“crumb-sized” packs powerful observations, facts, & experiences into 29 poems

I read Marlena Chertock’s second collection, crumb-sized, in one sitting on a Sunday morning. I teared up, furiously took notes, and underlined entire stanzas. Then, I waited impatiently for my husband to wake up so I could show him a few particularly gorgeous science poems – we’re big fans of Neil deGrasse Tyson and all things astronomical.

Several poems mention Marlena’s strength, how she endures chronic pain and the issues that result from her curved spine, and strong is the perfect adjective to describe her voice and message. This collection exhales each line confidently. Each poem belongs, creating a diagram of how science is in fact our every day, how we only exist because of the universe’s great mysteries, its black holes and ever-expansion and iron.

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 I love the cosmopoetry at work in this collection, using an outward and space-ward theme to look inward, to cast yourself (or your persona) into a different realm. Can you talk about the research process involved in writing these poems, as well as your advice for blending the cosmos with the personal? What can be gained from using the universe to evaluate and speak to our identities?

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going for! I’ve always been very inspired by nature, space, and the unknown. When I walk home at night, I always look up to the stars and the moon. I’m a stereotype. But looking up reminds me not to think so big of myself, brings me rightfully down to size in the immensity of the universe.

I’m constantly thinking of these scales — of how much self-love I give to myself, and then of how small and insignificant I really am on a floating rock in the vastness of the Milky Way in the unending universe. It helps make pain seem more insignificant, even when it’s all I can think about. I try to share this through both of my poetry collections.

I read about space, science, technology, and more in my free time and at work, where I interview young and established scientists. The research is fun for me. I’ve grown up researching my bone disorder, down to the very arm on a specific chromosome that causes it. The fact that one letter switched, one amino acid swapped, and I could be a completely different person both captivates and terrifies me. In a way, my poetry is always working through these thoughts and emotions.

Mixing terrestrial and space elements, and exploring these senses of scale, is powerful. A lot of writers use space, mysticism, astrology and more to try to explain things or describe themselves. I think science is really useful in poetry because it’s just a way of trying to understand the world, and at its heart that’s poetry — poets distill images in the best possible way.

The chronic pain and discussion of strength and weakness in your collection is compelling and inspiring. I’m sure other readers will agree that your poems create empathy and challenge thinking and stereotypes about health and disability. Chronic pain seems to be a largely invisible challenge, one that others don’t notice or know about unless they ask.

Could you talk about the intimacy of writing poems that impart such personal knowledge to a general audience? Have you found community and acceptance in other writers or poets, perhaps in The Deaf Poets Society?

So many of us experience invisible illnesses or chronic pain. We hide it, hide from it, or it goes ignored. Our pain isn’t well understood by our doctors, our loved ones, ourselves. So it’s important for me to try to get as close to accurate as I can in my work. Whenever I’m trying to describe an experience, I find that I often come back to natural or tree-related figurative language. Even though pain seems so removed from me, like an invader in my body, it’s a very natural process. And comparing chronic pain to nature just makes sense. Sharing my experiences is important to me because chronic pain can be isolating. I want others to know they’re not alone.

Like “How to feel beautiful” attempts to voice, I really do believe that my body is strong, even with all of its pain and limitations. Bodies and people are resilient. We have incredible strength.

I’ve found a really vibrant, diverse community of disabled writers and artists online, at literary festivals and conferences, and in Washington, D.C. Literary magazines like The Deaf Poets Society are incredible — not only do they publish beautiful work by disabled artists and writers, but they have superb accessibility. Each piece has text, an audio version, each photo has image captions. Many of the publications that have published me have a focus on disabled writers, or explicitly state that they accept/are open to work by disabled/diverse writers.

“GiftGas!” is a shocking poem that explains and questions the brutality of gas chambers during Hitler’s regime. I, for one, did not know that the gas used was actually a pesticide, nor did I know the physical effects it had on victims. I don’t have words for this horror. When and perhaps why is it important for poets to reteach history accurately? What can we gain from relearning past events via poetry?

There’s a quote from Ezra Pound that I appreciate: “Poetry is news that stays news.” After the news articles have been written and TV news moves onto its next 24-hour spot, the poets will write lasting verse. Many poets respond or interact with the news in some way. What comes to mind is Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, written in the voice of Hurricane Katrina, poetry anthologies against war, and many more. Some of this can be seen in Rattle’s Poets Respond series.

All of this to say, yes, history is terrifying. And I’m constantly learning more about my own personal history and the wider history of humanity, the Earth, and the universe. My dad has a black and white photo of his family from Poland. When he covers half of the photo with his hand, those are the ones who died in the Holocaust. Half of his family, half of my family. This is history, but it’s still current — it still impacts our family and the millions of other Jews, gypsies, disabled people, and more that the Nazis murdered.

This is why it’s so important for poets to, like you said, reteach history accurately. So many either don’t know about or believe horrors like these happened in the past — but this is what really happened. The fact that neo-Nazism and alt-right ideologies are regaining followers is even more important for me and others to tell their stories, to retell and unearth history. To write about it in no uneven terms, with the most accurate, searing, vivid, devastating, disturbing words.


“Jello” is a really lovely, albeit tragic, poem about your grandmother. Personally, I have a hard time writing about my family without the poem becoming a cheesy, unshareable mushwich. What’s your advice for honoring family members and other loved ones without slipping into Hallmark gushland?

It’s incredibly difficult to honor family, friends, or pets in a way that doesn’t become too mushy-gushy. I don’t know that I achieved it in this piece, which is autobiographical about my grandmother, Bubbie. I just try to remain true to whoever I’m writing about.

I studied journalism in college, and grew up writing on my high school and college newspapers. This style of writing and adherence to the facts influenced my poetry. Things like Alzheimer’s, a disease/illness, or aging are inherently tragic. I dig into that tragedy in my writing, trying to strike at its gut, since my own is being gutted in reality.

I don’t think every poem I write about my dead dogs or such will or should be published. Only the really strong pieces that can resonate and connect with a wider audience are worthy of my time revising and submitting, and then maybe some people reading them. I guess my advice is to just write. Be honest or truthful. We’re people, and people crave understanding or recognition of their situations and emotions.

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I love your poem “Things that don’t suck” after Andrea Gibson. How often do you use others’ poems to influence or shape your own? What ways does responding to poems with poems deepen the conversation?

Thank you! I’ve been attending Split This Rock’s community writing workshop for over two years now, and we’re often given prompts to write a poem based on or inspired by another writer. Months ago, we read Andrea Gibson’s “Things that don’t suck” and then wrote our own version of things that we think don’t suck. I really enjoyed the way her piece allowed me to appreciate the mundane things. I’m constantly inspired by other writers and artists, so when I use their methods, or a line, or title, I do my best to attribute it back to them. Responding to other artwork with your own art becomes a sort of collaborative project. Poetry is one great ongoing collective.

“Harriet Tubman was disabled” is Crumb-sized’s mic drop poem. I am teaching this poem in every classroom I possibly can for the rest of my life. I love that it revels in its own “taboo” topic, rejoices in the very thing that so many Americans avoid talking about, even find shameful or embarrassing.

Thank you for kicking conventions, and for re-educating readers about such an important historical figure. Where else has disability been silenced, avoided, and ignored? What’s your advice for writers who want to right injustice in their work?

Wow, thank you for saying that. I think it’s so important for young people to learn the real history.

This was a really important poem for me to write. I only learned that Harriet Tubman was disabled after graduating from college, after reading more history of incredible, powerful women. The stories of women in history, people of color, Native and indigenous people, LGBT people, and disabled people often are hidden or unknown. We should be unearthing them and sharing their histories, sharing the truth. I also think reimagining histories and futures are important. Poems like “Harriet Tubman is a Lesbian” by Saida Agostini and “A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay question what we’re told, what we think we know.

Disabled voices and bodies have been silenced from most of society for a long time. Only recently through the ADA did disabled people gain some access to public life, jobs, and transportation. But often the ADA requirements aren’t nearly accessible enough, and many institutions don’t comply. There’s still a lot of work to do.

That’s why it’s so important for us to be sharing our and others’ voices. We need to hear more about the disabled experience. We need to support diverse literature and art.

For me, it’s been really inspiring to see what’s already being done, especially by writers/readers of color, indigenous and Native writers, queer writers, disabled writers, and more. Something I’ve seen a lot of are anthologies specifically themed around and by disabled writers. These are powerful, important bodies of work. But I’m hoping that more and more in the future, our voices won’t be relegated to anthologies or special disability issues only.

If you’re in a gatekeeper position as an editor of a literary magazine, be aware of your position of power and privilege. I wrote about ways to make your magazine more inclusive in AWP’s The Writer’s Notebook. Lift marginalized writers up with you. We have to support each other.


crumb-sized [Unnamed Press] is available in softcover for $11.99 plus applicable shipping or request it from your favorite local bookseller!

“River Hymns” conjures dreams of places both physical and metaphysical

This collection is truly “so sweet [it] must be sacred.” My copy is covered in sticky notes, and one reason it took me so long to write this article is I loaned it out twice to poet and reader friends. Set in a southern landscape, this collection delves into family, guilt, death, and tradition. Part eulogy, part praise, part meditation on place, these poems curl their knuckles around your heart, squeezing you in the feels while also inspiring, healing, mesmerizing, and offering sanctuary, a place where, should you also be grieving, you feel understood.

Many of these pieces feel applicable to many generations of Americans but are particularly hard-hitting in our current era of police brutality and gun violence. Take this line from “When My Mother Had the World on Her Mind, Crickets in Her Ear”, for example: “They’re shooting boys who look like you. You know my number, / use it, keep all your blood… Stay… alive.”

I was left gaping after reading “Rock-a-bye”, particularly the final lines: “how can I tell [my mother] I love you / in a way she hasn’t heard my father say before”, as well as one of the final poems, “What Is God but Rain Spilling Me Over?”, which is an homage to lost loved ones.

Another piece that has stuck with me is “Is it Love”, which is about a landlord and the power he has over his tenants; I carry so much resentment toward my own slumlord rental company and have never considered using poetry to ease my anger. It becomes deeply personal to remember that so many renters are being exploited and mistreated by those who should be caring for them, whose very job is to maintain healthy, livable housing.

Our landlord white and old
comes over smiling.

I wonder where he lives.
Why my mother cusses him…

I asked Tyree a couple questions after finishing River Hymns. 

The details in your pieces bring each scene to life and center the reader squarely in the poem. What is the importance of place in your poetry?

Place is very important to the world of River Hymns. The people become the land and vise versa. Place also acts as a container for the magic in River Hymns. Rivers, tobacco, and birds are also spells.

What does “I hear mercy / in the leaves breaking under my feet.” mean? It strikes me as gorgeous and profound – I just can’t grasp the extent of its beauty.

The land also having duende responds to the negative and positive things it has seen. The land, just like the people, asks for mercy.

River Hymns, which won first place in the 2017 American Poetry Review / Honickman First Book Prize, is available on Amazon and at booksellers, including Barnes & Noble and I think even Target. I recommend this collection for those who love poems that burn long after the book is put down.

Alfredo Aguilar’s poems refuse to be silenced

So our current political climate makes poetry a crucial method for voicing the things that our admin & its supporters want to silence: identity, ethnicity, immigration rights, beauty, consent. How do you use poetry to respond to our environment?

I think one of the many uses poetry has is to illuminate the experience of others & in that way build bridges & cultivate empathy. As incremental as that progress is, I really believe that in sharing our experiences with others we can perhaps connect with other people & make the world a less lonely place. In thinking about the current political climate & poetry, I’ve thought a lot about this Osip Mandelstrom quote: “Only in Russia poetry is respected – it gets people killed.” Poetry isn’t thought of like that in the U.S., but I do think it speaks to the how powerful & galvanizing poetry can be. Poetry can be a threat because it encourages imagining. It also reminds me of the kind of danger poets at different times face(d) just to write. It reminds that I am here, this is my world, & I cannot be silent.

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How do you use poetry to talk about personal matters? Many writers describe poetry as a way to understand what they think about something. What ways does poetry interact with your emotional and mental journey?

I think sometimes the poems articulate certain emotions before I’m totally aware of it. This is one of the things I love most about creating something, the act of discovery that can occur if you manage to get out of the way. I think poetry has at times given me a lens form which to view & sort out my emotions on the page. & to see it existing in some form outside of myself can maybe help me understand those emotions better.

When did you begin writing poetry? Why?

I began writing poetry about four years ago. Writing poems came about because I frequented this open mic, Glassless Minds, where I saw people reading & performing poetry. When I first saw it I thought it was incredible, but I never thought of it as something I wanted to do because at the time I was writing & signing songs on guitar. But when I burnt out on writing songs, I began thinking in the kinds of rhythms I heard at Glassless. I wrote down what was in my head, shared it, & that whole community of poets were super supportive & spurred me to keep writing.

Who are you as a poet? How does writing poetry influence your identity (and vice versa)?

I definitely think of myself as poet whose entry point into poetry was song. I believe I fell in love with language through music & I think a lot about the music in poems. I’m not entirely sure how writing poetry influences how my identity. I know I am not my poems & that this hold true for other poets as well, which I always think is a good reminder. I also know that when you’re described as a “poet” people will sometimes project whatever ideas they have about what a poet is or should be.

As for identity influencing my poetry, I really can’t separate who I am when I sit down to write. & it definitely shapes how & what I write about. My poems will always be brown kid poems. But there is a range of emotions & experiences that come with that & it’s more than just how people perceive my otherness.

Tell me about the publishing process. I stumble across your poems in obscure journals and also in widely-read journals. How frequently do you submit your poems? Where have you felt honored to be published?

I tend to write for a few months, assemble packets, & see if any of the journals that I enjoy reading would be a good fit for my work. I submit maybe every couple months or so. Honestly, any place that has been kind & generous enough in their reading to be say “Yes, we’d love to publish your work” feels like an honor. It still kind of leaves me in awe when people believe in my work.

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What do you like about culture? What don’t you like about culture / society? 

One thing I love, as it relates to poetry, is the community of people I’ve found through poetry. I have met so many close friends that I would never have met had it not been for writing poems… Through this art, I’ve found my tribe. & to me it’s so wild that all of this happened because I wrote down my thoughts & shared my words.

One thing I don’t really like & that I think about often is the ways in which capitalism shapes certain pressures around creating poems. In particular, the pressures to always produce or publish. Feeling that you’re always falling behind or aren’t doing enough. I think this holds especially true for younger writers. I think these pressures can be incredibly detrimental, & I try to find ways to push back against those pressures in my own practice of writing.

I really appreciate that perspective; I know I’m indifferent to being rejected now, after years of having my poems rejected, but many other people our age haven’t built up their submitting skins yet, and rejections can cripple the creative soul. Keep on pushing back on that expectation (although if you do keep publishing, I won’t complain). 🙂

What are your goals for the future?

I’m going to try & trick myself into writing a first book. I’m also working on being a better friend, brother, & son.

I can’t wait to read more from you and wish you the best in your debut collection journey. 


Interview edited for clarity and grammar.

Peace & love from Jay the Inspirational

What is the power of poetry?

Every word that you put together to form a sentence can be used to incite violence, provoke thought, or give comfort. It is our duty as artists to be cautious with our words. Poetry has the power to change the world, but we must be careful what we say. I believe that violent words have the potential to do more damage than any sword.

How has writing impacted you?

There is an infinite liberty when I pick up my pen and turn on an instrumental or start playing my djembe. I can sing or write about anything on my heart. One could say it’s therapeutic to be able to get all of my one million scattered thoughts on paper.

Who or what inspires you?

My mother inspires me. She taught us to respect each other and to treat others the way we wanted to be treated. We never wanted for anything. Granted, we didn’t have all the fancy material things, [but] we were happy. It’s all about love. My mother definitely had a major impact on me.

You write a lot about family and friends; where do you gather support and connection from?

Again, my mother and my grandmother were the first people to really invest in my music. I tell the story all the time, but my mom bought me my first keyboard. My grandmother makes a point of telling me the story [of] how when I was two, I came up to her and told her that Jesus told me to preach. To this day, I am still preaching; it’s just a different message.

What is important to you?

Love is important. Love is the energy we transfer through art, our lives, and the experiences we share on this giant space marble. We cannot advance as a people until we come together in love. Only when we put down our weapons and learn to love can we truly understand what unity is. In short, we are all [we] have here.

Unless we come together, unless we have love others more than we love ourselves, this world and our communities will continue to be at war. It is time to lay down our arms and open up our minds. Our planet is dying; cultures are disappearing. Listen, it’s easy; we just have to be nice. Stop treating your neighbor like dirt.

Be good to yourself and every living thing on this planet, from the smallest human to the oldest redwood.

Kiki Petrosino on the body, politics, & family

Harryette Mullen calls Witch Wife (Sarabande Books) a “binding spell”, and many of the poems feel exactly as though they are exposing the magic in the world: stitching together frayed edges, weaving new connections, folding ideas into themselves to strengthen them. This collection builds on natural medicine and turns into a diary of recipes and promises.

Doubloon Oath” is a poem that blesses the page with language. “Nursery” weaves a different kind of magic, exploring the fantasy of fairies and being shrunk into and subsequently stuck in their world. “Ought” feels like tumbling down a rabbit hole, but actually seems to be commentary on climate change (or any other current societal issue). Petrosino+FHP+dubloon+oath+front+cover+432+px

Hi, Kiki! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!

“Sermon” focuses on this discussion of the body: the body as vile, the body as glorious. How can a body be both these things at once? How has your own self-esteem impacted your poetry about the body (if at all)?

The image of the “vile” and “glorious” body comes from Philippians 3:21, and is phrased in the King James Bible as a question: “Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself?” Other translations of this same line juxtapose an earthly “body of humiliation” against a divine “body of glory.” So the original quotation is about subduing the earthly self–with its hungers and its greed–to the divine order, which is all loving, all giving.

I have struggled with body image and self-esteem all my life. I have hated my body and longed for transformation. Of course, the transformation I desired was a physical one, fully tethered to the earthly plain and to my society’s ideals of female beauty. With “Sermon,” I was able to crystallize that moment of prayer and critique it somewhat. I hope the poem asks, “What if the body that needs transformation is actually the spiritual one, the self, maybe even the soul?”

“Europe” feels extremely relatable in its break-up angst vibes, although no romantic partner is mentioned, so it could easily be about a different kind of loss and mourning. I especially love the line “I stood in my smithereens.” What is your relationship advice? (This could be friendship, romantic, familial, etc.)

You’re correct that “Europe” is a kind of break-up poem, albeit one that looks back on a past relationship from many years’ distance. I do not, in general, consider myself an expert when it comes to romantic relationships! But I would advise readers to cherish and learn from the “big loves” of youth, particularly the first heartbreak. The pain of breaking up is real pain, and yes, it feels awful. Yet it is in these moments of extremity that we are actually most alive and awake to beauty. Big love, big loss, big joy: live for these.

There’s a line in “Political Poem” I am so glad you wrote – “So let my body move towards justice / & away from countries.” My husband and I frequently talk about how nationalism, patriotism, and national borders harm our world; we see ourselves as “Americans” and others as “foreigners.” We don’t feel empathy for others because they “don’t have anything in common with us.” We feel separate; we assert that we’re “the best.” It’s toxic thinking, and it has created a toxic ideology attached to imperialism, Christianity, and capitalism. Could you talk about this sentiment and what ways you propose we work to dismantle the injustice caused by industrialized nations?

No matter what nation we come from, and no matter our color or creed, we all must be willing to have honest conversations with one another and recognize the ways that our own ideologies (i.e., our systems of self-representation) may blind us to the sufferings of others who are “not like us.” I don’t believe that acknowledging one’s implicit biases or learning about the legacies of oppression and privilege requires anyone to feel guilty or individually accountable for the past. We are all acting within huge systems that we didn’t personally build. At the same time, intersectionality teaches us that we all benefit from a complex arrangement of advantage and disadvantage, and we are individually responsible for:

1) learning about those systems and our place within them;
2) treating others the way we’d like to be treated; and
3) amplifying the voices of those whose experiences may be overlooked or neglected.

Some of these poems talk about motherhood and the emotions associated with bearing children or not bearing them. Are these poems autobiographical at all? If so, how has your identity been shaped by the desire and/or societal expectation of having children? What are your hopes regarding this topic?

These are some of the most personal poems I have ever written. I wrote Witch Wife to work “through” some of the ambivalence and fear I have experienced around the question of whether to have children. And though I have not settled on an “answer,” I do have lots of hopes. I hope to live a life of joy. I hope to maintain my family relationships and all the friendships that have sustained me since becoming an adult. I hope to do good work in my profession and to make my community a place of support and inspiration. Mostly, I hope to be at peace in my own life, no matter what happens (or does not).


 

Stephen S. Mills on marriage, identity, & patriotism

Stephen S. Mills has received many awards and accolades for his poetry and art, and rightfully so. His poetry is powerful and honest; it explores multiple sides of identity, politics, and relationships and left me feeling and thinking a lot of new emotions and thoughts. A History of the Unmarried and He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices are available for purchase from Sibling Rivalry Press, and he has a forthcoming collection scheduled for publication from SRP next year. And, he’s been such a joy to interview!

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What’s been on your mind lately? What are you currently writing and thinking about?

The simple answer is Shirley Jackson. I’ve been working on a poetry collection about her since January. Jackson’s work is fascinating to explore and has some interesting parallels to our current world. She was writing during a period of unrest (the 1940s-1960s) and she often examined the personal anxieties of living in that changing world. Those are things I’m thinking a lot about in this moment in our lifetime when the country seems on the brink of disaster or great change. She’s also very drawn to the outsider within the community and how society continues to enforce norms even norms that hurt the people enforcing them. All of this feels pretty relevant to our moment in time, so this project is moving in a lot of different directions: a close look at her life and work as well as my own life in this time and place.

What’s your favorite place to write in?

I’m not overly attached to place in terms of where I write. But I mostly prefer silence. I have a hard time writing around other people, so I don’t work much in public spaces unless I’m just editing or jotting down ideas. I mostly work at home when I’m alone with my two dogs. I also really like to read work aloud, so it’s best to be in a private space for that.

How did you begin writing and reading poetry? What is the impact poetry has since had on you?

I wanted to be a writer from the time I can remember and began writing at a very young age. I mostly wrote fiction as a kid and then slowly found my way toward poetry by high school. In college, it really solidified for me that I was a poet (though I have written some fiction and creative non-fiction). It helped a lot to have encouraging professors who helped me discover my voice as a poet and also taught me how to better read and explore poetry by others. I love poetry because I find it to be the most freeing form of writing. You can do so much in a poem that isn’t really allowed in other forms of writing. It has impacted how I view and experience the world. I often see how things are connected by exploring them in poetry.

I love your ekphrastic pieces. Could you talk about what art does for you and art’s place in society?

The visual arts have often been a place of inspiration for me and a lot of my ekphrastic pieces explore our relationship to art and how we view those pieces (often in a museum setting). I was an art minor in college, so I’ve formally studied art but have also explored it on my own. I love museums and have lived in New York for the last five years, so my access to art is vast here, which I love and appreciate. A lot of my work explores the relationship between various arts forms: visual art, film, television, and written works. I like seeing the interconnections between pieces and putting them together within a poem. The arts as a whole allows people windows into other worlds and experiences they might not have had or be able to have. For that, it is extremely beneficial.

I, too, am queer and married; I’m pansexual and polyamorous and live in a low-income, racially diverse neighborhood, yet I married a straight, white, cis man. But none of that “contradicts” itself. Being attracted to women doesn’t mean I have to be in a relationship with a woman to still be queer, ya know? 

We’re recently married, having just celebrated our one year anniversary this fall. I’m beginning to navigate the paths of individual identity remaining intact while being in an incredibly satisfying and healthy marriage. I’m also being sensitive to the privileges that come with passing.

Could you discuss your lines: “what does it mean to be married / yet remain queer?” What is the loveliness of marriage for you? Do you ever feel like you compromised “being queer” or is there more to being queer than pride culture acknowledges?

The goal of my second book A History of the Unmarried, which contains those lines, was to explore the notion of marriage within a queer context. The fight for marriage equality really took off right as I entered a relationship that I’m still in (we just celebrated 14 years together).

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That fight was running parallel to my own experience of navigating and defining a relationship that fit me. Over the years, I became increasingly interested in what a queer or gay marriage looks like. In the end, I’m not sure marriage should have the place it does legally speaking in our country, but the fact is it does, so those protections are important to couples of all kinds.

So for me, I’m interested in how marriage can look from different angles and that being a queer person and getting married doesn’t necessarily have to mean following a heteronormative path (though many may accuse you of doing so). I write very freely about the fact that my husband and I have a sexually open relationship and I’m interested in exploring that in my work because I see so few writers doing that in significant ways. We are in a culture right now that really loves to pinpoint and label things, but I’m more interested in the gray spaces–the hard to define spots.

I agree. People are complex, and we regularly defy stereotypes, so while labels can be helpful, they can also be limiting. 

“Election Night: November 2008” was a really powerful poem. I personally despise patriotism, as I think it drives mental wedges between Americans and “the rest of the world”; it convinces U.S. citizens (I should note, mainly white citizens of all three classes) of their superiority. So: how is patriotism affecting our culture currently? How can we step back from our egos and remember our humanity? 

It’s funny to think of that poem now in the current situation we are in. That poem explores the hopeful election of Obama, but also an uneasiness about the idea of trusting government or feeling patriotic as a queer person. I’ve never felt the patriotism that so many around me have so freely expressed throughout my life, and I think a lot of that comes from living as a gay person and often feeling like an outsider. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and didn’t know any other out gay people until I went to college. This outsider perspective has made me more skeptical of things than other people might be. I’ve also always had a great love for travel and experiencing other places, which I think, to answer your question, is one of the best ways to step back and remember our humanity. When you never leave your bubble, you have little understanding of the reality of the world we live in.


Thanks again to Stephen for conducting this interview with me! Check out his new work in Queen Mobs and follow his new book release and other news via his website.

Photo credit: Sibling Rivalry Press

Hannah Berry: Art is a job

When did this journey begin?

In October 2013. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, honestly. I was a single mom. I have a degree in art education [and wanted] to use it somehow.

[Initially], we had a lot of zoning issues we had to go through. We gutted [the building] and are still refurbishing it in sections. We just started getting off the ground this year in March.

Now, it’s super sweet to be able to work with other creatives. Doing weddings makes it easier for me to let artists do things here for lower costs.

The more recognition the place gets, the more my niche gets recognized as healthy. This is my way of helping people.

What a great partnership! What all goes on at Lions & Rabbits?

We have:

  • three yoga instructors
  • a meditation coach
  • a swing dance group (Rapid Rhythms)
  • art classes for children and adults
  • family days on Saturdays
  • we host weddings and events (max. occupancy is 135)

Also, all art pieces that are hanging up for sale are [from] local [artists]. A lot of people don’t buy art. [They] usually don’t give a shit about art, but then they like what we have [here] and start hanging it in their offices.

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Tell me about your own art career.

I paint and draw on wood. Instead of doing actual woodcutting, I’ve been doing jigsaw cutting. With my daughter, Haidyn, I do a lot of collaborative painting. [She’s] almost six.

[My dream is] I want to do murals. I want to travel and do murals. Real goals are to make the roof a botanical garden for weddings and events. I also curate other venues.

Fun fact: Hannah started hiding a stick figure in all of her art pieces. Is your family supportive?

My husband, Chris, is obviously. My dad’s a small business owner and my mom just graduated from business school. I’ve always known that art’s my jam, and they’ve always been supportive of everything I’ve done.

Keep up-to-date with all things Lions & Rabbits by liking their Facebook page and stopping in to see for yourself what’s happening in Creston. Located at 1264 Plainfield Ave., Grand Rapids, MI.

 

poetry as spiritual practice & homage: interview with Dominique Christina

Kelsey May | September 24th, 2017

Dominique Christina: poet, champion of slams, acclaimed performer, author of two books (including the first and so far only poetry collection my husband has read in its entirety – high praise indeed). I first saw Dominique perform at the Split This Rock poetry conference in 2016. During her performance, I became convinced that the best spoken word poetry is page poetry, literary poetry. Dominique blended words, alliterations, alchemed magic on the stage, and the audience was enraptured; I know I wasn’t the only person with tears streaming down their face while listening to Dominique detail the terrified escape of a slave across the historic Mason-Dixie line.

Thank you, Dominique, for doing this interview with me! How long have you been writing?

​I started writing poetry when I was 22 and in a Creative Writing class in undergrad. That course changed the trajectory of my life. I was forced into a kind of honesty that I didn’t think was available to me. But it was, and once I engaged it, I never looked back. It still took me more than ten years after that to read anything out loud, but it was miraculous for me.

[Since then], I have tried to be a more deliberate writer. I am an accidental poet but not an unintentional one. I am an elegiac poet. I write about those who have died. I feel a responsibility to them… to a great many people. When I first started writing, it was largely autobiographical. And it still is, but there has been a shift in consciousness for me. I am interested [now] in re-fleshing the bones of others.

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How do you blend performance poetry and page poetry?

Whatever is excavated from me is excavated, and I make a spur of the moment decision about what I share out loud and what I do not. But I recognize that language is urgent, and it deserves an appropriate reckoning. [I give it] the weight it deserves.

Poems like “I tell her about Jasper Texas” are difficult to read, painful to digest. They’re well-written and convincing enough that I find myself picturing a scene I don’t want to picture. Could you comment on the process of writing this piece and others like it?

​There is a nagging in my spirit, in terms of these elegiac poems specifically, but also poems that are largely social commentary; there is a nagging in my spirit that I can’t quiet down. So I wait. I wait on the words to come, and they always do. It feels ancestral. I believe it is ancestral. It’s like falling into the deep. I don’t know if I will hit the bottom. I don’t know if there will be arms to catch me. I don’t know the destination. I just know something in my consciousness needs room to move, so I give it room.

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One of my favorite lines from your debut collection, The Bones, The Breaking, The Balm, is “make me wanna curse my own sugar” from “The Shug Avery Mimicry”. How have you dealt with people who don’t support you?

​I don’t pay attention to detractors too much. I don’t hold court with them, and I don’t give them relevance. I really mean that – so much so that it is literally erased from my consciousness. I have had to fight to name myself, and I have had to mean my life all my life so I am predisposed to self-resilience. It’s second nature. I don’t expect things to be easy, but I do expect to be victorious. I refuse to hate any part of myself. I refuse to be a victim. I refuse to be silent, and I will never apologize for any of it. ​

One area we document and celebrate at Hyype is natural beauty, self-esteem, and confidence. We LOVE your naturally beautiful self, especially your hair and fashion.

​I wear my hair the way it comes out of my head. I love my hair. I don’t need coaching around that, but I recognize that many of us do need ​it, and I know why that need exists. I think the natural hair movement is as much about challenging standards of beauty as it is about deep affirmation that we are enough and have always been enough.

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Hell yeah. Thank you for the many ways you empower others. What do you consider a highlight from audience and reader reaction to your work?

I am always deeply grateful for the opportunity to hear how the work resonates with others. I am doubled over in gratitude for those who have told me that my work permissioned them to heal. That’s a hallelujah every time. ​

​What are you working on now?

​All the things. Branding for Under Armour. Writing for HBO. Traveling. Touring with my sister Rachel McKibbens as Mother Tongue Poetry. Finishing volumes of poetry. Working on an a mixed media art exhibit​ called The Ruined Woman. All the things.

​Mixed media? That sounds promising. I look forward to seeing what you create! What else is important in your life? I believe you’re a mother. How do you balance your writing career with other aspects of life? 

​I don’t know how I do it. It’s a magic act. But I have a very supportive family. They want me to be in the service of my gifts. I am met with no resistance on that front. Everybody stands back to let me get my crazy done. I’m lucky. ​


Interview edited for grammar and clarity. Photo credit: DominiqueChristina.com.

Angela Cluley: Poetry, PeaceCorps, & Past

Kelsey May | September 18, 2017

Throughout your life, you meet people who stand apart from the crowd in their consistency and honesty. Angela Cluley and I became friends about two years ago and slowly realized that we have a lot in common, from struggling with anxiety to our shared experiences serving. We did this interview online, as Angela is living in Costa Rica, working for the PeaceCorps in child development, as part of her Masters in Social Work program through the University of Michigan. I hope you enjoy reading this interview and the poems that follow. 

Tell me about your childhood.

Favorite childhood memory is playing football with my dad. It was my younger brother and I and my dad would finger draw out football plays on his shirt and then I would execute exactly the play and always win against my brother. (since I was older) We would then play football video games on the Nintendo after so that we could have additional practice. I loved it!

Least favorite childhood memory is being in foster care from 7 to 9 years old. I lived with different families, some related to me and others not. One of the random families I lived with were horrible to me. They had many foster kids they were taking care of, and it was too much. The kids bullied us, and one actually slammed my head into my birthday cake to be funny. Luckily, we didn’t stay very long.

When did you begin writing? Why do you write?

I began writing when I was in high school. I had a teacher who introduced us to poetry and I started to like putting my life on paper. I write for my own personal reflection and healing. When I began writing, I did not write from a personal standpoint, which didn’t feel genuine. When I perform poetry now, I am able to express myself and heal with the audience.

Favorite interaction after a performance?

The best reaction was when one of the audience members came up to me after reading a very personal poem that I had broke down after reading and not only did they give me a hug, they told me that they had gone through that same experience and thanked me for putting it on the stage for the world to hear, since the subject is usually stigmatized.

What’s important to you?

Family and friends are really important to me but also serving others. I want to dedicate my life to making the world a better place which is why I am currently serving in the PeaceCorps and studying for my Master’s Degree in Social Work.


Imperfect Pictures

Why do we delete blurry photos? Hit the trashcan when we see red eye or an extra flab of skin? We should love mistook photographs. Undocumented moments. Moments that cannot be tamed by the lens.  The blurry laugh line of your grandpa’s smile as he sits back in his rocking chair telling stories of back in the day mischief and wander.

the camera knowing that this moment was too great to be staged. The grasp of your mother’s hand intertwined in yours as she takes her last breath. Tears uncaptured falling onto your hands.

A child dancing in the wind, dandelion seeds swirling around, their laughter touching your cheek. Daring you to put down your phone and dance. Children are more knowledgeable than adults. They know that technology cannot replace interaction. They understand how to live life, to enjoy the sunrise, soak in the scents of flowers of grass and earth. Imperfect photos remind us that the screen cannot replace people. The night sky cannot be felt in a Facebook post. Dreams and aspirations will not be contained in 140 characters or a hashtag. Fears and regrets cannot fully be expressed or heard in a 4 walled plexiglas solitary confinement. Love cannot be shared the same without the touch and hug of a friend. Active listening without distraction.

20623612_10214193117806986_1926574328_oDon’t be mistaken, photographs are beautiful, we are able to capture a percentage of a moment through a mechanical apparatus that soaks in  light… that is magnificent but realize that there’s always a place and time for everything and though the camera can be an amazing tool it can also be the knife that stabs us in the back as we lose moments with distraction. And if you must capture then don’t pose, don’t delete post the photos with the least amount of preparation. The ones with extra hazy laughlines, wrinkles and too much or too little makeup.

You never know when this moment will be captured and ruined.


Contemplation

I was 8 years old when I wrote my first suicide letter At 8, I wanted to die, found that life was too difficult and wished for a time machine

Shaking pen hand, trembling my goodbyes across construction paper, shouting silence to the world I don’t belong, never belonged. Tears smudging letters, creating thumbprints evidence of my existence. Existence I  want to wash away. Moments flood the mind, moments alone at this table with thoughts and a pen.

As a child I watched my family drown themselves with poison and addiction so they didn’t have to feel anymore. Everyone was slowly committing suicide so I decided to write mine.

At 14 I took razor blades to my arms trying to cut the hurt off, trying to get rid of the evidence of my failures. I took scissors to my legs and stomach trying to cut my fat away. Shaking scissors interlaced in defiant fingers, cutting the moments away, ridding my body of ugly of laughing, pointing children mooing in the hallway

Hoping to be my own lipo-surgeon

At 15 I found my uncle’s suicide letter, written on canvas so elegantly, telling everyone it wasn’t their fault and not to blame themselves. I spent hours at my uncle’s grave, contemplating why, justifying his reasons then justifying mine. I imagined his moment-
Staring down the black hole barrel of a gun, the smell of dumpster death lingering, contemplating the moments that came to this.

Counting the bullets in the chamber, 1, 2, 3.

Each a different tragedy leading to this. One click into position-raise the black hole where an outstretched  hand should be, a heart should be. He goes unnoticed, he leaves like the silence of a tree in the woods that nobody hears. With one click.

At 23, I wrapped a belt around my neck. The belt a noose to end the nuisance of breathing. I pulled, playing tug of war with my breath. before collapsing to the floor and clutching the dying inside me. wheezing in and out of a self induced asthmatic attack. Each belt notch marking a tragedy, a devastating moment coming to where the belt loop meets the strap.

At 25, I learned that my brother drove his truck at a tree. 20623250_10214193117886988_1237800995_oKey burning in ignition, foot on the pedal revving the engine to life, he never felt so alive. Shifter in park, just two shifts down and the moment of adrenaline

the moment of impact. Fingers caress the button contemplating the moments
2 shifts down, engine charges ahead

tree in sight as he closes his eyes. My brother wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t gotten stuck in the mud right before the crash.

That’s when I stopped dreaming of my own death, when I realized that someone I cared about was dreaming of theirs.


Apologies

Dear Friend,

I got accepted into grad school! I’m so excited…don’t I sound excited?

I guess I’m not as excited as I should be because I only have 3 months to say I’m sorry, I apologize.

3 months to make amends to take back all the words that I said that slithered through your ear canal, leaving remnants of poison in your cranial cavity, acidifying your blood stream and finally sucking the blood out of your heart…leaving it cold. Colder than bitter frostbit ankles on long winter hikes through Antarctica. I left it below freezing.

And now I have 3 months to unthaw freezer burn, to defibrillate your heart from cardiac arrest, repair puncture wounds and warm your soul with hot cocoa. I’ll let you have the marshmallows.

I’m sorry that’s not enough, not enough time because I caused more than 3 months worth of damage and instead of healing your wounds I’ve been blanketing them in bleach, whitewashing them to agonizing thresholds, digging into your skin deeper and deeper beyond what any skin graft could repair. 20628961_10214193117086968_808854416_o

I apologize for not being genuine, for pretending everything was Alice in Wonderland shoveling all the pain down the rabbit hole and now…Where’s Alice? Searching for her in a Where’s Waldo portrait. And finding that she doesn’t exist, or maybe she’s in costume.

I apologize for sounding condescending, when I said I was proud of you, I meant it. I am so fucking proud of you. I hope that sounded heartfelt
it was, it is.

I apologize for taking jokes too far, not understanding boundaries or understanding but still crossing the line. Every time. Treating you as a finish line in a marathon race, I shouldn’t have crossed. But I did. Life’s not a competition but sometimes we still treat it like it is.

And now I have 3 months to shred the tears on pages in your book of pain, turning them into confetti pieces thrown on your birthday. Each becoming a wish for the future that could come true after you blow out the candles.

I wish you happiness, I wish you love. I wish you healed wounds. Scabbed over turned to scars that I can only hope go away eventually.

You’ve always meant the world to me and I still love you. Take out that piece of paper that I gave you..  I still love you.

20623379_10214193126247197_1988855172_oThese next three months I will help craft our resentment into paper airplanes named X and O and we can fly them in our spare time. Every Time they crash will be the last line in a goodbye letter XOXO from me to you.
P.S. I’m sorry that I wrote this into a poem but this was my only way of knowing that you’d hear my apology.

Sincerely, I hope you forgive me.


What advice would you give to other creative people who feel insecure / stuck in their art?

Keep writing, be in spaces where creativity and writing happens, practice makes perfect and if you get stuck…change your environment or people around you. Share your work with different places and avenues, with schools, publications, and open mics.


Interview and poems edited for grammar, clarity, and aesthetic / spacing.