“The Tradition” dances & howls & reimagines what wholeness should be

The Tradition is Jericho Brown’s third book and second full-length collection. It’s a tumultuous collection where he plays with form, celebrates life, and braids together aspects of culture, childhood, violence, and transformation into a moving book. He juxtaposes violence with flowers and fruit. In “Night Shift”, he examines the painful intimacies of domestic abuse and the layered, contradictory emotions one might feel toward their abuser: “Midnight is many colors. Black and blue / Are only two.”

In “Correspondence“, Jericho specifically writes about wholeness and how violence affects one’s own psyche and self-perception:

I am writing to you from the other side
Of my body where I have never been
Shot and no one’s ever cut me.
I had to go back this far in order
To present myself as a whole being…

There’s a yearning to separate oneself from the traumas that affect them, to “cross back” and become “the one who leaps” (quoted from “Crossing”), to heal and begin the journey again, to reimagine what life is supposed to be like apart from brokenness and loss. In the collection’s final poem, “Duplex: Centro”, Jericho writes “None of the beaten end where they begin.”

The Tradition explores change — both how it shapes us internally and as a society.

I interviewed Jericho about this collection earlier this week.

Thanks so much for your time, Jericho, and for these incredible poems.

Thanks so much for doing this.

One of my favorite aspects of “The Tradition” is that it celebrates color and Black culture, from “The Card Tables” to the description of how fucking hardworking so many people of color are in “”Foreday in the Morning” to the line in one of the “Duplex” poems: “A poem is a gesture toward home.” These celebratory moments are interwoven with pain and institutionalized racism and grief, and I think this makes them that much more important. They exist in the landscape of the book as flowers, blossoming in the rocky, infertile places where it’s least expected. How do beauty and joy operate in your own life? Do you have any advice for others who want to grow and embrace joy despite their circumstances and hardships?

I do it on purpose. I mean I seek out opportunities for joy and for beauty. I really have a time in my day, usually right after my first meal, where I sit for a few minutes in front of the big window and decide that I like the color of a flower I see outside or the way it’s so nice that I have heat when it’s cold out. I lose my way here and there, but if I order the day like that from the beginning, it becomes incumbent upon me throughout the day to get really ecstatic about things other folks would think of as quite mundane. I means for more joy in my life, but it also drives other people crazy because I’m generally excited and excitable. Of course, I don’t care that my joy drives other people crazy.  

“Entertainment Industry” is a painfully poignant poem about gun violence and our country’s lack of weapons restrictions. Why is reform necessary and how does a poem about gun violence fit in with the rest of these political and personal poems? How does the U.S. fail to value what it boasts about being able to protect?

Well, I think it fits because the kind of gun violence the poem bemoans is only committed by white people with very, very few exceptions.  And white people somehow don’t get pathologized in spite of the fact that they are historically steeped in this sort of thing. I don’t think any peoples should be pathologized, but I’m fascinated that white people don’t considering some of the things white people and only white people have done and continue to do. It’s hilarious. And I’d like more white folks to notice.


Definitely. How can people be so overprotective of their kids yet fail to recognize that the threat of gun violence could largely be curbed by stricter gun restrictions? In fact, today, nationwide protests for gun reform are happening in schools. I hope so much that these students’ parents and families (including my own) pay attention and have a change of heart. 

Okay, next question. I recently read “The Book of Unknown Americans” and – SPOILER ALERT – I was devastated by the ending, where Señora Rivera loses her husband. I cried for three days afterward, in secret, mourning for her loss and contemplating what my life would be like should my husband die. 

Your poem “Of My Fury” explores this too, how beyond the normal dangers of living, your lover is at risk of being harmed or killed simply because of the color of “all / His flawless skin.” I want to be angry and decry the situational threat that our society assigns to people of color simply by living, by existing. It’s so wrong that this poem is necessary, and that this poem isn’t accepted by or understood by so many white Americans. How do you cope with these race-specific stressors? 

Oh, I’m not sure I “cope.” I cry and think about ways I can do violence like any other human being would. I just haven’t gotten caught on a day or in a location where my wish toward violence ended up in anyone’s murder. It’s important to know that anyone of us could burn down or assist in the burning down of a Walgreen’s.  Anyone of us could riot. And for good reason. Other than through my poems, I haven’t rioted. Maybe it’s just that I don’t want to go to prison, but even that isn’t the same as “coping.”

Your past books have also dealt with the themes of domestic violence and your own childhood (am I assuming that correctly, that you’re writing from experience in your poems about being young?). Every time I read one of your works about the violence and neglect you’ve endured, I ache. Is writing about these experiences cathartic at all? How have they been received? 

Well, obviously, my dad doesn’t like them, and he thinks he should somehow be paid if it’s okay for me to make a career based of them.  So maybe he would like them if I could get him some money for them.  Or maybe that tells you all you really need to know about my daddy in terms his reception of my poems.  My mother hasn’t said much of anything.  My sister thinks it’s really good work but also has said she feels the need to shower after reading my work; she’s a filmmaker.  I think some people like my poems, and some people don’t, and either way, it’s none of my business.  I just want everyone to know the poems exist so they have them to consider.  I don’t care how they land in terms of their reception of them.  I only care that they have some reason to land in the first place.  

I think every book I’ve ever written has helped me deal with that book’s subject matter in a more mature way.  I think writing poems about having been raped in a way that is not as shrouded as it is in my earlier two books has helped me deal with that like a survivor instead of dealing with it like a person who did something that made me deserve it. 

Wow. That’s powerful. Thank you for your vulnerability.

A few of these poems discuss the speaker’s mother, tenderly and fairly, but not always in the best light. I’m also very conflicted in my relationships – which are rapidly deteriorating – with all four of my parents. What, if anything, have you found provides comfort or helps you to cope and work through the hurt and disappointment of those relationships? Have you been able to find forgiveness at all? 

It’s interesting you would say this because I think everything I say about my mother in this book is the kindest I’ve ever been to my mother in my life as a writer.  Interesting.  Maybe I’m not so nice to her in the duplex where she’s mentioned because she doesn’t get as much agency there, but in all, I think she’s quite a powerful figure in the first section of the book.  It’s not so hard forgiving my parents since I don’t have to live with them and because I understand — as a person who continues to fuck up here and there — that they did the very best they thought they could do under their circumstance.  More than that, I know they love me.  At any rate, they’re really too old (and in some ways too feeble) for me to hold grudges against them.  They aren’t really capable of raising hell the way they used to because it could quite literally kill them.  They’ve mellowed, and I think they see that I’m okay, that I eat and pay my mortgage, etc.

That’s good to hear. And it’s particularly relatable. Thanks so much for doing this interview with me. 

Thanks again for everything, Kelsey.  You’re the best.

The Tradition will be available in April 2019 for $17 from Copper Canyon Press.

Interview with Camisha L. Jones about “Flare”

Camisha L. Jones’ chapbook Flare was released by Finishing Line Press in 2017.

Many of these poems employ metaphor and talk around “chronic illness”, which make them relatable for a wide audience. It also caused me to be curious about the specifics of how your life is affected and how frustrating it must be to live in world that is not disability-inclusive. “The Sound Barrier” is perhaps the first poem that gave me a concrete picture of the challenges that you face, as well as the reactions of others when interacting with you becomes “an inconvenience.” Could you talk about how accommodating disability (and living with a disability) “ain’t open to negotiation”?

The body wants what it wants. Needs what it needs. And I’ve become more and more aware of the fact that part of being human is being in relationship with the body you were born into. Others are in relationship with that body as well. I’m not always a good partner to my body. Sometimes it tells me “I need to rest” and I push through my to-do list anyway because being productive and driven is part of what society tells me it means to be successful and capable. I pay a price for that choice – a price that may put me in a pain flare for a few days, a week, sometimes more. And that’s the non-negotiable part of that interaction.

When I interact with others and say, “Hey, for me to participate fully, here’s what I need” – that too is non-negotiable. If the need is captioning for a conference call and it’s not provided, then you get less of my presence and participation. You get less of what wisdom and skill I might contribute. And if that sort of thing happens repeatedly, you send a strong message that my full engagement is not valuable to you. Accommodation – whether it’s the work I do for myself or the work others do to ensure my full participation – is not just about the concrete shifts in how things are done but also how one thinks about bodies that interrupt the perceived norm. We can think of those interruptions as a nuisance or we can see them as opportunities for personal and societal growth.

What are ways that everyone can react to and anticipate needs of people with hearing loss or difficulties?

In terms of event planning, I’ve actually posted a list of tips on my Facebook page. Here’s some of what I share there that’s relevant to communicating with someone who’s hard of hearing:

  • It helps if you are facing them and for your mouth to be in clear view. Be mindful not to cover your mouth while you speak.
  • Be mindful of how fast you speak. Slow your pace down a bit and try not to cram your words together. Enunciate but don’t over-enunciate unless requested to do so.
  • It’s helpful to check in periodically by asking if the person heard what you said.
  • Try not to get frustrated by being asked to repeat yourself.
  • Be willing to write down what you’re trying to communicate if the person has trouble understanding you.
  • Sometimes, especially for people who wear hearing aids, the issue is clarity, not volume. Ask which is helpful before shouting.
  • Minimize or eliminate background noise when possible.

Most of all, be patient and realize every person’s needs are different. Ask what will be most helpful (in advance where that’s appropriate) and be willing to respond accordingly.

Absolutely. Being patient and ensuring that you are communicating kindly instead of getting irritated or exasperated is really important to demonstrate dignity and respect. 🙂

There are poems about other types of illness – lupus, a cell mass that wasn’t cancer, even the scars earned from childhood accidents. “Good health” is something that is too easily taken for granted. How does writing about these ailments transform them?

Diagnosis can be traumatic. When a doctor told me a few years back that I had lupus, my mind started spinning. One of my very close friends has lupus and I am very familiar with how the disease can affect a person. My mother also died of an autoimmune disorder that she suspected to be lupus. Quite frankly, I didn’t feel I had the courage for what might be headed my way. I wrote my way through the fear. It shook me to my core. I used writing as an outlet to work through how I was feeling mentally and emotionally. Giving voice to all that uncertainty, fear, anger, lingering grief from my mother’s death, it offered a release. Holding it in would have been toxic and without writing through those experiences, I think it would have been like holding my breath – denying myself a chance to exhale and inhale again.

Years later, my doctors are now not sure if what I have is lupus and I am stuck in a place of uncertainty. Naming a thing doesn’t heal it but having no name for it is certainly not better. When the medical industry doesn’t know what to call your condition, it can at times serve to invalidate that experience. Writing, in a way, gives me an opportunity to “diagnose” what I’m going through for myself. It allows me to name what I am experiencing in the truest terms I know and thus validate that experience for myself. I believe those acts in themselves to be good medicine.   

In “Haunted”, you discuss how “beloveds… sip [your anxieties] & complain of its bitter.” I know that when I was incapacitated for several months with West Nile virus, my mother was by my side, helping me walk to the bathroom, bringing me cool washcloths for my fevers, cooking for me, and comforting me. How do your interactions with your support network help you live with your difficulties?

My spouse, Anthony, is my biggest supporter. All these health changes began within our first years of marriage – as we were both figuring out what it meant to be married and the roles we would play in that partnership. He holds most things down on the home front so that when my fuel runs low – and it does very quickly – I can take time for self-care. Rest is critically important in managing both Meniere’s Disease and fibromyalgia. Striking the right balance is still very hard for me and, with Anthony’s help, I’ve been able to do a lot more than I’ve imagined I would be able to over these last 5 years.

That’s awesome.

A thing I wish for within my support network is to have folks – including myself – become fluent in sign language. It’s a beautiful language and it would be such a relief to have a way to communicate that isn’t dependent on sound. When I am going through periods of hearing loss and distortion, it takes a lot of extra energy to keep up with conversation and many variables, like background noise, make it even tougher. I’m anxious for the day when I can just say whatever needs to be said with my hands and converse with others without worrying about words I didn’t hear.

What projects or plans are in store for you now that “Flare” is published?

My husband Anthony and I are in conversation about projects we might do together. Through his company, SKIES THE LIMIT Entertainment, we’d like to find ways to combine my poetry with his skill as a videographer, visual artist, and DJ.

Thank you for sharing such personal information and stories. I look forward to reading and possibly watching or viewing more of your work!

Flare is available from Finishing Line Press for $15.

“Sky Country” helps slacken the knots inside us

Christine Kitano’s Sky Country, published in 2017 by BOA Editions, Ltd., is one of my favorite gently moving collections; I read it in the fall and reread much of it in December. From poems about divorce and enduring to pieces that explore the pains and sufferings of Christine’s family who “fled Korea and Japan” and lived through internment camp incarceration “during WWII”, this collection tackles heavy content with grace, thoughtfulness, and hope. Take this gorgeous line in “Insomniac in Fall,” for example: “If I prayed, I’d pray: let me leave you, let you / leave me.”

And in “Insomniac in Winter”: “Your breaths slow and multiply, each one / thickening the air between us.”

The collection also explores immigration, opening the all-too-often impersonal issue to a moment between lovers or an exchange between parents and their children. In “Gaman,” she writes, “But what we don’t anticipate / is how the dust of the desert will clot our throats, // how much fear will conspire to keep us silent. / And how our children will read this silence / as shame.”

One of my favorite pieces in the collection is “A Story with No Moral” which is broken into “Los Angeles” and “South Korea” subsections. The LA poems examine the fractured relationship a young daughter has with her mother, namely by comparing herself to her friend Lauren, whose hair is “buttery blond, fluffy and soft” and who is “completely absorbed in her own image”, an image that the girl yearns to be herself. My heart goes out to her and to the young women in the South Korea poems, who have their own desires and struggles.

I interviewed Christine last week about these poems and her next plans.

Who is the speaker in “I Will Explain Hope” and why did you write it?

“I Will Explain Hope” is one of the last poems I finished for the collection. It began as an ekphrastic poem after the work of Chiura Obata, a painter who was incarcerated at Topaz Concentration Camp. The poems in this sequence of the collection take place at Topaz, so I wanted to use Obata’s work to help fill in the landscape, both physically and emotionally. When I first started drafting this poem, I envisioned the speaker as a bit of an outsider, that is, a contemporary person looking at a painting by Obata. But as I kept writing and revising, I found myself returning to the mind and voice of the speaker I had been working with, a persona who is loosely based on my grandmother. Working through this speaker, I found my way to the word “forgive.” It surprised me, but it also made sense.

Thanks for sharing that. I wasn’t aware of the depth of influence behind those poems. How deep — and how heartbreaking.

“Monologue of the Fat Girl” was one of my favorite pieces; not only did it explore the strains and desires of marriage, but it also celebrated and lamented the body and the hardships when one is confronted by the body’s imperfections. I find this poem immensely comforting because it feels like womanhood solidarity. How does this poem relate to the other mother narratives in Sky Country?

Many of these poems were drafted in my first two years in Lubbock, Texas, and I was interested in telling the stories of individual female personas. I experienced a bit of culture shock when I moved to Texas; I was surprised to be surrounded by women my age (mid-twenties) who already had two or three children. When I was invited to someone’s house for dinner, I learned it was customary to ask to “see the nursery.” At the time, I had not even considered whether I wanted children or not, as it simply was not on my mind. Coming face-to-face with assumptions about my gender influenced many of the persona poems in Sky Country.

I’m also finding that people my age — I just turned 25 — are starting families, even though I feel only marginally older than I did at 20. It’s a little strange feeling like a parental outsider, even though I nanny for seven families. 

Anyway, back to your book. I enjoyed the different places these poems centered on, and I thought a lot about life-in-motion while reading. Where do you write? Is the “on-the-road” feel of “Choose Your Own Adventure: Go South” a poem about your own travels?

I usually write in my office, which is un-Romantic, but I’m a practical person when it comes to my writing. I like routine, I like quiet, and I like having most of my books within arm’s reach. But it’s in this space that I have the time to remember moments when things weren’t as comfortable. “Choose Your Own Adventure: Go South” comes out of a road trip my partner and I took when moving from New York to Texas. It was the middle of July and we were in a Jeep with torn windows, so it was hot and dusty the whole trip. I remember driving through Roanoke, Virginia and passing through a stretch of shade on the highway, which gave me a fleeting moment of peace. The poem grew out of this memory.

I love the freedom in poetry to be able to tell the story however it needs to be told; “This is not the whole story, / and yet, it is true,” you write in “1942: In Response to Executive Order 9066, My Father, Sixteen, Takes”. I’ve heard some poets campaign for only telling ‘your own stories,’ but I think that kind of policing is detrimental to what poetry can do and is for. How do you approach the non-fiction/fiction elements of poetry, and what advice can you offer other poets who write about cultural and social issues?

It requires a great amount of responsibility to write about cultural and social issues. Doing so requires research. In the introduction to Beloved, Toni Morrison explains how she based the novel on the real-life Margaret Garner, but then had to move away from the historical record. She writes, “The historical Margaret Garner is fascinating, but, to a novelist, confining. Too little imaginative space there for my purposes. So I would invent her thoughts, plumb them for a subtext that was historically true in essence, but not strictly factual…” (xvii). For me, writing about the Japanese American incarceration required years of research. But at some point, I had to move from “fact” to “truth,” a move I wouldn’t have been able to make if I hadn’t done the necessary research.

Mmm. That’s powerful.

So Sky Country came out last year. What’s next for you?

I’ve been working toward my next collection, which I envision to be a prose/poetry hybrid. I’ve been thinking about inheritance, about land, about the responsibility humans have for the land we live and work on. I’m not sure where this is going yet, but I’m enjoying the process of embarking on a new project.  

I look forward to keeping tabs on your next works! Thanks so much for your time and thoughts.

Sky Country is available from BOA Editions, Ltd. for $16.

Review of “Colin is Changing His Name”

This collection by John Andrews (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017) is part mystery, part relatable biography, and it does that thing that poets are supposed to do – it tells the truth. The truth in this case is an explanation of growing into oneself (and into queerness) amid situational violence, abuse, and oppression. It’s also a collection about place and family, about relationships and seasons.

Who is Colin?

For me Colin is a gay male or queer person and the name itself often stands in to represent terms like “gay” or faggot. The concept came from the fact that my husband is named John too; don’t worry, he goes by Randy, thank god.  I have a friend from my MFA and PhD program named Colin and he’ll try to tell you it is him as a joke, but trust me, it isn’t. Another friend pointed out that I wrote one of the “gayest” books they’ve read that doesn’t have the word “gay” in it.

Right on. I didn’t even notice that you never used the word “gay” because the poems were so, well, gay. <3

One powerful line is in “Colin on I-35”: “There are only so many cattle / that fit into a truck, / only so much weight that can be // dragged off to slaughter.” At what point in your life did people’s judgment and hate stop dragging you down?

You know, I think it always is still kind of there looming in the background, but for the most part I’ve let it go. I came out during undergrad so I felt like a lot of people knew me as one person and then suddenly another. When I moved to Texas for grad school though I was just out and all my new friends and colleagues just knew me as me which is really were I felt like I let go of caring what people think. For me though I think the hardest thing is coming out to yourself. At some point, you have to admit to yourself who you are even knowing the social consequences that will follow. That’s really what I hope the book communicates to people; its hard to come to terms with who you are as person when the world tells you that person is wrong.

Many parts of this collection discuss various family members; in one poem, Colin’s step-dad “says tell me you are not Colin!” How do you reconcile familial disapproval with your own creativity, desires, and values?

I am lucky to have a family that is very supportive of me and my work, but I know way too many people who’ve experienced terrible scenes like that.

Unfortunately I’m one of them. 🙁

Back to the book: the second “Colin is Changing His Name” poem deals with the complexities of navigating a gay identity and relationship in an unaccepting environment. How are queer relationships affected by the social pressures to abstain from PDA and public romance, including “I love you’s”?

It’s really an issue of safety. I grew up in rural Arkansas where that was always a fear of mine, and it’s sadly been casting a shadow over me to this day. Just last year my husband and I got married and we were extremely nervous to even go to the court house together in Stillwater, OK where we live. Its suppose to be a happy moment, right? But we kept thinking about Kim Davis and how simply asking for license might turn into a battle instead of being excited. Nothing bad happened at all and the clerk’s were extremely friendly, even offering suggestions of putting down straw or pet shavings in our back yard to keep the mud down during our wedding since it had been raining all week. We felt dumb for being afraid up to that moment and sad that the world made it possible to feel that way during what should have been all joy.

This collection came out last year. What’s next for you?

andrewsauthorbookRight now, I am working on a second book centered around the idea of simultaneously building and destroying a house. It seems like a lot of poets are thinking about the “end times” lately, for obvious reasons, and I’ve been caught up in that mode a bit but from the perspective of a literal and imagined house. The first place my husband and I lived together was sold by our landlord 6 months into living there and the new owners paid us to leave so they could tear it down and build a giant house to rent to undergrads. It was kind of heartbreaking because we loved that little house and had to watch them tear it down. That image with everything going on has been sticking with me since they tore it down in 2016.

Wow, that’s heartbreaking. Awesome news about the next book though. I look forward to reading it!

“Ordinary Misfortunes”: An exposé on international rape culture

Ordinary Misfortunes (Tupelo Press, 2017) by Emily Jungmin Yoon was one of my favorite books last year. I read the bulk of it while driving home from visiting family in upstate Michigan, and I cried a lot in the car while intermittently bemoaning the world and its violent inhabitants with my husband. Ordinary Misfortunes is incredibly sad but so, so necessary. It tells the stories of comfort women in the southeastern region of Asia during the twentieth century, stories about endurance, abuse, loss of identity, being human, violence, and transformation. It also juxtaposes the patriarchal, “men take what they need” mindset that persists today with the idea that ordinary men were the perpetrators in the international assault on comfort women:

“What is right in war. What / is left in war. War hasn’t left Korea. I have… / Which one of you said Let’s have raunchy Korean / sex to me. Which one of you didn’t.”

It’s really hard to write this review because it’s just such an emotional read; it should go without saying that these poems are important and that this chapbook should be taught in every high school history unit on the southeast Asian conflicts. But this chapbook exists in a world where these things happened in the first place, where hundreds of thousands of women were kidnapped or tricked into going abroad and were then forced to have sex and kept in squalish conditions and used until their health deteriorated, and then, if they were allowed to leave, if they survived the “countless soldiers” and the “reused condoms [that got] girls sick,” they were given no assistance, mental, financial, or material. And millions of women are still trafficked, coerced, and enslaved. And millions more women (if not actually all 3.7 billion of us) are or have been raped, assaulted, oppressed, catcalled, and abused. This is the ordinariness of the stories, the societal misconception and heartbreaking reality across borders that women exist to be taken from when men have needs.

“I should forget and forgive                but I cannot,” Emily writes in the testimonial poem of Kim Sang-hi. It pins the lasting effect of trauma, wanting to let go and move on but being unable to, how violence reshapes you, how you dream “of legs   that could not go anywhere.” Another poem explains, “I’ve been living / as a robbed house.”

These poems are rooted in the fact that men took and took and took even though the women they were taking from were unwilling. To me, this begs the question how did they forget their humanity? I think part of the answer lies in understanding war and understanding what militaries do to break the psyche and create soldiers out of people, and I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough to understand that process, though I don’t need to understand it to detest it.

“There is no reason / for logic in war. There is no reason,” Emily writes in another of the poems titled “An Ordinary Misfortune”. I wonder, what does it mean to be human? How can we teach each other to value humanity? And how can we shift away from war?

So, in light of those looming, crucial questions, this review is mostly a cry for everyone to read and cherish these stories and then to ask, “How can we dismantle the conditions of society that create these situations of violence and war and assault?”

I recently interviewed Emily about this chapbook.

Many of the poems are named after the women who the stories belong to, and you found their stories in books and documentary materials. Could you talk about the research process and how it affected you?

Reading and finding out the women’s stories was very painful, because they are truly atrocious stories, and also because there is so much we still don’t know. We don’t even know exactly how many women became “comfort women.” There are scholars doing more archival excavations to understand and reveal more of the history.

One of the poems named “An Ordinary Misfortune” describes a scene where a man becomes angry and feels entitled to sex after a woman gives him a blow job but can’t finish him. This poem is brutal; it feels true and also disgusting, but it happens all the time. “It’s her fault if she turns him on, doesn’t get him off.” Why is this so common? And why doesn’t everyone agree about the “wrongness” of it?

The answer to both questions would be that many men have awful definitions of, or don’t understand, consent. An acquiescence into doing or agreeing to something in sexual situations is not real and genuine consent. Various power dynamics are not taken into serious consideration. There is also some rhetoric that paints giving and receiving explicit consent as unsexy, but I think nonverbal agreements should come between people who fully understand and trust each other, and know each other’s preferences.

How does the final poem, “The Transformation”, relate to the rest of the poems?

I wanted to put in a poem that hinted at other obsessions and interests of mine, such as whales and climate change, and think about what we, as humans, do to other living beings in addition to one another.

Mmm. That’s profound; my youngest students have been talking recently about why it’s important to be kind to animals, and I can’t help but wish we would learn to respect life and care for everyone instead of wreak havoc on each other and the earth.

Thank you so much for your time and thoughtful answers.

Ordinary Misfortunes is available for $11.95 from Tupelo Press.


An interview with photographer John Mark Hanson

Hi, John! Thank you so much for doing this interview with me. Your work is beautiful and your Grandmothers of America series is particularly lovely. blanca-web_642

Thanks Kelsey, I appreciate the interest in my work.

So tell me about yourself! You’re based in LA, correct? What do you love about LA? What don’t you love but put up with because of all the opportunities there? What are your life dreams? How long have you been doing photography? Are you from Grand Rapids? (That’s where I live.) 

I’m originally from Traverse City, but I moved to Grand Rapids in 2011 and now reside in LA.  I just moved [to LA] about a year and a half ago.  I love all of the culture and incredible ability to learn about new and exciting things. There is so much going on here and so much creativity.  I really don’t love the traffic and pollution. There is also a lot of stress about money with rent as high as it is, but there are incredible opportunities and some amazing work happening here in the arts. My life dreams are to continue writing and recording music, photographing, and directing videos for artists and projects which inspire me creatively and to invest in community enrichment initiatives wherever I live. I have been doing photography for 14 years or so, since I was a junior in high school so 14 years. 

Some of your images are beautiful layers of several photos. How do you decide which photos to layer for a foggy / textured effect? 

BG-9810pg_640So one component of my style is multiple exposures. I do this by taking two pictures on the same frame of film. This is all done in-camera and not in the editing process on a computer. I usually start with a portrait so I know where certain facial features are in an image and then shoot some texture or organic material. I like to use plants and people together because it blends separate living things into one and creates a sort of mystery and obscurity. I like creating images with dimension and depth, and I love the experimental side of the process; each time you take a multiple exposure is sort of a mystery.  

For much of 2017, the photos you posted on Instagram were all in black and white. What tone does this set? vv4ed-website_640

I have been shooting black and white in my personal work since my Photography 1 class in high school. I just love the look and feel of BW film, and it’s a great process to shoot, develop, and scan my own film (an affordable way to shoot analog photography). Over the years, I’ve continued to learn about tone and value and to see the world in BW as opposed to color. So black and white has just become a way for me to share my photography practice and maybe offer a new way of seeing the world to others. 

What other photographers or creatives do you feel inspired by? 

Some of my favorite photographers are Gregory Crewdson, Eric Rose, Vivian Maier, and Edward Weston.

Creatives I’m inspired by right now are musicians Joan Shelley, Tim Carr, and Andy Schauff and filmmakers Mike Mills, Joseph Kolean, and the Canada Production Company.

IDCVR-1-of-1hairtmp800_800Where do you find your models? They’re quite striking and feel very naturally posed, not forced at all.

I don’t really ever hire models. I am always working with people I know and I suppose having a existing relationship with folks helps the situation to be more comfortable. Usually the portraits I do for artists are commissioned.   

What is one of your most memorable photo shoots? 

My shoots with May Erlewine have been pretty memorable, she’s an incredible person with so much love. Also working with singer Antwaun Stanely was pretty memorable, that guy is such a bright light.  

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Photo of John by Kelsey Tucker

Where is the coolest place you’ve traveled for photos? 

I kind of just bring cameras with me wherever I go… so I’d say hiking in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and Guatemala was probably the coolest region I’ve traveled to for photos. I hiked around shooting medium format black and white film at ancient Mayan ruins. It was a life-changing experience. 

What are your goals with photography? Any advice for other young photographers wanting to get into the business?

My goals with photography are to continue to grow and learn in the medium and to continue working with and sharing the analog process. I’d eventually like to run my own studio with resources for developing, scanning, and printing. For younger people wanting to explore photography, I’d say just go out and shoot! Any camera, even a phone, just shoot to find out what you love to shoot, then keep shooting that. And don’t waste time shooting things that don’t excite you. In creative work, it is important to notice things that energize you and follow those. Don’t get lost on a path doing work that drains you and does not fulfill you. 

lasso2-4-of-4spec800_800What’s the story behind founding the Lamp Light Music Fest? I have yet to attend but always want to when I see the rosters.

The Lamp Light Music Festival is a project that was developed as an experiment in social practice work, shifting the idea of what a music festival could be. [Hosting it in] houses opened up a new pathway for folks to share and listen to music in Grand Rapids. It has grown over the years into a fun staple weekend event in Eastown where people gather for the listening room experience. It is run by an incredible team of local artists and creatives, and the event really brings people together in an inspiring way. I definitely suggest checking it out. There are weekend passes and single event passes as well.   

Last but not least, a fun one. What camera do you shoot with? And how many lenses do you own? 🙂

So I shoot with several different cameras; here’s the list:

Mamiya RB67 with a 127mm and 50mm lens
Canon F-1 with 50mm lens and 135mm lens
Canon EOS-1 with 50mm lens
Canon 6D with 50mm lens and 35mm lens

You can discover more of John’s photography on his website or on Instagram at @johnmarkhanson.

This interview was edited for grammar and clarity. <3

“Touched”: a graceful, vulnerable chapbook

Luther Hughes was my mentor in a summer workshop with The Speakeasy Project, and upon becoming familiar with his work, I was drawn to the preciseness of his language and his attention to detail and emotion, and how place occupies both an imaginary and a physical realm. All these elements of Luther’s which I admire are present in Touched, his first chapbook, released this year by Sibling Rivalry Press. <3

Probably the highest praise I can offer of Touched is that, in its intimate, painful dwelling on violence and sex, it enabled me to write about my own assaults for the first time. What power and what grace Luther writes with. What vulnerability. These poems connected with something in me that I had intentionally distanced myself from for months. For that, I am so, so grateful. And for that, I wholeheartedly recommend reading this collection, even if you don’t think you have any traumas to work through; Luther’s writing will move you, and, after all, isn’t that why we read?

Into poems of relationship, loss, and healing, he weaves Biblical language, stark landscapes, and bedrooms that seem familiar even if the details are different. Perhaps one of the most meaningful lines to me is this: “if only he’d stop / resisting, the poor bird would still be alive.” In what ways does abuse kill us? Cage parts of us? In what ways does physical death, particularly the deaths of unarmed, nonviolent black boys, cut into us? How does loving your abuser complicate the abuse? The recovery? Luther explores these and simliar themes in his 13 poems, explaining how violence and assault open us “like a zipper / stuck / on its threads…”

I interviewed Luther about this collection a few weeks ago.

Could you talk about grief? What does your grieving process look like? How does poetry – including poems such as “Trayvon” and “Alternate Ending with Weeping” – fit in?


It’s funny. I’ve been thinking about grief a lot lately in the past few days because I’ve been trying to (re)write this poem about my dog’s death that happened about 13 years ago. I’ve been trying to write this poem for maybe five years now. And it’s weird because this is the only poem that I haven’t been able to write. Eventually, poems give themselves up to me, or, as someone once said, I’ve found my way in. But, this poem about my dog’s death evades me to the point of self-doubt. And this is what happens every time I try to write this poem.

This time around, I was tempted when I was walking to work, and I read a sign that said, “This house harvests rainwater.” And suddenly, I was grieving my dog, Beethoven. This is how I think of grief. I don’t believe anyone is ever done grieving. I think grief comes when you least expect it.

And for that matter, I don’t have a process. When I am impacted by death, like I was by Travyon Martin’s death, it’s overwhelming. It’s all I can think about. When Trayvon died and the audio from that night was released, I was obsessed. I wanted to know what happened and how. I listened to the clips over and over and over. People were confused about who was screaming and I wanted to be sure their confusion was justified. I just had to know. Although, I’ve written poems about death, those poems were about discovery and lineage. This was the start of my obsession with death and how I encounter it.

The poem, “Alternate Ending with Weeping,” isn’t about grief but about memory and how, like grief, it comes at the most random moment. More so, I think, this poem addresses recovery and acceptance than grief.

How does surviving abuse change us? Is “surviving” even the right word? Is there a way for the violence to be a catalyst for growth? Or is the “after” always shadowed by the abuse?

To be honest, I’m not sure how to answer this question. And I’m not sure how to answer it because I’m not sure what “surviving abuse” actually means. Is it a question of physicality, mental state, or spiritual rendering? I don’t know.

Me neither. I’m still uncomfortable calling myself a survivor because the truth is, I don’t feel like I survived anything. I feel like I endured it or lived through it, but it affected me deeply, and I think “survive” is too strong a word for the me that was left after I encountered my abuse. 

The best way for me to consider this question is to think about Lucille Clifton’s poem, “mercy.” And this poem has been haunting for several months now. But in this poem, the speaker announces her gratitude for the level abuse that happens and then ends with saying how mad they are about what happened. For all purposes, it’s a pretty straightforward poem. But I bring this poem up because, yes, the speaker survived the abuse because they are recalling what happened. But they obviously didn’t “survive” mentally because they are still affected by it as they’re reflecting.


Okay, so how does surviving abuse change us? I’m not sure. And, yes, the question is: “is surviving the right word?”

I don’t see, at least I don’t think, violence as a catalyst for growth. That’s almost like saying we only grow when harmed. That’s not true. I know there’s that saying from Mulan: “the flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of them all.” Okay, sure. Yes. But, am I only beautiful because I was abused? No, right? If I wasn’t abused would I be less beautiful than I am now? No. But, what I think this quote is saying, in so many words, is that everyone goes through something or has been harmed in some way, and this, our experiences, is what makes us rare, special.

To answer the last part of your question: I don’t pin the “after” against the “abuse.” To me, that’s weird. I was abused. I am still alive. Both are always present.

What’s next for you? What other projects are blooming?

Phew. What is next for me? I’m writing my ass off. I’m exhaustively working on my first full-length. I’m currently a columnist for Frontier Poetry, where I’m addressing different topics and questions using poetry. And I’m writing fiction. Not a lot of it, but characters have been coming to me in my dreams, so I’m jotting down and letting them ferment until I can get them to the page.

How exciting! I can’t wait to read more of your work, particularly that full-length collection. Hopefully I’m not speaking just for myself when I say that after Touched, it will be highly anticipated.

If you would like to purchase Touched (or put in a request for your library to snag it!), it’s available for $12 from Sibling Rivalry Press.

Feature image credit: Nicholas Nichols


The poems everyone needs to read: Javier Zamora’s “Unaccompanied”

I don’t usually talk about myself in book reviews, but this topic is close to my heart. I’m white and a citizen of the U.S. I have always had shelter. I have always had food (except for one December when I was 19 and chose to buy gifts instead of groceries). I want for very little. I work hard, but I’ve never done physical labor. I have a college education. I also love Spanish, teach Latinx American children, and abhor the xenophobic, racist immigration policies the U.S. has toward Latinx immigrants.

I cried reading this collection, something that I don’t normally do from page poetry alone. Javier’s starkness, his honesty about the struggles and strain of being of two places, being torn between family and opportunity, is heartbreaking. The poems are powerful; “If I step / out this door, I want to know nothing will take me…” he writes in “How I Learned to Walk”. It’s so fucking unfair how the U.S. knowingly discriminates against people from Mexico and Central America. It’s wrong. And yet, is it possible to right it?

One of the important parts of changing our immigration policies is to educate people about the conditions of other countries, the why behind families’ decisions to leave. People in the U.S. are so privileged that we take our lifestyles and our relative safety (relative, not absolute) for granted. While far too many millions are low income and food insecure, we still have plenty (particularly the upper and middle classes). We have jobs, even if those jobs don’t pay high enough wages. We have food banks, social services, and community organizations that support pregnancies. We have schools. We have freedom of speech and the freedom to assembly. Many U.S. citizens enjoy living in this country; is it so wrong for other people to want to do the same?

In a love / anti-love poem to Salvador, Javier writes, “Every day cops and gangsters pick at you / with their metallic beaks, and presidents, guilty… // Tonight, how I wish // you made it easier to love you, Salvador. Make it easier / to never have to risk our lives.” Javier also describes border-crossing scenes, how, when caught and released, one family “would try again / and again, / like everyone does.” Another poem, called “Disappeared”, lists people and organizations to hold responsible for missing immigrants. Javier also discusses the conditions – and fear – with which undocumented immigrants live after settling in the U.S.: “everyone’s working / Mom Dad Tía Lupe Tía Mali / working under different names…” Far from the lazy “mooching” stereotype that persists in the imaginations of too many Americans, Javier shows readers that his family doesn’t take their new opportunities for granted.

There is also longing in these pages, a disconnect between worlds, as being undocumented means being unable to return to one’s home country, therefore being forever unable to see family. “When I call abuelos… / always they ask when I’ll visit, // soon, Abuelos, soon. What I mean is / I can never go back.” In another poem, the speaker says, “…if I don’t brush Abuelita’s hair, / wash her pots and pans, I cry.” How to cope with such ongoing loss? “The most beautiful part of my barrio was the stillness…” he writes in “Pump Water from the Well”.

This collection gives me hope; Javier gives me hope. His humility and advocacy are impressive; he brings humanity to an issue so many Americans selfishly dismiss as nonexistent and unimportant.

If you’re able, I encourage you to two copies of this book (available from Copper Canyon Press for $16 plus shipping) and read it with someone in your life who doesn’t understand immigration. I’ve purchased one copy for a student so far; this collection is one of my top 5 I’ve read in the past year, and I plan to purchase more. Change must happen with each of us calmly, lovingly correcting our friends and family members who don’t understand why their views and opinions are harmful. It takes effort, and time, and so much patience. But we are the only hope we have for a better future. As Javier quotes, “[T]oday for you, tomorrow for me.”

“Landscape with Sex and Violence”: a necessary addition to every contemporary bookshelf

I’ve read quite a few books that discuss or explore sexual assault, trauma, domestic violence, wartime sexual crimes, and other similar topics (most notably, Sierra Demulder’s masterful We Slept Here); Landscape with Sex and Violence meanders through oft-unspoken-of facets of sexual trauma, including the tenderness that abusers can win survivors back over with.

I read this book at a very important time in my life, only a month before I was coerced by a woman I’d been dating; this book became a refuge, a friend who I didn’t need to explain anything to. Melnick’s poems understand the multifacetedness of emotional trauma that experiences like mine result in. These poems take every side, from the moments of self-blame and downward spiraling to moments of clarity and strength.

I interviewed Lynn earlier this year about the poems and content in this collection.

When was the seed for this collection planted?

This is the book I’ve always wanted to write but just wasn’t ready to write yet, for a lot of reasons, until I finished my first collection. I’ve always wanted to tell my story which, I think, is also a larger story about rape culture and sexual violence and patriarchy and America. Now that I’ve finished writing this book, I’m finding my new poems (what will hopefully be a third book) push even further, so maybe that’s just how it goes.

What reactions are you hoping to inspire in readers? What response does our society need to have to the issue of sex and violence?

I’m hoping to build awareness in some readers and to make other readers feel less alone. I’d love to offer solace and education, depending. I also hope I’ve written something that stands as poetry, as a hopefully beautiful and interesting work of art. As far as what response society as a whole needs to the issues of sex and violence, well that’s a very long list of things, but I’ll say society needs to believe women about both. We need to believe women that have been abused and we need to believe women who state their needs. Women should get to have enjoyable sex lives without stigma or danger. And boys and men need to be better educated about both!

“Turn on the television and all you hear / is the new way of speaking…” holds a personal meaning for me, implying that the way politicians “answer” a question without saying anything of real substance is the new norm. Could you talk about your political views and / or your hopes for women’s rights to become more central and important in our administration’s goals?

To be honest, I have no hope that women’s rights will become more central to our administration’s goals. I think our best hope is that they are distracted by other things and don’t set things further back for us. I mean, our president is an admitted – and proud! – sexual predator.

Until we have more women not only in politics, but across the board in positions of power, little will change. I wish I knew how to make this a reality except to support women running for office with my dollars when I have them.

I also think that it’s important to talk to girls about what the world is actually like, rather than just hyping them on “girl power” in a world that is so dominated by patriarchy. They’re gonna know pretty quick that that’s bullshit, so why not teach them from the beginning that, although the deck is seriously stacked against them, there are ways to fight, and running for office is one of those ways. That’s what I’m trying to do with my two daughters, anyway.

Reading “She’s Going to do Something Amazing” left me feeling so many things. How can survivors become empowered? How can survivors heal?

Oh gosh, I wish I knew the answer to these questions. If you find out, please tell me! I do think knowing you’re not alone, that the violence experienced wasn’t you’re fault, and that you’re believed helps. Believe women!! Also, as far as healing goes, please seek therapy. Mental health needs to be taken as seriously as physical health. There are many therapies and treatments that can help with PTSD and other trauma-related issues. From what I can tell, finding empowerment and healing is a lifelong process.

For sure. I know I’ve found cognitive behavioral therapy personally helpful. I retrained my negative self-talk and anxious habits thanks to two amazing therapists.

How does poetry offer therapy? How does poetry educate?

Well, I don’t want to say poetry offers therapy, because I really think therapy should be where people seek therapy. But poetry definitely offers comfort and understanding, and poetry definitely teaches us more about ourselves and others. Something about the music and syntax and form of poetry really expands our hearts and minds, I think, and helps us see things in a new and more intimate way. Every day, I’m grateful for poetry.

Landscape with Sex and Violence ($18, on sale right now for $16.20) is available from YesYes Books or your local bookstore!