L. A. Johnson

“Let yourself be led by joy and heat.”


Little Climates (Bull City Press, 2017)

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

An obsession with California, where I’m from and never want to leave again. All of the landscapes in my chapbook are of California, mostly of northern California. Sometimes the landscape isn’t directly stated, but it’s always secretly California. Despite being a “lifer,” I never really knew southern California landscapes well until I moved down here for school, so some of those come up in the newer poems in the chapbook. Also, an obsession with twins, mirrors, and everything that happens after midnight.

What’s your chapbook about?

Only after writing the poems of the chapbook did I realize that the poems are all about the human desire for mirroring: of the self and the lover, of the self and the landscape; even the mirroring of one’s expectation of oneself vs. who the self can sometimes be. I think there’s a deep rooted desire in most people to see themselves twinned in the world, in whatever ways matter but perhaps particularly in intimate relationships, and I think the poems investigate the times/places where there isn’t reflection but fracture. The poems get pretty stuck on this idea of failed mirroring and the speakers try to grapple with this impossibility.

Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?


In these green hills, there’s no longer time
for sleeping, for condolence notes.

Like a face, the sky looks back, with longing.

Another life, holding ice
in my mouth. Another life, leaving

my body out to be burned by the sun.

I had a lover once, with the eyes
of a monster, blue as a flood.

I felt the water lapping at my door.

I had a horse once, with the buck and gallop
of a stallion, that I lead carefully

to graze on the cliffs above the Pacific.


Twilight arrives and I tremble—

doubt sleeps among the stars,
tucked neatly into rows of twin beds.

This evening could go on forever,
like the plastic cord of a telephone

I used to wind around my wrist,

as I listened to your voice,
a miracle echoing out of the dark.

Tonight, I am witness to misshapen things,
the coast live oak growing coiled in our yard.

When the night decides, I won’t see

them anymore, shielded by ghosts
and shadow. Only then do I want to stay

close to you, like animals in a wet field,
huddling awhile, saying each other’s names.

Why did you choose this poem?

I chose to share this poem because it directly engages the larger theme of the impossibility of twinship, here for the speaker with the lover and also for the speaker with the landscape. The poem is also about desire, and is just a little bit sexy. I often like to open readings from the chapbook with this poem, even though “Hush” comes at the exact middle of the chapbook. Also, I’m drawn to this poem because it enacts this failed twinship formally, with the two sections of this poem seemingly similar, but not at all alike. The two sections of this poem are, to me, inextricably linked but also needfully separate.

How do you decorate your writing space?

I don’t have a dedicated writing place, but I will instead tell you a little bit about my bedroom, where I write most of my poems. I like to write reclined because I have chronic spinal problems that make sitting irritatingly painful and distracting. My bedroom has a large window that overlooks a small powerplant that overlooks the 5 Freeway that then, at quite a bleary distance, overlooks the mountains. I live in Los Angeles now and I love this view. I like to write at night and there are always a surprising amount of cars on the freeway, even very late. Aside from the window, across from my bed there’s a drawing of a flowered cactus that that I find very soothing.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

Hard to know exactly, but I’m pretty sure it’s the poem “Silvering.” I wrote this poem when I was at maybe the height of my obsession with silver, both its practicalities as an element and its less-practical beauty as a precious metal. I was reading a lot, too, about the mythologies and symbolism that surround silver as an object. In researching silver, I read all about how to make mirrors, though I’ve never actually made one. The word, silvering, is actually a verb that means to coat a surface with a reflective material.

There’s something about this poem that is still mysterious to me. Since writing this poem, I’ve gone on to write two more “Silvering” poems, each with the same title, although very different in content. I guess they’re triplets, but I think there’s something there I’m not done with yet.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

I don’t remember where the title, Little Climates, came from—it has no particular reference within a poem in the book. I know I was playing around, making up titles; when I first put the book together, I did it for fun—a way for me to experiment and play with my poems—and that was a title I liked. Even after revisions, however, the title stuck, as it speaks to the personal and geological microclimates these poems address.

The arrangement was a far trickier business. When my editor, Ross White, originally accepted the manuscript, the chapbook was in two sections, but later when I added some poems, I felt we had to change the order around. This was actually one of the most fun experiences of working with Ross: at one point I came to two strong possibilities of order and let Ross guide the final choice. I’m quite pleased with the arrangement, particularly how closely placed together the twin-poems, both named “Shapeshift,” are. Their strange sisterhood filters and refracts the rest of the book. Having the pair placed so close together towards the opening is a bit uneasy, in the best sense.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back-story to you? What’s the back story?

The opening poem, “Epistemology,” has the most meaningful back-story to me, although the back-story lives alongside from the poem. I wrote this poem after having a long conversation with my friend the poet Eduardo Martinez-Leyva—we used to stay up all night talking, walking the streets in New York—and the subject that resulted in this poem, a subject Eddie and I frequently discussed, was the notions of other lives. In the simplest idea, it meant discussing other lives we could have been living or other lives we might have chosen in the past. This is one of my favorite things to discuss. More elaborately, this conversation was endlessly fascinating as our friendship formed during our shared MFA and was intense in the way that only new adult-friendships can be—because we’d both lived entirely separate lives for many years, we had so much history, so much self, to cover. But our friendship was also a harbinger of a new life & our friendship changed my life. There really is nothing like talking to someone so entrenched in your life, who’s had a whole world of experiences before you knew them, about different choices you both could have made, which may or may not have prevented you from meeting at all. These sorts of conversations are extremely meaningful to me, but also are meaningful to my writing.

I came home from being out walking and talking with Eddie, probably at 4 am or some other ridiculous time, and wrote this poem and watched the sky lighten. This poem is about some of the ideas of different lives we discussed. The ‘thou’ of the poem is not Eddie, but Eddie revived the mind that wrote this poem.


I never had quiet times in the kitchen
making an icebox cake.
I never inspected the back of the box,
folded wafers up with cream.

In the morning, you fix whatever
needs fixing. You make eggs
with toast. And in the afternoon, I walk
out far past the end of the acre.

Only then do the strays come
to the porch, looking for a dish of milk,
a can of fish left open. No arguing
or crying can be heard nearby.

In the evening, the walls confine
the regular angers. We listen
to the kettle sing on the stove
that nobody bothers to stop.

In the freezer, always, only the notion
of an icebox cake—its layers
softening to be like the real thing.
The icing, milk and smooth.

Stranger, if only things had been
a little different, I could be
old-fashioned in my happiness,
blushing and easy to love.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?

The last poem in the book was the final poem I wrote for the chapbook. When the chap was originally accepted, it had a different poem at the end that I wanted gone for a variety of reasons. The now final poem, “Continuum,” came from the group of new poems I presented to my editor to include in the book and it was one that I almost didn’t send to him, as the poem embarrasses me a little. After some back and forth about the order, we realized this was the closing poem. Perhaps that’s why it’s embarrassing: it’s filled with all the heat of the whole book.

Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it? 

Try putting the words in the wrong order. I naturally have a problem putting words in the right order in the first place (even in this sentence, I’m unsure if the first clause is “right”), so this is a revision strategy that is borne out of necessity. So what I mean is, take a sentence you’ve already got and mix it all up. In English, we have unspoken rules about what sorts of words come before or after. Adjectives, for example, typically precede a noun. But what does the poem look like if the adjective is now in the place of the noun? What happens when what you’re talking about isn’t Noun, but actually Adjective? Once you’ve got a hang of simple switches, try reversing the order of whole clauses. Maybe then the sentence can crack open and you find you’ve actually been writing about something else all along. Maybe abandoning rules can allow an average sentence to become something unique.

What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

My experience working with Ross White and the whole Bull City team has been amazing. I’m worried I’m going to be too spoiled going forward, frankly. I actually love working collaboratively and bouncing ideas off other people, so perhaps more than normal I asked Ross for his feedback on everything from titles to arrangement. I admire his work as a poet and his work as an editor, so this seemed very natural to me. But Ross was never heavy-handed and always tried to lead me to my own decision. I think this was a dream editorial experience!

My friend from Vermont Studio Center, the artist Boyang Hou, made the painting featured on the cover and Ross did the gorgeous design. I feel very lucky. My favorite thing Ross came up with was to reflect the painting on the back cover—nobody ever really realizes that the front and back are mirror images, but it is this type of attention to detail BCP always brings to the table. We did a lot of collaboration on the look of the chapbook, but Ross was always the guide-star.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on finishing my first full-length collection of poems and also passing my qualifying exams in my PhD program so I can be ABD!

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Let yourself be led by joy and heat. I write poetry because I love writing poetry; I read poetry because I love reading poetry; I support other poets because, at the heart, I love poetry. Don’t overcomplicate things. This can be serious business, but it can also be governed by passion and excitement and fun.

Also, keep a private Boneyard. This is the place where abandoned poems, scraps of writing, napkins of ideas, all go to wait. This allows you to have the freedom to write a lot of trash, but not have it be throw-away; this allows you to ruthlessly cut whatever’s not working in your poems. The Boneyard is not an abandonarium, but a place of preparation. Sometimes things wait there, approximately forever. Sometimes something wicked blooms in a place where no things are supposed to grow.


L. A. Johnson is from California. She is the author of the chapbook Little Climates (Bull City Press, 2017). She is currently pursuing her PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Southern California, where she is a Provost’s Fellow. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Narrative Magazine, The Southern Review, and other journals. Find her online at www.la-johnson.com.


Cortney Lamar Charleston

“The role that art plays in our social movements is not lost upon me, as art is the artifact that best captures what it means to live through a time; a history book can tell you what happened but it can’t tell you what it felt like if you weren’t there.”


Telepathologies (Saturnalia Books, 2017)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?

I’m originally from the suburbs of Chicago, the eldest of four children born to two native, Black Chicagoans. In my early years, I grew up bouncing between the suburbs and the South Side of Chicago, which is where a lot of family and community was for me; of particular importance, regarding community, was my church―Logos Baptist Assembly. I was a church kid through and through, and while it explains so much of who I am and how I see the world, I also think my love of language, of words and their emotive and transformational power, stems from encountering oratory in the sanctuary.

Given I was likewise growing up in the 1990s, it was a transformative time in popular music, with hip-hop having thoroughly gripped the nation’s attention. The hip-hop acts I heard on the ai rwaves, from Tupac Shakur to Lauryn Hill, were my first and most favorite poets, showing me the dexterity and imaginative possibilities of language. I was mesmerized, though it would be many years before I picked up a pen in the name of poetry. That moment came for me in college, my freshman year, at a time when I was feeling emotionally vulnerable, socially isolated and ready to tip over―poetry became the outlet to balance myself through that time and moving forward. The spark was when I went to a spoken word performance thrown by fellow students at the school; it is at that moment when I felt something call to me, felt something that pushed me to the page and the stage.

What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect who you are and are trying to be as a person?

I try to align the content of my work with the content of my character. I’m a deeply emotional and sensitive man who has always lived with a strong sense of right and wrong, of equity and equality, of fairness and empathy. Given that I am also a Black man―an African American man―I’ve been forced to stare wrongness and inequality and non-empathetics in the face my entire life, and yet, I’ve also been given so many models who have worked to remove these concerns from the lives of people who look like me and my loved ones, if not my own directly. To me, that is a labor worthy of my time and my body; that is labor worthy of art, labor that needs art, in fact, to have any real chance at being fruitful, in my opinion.

The role that art plays in our social movements is not lost upon me, as art is the artifact that best captures what it means to live through a time; a history book can tell you what happened but it can’t tell you what it felt like if you weren’t there. Thus, my work tries to relay this, for those who are here now and need the affirmation that their struggle is not a lonely one, and for those who may come after me who must contend with the world my generation and those before mine have given them. From an aesthetic point of view, this means, also, that my poems are very frequently marked by specific events, to better position them in time but also to ensure that we can better identify what elements of the human experience transcend that same flimsy concept.

What songs soundtrack your making of your book?

I listened to SO MUCH music as I was writing and editing the book, but some songs that jump out from memory:

“Alright” – Kendrick Lamar

“The Charade” – D’Angelo & the Vanguard

“Freedom” – Beyoncé (feat. Kendrick Lamar)

“Penitentiary Philosophy” – Erykah Badu

“Acid Rain” – Chance The Rapper

“Nothing Even Matters” – Lauryn Hill (feat. D’Angelo)

“Fight the Power” – Public Enemy

“Krazy” – Tupac Shakur

“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” – Marvin Gaye

“Cranes in the Sky” – Solange

What are some of your favorite books? Or what are some books that have influenced you?

I struggle with favorite books, but talking about books that have been influential is a bit easier, because I’m remembering the shift it caused in me upon finishing it, even if I can’t recall how much I “enjoyed” the read or haven’t revisited it in a very long time (if I have at all). Here’s a quick list:

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X with Alex Haley

What might these books suggest about your writing?

I’d say they suggest a preoccupation with community, legacy, marginalization, and masculinity’s troublesome connection to all these things.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

Obsessions? I’d say Black death, or, rather, America’s obsession with the death and killing of Black people in so many ways. Violence as a concept with nearly infinite multiplicity is something I’m always thinking about.

What’s your book about?

If I’m being brief, I usually describe it as an exploration of anti-Black pathology. If I’m being truthful, I’d say I’m too tired to explain it. Perhaps, then, the book is fundamentally about exhaustion: my exhaustion, the exhaustion I see every day in members of my community.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?

Telepathologies came from the merger of two places in my mind: (1) telepathy, by which I wished to speak to how ideas are seemingly communicated and adopted without the need of verbal expression (image being very important here) and (2) pathology, by which I wished to relate the pervasiveness of racism and the study of it to that of disease. Funny enough, I didn’t realize telepathology was a real (but somewhat obscure) word at the time, but its meaning dovetails nicely with the book’s goal and its structure—it refers to the use of telecommunicative technologies in the delivery of medical records. Cool, right?

Anyway, the arrangement of the book is meant to further play off this idea of study (and it’s something I devised with tremendous assistance from my editor at Saturnalia Books, Chris Salerno). Each section of the book begins with a different definition of telepathology (as defined by me) that relates to the content of that particular section. The book itself is fairly thick for a poetry collection, which also is part of the experience of making the poems inside feel more like a volume full of academic/primary research. It’s something some folks might not think about at all, but it’s something that endears the collection to me that much more.

Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

One poem that immediately comes to mind here is “Meditation on Wings and Meeting Gabriel in a Philadelphia Prison.” During my undergraduate years, I would hold poetry workshops for juveniles detained in adult Philly jails through an organization called the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project (YASP also was an advocacy organization working to end the practice of housing juveniles in adult facilities). Given the boys and girls in the workshops were overwhelmingly Black (and Latino/a/x), not much younger than me, I couldn’t help but interrogate the proximities and distances between us, what led each of us to the same space in very different ways. The poem really zooms in on one student in particular, Gabriel, who just seemed like the sweetest and most innocent person in the room—quiet, soft-spoken, but simply dark-skinned. At times, that’s all it takes, and I wanted to admit and honor that.

If you want to read the poem, it’s up online over at Thrush Poetry Journal!

Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?

My revision practice can be a bit inconsistent from poem to poem, but the one constant is that I absolutely must read the poem aloud several times. Always. If it doesn’t sound right, it isn’t right.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your book? How would you answer it?

The question would be: Why the third section?

My answer would be another question: What does exposure to violence do to us?

What are you working on now?

I’m nearing the end of another full-length manuscript and at the beginning of a third. I’ll refrain from speaking about the third since it’s still so fresh, but the second will have a bit more autobiographical inspiration with the intent of looking at Black masculinity as performance and the duality inherent in that; it’ll grapple with race, and class, and sexuality and power, but ultimately all of those topics are enveloped in this interior study of an able-bodied Black, hetero, masculine speaker.

How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, the flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?

I’m not sure I am contending with it. In some ways, I feel like I don’t have the right to remove myself from the flood, at least not for too long. I’m well aware of the toll it takes on my mental, physical and spiritual energy, so at times, yes, I do allow myself space to recuperate and to withdraw, but I ultimately know there’s a fight going on that I can’t ignore. And I won’t.


Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poems have appeared (or are forthcoming) in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, New England Review, AGNI, TriQuarterly and elsewhere. He serves as a poetry editor at The Rumpus.


Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello

“Rewriting the poem on a fresh page becomes another filter by which to revise.”

marci c

Hour of the Ox (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016)

Rate your writing space?

I love the atmosphere created by draping a string of white Christmas lights around my desk. Usually there are poems tacked on the wall, and some sort of Batman meme.

What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect how you are and are trying to be as a person?

They are inextricable for me. I’m not talking about finding my personality quirks expressed in the work, though I’m sure psychologists would have a field day with that angle of analysis. There is nothing more disappointing for me than reading and loving someone’s work, only to find them to be insufferable in person. I try to be generous and empathetic with my work, and therefore with my readers.

What are some of your favorite books? Or what are some books that have influenced you?

So many! People always seem surprised when I name the poet Ai as one of my earliest influences, given the nature of my own work. Other books I constantly return to are Don Mee Choi’s whole body of work, Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, Terrance Hayes’ Lighthead, Li-Young Lee’s Rose, and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. I also love multigenerational family sagas such as Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies. While we’re at it, I’m going to say that the anime/manga versions of Rurouni Kenshin and Cowboy Bebop made me consider loyalty and honor in unexpected ways that have stayed with me for years.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

I’m fascinated by Korean history, and wanted to explore aspects of it that I haven’t had access to as a Korean American adoptee. For this book, I did a lot of research on the Korean pearl-divers (haenyeo), Jeju Island, and its historical relationship to the main peninsula.

What’s your book about?

Hour of the Ox explores the many ways in which different people grieve based on their relationship to the lost loved one, how they reflect and move forward or don’t. We don’t exist in a vacuum, so things like culture, history, filial duties, and personal values influence how we react to the things that happen to us.

How did you decide on the title of your book?

Grief, memory, and emotion distort time, so I wanted a somewhat unfamiliar way to measure such an intangible thing as time. One of the threads in the collection draws from the Chinese zodiac, which prescribes personality attributes to specific measurements of not only years, but hours. The zodiac used to measure 2-hour increments of the day. The hour of the ox falls between 1 and 3 a.m. The ox is traditionally a work animal, but everything bad and shady also happens that late at night, so it’s a conflicting time full of darkness and anxiety.

Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?

Complete overhaul. I had a professor who recommended starting each revision with a blank page. Even if you make no changes, rewriting the poem on a fresh page becomes another filter by which to revise.

What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

University of Pittsburgh Press has been incredibly kind and attentive with my book. Although they had the final say, they asked me for recommendations, and I was fortunate that the artist I wanted said yes. I was drawn to the work of Jono Dry, a self-taught photorealistic-surrealist South African artist. The cover art is a large-scale graphite drawing done by hand over many, many hours. His process time-lapse videos are incredible to watch.

What are you working on now?

I’m collaborating with Don Mee Choi and E.J. Koh to translate the selected works of Korean poet Yi Won into English. I’m also working on new poems about America’s involvement in the making of North and South Korea, as well as a series of lyric essays on food, international adoption, and Korean culture.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Try everything. Read books you love, read all genres, read outside your comfort zone, what you think you don’t like, to try to articulate what it is you don’t like, and why. Experiment. Consider every poem you read a prompt to write your own poem. Keep at it. And be kind. There is room for every school of thought in poetry.


Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello is the author of Hour of the Ox (University of Pittsburgh, 2016), which won the 2015 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and the 2016 Florida Book Award Bronze Medal for Poetry. She has received poetry fellowships from Kundiman, the Knight Foundation, and the American Literary Translators Association, and her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Best Small Fictions, The New York Times, and more. She serves as a program coordinator for Miami Book Fair.


Denise K. Lajimodiere

“If writing poetry, read at least one hundred other poems for every one you write.”


Bitter Tears (Mammoth Press, 2016)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?

I’ve written poetry since I was ten years old. It was an escape from a tumultuous childhood with a violent, alcoholic father and dysfunctional family. I was a voracious reader, tucking books under my belt and climbing trees to sway in the wind and escape to, say, Narnia. As an immensely shy child, poetry, and books in general, were wonderful companions. I stopped writing for a while as a teenager (this is in the late 1960s) when I saw that there were no Native poets – with no role models, I assumed that Indians just didn’t write (I also suffered from a near debilitating inferiority complex). I found, though, that one can’t really stop writing, and I kept notes/poems on scraps of paper, etc. — many of which then found their way to my first book of poems. In 1984 I picked up the book Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich. I was stunned to see that not only was she Native but she was from my tribe! I began to write again at a furious pace. She did the introduction to my first book, Dragonfly Dance.

How do you decorate your writing space?

I write in bed, late at night, decorated with total silence, and comfy, lovely pillows.

Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?

Bitter Tears

The school’s maintenance man drives me to the cemetery, unlocks a sagging gate under a wrought iron arch, stark letters, “Chemawa Cemetery 1886.”  Ancient fir trees tower above the graves. Weeds and wildflowers cover the small flat plaques. Offering tobacco, I gently sweep aside the weeds to read the names and years they died. What did they die of? Loneliness? Worked to death in the barn and fields? Pneumonia? A beating from the Gauntlet? Suicide on the tracks in front of the school?

I count twenty-one plaques with the date 1918, the year of the flu epidemic. I find plaques stamped with the years my father was a student there. Did he know this boy? That one? Were they friends? As a carpenter apprentice, did he hammer together the casket they were buried in? Was there a funeral? How were their parents told? Sap seeps down a fir tree’s trunk like bitter tears, its roots tugging at a plaque, holding a lone child in embrace. I brace against the tree and weep for the children, for the parents left behind, for my father who lived, for those who didn’t.

Why did you choose this poem?

This poem speaks to the many traumas a boarding school survivor experienced, loneliness, corporal punishment which sometimes resulting in death of the student, forced labor, diseases, not being buried in their home reservations due to lack of funds from both the school and poverty of parents.

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

As a professor, I’ve been doing American Indian Boarding school research for about 10 years. I had done some informal interviews of my parents, aunts, and uncles.  I’ve interviewed many survivors. The poems in Bitter Tears are mostly vignettes I’ve heard from survivors who didn’t want to be fully interviewed. They are also poems about my family that were sent to boarding schools.

What’s your chapbook about?

American Indian Boarding Schools and the horrors that happened to survivors as children.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

I wrote ‘My Grandfather Was A New Initiate’ after interviewing him before he died at age 84. After visiting the Chemawa Cemetery a few years back, and seeing the very old fir tree with sap trickling down, I knew I had the title to the book of poems I knew I needed to write.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

For my other poetry books I would agonize over the arrangement of poems. This one didn’t matter, each was as powerful as the other and stood alone whether in front or at the end of the book.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

“Yurok.”  I went to the Chemawa Cemetery a few years ago, and saw a Native man, with his dog and an orange bucket, working in the cemetery. He had carefully weeded, mowed and cleaned the cemetery. He invited me to meet his mom. She told me the story which is the poem. Her story kept me awake all that night thinking and crying about the horror she went through. It’s called secondary trauma, and I’ve had to be careful of my mental and spiritual health in recording these horrific stories.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?

The final poem was the title poem “Bitter Tears,” and went through many revisions. So many boarding school survivors I interviewed were bitter/angry about their experiences as children at the schools, and shed many bitter tears. The sap on the tree struck me as those tears.

Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?

All my poems go through multiple revisions. Some I put away for months, even years before I take them  out and look at them again. I still have boarding school poems not in the book that I’m currently revising. I also belong to a wonderful writer’s group. I firmly believe that if you want to be a writer you need to belong to a writer’s group. Their input/suggestions for revisions are most helpful.

What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

Collaboration was 100% with my editor. A young friend is the artist and her painting was absolutely perfect for the cover.

If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?

My second chapbook is called Thunderbird, and came out last year, 2017. This one is a collaboration between the editor and my traditional, pre-contact Ojibwe art called birch bark biting. The book was hand printed on a turn of the century printer, and has a small piece of birch bark biting on the cover. So clever! It was the brainchild of the editor, Suzzanne Kelly, North Dakota State University Press.

I have also published a full-length book of poems, Dragonfly Dance (Michigan State University Press, 2010).

What are you working on now?

My second full-length book of poems titled His Feathers Were Chains has been accepted for publication – waiting for a publication date. My children’s book, Josie Dances, is awaiting final editing approval. I have completed an academic manuscript that is currently accepted and being edited, about my boarding school research , Stringing Rosaries: Stories from Northern Plains Boarding School Survivors, Fall, 2018 (North Dakota State University Press).

So, I’m now working on my third full-length book of poems!

How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, the flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?

Wish I didn’t spend so much time on Facebook. I don’t tweet or pay attention to Twitter, SnapChat. I don’t have cable, so my home is peaceful and quiet.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

If writing poetry, read at least one hundred other poems for every one you write.


Denise K. Lajimodiere is an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, Belcourt, North Dakota. Dr. Lajimodiere currently works as an Associate Professor in the Educational Leadership program, North Dakota State University , Fargo, ND. She is one of the original founders of, and past president, of the National Native America Board School Healing Coalition. Her academic book Stringing Rosaries (North Dakota State University Press), about Native American Boarding Schools and their legacy, will be published in the fall of 2018. Dr. Lajimodiere will be retiring in 2018 to devote more time to her writing, art, and dancing.

Nicholas Gulig

“In effect, war is the sound of zero-making, an erasure of our connection to other people—their names, the places they live, the cultures they produce and are produced by, their singular and distant lives no longer present in the ambient cacophony. “


Orient (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2018)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?

I grew up in Eau Claire, WI, a mid-sized city in the Midwest. The older I get, the clearer it becomes how much this mattered. Privilege matters and I had it. I had it in the ways a person typically thinks of it, like race and class and all the other things that folks don’t earn when they get born. Granted, I’m not white and my parents most certainly weren’t rich, but we lived and breathed among folks who were, and I reaped the residue of that. Like all my friend’s parents had been to college; education was an environmental given, a path that we, too, were expected to take, that was available to us. My family lived less than one block from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where my dad worked designing sets and sound and lighting for the theatre department. My neighbors were professors, librarians, politicians, and policemen. When my dad died, the city manager of Eau Claire was with us in the room, standing with our family around the bed, being there with him, with us. If you’re foolish (brave?) enough decide to be an artist at an early age, it helps who your folks know and if they aren’t like, “Sorry, kid, but you’ve got to get a job and help us pay the bills, otherwise we’re fucked.” You get my point. It matters—socially and economically—and I had most of all that going for me.

But I also reaped a whole world of cultural privileges. I grew up with kids whose parents actually valued art, music, literature, and who encouraged them to be creative and follow their hearts and dreams, and so we did. We started punk bands in our parent’s garages, wrote songs, and photocopied angsty poetry zines at Kinko’s. Our parents bought us instruments for our birthdays, and amps and four-tracks for Christmas, and records and computers and microphones and books, everything we needed. So that’s how and why I started writing. Because I wanted to and I was able to, because making art was what the other kids were doing—it was cool—and because people of means encouraged us and helped us along the way.

A lot of us are still doing this, making music and writing books, still following and making good on the grown-into, more matured versions of the aspirations we had when we were younger. Twenty years later, the kids from Eau Claire with whom I grew up with are touring Europe, winning Grammys, and buying houses in the countryside with the money off their internationally best-selling first novels. That’s not normal, not by any measure. My sense is that if you look at the majority of artists who succeed in the world today, making a living off their art, winning awards, getting the “good” jobs at universities, the ones which give them time and money to work creatively, you’ll find they come from means. Yes, folks work hard, like really really hard, but this work has to also exist in a context which encourages it and nurtures it, which makes it possible. There are exceptions, of course. I’d like to see the numbers.

How do you decorate your writing space?

The two recurring presences in my writing space are a sheet of paper made by Timothy Barrett and an old photograph of my mom. Mr. Barrett is a paper maker from Iowa City. He’s also a MacArthur Genius Award winner, which I love. That a person can be recognized at the national level as a “genius” for making paper is something the United States gets right. There’s a lot of things we don’t get right, but that’s not one of them. The first day of Jim Galvin’s workshop—spring 2008—he handed a blank page to each of the kids in the class and explained the process by which Mr. Barrett made it. According to Jim, the procedure dated back like a million years to some long-gone civilization I can’t remember. Mr. Barrett, he explained, was the only living person on the planet who knew how to make this paper, so the minute any of us thought we’d written something more interesting than what this empty page already was without us, we should let him know. I’ve kept that paper, blank as the day I got it, tacked to the wall of every writing space I’ve worked in since. Sometimes, though, I’ll stick a photograph of someone to it, folks I lionize like Muhammad Ali or Dolly Parton or Serena Williams. Today, Will Oldham’s on there, singing folks songs at a punk bar in Missoula.

The other presence, as I said, is my mom, a photograph taken when she was just 19, right before she left Thailand to come to the United States for school. In it, she’s super serious, almost scowling, and beautiful. I love this picture because it marks the boundary between the life she had always known in Bangkok and the one in Wisconsin she would eventually come to know. My sister and I are the product of this border, of the decision to cross it which my mom was brave enough to make.

What’s your book about?

 Like most books, Orient’s about a lot of things: deserts, refugees, religion, conflict, culture, orientalism, violence, pornography, art, music, binary thinking, noise, politics, identity, empire and the way we speak of it, language and the way we speak of it. The list goes on. It’s a real cacophony, a total cluster-fuck. And my dad, too, he’s in there, as a character, first and foremost, as someone who used to be alive, but he’s also there as a kind of moral compass. He was, by all accounts, a good person, like strangely good. His ethics weren’t complicated, they weren’t theoretical, but they were deeply present nonetheless. His ethics shaped the way he moved through the world, the way he treated people, a quiet, almost invisible kindness which made everyone around him feel at home. At his funeral, his friend Charlie gave a brief eulogy that started, “Art had a code. I didn’t know it, but I knew that it was there.” The more I read the book as I was editing, the more I felt his ghost alive and working, moving across the pages, moving me, informing my decisions. As an artist who is also a son, I wanted to do right by him, keep him living somehow in the ethics of the poems. Thus, the last photograph in the book is of a shoreline in Ontario. We placed his ashes there the summer that he died, and so he’s in the book in that way, too, an absence which helps me navigate the ghosts of others, a loss whose presence in my life has helped to bring me closer to lives of folks I’ll never know.

And this, I think, is what Orient ultimately attempts to navigate, the potential violence of the distance between ourselves and other abstract lives. In the most literal sense, the poems in this collection speak to what it means to watch a war on your computer, one that lasts your entire life but that happens somewhere else to people you’ll never meet, but who you imagine and feel nonetheless. And this is a different type of violence, I think, the making up and imposing of made-up narratives onto others, even when these narratives are sympathetic or well-intentioned. So, Orient is also about watching the suffering of others from far away and feeling helpless, feeling distant, and then, at the same time, watching within this want the image of yourself committing a parallel form of violence in the act of your attempt to empathize. I wrote the book and in doing so I implicated myself, my art, the work itself, and now I have to live with that. I hope that whoever is in a position to forgive me will. The only ones who can, I think, are two people I first saw on television however many years ago when I first began to work, the woman and the girl to whom the book is dedicated. They were standing at the edge of the desert. I do not know their names.

What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect how you are and are trying to be as a person?

I wish I could answer this question directly, simply, but I can’t. So far, I’ve needed three books to answer this question, and even then, I don’t think I’ve even started to engage the question in any kind of satisfying way. Orient, for example, lives as the latest of many attempts to think through the layers of these intersections. In the end, I think I landed right back where I started, which is super humbling, frustrating. Although the book opens in an oasis where everyone is safe, the last poem in the collection concludes in stark acknowledgment of the speaker’s own complicity with the systems of capital and culture that pervade nearly every corner and community on the planet. Some days I get to the end of my book and feel like it’s really important (necessary!) to articulate the extent to which I’m connected, directly and indirectly, to all the heavy awful shit that lives out there. But on other days I get to the end of my book and all I can see is how little actual progress was made over the course of the four years it took to make. I mean, didn’t I already know all this when I first sat down to write? If so, then what’s the point? Why’d I write this book? What good has come of it?

Part of the reason is that early in the writing of Orient I saw the woman to whom the book is dedicated interviewed on my brand-new television set. She was standing on the edge of the Syrian Desert with her daughter, fleeing the war there. She looked strong, but also tired, and she was frustrated and scared and angry. Holding her daughter, she asked the reporter how it could possibly be so difficult for people watching to imagine why she needed to leave her home, why, at the same time, she also needed someone brave enough to offer her a new one. I say “brave” here, not because I saw/see her and her daughter as a political or cultural threat, but because I think love is brave, and empathy; I think empathy is brave. And trust. And selflessness, which is the root word of compassion, a willingness to say unflinchingly: “I want for you to be.” In almost every way Orient is dedicated to them, an attempt to open the borders of my aesthetics, of my community, and “imagine love for those I do not know” by returning to the love for those I do.  Within these borders I tried to make good on the woman’s imperative to envision what I knew I lacked the means to see and feel directly, which is its own kind of ethical risk, as I mentioned, but it’s one I took.

Ultimately, I wish I could’ve done a better job, that the book was more perfect somehow. Like maybe if I could’ve written better she and her daughter might have somehow had a better chance of crossing out of Syria, that the people on the other side might welcome her more willingly, might put themselves aside and help—that I, too, on the other side of the poem, might find a way to put myself aside and help. For a long while I spent a lot of time trying to understand a line of thought which argued why this woman and her daughter shouldn’t be allowed to enter Europe, why the fences were cruel but necessary, why multi-culturalism had failed, why pluralistic societies so often struggled to integrate folks from other cultures, etc. But in the end, I put that literature away. I asked myself what felt right to me, what I would hope that someone would do for me and my own daughter, what my dad would do if he were still alive to ask. And I know what he would do, what he would tell me. And so I went ahead and wrote the book.

What songs soundtrack your making of your book?

Throughout Orient I listened almost solely to minimalist composers Brian Eno, Harold Budd, and William Basinski. In particular: Eno’s Ambient series, Budd’s Jane 1-11 and 12-21, and Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. In fact, Eno’s linear notes on “Ambient Music” in Music for Airports proved a central grounding point of Orient’s concerns.  Eno wanted to create an “environmental music” for and of “particular times and situations,” an atmosphere of influences made of subtle, fluctuating noises that could “accommodate many levels of listening and attention without enforcing one in particular.” Said differently, ambience occurs as drone, as static, the sound of that which constantly surrounds and fills and enters, the noise of “is” so there it almost “isn’t,” which permeates and penetrates and holds the listener within its weather.

As I listened to these musicians I began to hear that the world too created a kind of ambience, that part of what living in the age of information demands of us is that we live and breathe within the strange persistence of a thousand information cycles happening at once. Sitting at my computer, I could feel the news drone over me from all directions, and often the news was made of war. In effect, war is the sound of zero-making, an erasure of our connection to other people—their names, the places they live, the cultures they produce and are produced by, their singular and distant lives no longer present in the ambient cacophony. Orient takes this static on in an effort to reorganize the noises that negate our sense of a shared fate, an attempt to translate static-death into a living music capable of thriving in the “doubt and uncertainty” which Eno so passionately valued. In this sense, he has a lot to do with Keats whose insistence on negative capability (the ability to thrive in mystery and doubt) lives for me as a kind of ghost poetics, an argument against identity, an invocation of our inherent otherness, always otherness, always drift.

Now that the book is finished and I’m no longer mumbling the poems across the background drone of Music for Airports or the Disintegration Loops, the words feel naked without them. My goal, soon, someday, is to work with musicians in my community to return the poems in Orient to some new version of the orchestrated static from which they first emerged, to continue the work’s concerns with noise and name in conversation with other people who also, in their own way, in their own mediums, have other names and noises to contribute.

Could you share with us a poem from your book? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the book, or that invites the reader into the world of the book?

An Image of the Book in Which I Hear You

If there is standing water in the desert. If there is water and I am standing
over it. Staring down into the murk

or mirror of the pool.
If I am breathing. If I can see myself in the oasis.

If I am speaking and there is water
and you are there.

If you are also speaking. If we can hear across
the water, our voices

carrying in opposite directions,
our voices carrying. If our languages unspool in blue drifts

against the distance, escaping reticence.
If the distance of our reticence

is false. If it isn’t crossable.
If we cross it anyway.

Who will carry us? If our narratives erase us.
If our histories return to us

as names. If we are living
in the error of our alphabets. If the centers of the letters

hurt. Master, Stranger. What is water,
where is water safe

if solitude displaces us? If we are homeless, finally,
each of us. If we wander past

each other, our faces moored
to their reflections,

the edges wrecked. Is it imaginary?
If the images we make

remake us. If there is mercy
in us. If our speaking

changes, and we, ourselves,
are changing, making. If we are made

in the image of the other. In ambiguity and contradiction.
If we consent

to not be solitary. If we imagine we are somewhere.
If there is shore

What are some of your favorite books and writers? Or what are some books and writers who have influenced you?

I’ve got a rotating cast of books and writers who move through me on an almost daily basis, most of whom are friends and/or contemporaries. So please forgive my nepotism. Sarah Nicholson, Jane Gregory, Kevin Holden, and Cody-Rose Clevidence are all poets I live in awe of and who I lump together somehow, though they’re radically different. Cody-Rose especially. They’ve got a book called Beast Feast which is ear-drugs. And they’ve got another coming out, I think, like now, but I can’t remember what it’s called. Sara Deniz Akant is another poet who I wish that I could write like, but I can’t. No one can. She’s has a book called Babette which is truly one of the strangest, most deeply interesting works of English I’ve ever held. I give it to my students sometimes and they’re like “what the fuck is this?” and then they look at me like I’ve punched them with a soft pink fist.

Beyond my immediate contemporaries, if there’s any single poet, like from the canon or whatever, who has stuck around and made his presence felt, it’s George Oppen. Of Being Numerous is a lifeline of mine, a holding center to which I turn when nothing else is working. I’d be nothing without that book. It’s so completely beautiful and intelligent and wrought and gentle and scared, and it’s also completely and utterly in love. This is to say, in other words, that the book is also selfless. If there’s anything I think poetry is good for, it’s that, getting over yourself, reaching through yourself, for others and for the space in which we move in the direction of other, less isolated lives. Of Being Numerous—the poem, not the book—ends quite literally in another’s voice, an excerpt from Whitman’s journal (April 19th, 1864). In it, Whitman is attempting to allow the capitol to grow on him—maybe it was new then and he didn’t like it yet?—and so he goes out each night at sundown to look at the Genius of Liberty, the statue standing at the top. There, the sunlight turns her to a star, a sun to which he’s drawn, evening after evening, an orienting light which guides his curiosity. The poem ends there, in the word “curious…,” which isn’t Oppen’s, but someone else’s, followed by an ellipsis. I love this word, this gesture. There’s so much awe in it, and selflessness, a hesitant but ever-broadening bewilderment, a wondering, a wandering away from the world and self that one is used to. The poets to whom I owe the most have always helped me do this. “What I like more than anything,” writes Oppen at the very end of the collection, “is to visit other islands.”


Nicholas Gulig is a Thai-American poet from Wisconsin. The author of North of Order and Book of Lake, his most recent collection, Orient, won the 2018 Open Book Award from the University of Cleveland State Poetry Center. Currently he lives in Fort Atkinson, WI with his wife and daughter and is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Sofia Starnes

“Do not discard any of the little things, those tactile, sensory, daily experiences; they are like Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs leading the way home.”


The Consequence of Moonlight (Paraclete Press, 2018)

Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your book? Perhaps a poem that introduces the work of the book, or one that invites the reader into the world of the book?


Imagine one magnolia in the yard,
a solitary grosbeak out of reach
on a solitary branch—
the season’s final archive of ascent.

Imagine that it drops a leaf.
Your glance catches it,
forgoes the arbor and the drift-wing
and the extent to which they live,

to reconcile the iris with one sky,
one tree, one mortal bird.
Intent, it’s all about intent—
as with the eye, no more surveyor

but a lover in the momentary light,
or with the moon, drawn resolute
when tugging at the mist,
the immaculate lagoon, the girl

in mid-discovery.
At last, she stirs, full weight on little
feet, her focus on the door….
How green each word outside her room.

Why did you choose this poem?

This poem is, as its title indicates, an invitation to the reader to enter into the book. Each poetry collection creates its own landscape—spiritual, physical, mythical—wherein the reader must be made welcome. In this case, the mystery of that poetic landscape (and there will be much mystery throughout the book) seeks to be offset by simple hospitality, expressed through the archetypal character of a girl, emerging into life. The emphasis on the word “intent” is meant to recognize that things are not so much what they appear to be but what they are called to be, in other words: things (and we) are known for  their (and our) intrinsic purpose. We spend much of our life figuring what that purpose is, in other words, our identity, as individuals and as part of the human race.

What obsessions led you to write your book? What is it about?

This “being called by name” is something of incredible importance to me. It is vital. It sustains our worth. So, this would be the underlying obsession that led to the poems. However, the catalyst that allowed them to unfold as a unified body was my attraction to the moon.  Why the moon? Well, the moon has no light of her own but lives on borrowed light, as we do. She fulfills herself in absence. She is both luminous and obscure, generous and aloof, source of knowledge and evidence of mystery. She is all this, because she must be here and there, orbiting the earth but not of the earth. Whether I wished for it or not, the moon kept appearing in my work, obsessively. I had to give her the place she had earned, allowing her qualities to radiate into our own paradox: our being both temporal and atemporal, out of sorts with the reality of death, not yet filled with the reality of living.

What’s the oldest piece in your book? Or can you name one poem that was the seed for the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?

I don’t recall exactly which poem I wrote first, but one of the earliest—if not the earliest—was “Elena Leaves Home.”  Elena is the girl of the initial poem “Invitation” and she takes us through the book, threading her way amid the other poems to hold them together. She is out on a search, a journey—a perennial theme in literature—in a Spirit-saturated world that never ceases to be intensely physical as well.  Her need to answer the question “has anyone called me?” guides her motions, and I hope those of the reader as well.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?

When I’m writing the poems, initially, I’m merely allowing my current “obsession” to find its expression. Eventually, I sense that I have no more to add to it, that the next poems will be but a repetition of earlier ones. And I stop. It is time to look at the poems as a whole and to figure out their narrative, how they might reflect an emotional movement, a transformation in thought, from one poem to the next.

All of my full-length books thus far have been organized in three parts (it seems I am Trinitarian, not only in faith but in poetic outlook), and The Consequence of Moonlight is no different. The poems in the first part reflect the emergence of Elena (she could be any of us), her initial venture into life. The second part situates us in that place (or time) of life, somewhere between becoming and being, when we experience a loss of identity. Already too far from our initial home, yet not close enough to our destination: who are we after all?. Hence, there are no Elena poems in the second part of the book. The closing section is one of rediscovery, of coming home to the name we have been given, our only name. Elena re-emerges to personify that experience.

Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

“Elena Faces the Fire.” The scriptural quotation that accompanies it is, “For our God is a consuming fire”(from Hebrews 12:29).

When I was a child (decades ago!), we lived in Manila, the Philippines. Not too far from where we lived there was a horrific fire which killed an entire family, except for their smallest child who was somehow saved. My father knew the parents, distantly, and one day we drove by to see the charred ruins, which I never forgot. I wondered about that child, on and off, over the years; she was survivor and victim all at once. I thought, too, of the God who spared her—or allowed her to be spared—while the rest of her family were not. The poem is in the child’s voice, now grown, and yet it could be any of us, facing the mystery of suffering.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

Tough question. If there is one, it could be “And His Name Was Clemens”, because it is the only poem in the book that refers to a specific, historical person: Mark Twain, who was unflinchingly merciless to himself, bore a name closely akin to “mercy” (Clemens: clement, clemency). I wondered about him, his creative genius yet his painful inability to experience mercy, when experiencing the loss of his loved ones, especially his beloved wife.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?

The last poem I wrote was “Invitation,” which is, as I’ve noted above, the first poem in the book. Having already determined, more or less, the trajectory of the poems and where each was likely to go, I found myself needing an entry into them, something to hint at a central character (Elena, the archetypal creature). The collection begged for an introduction, and so “Invitation” emerged. Fortunately, the poem did not require too much “handling.” When poems are driven by need, channeled by purpose, and steeped in an already existent poetic scene, they come more naturally to me. It is as if half the task were already done; that is, the task of rooting the words, recognizing their landscape.

When poems come easily, one does wonder whether they’re “done.” I worried about “Invitation,” but it was soon picked up for publication by ARTS and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I was very grateful that and felt that the poem was a gift to me.

Did you read straight through your book out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different? How were your ideas about their individual meanings changed?

I always read each poem aloud when I revise it, and I try to listen to it as someone would at a reading—for the first time. I find that the ritual of hearing the words, as if they were coming from someone else, is important. It reinforces the identity of the poem outside the poet, where it must survive unassisted. It lays bare any flaws in the poem’s cadence, a word or phrase that may not flow smoothly. However, having done that, I do not read the collection aloud as a whole, when it’s done. You might say that I whisper it to myself, from beginning to end.

Describe your writing practice or process for your book. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

I can only write in one place: at my desk, by the window, overlooking the quiet street we live in. There are dog-walkers, and children, and a few cars, and large trees—pin oaks, pines, maples—visible from my perch. I need that setting. I do not write while I’m traveling or anywhere else. I do not make notes, or scribble verses that come to my mind unbidden. I do not journal.

I’m not picky about the time. When I’m in the middle of writing a poem, any time is good; when I’m struggling, no time seems to work. I do not wake up at the middle of the night with a poem, or part of a poem. I can’t rely on that. (I sleep too soundly.) I do force myself to stick to a ritual: the place (by the window, as I’ve just mentioned), the time, evening hours. I believe it was Richard Wilbur who said (and I’m paraphrasing): “It’s the muse who writes for us, but she must know where to find us.” The muse knows where I will be and approximately at what time every day.

What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your book been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

Paraclete Press has been extraordinary. Once I had submitted the final version of the manuscript, their design team set out to create the book. I was asked for some input, mostly if I had some preferences for the cover, as well as a priori objections. I shared some ideas… and waited. When the cover arrived, I was allowed to comment on it (I liked it!) and then we worked on the proofs: several rounds, in which I was allowed to make further changes to the poems. The same process applied for the back cover, the endorsements, the brief bio, etc. It was the smoothest process I could have envisioned, with a staff that was and continues to be genuinely supportive.

What are you working on now?

Every full-length book is followed by a fallow time, at least for me. A time to listen, watch, wait to be called, while continuing to abide with words. I remain open to whatever may be next. Every  poem must fulfill a need, must respond to an urgency, something that had to be said or shared. There is no need to clutter the literature with unnecessary poems.  In the meantime, I  have been doing extensive translations of art essays, from Spanish to English, and am mentoring several writers through Creative Writing Critiques, an editing service I provide which brings me enormous satisfaction and (I hope) is of value to the writers with whom I work.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

Definitely music. Perhaps a classical guitarist. Unfortunately, it takes an enormous amount of work, between being a neophyte and an accomplished musician, and while you’re not yet good at it, you have to put up with your own inadequate,  painful-to-the-ear playing, before anything gratifying can emerge. I would need to be a different “me” to fulfill that alternative dream.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing? What wisdom do you think you may have arrived at?

Do not shy away from the big questions of meaning;  they are at the heart of how we experience the little things.  Do not discard any of the little things, those tactile, sensory, daily experiences; they are like Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs leading the way home—but strive to set them in a larger landscape. Forgo easy gratification.  Just because writing is language and we learn language as toddlers does not mean that writing is easy—even when it seems to be. In my experience, the more we write, the harder it is.  People will tell you to believe in yourself. I agree, but I would add that we need to believe in something, someone, outside ourselves, so that when the going gets tough (as it will), we have a lifeline to pull.  Cynics and nihilists do not write genuinely creative work.

What inspires you? What gets you to the page?

Questions that relate to being—and to meaning. Big questions whose answers might be found by following little things, minor events, daily occurrences, to their ultimate consequences.


Sofia M. Starnes, Virginia’s Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014, is the author of six poetry collections, most recently, The Consequence of Moonlight from Paraclete Press; she has also edited two poetry anthologies. Her first collection, The Soul’s Landscape, was selected by Billy Collins as co-winner of the Aldrich Poetry Prize. Her first full-length book, A Commerce of Moments, won Editor’s Choice in the Transcontinental Poetry Prize competition and was named Poetry Honor Book by the Library of Virginia in 2003. Another collection, Corpus Homini, was awarded the Whitebird Poetry Series Prize. In addition, Starnes is the recipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the Rainer Maria Rilke Poetry Prize for “A Poem for Single Flesh,” the Christianity & Literature Poetry Prize for “Provinces,” and the Marlboro Editor’s Choice Poetry Prize for “The House that Bled,” as well as five Pushcart Prize nominations. Her poems have appeared in such journals as The Notre Dame Review, The William & Mary Review, The Laurel Review, The Southern Poetry Review, and been anthologized in the Virginia Writers Club Centennial Anthology, The Hawai’i Literary Review Best of Decade edition, and in Poems of Devotion, an Anthology of Recent Poets. In 2013, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters degree by Union College, Kentucky. Currently, Sofia Starnes serves as Poetry Editor and Poetry Book Review Editor of The Anglican Theological Review; she is also a translator of art essays for Galería Cayón (Madrid, Spain) and the Ayala Foundation (Manila, Philippines). She lives in Williamsburg, Virginia, with her husband, Bill.




Nick Makoha

“the fact that I lost the use of my mother tongue… meant I leant on language and poetry in particular to codify my emotional experience.”nick

Resurrection Man (Jai Alai Books, 2017)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer? 

I was born in Uganda and had to flee Uganda because of the Idi Amin regime. My mother and father were separated at the time, so I spent much of my childhood in boarding schools in Kenya and England and also spent some time living with my father, who worked in Saudi Arabia as a doctor. I think the nomadic nature of my childhood and the fact that I lost the use of my mother tongue in the countries I moved to meant I leant on language and poetry in particular to codify my emotional experience.

I wrote my first poem when I was six and carried on writing through my childhood. But the death of my maths teacher Mr. Patel in my boarding school of a heart attack was a  pivotal event. He was like a father figure and took me under his wing. When he passed I was inconsolable. I remember crying under a tree. In my grief I thought there must be something I can do, so I wrote him a poem. They published that poem in a yearbook. My classmates caught me crying as I penciled each line.

This outted me as a poet and I have pretty much written ever since. But it was not after leaving University with a biochemistry degree that I decided to take poetry on as a career. I left my job in banking in quite dramatic fashion by burning my suits. I knew if I was going to have any chance as a writer, I could not give myself a back door or safety net.

How do you decorate your writing space?

I think of my writing space a bit differently. I often work from home to allow myself to be in easy reach of my library in the living room. The ingredients that make up my writing space are reading, silence, my computer, a notebook, and music. I work at the dining table, much to the annoyance of my wife.

Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook?

King of Myth

Back when you were taken from our lives like
the son of God ascending into heaven at the barricade
to another life, policemen on their motorbikes
named you King of Myth. You danced to tossed grenades,
all part of the charade in their fire ritual. In a restless air
we surrendered our weapons – axe heads, shanks, short rope,
blades, some poison and all its animal understanding – now fair
game to the enemy with our world in their scope.
They came down hills during the blackout, phantoms
from a fallen sky with years of practice at soft landings
onto roofs in darkness, like a spirit slipping into skin.
The voice of their guns kept the violence from escaping.
A disturbance in the trees is easily mistaken for wind.
Honey I’m still free, take a chance on me – as the radio sings.

Why did you choose this poem?

One of Uganda’s great poets is Okot p’Bitek, and the poem he is known for is Song of Lawino, an epic poem written in rhyming couplets. My poem is not as grand but also uses rhyme as its engine in the form of a sonnet. I am impressed by Okot’s narrative strength.

This book but particularly this poem is an homage to him and that poem.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?

Chapbooks are like trailers to a great films. With that in mind there are several poets I like Inua Ellam’s chapbook Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales — it led on to a wonderful theatre show called The 14th Tale. Anything by Jay Bernard but you can’t go wrong with The Red and Yellow Nothing. And my fellow East African Warsan Shire’s  Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth and Our Men Do Not Belong to Us. You might also like sugah. lump. prayer by Momtaza Mehri or Safia Elhillo’s Asmarani. There is a new generation of writers whose work is so exciting in the way it bleeds into other art-forms.

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

Rather than obsession I would use the word enquiry. I realize that the Idi Amin war was my event horizon. My identity as a writer comes from having to define my African experience in a Western world. The impact of this event is what the core of the book is about.

What’s your chapbook about?

Resurrection Man is about life. My life and the other Ugandans that form my birth nation. It looks at how life is infected by war. War tests all aspects of the human condition. If you read the poems my hope is you will see that the world I present before you is tangible.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

The title poem “Resurrection Man” and “The Self” are the oldest poems that look at identity. “Resurrection Man” places you in the heart of Uganda, and “The Self” places you at an interrogation at Heathrow Airport. I knew when I was arranging the order that the poems would echo the moving away from Uganda and entering a new world.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful backstory to you?

“Kingdom Of Gravity.” I wrote it when I was at Caven Canem. It speaks of the River Nile, which has its source in Uganda. This poem acts as a bridge between the world of the reader and the world of the writer. If they can follow me along the Nile to the source, then they can look at themselves in the river and not just see my world but more importantly themselves.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

I do not know if “misfit” is the word I would use, but I can say that the poem “Language We Cry In” is the only poem in the chapbook that did not make it to the full-length book Kingdom Of Gravity. My editors and I set a high bar for the poems that qualified for the collection.

Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it? 

Revising is not an easy skill to master. As far as strategy, the aim is to arrive at the best      version of the poem. Part of that process requires critical feedback from people you   trust. You also have to have a hibernation period.

What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

The editorial experience had three layers to it. First, it had to be read by Robin Coste Lewis, as she was the judge for the Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Cave Canem Chapbook Prize. I was notified by Cave Canem the day before Christmas that I had won. At that point, Jai-Alai Books took over. They read it several times cover to cover, individually and as a team. They gave four editorial suggestions. I was okay with all of them, as they did not disrupt the flow of the collection. The cover design was out of my hands. That credit goes to Seth Labenz.  What I like is that it gives nothing away about the narrative, but at the same time exposes us to two elements of the world, smoke and darkness.

If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?

Resurrection Man (2017) and The Second Republic (2014) form the core part of my first full collection Kingdom of Gravity. It is a cinematic portrait of Uganda during the Idi Amin regime. My lens focuses on the people of Uganda hopefully without bias as they struggle to hold on to the values of life in the extreme context of war.

The Lost Collection of an Invisible Man (2005) is my first chapbook and the title is a nod to Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. It looks at how my Ugandan identity renders me invisible in a Western space. It is my first look at what it is to be a writer in exile.

What are you working on now?

Currently I am working with Fuel Theatre and director Roy Alexander Weise on a play called The Dark. It charts my mother’s journey as she smuggled me out of Uganda during the fall of the Idi Amin dictatorship. I am also embarking on a national book tour with my fellow writer Roger Robinson. The tour is called Mixtape and will fuse all the influences that helped create the poetry we write.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Take it seriously in the good times and the bad. Good writing is a function of good reading. These two elements are part of a process and although we may all have different processes to achieve our writing, we must find ways to keep these processes alive.

What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?

If you could not write, what would you do with your life ?


Nick Makoha‘s debut collection Kingdom of Gravity was shortlisted for the 2017 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection and nominated by The Guardian as one of the best books of 2017. He won the 2015 Brunel International Poetry prize and the 2016 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize for Resurrection Man. A Cave Canem Graduate fellow & Complete Works alumni, His poems appear in  The New York Times, Poetry Review, Rialto, Triquarterly, Boston Review, Callaloo, and Wasafiri.