and spit out the gummy traditions of today.

For Khalastchi, that rules and traditions exist at all seems to be the only justification needed for breaking them. But to what end? Perhaps in order to assert that the rules are not always broken in the same way, that there are both reckless and systematic ways of bucking the norm.

Still, breaking the rules for breaking-the-rule’s sake begs the question of whether or not a rejection of tradition—wholesale or partial—is an act of liberating oneself from the arbitrary binds of time, history, and the inheritances left to us by the zealous, controlling dead? And if so, once one dispenses with the supposed value tradition, do the world and its movements fatalistically slip into a morass of symbolical emptiness and nihilistic solipsism?

The answer to these questions, I would argue, appears in the numbered “Poems for My Father,” in which the speaker addresses his Jewish father’s exodus from Iraq, a journey necessitated by frightening religious persecution. For nine consecutive poems, Khalastchi’s project pauses the satire and hones in on the historical realities of lived, human experience instead of hyperbolic satires.

When Khalastchi writes in the acknowledgments that “dissonance is an integral part of harmony,” it seems as though he’s speaking directly to the tonal incompatibility between “Poems for My Father” and the rest of the collection. The collection is worth reading for these nine poems alone, as they stand out as the most politically significant, culturally sensitive, sincere, and meaningful poems in the collection; however, their importance wouldn’t be emphasized as such if not surrounded by poems that showcased the extreme and comic manifestations of the “modern traditions” like late-stage capitalism, liberal individualism, and sexual liberation to name a few.

The poems in “Poems for My Father” are a dissenting voice in a collection that largely mocks tradition, and perhaps this caveat is intended to remind us that for those who suffer persecution because of their traditions, tradition cannot be a laughing. As a marker of identity, affiliation with tradition is often involuntary, which means that persecution may be unavoidable despite what one actually believes or practices. Khalastchi powerfully writes of the danger unfurled when traditions grow intolerant of one another in “II.”

You walked until morning. The city was
swollen in throngs of long cotton and the

souqs became veined with lines for raw
meat. Standing in garbage, you needed

new clothes. Back at your house, a police-
man was waiting with sandals by the

door. He asked for ID and if you were
Jewish. From your wallet fell pictures

of a well-dressed man. Before taking you
away, the officer spoke to an onlooking

neighbor. What she said in her garden let
him let you go.

After a series of prolonged gags, Khalastchi reminds us that laughing can itself be a privilege, and it is privilege alone that allows us to question the value of or roll our eyes at tradition. By recognizing this privilege in light of traditional habits, Khalastchi helps us see that—for all its absurdities, hypocrisies, and inequities—the perseverance of tradition both endangers and strengthens us as a people. At the same time, tradition mocks us for participating in retrogrades, while also adding gravity to customs that would—without the context of other people having done the same thing for hundreds if not thousands of years—seem crushingly and foolishly quaint.

Tradition is available from McSweeney’s

Eric Howerton writes fiction, cooks mushrooms, gardens, practices screaming, collects masks, plays poker, skis, and does not believe in the ontology of half sandwiches. His writing has appeared/is forthcoming in PANK, The Locust, Plaza,theNewerYork, The Legendary, Dying Goose, The Higgs Weldon, Night Train, Grey Sparrow, Duck and Herring Pocket Field Guides, Johnny America, and Haggard and Halloo, as well as several alt-weeklies in Texas and New Mexico. He is a former fiction editor of Gulf Coast Magazine.



introduction by Christopher Soto

The first time that I heard TC Tolbert read was in April 2015 at the Poetry Project in NYC. He asked me (and several friends in the audience) to recite excerpts from a long poem with him. I had no clue who else was speaking with me or where they sat. As the event began, different voices from throughout the audience started erupting from wall to wall (in conversation with TC). The voices kept growing in number and frequency as the reading progressed. By the end of the reading all of the voices were overlapping one another in chorus, in community, in chaos. All of these voices in the room were united by TC and singing with him in an orchestra of pain.

TC Tolbert is the author of Gephyromania (Ahsahta Press, 2014). He is also the author of two chapbooks I:Not He:Not I (Pity Milk Press, 2014) and territories of folding (Kore Press, 2011) and a chaplet spirare (Belladonna* 2012). TC Tolbert is co-editor, along with Trace Peterson, of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry & Poetics (Nightboat Books, 2013). TC Tolbert is a genderqueer, feminist poet, and teacher committed to social justice. He currently teaches in the Low Residency MFA program at OSU-Cascades. This interview will discuss TC’s reading at the Poetry Project, his latest book, and work in the trans poetry community.


CS: Can you tell us about your reading at the Poetry Project. How you decided to organize your set and why?

TC: I like the words you used to describe it – orchestra, chorus, conversation. And a conversation is nothing if not partial improvisation and when we enter into one, we accept that we must be flexible, porous, able to be changed. I’m less interested in giving a reading and more interested in sharing an experience with an audience – a conversation. For the last 2 years or so, I’ve committed to myself that I will not give readings but I will engage in site and audience-specific collaborations. This developed as a result of working with Movement Salon, a Compositional Improvisation collective I’ve been with for about 7 years. We compose together in the moment to create dynamic, complex, and fully realized pieces without rehearsal or planning and this practice has taught me to pay attention to the intersections of text, body, architecture, and space in ways that readings often don’t. Also, I’m exhausted by the idea of “performing” and I resent any experience in which I am expected to entertain. I want to feel people with me. Also, I grew up Pentecostal and the sound of speaking in tongues has always delighted and terrified me.

The Poetry Project readings happen at a church so I wanted to bring in the experience of chorus and glossolalia, the beautiful and the unspeakable. I also think of church as the place where I’ve experienced some of the worst pain of my life and the most intense healing. The arc of the evening was built around a challenge to god, which is another way of saying it was a prayer and a wish: Here, you hear this? The sexual abuse I endured as a kid – the abuses that so many children endure – the schism of gender identity – the horror of suicidal ideation – the realization of the violence I am not separate from – the all out war against trans and gender non-conforming folks (primarily trans women of color) – where the fuck are you? All of my work is, when it comes down to it, really just a practice of trying to find god in the midst of suffering.

CS: I was particularly interested in your choice to recite the names of our trans sisters,

brother, siblings (who have been murdered). This is not something that either of us take lightly. What response do you want from the audience? Is there a call to action?

TC: YES – I WANT THE AUDIENCE TO MAKE IT STOP. I WANT THEM TO QUIT LISTENING POLITELY AND I WANT THEM TO DO EVERYTHING IN THEIR POWER (including but not limited to donating large amounts of money to TWOC orgs like Trans Women of Color Collective or any of these other direct support networks for trans women) TO MAKE THAT LIST OF NAMES COME TO AN END.

I chose to have the names read throughout the piece because this violence is largely unseen and unacknowledged yet it is utterly brutal and endless. Because even though most people in that room are protected from this information, it is still happening. And if all of the folks in the audience are going to support a white trans guy by listening to his poems, they damn well better realize that that one act is not enough to be an actual ally. IF WE ARE NOT ACTIVELY SUPPORTING TWOC IN LIVING FULL LIVES, WE ARE COMPLICIT IN THE VIOLENCE AGAINST THEM.

CS: At the reading (which was mostly cisgender white folks) you had your shirt taken off, exposing your chest. There is a lot of emotional labor involved with being a visibly trans person (both inside / outside community). How do you prepare to be so physically and emotionally vulnerable in a space? Why might such vulnerability be necessary?

TC: I was born female and about 9 years ago I transitioned to something less visibly female. And I often need and want to declare this publicly for many reasons. Regardless of previous visible embodiments and regardless of my own psychic and emotional connection to the skin I live in underneath these clothes – I’m also a white passing trans guy and that affords me a ton of privilege I didn’t have before taking testosterone. In other words, transition, for me at least, was participation in erasure. Some parts of my corporeal text have been made invisible while other parts seem to have become more clear. And I have questions about that erasure. Is transitioning a way of killing myself? If I have ostensibly erased Melissa in order to make visible TC, what other kinds of violence am I capable of? Am I, as a trans man, degrading women simply through the acts of transition (“acts” because there are many, both repetitive and cumulative, somehow seemingly never ending)? To present my particular acts of transition as a simple resilience narrative feels insincere, too neat. And although I am ambivalent about how transitioning has not just figuratively, but literally, saved me – I don’t take either my history or my current context lightly. All of this to say: my poems and my experiences and my love for the world – all of these things come from my body. And while I spend most of my time in public trying to force that body into a version of embodiment that feels safe – it would have felt like a lie to be that protected during that particular experience.

How do I prepare to be physically and emotionally vulnerable? Honestly, I pray for an open heart. I pray to be present. Pema Chödrön says: “Our own suffering, if we turn toward it, can open us to a loving relationship with the world. In that instance, removing my shirt was a way to turn toward suffering and open myself up.

CS: I’d like to talk a bit about the body in your work. Of all the references that you had to the body, I was most intrigued by your relationship to the knees. The knees as a site of

prayer (and penance), pleasure (oral sex), the knees as a reoccurring site of submission to rise from. It was interesting for me to think about the knees in relationship to the conversations about gender throughout your book. Can you elaborate?

TC: The knees are very important to me as a site of resistance and surrender. Multivalence. Yes – it seems to me there is something about one’s relationship to the knees that insinuates gender (or at least gendered expectations) in all of the ways you listed – penance, submission, pleasure. Who gets to feel pleasure when one is on the knees? Who has power? Who can be broken and who needs to be forgiven? Knees also indicate motion – or at least the possibility of motion. Every bend in the body, a turning. The knees also make possible the liminal space between prostrate and standing. In most of my life I feel as though I live there (and I don’t imagine this is unique to my trans embodiment – perhaps this is just embodiment, generally speaking) – in the motion of rising and supplicating simultaneously.

CS: Your book, as a tangible object, felt like a bridge in itself (referencing the title, Gephyromania). The font was constantly shifting size and shape. The book could be read vertically and horizontally. I was always traveling from one place (one experience) to the next. Can we talk about aesthetic choices?

TC: Gephyromania literally means an addiction to or an obsession with bridges. Bridges, themselves, are so many things: a musical interlude, a passage over, a joining, a contrast, a way across.

I wrote this book because I kept losing track of the differences between us. The woman I was in love with was leaving. I was beginning to transition away from visibly female to something the world would call “man.” Who was disappearing? Who was showing up? Gephyromania was written between bodies – between who I loved and who was leaving, between who I was and who I would become.

The poems started as a notebook with the word “bridge” written across it. I was wicked sad. I was so tired of talking about me/her/us. My friends were tired of hearing about me/her/us. I needed a place to put me/her/us down. I needed something else to carry us/her/me.

For a long time I’ve been more interested in the form a poem takes than it’s content. That might be an overstatement but it’s at least true that I’m as interested in the form as I am the content. So, even though I have a trans and genderqueer narrative and some of these poems are explicitly about that, most are trying to work that out through form while talking about love. And maybe the body is just love made visible anyhow.

I see the page as a body and how I have used that body, or it has used me, for experimentation, silence, shape, music, rupture, image, etc. interests me. It is, undoubtedly, experiments in poetry and with language that led me to and into and through my transition – which is something I’m still in and probably will be forever – there is no endpoint, as far as I can tell, to the transitioning body – and so even what I’m writing today (9 years into my transition), I see as a formal representation of my gender. My question is always: how to get the body in the poem, how to find my body on the page.

The writing is the body :: the freedom is the constraint.

I feel like I’m always thinking about silence and white space. At a time when I felt like I was leaking out everywhere, my breasts constantly spilling out of my shirt, my voice undermining any attempts to pass – I wrote territories of folding – and you can see how I was aching for silence – to be smaller and smaller (to have a smaller and smaller voice but, perhaps, to begin to learn to take up more space?) – and then to succumb to the page. And then take the sonnet crown. How I would vacillate between needing this expansive silence, white noise to swallow me whole, and then composing these tightly wound 3-5 page poems. How I needed the rigor, the dancing in a straight jacket of form. 7 sonnets back to back, the last line of one becoming the first line of the next until the last line of the poem curls back to the first line of the first sonnet – the form seems to evolve back into itself. I push out against that always while also willingly taking it on – so there is tension that interests me – the tension between holding and being held – sense and perhaps not sense – music and not music – the story of the thing and the embodiment of the thing and the thing itself and then the hand.

CS: Are you currently working on a second book? What should we expect thematically, stylistically?

TC: Yes, I’m working on several somethings but I’m very unsure of where or how they will bear (bare?) themselves finally to me or the world. Part of me just wants to leave it at that. But I also feel like this unknown territory – the process of risking and failing – is important, so I’ll share some of what I’m wading through.

I’ve been thinking a lot about whiteness as erasure. A culture of silence. And how when white people don’t talk about racism or transphobia, when we talk about other things, we are committing an erasure of what is always happening – which is to say violence against trans people and people of color. And I am thinking through that in my work (which isn’t limited to poetry or even writing, really). Maybe it’s more accurate to say that my life project is to work through these realities.

So, one thing I’m working on is a series of hybrid essays. I’m not a theorist, or rather, critique is just my affection in drag. Utilizing elements of poetry, research, and personal narrative, I think of these essays as embodied meditative investigations on the trans body – my trans body – and its relationship to architecture, intimacy, and public space. They are, to me, genderqueer bodies, much like my physical genderqueer body – nonlinear, dynamic, a kind of textual bricolage, sometimes awkward or halting, passing as narrative at one turn, then full of ruptures in logic, vulnerable and visible and joyously so.

Lately I’m realizing that all of the work that interests me is collaborative. I need you (the reader) to make sense of who I am or what I’m doing. This is similar, I think, to how we collaborate to create meaning from each of our gender expressions and identities, trans or not. But public space is often a dangerous place for trans and genderqueer bodies (most brutally, bodies that either cannot or do not wish to be invisible, and specifically the bodies of trans women of color). What could be collaboration, or celebration, becomes violence, oppression, and control. My hope is that reading (and writing) these essays is a practice in shifting that dynamic. That we can play, be curious, wander among tangents, delight in the previously undefined, decorate, find connections where they are not obvious, unhinge our expectations, say yes to what we don’t yet know.

In this way, I want to celebrate trans and genderqueer bodies – how we pass and sometimes don’t, how we spill over, slip, call out, miss the point. These essays don’t defend anything or even prove a good point. They bump into things. They might make illegible what was just starting to come into focus. They are rigorous but they refuse to pass. They “fail, for sure.

The other thing I’m working on is a series of erasures of news reports about the violent deaths of trans peoplenews reports that show us this violence is primarily enacted against trans women of color. In the first 3 months of 2015, ten trans people – almost all of whom were trans women of color – were murdered here in the US. According to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, a trans person – again, almost always a trans woman of color – is murdered every other day worldwide. In 2014, the total number of reported murders was 226. 1612 murders have been reported since 2008. It’s also worth noting that these are only the reported numbers. In the first 3.5 months of 2015, at least 10 trans youth have died by suicide.

By erasing these reports, I hope to deal with this atrocity head-on, with a deep awareness of my own and other trans people’s vulnerability – while also acknowledging my white skin and passing privilege and how this has actually given me access to a vulnerability and resilience narrative that QTPOC may not have access to. In other words, I am suddenly a marketable trans body – often positioned as a version of trans success – but this does not mean that my trans siblings are ever, even in the most “progressive” spaces, safe. As Adam Phillips points out in an essay on agoraphobia, “James’ open space is full of potential predators, but in Freud’s open space a person may turn into a predator.” In these acts of erasure I am thinking about who my potential predators are and what kind of predator I may be.

But I also don’t think it’s enough to call out privilege and power. I want to expose sites of privilege and vulnerability while also inspiring action and connection. I also want to insist that trans writing and trans lives must be able to become more than documented suffering. Healing, I think, is too lofty. But relationship. M. NourbeSe Philip said at the most recent &Now conference: “Poetry generates relationships” and that’s really my goal. Touching people seems to be the best I can do.

CS: Lastly, you’re very involved in the trans poetry community (having co-edited Troubling the Line). Are there any poets or upcoming projects that we should know about?

TC: I want to mention two authors here whose work I was introduced to after Troubling the Line came out. Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s book I’m alive/it hurts/I love it is un-fucking-believably good. I also love Jos Charles’ poems and their thinking and I hope they have a book out soon. I feel incredibly lucky to read and learn from these two.

CS: Closing thoughts?

TC: Thank you, my friend, for these questions. And for giving me the space to continue to think carefully and critically about my work, its intention, and its reception. Lord knows interviewing folks is an invisible labor of love and I appreciate you taking this time with me.

Christopher Soto (aka Loma) is a queer latin@ punk poet and prison abolitionist.  They have poems, essays, and book reviews published in print and online. They edit Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color with the Lambda Literary Foundation. They are an MFA candidate in poetry at NYU and the 2014-2015 intern at Poetry Society of America. In 2015, they co-founded the Undocupoets Campaign (with Javier Zamora and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo) to protest the discriminatory guidelines which many publishers used, barring undocumented people from applying to first book contests. They currently reside in Brooklyn but will soon be moving to the Bay Area.

REVIEW: Think Tank by Julie Carr

think tank

by Whitney Kerutis

Think Tank is a compilation of untitled poems that work on the individual level as well as a whole, resulting in a book of multiplicity. Reading Carr’s new collection is like being a child in a long corridor of locked doors, jiggling handles. It is in Carr’s axial lines that we, the reader, reach the door that flings itself open onto ’These aimless realms of privacy.’

And it is not just the reader that acts as the intruder onto the inner self, but also the poems themselves, lying both within and outside of the words, “streaks of water between panes of glass.” The words are both present and ever throwing themselves backwards to create a state of being in the real and in the blended frames of a dream where the child-like curiosity and over exposed mind are resolved.

Through her exquisitely stark coupling of household and soul, the images of body within this work act as mediators between the two frames –

My mother wrapped me in a towel and carried me from one room
to another, combed my hair under a lamp
Her wind is taken. Her soil turned. The infinite lines. The infinite lines
The non-infinite
Ocean. O—


A bit of peel, a bit of hardened peel, is my face
This speaker likes obsolescence, for there is no way to mimic what has
been taken from us
I walk around, constructing, for my mother, thermal videos with my
        own body

— and we begin to sense a book of attempted resolution between the binaries of the poet: the woman and the girl, the mother and the daughter, the artist and the citizen.

Joyousness fled, sex fled: something had to restore these things
        civic volunteer plum trees, like grieving orphans, defended nothing

And yet, these resolutions arrive in great pleasure, the lines, mimicking the book’s title, act as the belly of thought, their pacing music driving us from one image to the next until we are breathing the poem.

a headlock is to a hat as a tourniquet to a condom
a headlock is to a hat as knife to tongue

What might be most commendable about this work is its expansive leaps of imagination within such an economy of space. Every line in this book is a pulsating engine, pulling the reader’s mind further into its own field of imagination, further into the poet’s chalk like mind that bleeds together color, memory and space within the images and music it weaves.

Orchid blooming
in the bed
                She’s alone now, the littlest one, though she doesn’t know it yet.


Banter trees and blowsy blooms, my eyes are drained of their pupils week six of rotting mouth, and my erotic fantasies focus inward:
        the edge of the edge of the knee.

Julie Carr’s, Think Tank, straddles the real and the fantasy, producing a text that disengages from itself before returning once more. The words that move the reader from the multiple minds of the poet are themselves far from arbitrary. This book succeeds in its ability to be ever morphing itself into meanings.

Think Tank is available from Solid Objects.

Whitney Kerutis is from Arizona. She received a Bachelor’s of Arts in English with a minor in French and Creative Writing from The Unviersity of Arizona and will be attending the MFA program for Creative Writing in the genre of poetry at The University of Colorado Boulder in the Fall 2015. 

REVIEW: The 8th House by Feng Sun Chen

the 8th house

by J. Fossenbell

I’d never been to the 8th House before—I didn’t even really know what it was, before I read this book. Or rather, I knew it but didn’t know its name.

The stutter verges on the 8th house
when I become unrecognizable as a person

The 8th of the 12 houses in Vedic astrology is not where you would want to live, but it’s essential to occupy and have occupied it: the home of life, death, and rebirth. You emerge from it bloody and tingling. Not renewed in any traditional sense, not absolved, not any of the adjectives we might associate with being reborn, but with eyes burned/aching, you come out “SHINY AND DISLOCATED AND GRATEFUL.”

Feng Sun Chen’s latest collection of poems traces an enclosed space of intimacy that invites you in—not like sex (though there’s sex here, too) but primarily like inhabiting/invading the wet cavities of a massive, contaminated body in a darkly domestic and sincerely spiritual way.

It is stupid to escape the self
The real self wants to be ruptured

The speaker is equal parts human and animal, stupid and divine, full of longing and compassion, grieving the dissolution of the self that can only express itself in failed dualities and broken language(s). Thoughts are de/formed through the language that births them, already dumb translations from another realm into the sphere of the mouth, tongue, breath, utterance. The speaker asks, “Is it because we have two eyes that we can only see two things?

From the first long poem “[I AM THE MIDAS]”, with its initial six pages SHOUTED as if from a splintered dais in some hyper/surreal amphitheater of cruelty, Chen stumbles into sudden possession of revelations.


Nascence, or the need for it, is at the core of many of these poems’ energy—both the unbearable emptiness of “epidemic” infertility, and also the frightening and beloved fetuses that can’t or won’t come, the lost Suns of “mary. There’s a sense here of the utterly impossible task of either forming or being a perfect body.

I am desperate for a fetus.
To be a soft stomach bloated with sea life
cannibalistic like a virgin.
I will walk on the black shore with my child
still shiny with mucus and blind

The speaker’s drift across registers and spiritual states ranges from the corporeal Peg to the transcendent mary, with many others in between. Peg/Peggy is never fully revealed or explained, but reminds me of the dead pig tree and “I’m OK, I’m Pig!” of Kim Hyesoon, the only person Chen directly names in her acknowledgements. Her references to the little Pegs carry in them a deadly serious joke on the nature of consciousness and communication, and what it means to be a gratuitous human. Pegs/pigs are sentient, except as pork, and in both forms make repeated appearances throughout these poems.

The Three Little Pegs is a love story
What story isn’t about longing
Even a story with no plot is about longing
Perhaps it has forgotten what it longs for
long before what we have forgotten is forgot

Peg becomes a surface where Chen carefully stacks some of her most allusive linguistic pick-up sticks. But even her LOL non-sequiturs and base puns are more than just punchlines; they’re another kind of rite.

I am a Peg when I copulate.
It is difficult to be sincere while Pegulating.

The shame of both animal urges and human sentiment—of the drives to eat, piss, and screw; and to love, be loved, remember, and prayis another major emotional project here. The speaker often confesses to feeling ashamed, but it’s a fearless shame without embarrassment.

I am being watched
even when the eyes
of the world have been burnt
in fact that is when I am most base

In this spiritual logic, bodiesbelong to evil, cruelty” and only the ways our bodies are broken belong to us.So disease is proof of self, though it is a contaminated self. And good doesn’t lie inopposition to evil here, but next to its sister in suffering, who deserves our compassion.

After so long, I believe in demons because I saw one.
It was weak from pain, a universe of pain
lying next to me.
I felt for it
and stroked its face.

Another of the speaker’s modes is mary, a name almost a reference to the Holy Mother, but which mostly flattens to a common noun, which is always just out of reach, being reached for and missed. Yet strangely, these moments are some of the most devastating and disarming for me. While the animalistic Peg seems like it should be easier to touch, it feels more distant than the abstract and agonizing quietude of mary.

Suddenly I have insides that have contacted me, they say mary
mary slipped through my fingers
dried into gray crust.

Also present here is a shade of Aase Berg’s “black shell” from Dark Matter: a calling of names and feeding of bodies into machinations of history and death. Only this is a kind of modified death, death with a prefix—superdeath, maybe, or psychedeath. Uncannily cute drawings of little maggots clump on the pages and cover, plus a stray fly or two (art by Josh Wallis). The maggots remind me more and more as I read of miniature dumplings that I want to pop into my mouth, because in the emotional logic of these poems, consuming is similar to prayingan act as embodied as it is transcendent. It’s in the fat of the pork, which is both salvation on a cellular level and a ritualistic return to the fucked-up stupid joy and terror of being a person. It’s pure, even in its gross impurity.

All I wanted, I still want.
I still want to be filled with the richest light.

These are poems that will pierce and rupture your mental plane. Its sun will shine light on the blood it draws. Immaculate porcine ghosts and black angels will haunt you. This is a calling out, and despite the speaker’s resignation, or her insistence that, as a poet, she has no historical power, she is not powerless. Her insides are contacting you and sending you an urgent message. Listen. You can laugh, but in laughing wonder what you’re holding back.

I want blood to splatter from my mouth when I speak
Because sharing is caring

Available from Black Ocean.

J. Fossenbell lives in Minneapolis, where she reads and writes poetry and stuff, and teaches fresh snowmen to stop making sense.

INTERVIEW: r. erica doyle


Introduction by Christopher Soto

This interview is loosely transcribed from an in-class discussion at NYU with r. erica doyle on Monday August 13, 2015. The instructor of the course is Eileen Myles. Most questions in the interview were asked by students. In the transcription below, questions and answers are rearranged from how they originally appeared (in oration).

r. erica doyle is the author of proxy (Belladonna*, 2014). proxy was honored by the Poetry Society of America with the Norma Farber First Book Award. proxy was also a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. r. erica doyle’s poetry and fiction appear in various journals, including Ploughshares, Callaloo, Bloom, From the Fishouse, Blithe House Quarterly and Sinister Wisdom. She is a Cave Canem fellow, born in Brooklyn to Trinidadian immigrant parents.

[Proxy] is a very durable, moving, book that you’ve written. Do you have another book coming?

Well, I’m that person that has multiple projects, so when I was sending [Proxy] out I also had two other manuscripts floating around that were newer. And now I have a bunch of even stuff that I’m working on still. I also write prose. I have a novel that I’m working on, essays, etc. So, yea I have a few other projects. Two are finished though. So I’m thinking that I’ll revisit them this summer and then we’ll see what happens. And they’re different; they’re really different from [Proxy].

How do you decide the form of your poems?

This project started as a found poem from A Tour of the Calculus. That found poem has become the epigraphs in the book. I built everything else around that [found] poem. I started writing [Proxy] in 2001. The work really shifted [from the found poem] when I was living on Bleeker Street, when 9/11 happened, and taking an amazing workshop with Patricia Smith. She told us to write about something that’s taboo, to you. Not something that’s gunna shock my mother kind of taboo, but something that feels really fucked up to you… And that actually the genesis of this book… When I initially started writing this poem, it looked like one long stanza and then I backed away and started to chop at it and play with the pronouns.

I was thinking about the position of the “you.” Sometimes the “you” felt like a prop to the speaker and sometimes the “you” felt so intimate. I was wondering who the “you” might be?

I think that you’ve captured that really well. The you is all of that, it’s zooming in, it’s zooming out. It’s a proxy for so many things, it shifts in the book. Sometimes it shifts back and it’s more composite and sometimes it shifts in and it’s being more intimate and really as pseudonym for “I.”
Then sometimes, it actually means “us.” And one of the things that we talked about in the editing process, is what is the experience. How close is the experience of the reader in different parts of the book? And that was one of my organizing principles, as well as the journey. So it [proxy] became less linear and more about the vulnerability and intimacy.

Can you tell us more about the placement of calculus in the poems?

I’m actually a black geek. I’m really into sci-fi and fantasy. My mother was a scientist, she was an electrical engineer and so I’ve also been into scientifical explanations of the world. I was really interested in A Brief History of Time when it came out. I am constantly reading things like that by myself… So at the time [in 2001], I had started to read about mathematics and biographies of mathematicians more. Someone had then recommended A Tour of the Calculus to me and I was like, OH MY GOD THIS IS MY LIFE. So that’s when I said, okay, if I were to translate this language [from A Tour of the Calculus] into poetry. What would that look like? Because you know, mathematics is just another language.

How did you decide what to cut or keep from your book?

It was really about the strength of the language and the image. At one point I was teaching middle school in the Bronx and that started entering my work. But that does not belong in this book, those weird notes from the kids, all the things they would say. I would tell myself “Yes, this belongs in the books because it’s in the same style”. But it just wasn’t part of the integrity of the book. Those cuts were all edits that I had made, prior to having the book over to the publishers. This book had probably been around for about four years before reaching them… You know, sometimes you have lines that you like but you have to let them go. You can tell when it’s not part of the book… I had really spent a lot of time with this work and had pared it down. So I wasn’t enamored with keep work just because it was stylistically good, I had to consider how the whole manuscript fit together… As I got to be a better writer, I could start seeing what to cut. I really learned a lot from Dawn Lundy Martin, her economy. She is very economical with words, very careful, very deliberate. She edits as she writes. She would be writing and crossing out, writing and crossing out. She taught me how to be intentional and not to be so flippant.

I’m wondering, did you write this as a chronicle [in order] or how did this process come about for you?

So, it started as a chronicle and then transformed into something else. In the end, it is completely out of the order in which I wrote it. The sections really helped me manage the order and composition of the book, thinking of each section as an experience. At first, I started with five sections and then it became six. I was trying to make sure that everything inside each section fit, according to the experience which I was describing. It started chronologically but then it began to bifurcate. Then I ended up arranging it differently as a manuscript. Sometimes I’ll jump around and read the sections out of order.

What are the influences for your book?

I was interested in the ways that an intimate act, sex, can actually not be intimate. And all of the different ways that we use sex. And having that conversation about women who are having sex with one another because that was definitely taboo… One of my influences was the lesbian sex wars because there was a whole agenda about the types of things that we can talk about, the kind of sex that we can have, or even just having a conversation about the expectations around sex. There were all of these performances about what we were doing and how we were supposed to be with each other. And we weren’t, sometimes, treating each other that well. I wanted to explore the ways that we use sex and why we might be using them that way. I was mucking around in that—how when you’re in an emotional relationship with someone else. And they’re completely not there. They’re not having that experience with you. And we have to compassionate about that, in spaces with humans, we just can’t assume…

Proxy is available from Belladonna*

REVIEW: Apologies by Kristin P. Bradshaw


by Nicky Tiso

In her 2014 Burning Deck book Apologies, divided into two sections (drafts 1-73 and drafts 75-123), the question for language artist Kristin P. Bradshaw is what are we sorry for: “a new religion? a social-political discourse? a queer’s life?,” the back cover probes. This frank discussion of religion, politics, and sexuality is handled much more allusively inside the book, where “exploded” free-verse lyric stanzas, reminiscent of Sappho, smolder. Tracing a spirit, a longing, across personas, in Apologies “an I acts out in turns / each refraction of a Self,” in the form of poems framed like journal entries, like love letters, like laundry lists, and other marginalia, with both the sense of being quickly jotted and yet meticulously arranged. Like Susan Howe, Bradshaw combines historical scholarship and experimental poetics into a powerful lyric current. In its grip, erasure and fragment form a Jabèsian commentary on absence, exile, and nomadism (13):


With an abstract determination, Apologies moves across imaginary topographies towards the codified sunset. Poems like “for Oregon” invoke the landscape of the American dream in relation to “referents, saddened” by proximity to war and economic decline, while locating “hope in the space between” these outsourced atrocities, where a quiet confessional resolve, “hungry and tired and in need of water,” tries to find what it means to be American.

Of course, movement itself is American, as Gertrude Stein noted in her nonstop prose in The Making of Americans:

I am always trying to tell this thing that a space of time is a natural thing for an American to always have inside them as something in which they are continuously moving.

So I see similarly American existential momentum in Apologies, like when Bradshaw’s narrator writes (60):

going against the rhythms of speech:


What we get is an ego aware of its artifice, moving between self-expression and self-reflexivity, the secular and the sacred, with synesthetic leaps that give language a sensuous physicality. Bradshaw’s MA in Religion appears to really animate her poetics, wherein the narrator’s voice is poised at a crisis of faith, not only sentimental, but ontological (49):


In two different stanzas we see a constancy of structure across contextual shift, and the repetition of formatted blank space draws our attention to it as a metaphor for movement, place, and death. Quiet and tempered, but polyvocal and foreboding, Apologies is a haunting of language and identity that works in nonlinear, nonnarrative sequence to explore “the paradoxical state of the spectre, which is neither being nor non-being,” to quote scholar Lisa Gye on the concept of hauntology, a Derridian term that is useful for analyzing a book with this much spiritual possession (59):


The bracketed space represents infinite potential in a combinatory sequence—non-being—while the line below it (“canaries and other yellow birds.”) represents a possible but nonbinding variable in an endless, Baudrillardian circus of signs, into which the narrator projects their exiled, queer desires. The structural vacancy and rhetorical posturing can feel cold, but the weird and beautiful thing about Bradshaw’s writing is how quickly it can oscillate from the godless abyss back to the intimate and quotidian, warmly drawing you in (75):


Due to its ecclesiastical diction (“oh my sabellian heart!”), unconventional dramatic structure (more of an elongated suspense than a conflict-climax-resolution), and spectral personae, this book of poems might come across too pedantic for some, too obscure for others; but if you appreciate what Language poetry and theological studies have in common, the transcendental lyricism of Apologies echoes Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop’s own experimental virtuosity and profound vision, establishing Bradshaw as a dope protégé.

Apologies is available from Burning Deck.

Nicky Tiso is an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota. His first poetry manuscript, Cata/strophe, was a 2014 finalist for 1913 Press’ Prize for First Books, judged by Claudia Rankine.

REVIEW: Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Light


by Michael Wasson

Can it look so effortless to locate us in a bright opening as Souvankham Thammavongsa’s book Light? Her collection begins, “This is a clearing,” a spatial entrance so cleared of everything but one caveat, or “one rule,” that you “will bind to yourself like a promise / to begin.” In a way, we’re guided along and given a clear outline.

At the outset, the speaker brings us in, demonstrating how to start. With such a deft and soft hand, Thammavongsa doesn’t so much as urge as she lets us become receptacles to the possibilities of what’s before us: light, shapes, direction, and the very marked contours that remain here.

Reading Thammavongsa’s Light, we can’t help but feel opened, but not so much in a vulnerable way—as in grief or bearing fresh wounds—but merely as passive bodies left open at the lips pressed between the dark and light, the point at which a singular transformation enters us so easily. And to be transformed openly is a common concern for these poems:

fie mot is what happens when you’re not expecting it

This poem “Fie,” one of many that examines how another language says light or some sort of light source, shows us how to say fire in Lao. Going through the foundation word of fire, or fie, provides us then with how to say words for flashlight, fire when it burns through structures, or the sound of thunder. In Thammavongsa’s gentle surgery and guidance through several languages, we are in the audience role as a vessel—simply driven in place to receive, not expecting complex issues or dense manifestos.

Thammavongsa’s poetry is one leaning on the grace of simplicity, never overtly didactic, never verbose or meandering. Each poem explores our central theme: light. To be lit, to experience its absence, to need it, to part with it, to experience how slowly devoured we are by its presence, and in a way, almost speak for it.

Also, in the same vein, Thammavongsa illuminates the “marks”—I’d clarify as the “letters”—of her poems, allowing the whitespace to create clearer utterances within her poems. Her lines seem airy, almost floating. They are wrought with her initial declaration of “This is a clearing,” which we can then realign as “these are clearings,” creating a link from the book as a whole all the way down to the light pooling between her syntax. It’s a lovely, threaded effect.

Like light, Thammavongsa’s Light touches on so many aspects on a human’s life, too—failure, preparing for a return, text on the page, ceremonializing awe, love, and the beauty of continuation, as in the poem “Mountain Ash,” in which we know “Ash is what fire leaves behind” but we are challenged to consider that there is more: “Whatever we know of fire, we know it is not done.”

The most salient poem of the book, I find, is “Questions Sent to a Light Artist That Were Never Answered,” an unforgettable piece that equally critiques and advocates our obsessions:

  1. When you think about the word light, what comes to mind first?
  1. Do you work with real light (light from the sun) or only with electrical light?
  1. What are you trying to do with light?
  1. Do you think or work with the dark?
  1. What can’t you get light to do?
  1. Why light?

This book straightforwardly articulates its singular concern, thereby letting its source to permeate from the speaker’s vantage point. Again, we remain open, we are accepting, and ultimately we are changed in the process.

And in all its observations from a giant squid’s eye (that could absorb so much light but why so when it lived “where there was no light at all”) to the refracted, anaphoric effect of constant memories of one’s life surfacing, Light is a rich, enlightening experience that honors human curiosity. It’s a journey that I’m delighted to have embarked on with such a clear-eyed guide as Souvankham Thammavongsa.

Light is available from Pedlar Press

Michael Wasson, nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, earned his MFA from Oregon State University and his BA from Lewis-Clark State College. He received a Joyce Carol Oates Award in Poetry, and his work is included or forthcoming in Poetry Kanto, As/Us, Hayden’s Ferry Review, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Cutthroat, and elsewhere.