Kristin Robertson

“A big part of writing a poem is in the searching, the wondering, the questioning.”


Surgical Wing (Alice James Books, 2017)

The title Surgical Wing and the different poems titled “Clinical Trial: Human with Wings Patient-Reported Outcomes” on the contents page excited me when I first opened your book. It’s genius! I felt like a nurse going through patient files. How did you come up with the idea of arranging the book in these sections?

Thank you so much! The “Clinical Trial” poems start each section because they are this strange series of persona pieces that somehow manage to bring together the human poems and the bird poems.

Why a book about birds and wings? I’m the type of person that likes to understand a person and why they do what they do. This fascinates me. I want to know the story behind the book.

When I had major surgery, my surgeons who were birdwatchers talked about birds for hours over my open body on the operating table. It’s one theory.

Many, if not all, your poems in this book are couplets. I know from your interview with Hank Backer that you try to do some “conscious uncoupling.” But would you say that couplets are your go-to style when writing poems? And if so, what do you like so much about them apart from the wonderful white spaces they create?

Maybe bilateral symmetry? I say that only half joking—pairs, two halves, come naturally to humans. But, yes, it’s the airing out of the lines and the breaks on the page. The subject matter also informs the poems. I was writing about wings. Now I’m writing a lot of longer, single-stanza poems.

My favorite poem in this book is “Moon Elegy.” It resonated with me and my childhood in so many ways. I have so much love for these lines: “If we search the dictionary for Lunar Perigree, the closest moon ever to the Earth, we’ll find it cast after Pedigree and Peregrine – stay and feed the dog, or fly away?” They invoke in me the need to go out and follow my dreams (perhaps because I’ve never really owned a pet and have never experienced the bond people seem to have with them). Could you tell me more about your process when writing this poem?

I wrote this poem the day after the closest moon ever to the Earth. It’s a poem about how we can’t write about the moon anymore. So it’s a poem about the moon. I’m not a fan of making the moon or the ocean or cats off limits in poems. Certainly you can talk to beginning writers about cliché and sentimentality, but don’t outlaw leaves or stars. I wrote a whole book about birds.

Another one of my favorite poems is “Hyoid Bone.” I notice lines like “Lonely versus lonesome, seeking a companion or pitifully forlorn.” I love how these two similar words are actually very different. In this poem, as well as a few others such as “Haint Ceilings,” you reference a runaway girl. How did she develop and what does she mean to you?

Yeah, she’s a ghost of the book. Maybe one of many, but she’s James Wright’s Jenny to this book. I wouldn’t call her a muse, though. One exception is “Haint Ceilings.” The girl in that poem is a different girl than the others. She and her boyfriend were murdered, and the case still haunts a lot of people who lived in my hometown.

Did you really create the book’s last poem “Will Humans Ever Have Wings?” out of Yahoo answers?

Yes! I was reading articles about human beings and wings, the history, all the different apparatuses, and on a whim I typed it into Yahoo Answers. The responses were so bizarre. This one is truly a found poem. I copied the answers verbatim and pieced them together. I could’ve added a lot more—they talked about DNA, bones, weight in grams—but I feared my reader might not find them nearly as charming as I did.

Does the poem “Will Humans Ever Have Wings?” mirror your ideas/beliefs?

The book is full of sickness, death, and loss, which is not to say it doesn’t have moments of light. This final poem, though, attempts a bit of levity. And in doing so it also helps to bring the whole thing down to earth, I think.

“Rules of Surgery” could read as six separate poems. The idea of one poem separated into six different sections and yet still one poem blew my mind. What was the inspiration behind the rules? Why these specific rules? Was it really “recited by surgical interns at a nurses’ station”?

Yes, these are “rules” new surgical interns learn on the job. I wanted to turn them around, look at them from the patient’s point of view, and have a bit of fun with them.

After reading your book, I stared at the book cover for a long time. I almost want to see a patient with one wing in a hospital background. I know that often times the publishers get the say in choosing the cover (which somewhat upsets me, being an aspiring writer and illustrator). Did you have a particular image in mind for your book cover? If so, what was it?

My publisher asked for a list of images I liked, so I brainstormed a lot of artwork. I sent them about fifteen to twenty pieces, and from those they chose “Black Crow.” I think it’s a haunting, beautiful painting, and the artist, Michael Creese, has been so supportive since the book’s publication.

In the last Clinical Trial poem, the last lines stand out: “It means while surrendering, you kiss the ground.” It’s a huge contrast to “Human wings will be here. Mark my words.” There is a shift from pride to humility in a way. What is your take on this?

The book wonders, in pretty much every poem, what it means to surrender.

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

By far the oldest poem in the book is “While You Were Out.” It’s about ten years older than the rest of the poems in here, but I fought to keep it. It’s an old friend. And it’s part of the love story.

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

“White Birds” was the first poem I wrote about being sick. Many of the others are true stories: “Crane Wife,” “Alaskan Charter,” “Leaving Coins on the Mouths of Cadavers at Emory Hospital, A Defense.” Most of the poems in this collection are true stories. Some are just told slant.

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

Oh, so many! The strange abecedarian. “Emergency Rooms During Thunderstorms.” “Killing the Geese.” “Retiring the Human Name.” Even the “Clinical Trial” series is a misfit. It’s a book of misfits. While I like a project book as much as the next guy, I appreciate a collection of poems that stand alone and also whisper to each other.

A first book often ends up being a scraping together of the poems you’ve written and published during a graduate program. But poets write their obsessions or at least what’s going on in their lives at the time, so inevitably themes and subjects recur.

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?

I revised down to the last possible minute. I was revising even while on the phone with the copyeditor. I revised the “Clinical Trial” poems significantly on the final set of page proofs. I have a hard time letting poems fly the coop, if you will. The book is complete because they sent it off to the printer.

In your interview with Hank Backer at Grist Journal, you said that your clinical trial poems were previously published “as one” and that you saw them “working together as a series.” Were these poems your inspiration for this book? What was there a definitive point when you decided that you wanted to expand on this idea of “human beings who undergo plastic surgery to get wings”?

No, they weren’t the inspiration for the book, but they do link the book together. The book is about living in a body you want to escape and coping with illness, love, loss of love. It’s also a book about birds and birds as symbols, as metaphor. The wing poems came very late in the writing of the book, and I wasn’t sure at one point if they would even make it in there.

In your interview with Alice James Books, you say that “when you get really sick, the line between natural and unnatural, well and unwell, becomes murkier. The object of so many procedures, your body can become barely recognizable, and you want to transcend, transform, even transmogrify. At this point in the writing of the poems, the birds appeared.”

In “How to Transform Your Arm into a Wing,” this freedom to turn your arms into wings, to have “four meters of wingspan for human flight” comes at a price: “forever give up violin, a pen, your rings, the button shirt.” This seems to say that perhaps flying, perhaps escape is not really what we need. Can you tell me more about this contrast between freedom and escape?

In the end, you can’t escape from your body. This book doesn’t have all the answers. But I’m suspicious when a poem, or a book of poems, or a poet seems to have it all figured out. A big part of writing a poem is in the searching, the wondering, the questioning.


Kristin Robertson is the author of Surgical Wing (Alice James Books, 2017). Her poetry appears recently or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, The Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, and Prairie Schooner, among other journals. The winner of the Laux/Millar Raleigh Review Poetry Prize, Kristin has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Squaw Valley. She lives in Nashville.

Marjorie Maddox

“Writing is part of the process of discovering the world inside and around us.”


Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (Wipf & Stock, 2018) (re-issue)

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

I was fortunate to grow up in a family that values the arts. My aunt, after whom I was named, was an artist and traveled the world in her VW camper. She would take me with her out into the countryside, set up an easel, and—while she was painting a field of corn or the hills of southern Ohio, she’d assign me the task of writing a story or poem.

My father, after his health forced him into early retirement, became an accomplished photographer. Often, he would encourage my creativity by welcoming me into his world of images. My mother, although not an artist herself, was an avid reader and art enthusiast; she would type up my childhood stories and poems into small “books.”  At every turn, I was made to feel that writing and reading were valuable, necessary, and enjoyable activities. Never were these considered a waste of time.

As a young child and as a teenager, I worked diligently on stories and poems, submitting these to church and school contests. I carried a notebook or a library book with me everywhere. As an undergraduate college student, I took as many creative writing classes as I could and worked on the student literary journal. I went on to receive my MA with a creative thesis, working with novelist Sena Naslund, at The University of Louisville, and an MFA in Poetry at Cornell, where I studied with A. R. Ammons, Robert Morgan, Ken McClane, and Phyllis Janowitz. For the past twenty-eight years I have had the privilege of working with my own students—including young poets, fiction writers, and essayists—at Lock Haven University. And, of course, I continue to read and write.

How do you decorate your writing space?

With windows. I often write on my back sun porch, looking out on the world.

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?

How I see the world and how I process what I witness very much affects what and how I write. That being said, I am intrigued by point of view and how that influences the ways we interpret experience.  Much of my writing has to do with looking at the world from different angles. Sometimes, that involves looking through the lens of various genres. (I write poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and children’s literature.) Sometimes it involves blurring the lines between genres. For example, in Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation, I experiment with prose poems (“Seagulls”), travel poems, concrete poems (“Ribs” and “Tongue”), a long series of poems on body parts, poetic responses to an Anglican theological exam, free verse, as well as fixed form, lyrical, and narrative poetry. In short, I am a workaholic who enjoys experimenting with different styles, forms, topics, and perspectives.

How does my work reflect who I am and am trying to be as a person? As Joan Didion famously explained, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” To me, as for many authors, writing is part of the process of discovering the world inside and around us. Our subject matter is wide! For example, some of my books focus on the body, current events, baseball, fairy tales, Pennsylvania, travel, identity, faith, the teaching of writing and literature—and that’s just for starters. I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

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?

Here is the opening poem in the collection.

Treacherous Driving

____________________“It’s as safe as traveling to work…”
____________________–a cardiologist before performing a transplant

The first night of the blizzard
that stranger inched into Ohio.
Halfway through he skidded
into our snow-spackled lives.
His heart is buried
in my father,
who is buried.

This is the hole
in the stranger, in my
father, in my own
cracked chest, hail cupped in its cavity,
the aorta beginning to freeze.

All winter,
the weather preaches white
lies: fields blank of roads,
a curve straightened,
the even light of sky.

Tonight the breeze is all
icicles, banner-like
from the clouds. Nothing
is moveable
in this treacherous state.

Our wheels spin,
their rhythm: a breath
that pulls us
then stalls. The law

of the body, of the state,
cannot replace the chain
reaction, jack-knifed lives,
hope piling into hope.

The man and his heart,
cold on an icy road,
warmed us for weeks
while winter, a clear blue thing,
wafted light.

Why did you choose this poem?

My father had his first heart attack at the age of 39. After surviving ten cardiac arrests, he died following a transplant when he was 65. A good part of my early years until right before I was married were spent not knowing if or for how long he would survive his latest episode. For years, my father waited for a heart donor.

Poem background: It was my first year of teaching at a state university in Pennsylvania. I was in Ohio visiting my parents over my “spring break” when blizzard warnings began flashing across television screens. I hurried back to Pennsylvania, arriving just before the “Blizzard of 93” hit fast and furiously. An organ donor in Ohio died in a car accident, and his heart was rushed to the hospital for my father. For days, I could not get back to Ohio. Snow was chest-deep; two dozen states were buried in white, their highways completely shut down.

Although the transplant itself took hold, my father’s blood eventually became infected. Desperate, doctors amputated his legs and some fingers. At the end, they could not save him. To this day, I think of that stranger’s heart buried inside my father, who is buried.

Because it begins the collection, “Treacherous Driving” introduces many of the themes that follow: the transplant itself, the body, intersection of the medical and spiritual, danger, hope, fear, grief, travel, early marriage (mine and later my mother’s when she remarried), teaching, others’ tragedies—including the Flight 800 plane crash from my community that killed 16 students and 5 chaperones. Driving/traveling, as the epigraph alludes, becomes treacherous on many levels, the promise of safety slippery in this sometimes dangerous world.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

After my father’s heart transplant, I became particularly obsessed with all things medical, even carrying around Gray’s Anatomy for an entire summer while writing the long series “Body Parts,” which includes 34 sometimes funny, sometimes serious poems on kidneys, lungs, hearts, spleens, and other parts of the body. Here are two examples:

The Lung

A miniature stingray, it glides only inside its bone cage,
slate-gray and shiny,
sliding about its domain, inhaling
anything within breath: the wind,
whispers, wild weeping, the way
a man walks through the winter
air toward a frozen pond,
a pole, a cigarette.

He looks down through the hole
in the ice and sees the stingray, or its memory,
circling the dark cold
of his body. What does it take to breathe
in or out? To keep
the poisonous spine swishing
in such chilly waters about the heart?

And here’s another, lighter one:


The shuffling-off-to-Buffalo, toboggan ride slide,
do-not-pass-go short slope to the stomach;
the tunnel of swallows and masticated morsels
bound for the belly, the bowels, and the bowl
on days when everything (boiled, spoiled, or fried)
in the choking world goes down,
the right way.

The intersection of body and spirit remains a central focus of my work.

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

The book begins with my father receiving his heart (“Treacherous Driving”) and ends with a poem about finding, years later, an answering machine tape, which my mother had saved in a drawer and labeled “Dad’s voice.”

Tape of My Dead Father’s Voice from an Old Answering Machine

He keeps telling me he’s not at home,
that he’ll reply soon. He doesn’t know
he’s lying, that what’s hiding between the space
of words is space he’s gone to. He repeats his name,
which is not the name I call him. I call him now,
hear only the unanswerable space answer. Home
is always where we’ve left, the space that means “before.”
I know to keep his voice rewinding until the space
of now begins to answer. At the tone, I can’t find a home
for how all space rewinds. Lying, I repeat that I am fine,
take out the home he was, and leave my name.

I think this particular poem, and the repetition of words that it employs, emphasizes the haunting and sometimes invisible grief of those who have lost a loved one, particularly if that loss has happened bit by bit over a span of many years.

As for the title of the collection, the poem (vs. book) “Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation” has for its catalyst a news story about a man whose job it is to transport via airplane a suitcase of eyes and skin to transplant recipients. It imagines his spouse anxiously waiting at home, as well as recipients hopefully expectant in other countries. Perhaps one of the oldest pieces in the collection, the poem helps connect transplant poems, travel/transportation poems, and transubstantiation (body/spirit, theological) poems.

Which poems in your book have the most meaningful back stories to you?

The collection as a whole and the heart transplant journey it records are particularly important to me on a very personal level. Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation is my second full-length book of eleven poetry collections, but perhaps the one to which I feel most connected. I am particularly happy to have it back in print. One of three finalists for the Brittingham and Felix Pollack prizes, the book won the Yellowglen Prize and was published by a small press in 2004. My hope is that these poems may now be introduced to the larger poetry and medical world, particularly to those who have or have known others in similar situations. Here are two poems that speak to this:

The Waiting Room

does not wait patiently
for us, its stucco walls vacant
of the pain we hang upon the gray
and graying we soon become. Between,
we pretend to plan a son’s
baptism, book revisions, a summer life that lives after
this. Your husband wants a liver;
I want a heart that breathes an average rhythm
within my father’s ribs. The others here
won’t fit into our tight, cramped list
of miracles and what we need
to get there. Behind our prayers
the backdrop of another family winning
what they’ve lost, their stuttered cares:
the infection and rejection on our cross.

Bury Our Heart

________Like every other,
this is the year of shifting
sorrows, the thin shadows of land
that slip from countries we’ve left
for fear or want
of finding ourselves
in a handful of dirt.

________Even in sleep,
a warm wonder of birth and loss,
there too the earth’s vibrations,
the leveling of cliffs in eyes we claim.

________The soul is the land
liquid in the lines of veins
that stripe the inner atlas.
It bubbles and flows, smooths
the rough roads, carves out
our caves of refuge,
our weeping echoes.

________Here too, they will find us:
the outcasts, the fugitives,
the lost, the abandoned,
the running-for-our-lives.

________Oh homeland of sadness,
these dusty bones that could not save.
I have held in my clay hands,
the fine grains of his blood,
bold in my muddy palms;
I have held in my earthen arms
the jagged pot of his pain,
brimming and bitter.

________I have waited
for that open mouth
of the world
to lay him down.

That being said, I feel compelled to add that the book also contains hopeful and humorous pieces. Life, after all, continues to be a mix.

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

I’m not sure there are “misfit” poems, but there are pieces that take on different meaning in the context of contemporary society. For example, the final stanza of “After the World Trade Center,” which was written before 9/11 and, of course, Trump’s presidency, ends with this stanza:

Outside and down
the street, the Trump Tower
shadows the sidewalk.

In retrospect, the poem seems a bit prophetic.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

I am particularly grateful to the designers at Wipf & Stock for how well they listen to and then implement ideas for cover designs. The image of a surgeon’s hand peeling back a blank page to reveal a world beneath—brilliant! This is my third book for Wipf & Stock. For each, the designer took my cover ideas and ran with them, creating images that not only are eye-catching but also represent well the overall themes of the books. See other covers here.

What are you working on now?

My next collection, tentatively entitled Seeing Things, will focus on memory, psychosis, disease, and their ramifications, as well as explore the ways—on both a personal and national level—we distort or preserve memory, define or alter reality, and see or don’t see those around us.

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?

One way I cope is to write about them, which is what I did in Local News from Someplace Else—a book that responds to headline news and raising children in an unsafe world. But sometimes you just have to get away from all of the busyness of the world. I write best in the mornings. Otherwise, I tend to get overwhelmed by the day’s mundane obligations. In connection to your question, this week I began a poem that starts with the lines

I woke up this morning with poems in my head
but somehow the world got in.

Enough said?


Marjorie Maddox, Sage Graduate Fellow of Cornell University (MFA) and Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lock Haven University, has published eleven collections of poetry—including Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (Yellowglen Prize, Wipf & Stock 2018); True, False, None of the Above (Poeima Poetry Series and Illumination Book Award Medalist); Local News from Someplace Else ; Wives’ Tales and Perpendicular As I (Sandstone Book Award)—the short story collection What She Was Saying (Fomite Press); and over 550 stories, essays, and poems in journals and anthologies. The recipient of numerous honors and co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (Penn State Press), she also is the author of four children’s books. For more information, please see

three poems at Poetry Foundation

“Journey Into Poetry”

“Take Note: For Father’s Day, Poets Talk About Writing About Their Dads” (interview about Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation)

ArtScene (Fiona Powell speaks with Marjorie Maddox about Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems)

“Learning to Weather”  on Verse Daily

Poetic Lines TV interview

Fomite Author Page with reviews

Writing across the Genres interview

Speaking of Marvels interview about True, False, None of the Above

Dorothy Chan


Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018)

What’s your book about?

Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold is all woman. It’s an ode to all your fantasies and nightmares and desires. It’s the idea of reversing the heteronormative male gaze and instead, focusing on the female gaze—in my collection, woman becomes the sex subject rather than the sex object.

More specifically, the speakers of my poems are mostly independent Chinese American women. They’re the alpha females who “refuse to be the only one with / feminine wiles” (“Ode to Nurses, Love Hotels, and Marilyns on the Covers of Playboy,” originally published in The Boiler). They’re the ones combating fetishization, particularly of minority women, while at the same time both refusing and honoring the Asian traditions they come from. My speakers may talk a lot about sex, but they’re also tracing back their family histories in conversation. For instance, in the opening poem, “My Father is the Son of a Concubine,” originally published in Duende, the speaker is first remarking on how “It’s crazy how much cleavage the concubines / on the hot, new Hong Kong soap are showing,” but then transitions into a familial tracing of her father’s past as the son of a concubine, which in this context means second wife.

On a practical level, the book is divided into three parts: I. Snake Daughter, II. My Chinatown (我 的 中國 城), a quadruple crown of sonnets, and III. Centerfolds, Histories, and Fantasies.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

Here’s a comprehensive-obsessions-list: food and sex, food and sex, food and sex, the Chinese Zodiac, B-movies, Old Hollywood Glamour, Hong Kong, my parents’ past, the abridged story of how my parents met, my celebrity crushes, intersectional feminism, the female gaze, popular culture, snakes and eels, the sonnet, the ode, Playboy, queer culture, Japanese love hotels, anime, kitsch and visual art, fashion (both haute couture and ready-to-wear), and Las Vegas.

What songs soundtrack your making of your book?

A lot of drag queen music, in particular The AAA Girls’ latest album, Access All Areas.

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

To be honest, each of my three sections contains at least one poem that catalyzed the rest of the book. I’m going to name the highlights: in I. Snake Daughter, it’s “Ode to All My Flings Who Have Hated Dim Sum,” originally published in Hobart; in II. Chinatown (我 的 中國 城), a quadruple crown of sonnets, it’s I. Chinatown From the Movies,” originally published in The Great American Poetry Show; and in III. Centerfolds, Histories, and Fantasies, it’s the title poem, “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold With the Killer Legs,” originally published in SELFISH.

“Ode to All My Flings Who Have Hated Dim Sum” really represents the vibe of my poetry: Chinese American female speaker is unsatisfied with the men around her, and this pattern brings to light bigger issues such as fetishization, “Yellow Fever,” and microaggressions. She narrates how, “I’m sure none of these guys get it—/ they’ve called me an adventurous eater as I spit / out the bones from my chicken’s feet bathing in porridge, / though my grandmother orders the same dish / every morning in Kowloon.” Food is inherently tied to both culture and family, and this speaker has had enough: she no longer wants to explain to her dates the difference between buns and dumplings. She can now enjoy all the food by herself. And she’s most certainly not taking any of these boys back to Kowloon to meet her grandparents.

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

To me, the idea of three sections is just so beautiful because it pays homage to the triptych in art history. I love the idea of books in three sections. Three beautiful columns.

Regarding my title, I really have my mentor Barbara Hamby to thank—Barbara is a goddess. We were looking at my table of contents at Black Dog Café, this great place in Tallahassee. I remember my poem, “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold With the Killer Legs” jumped out at Barbara, and she suggested shortening it to the title it is now, Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold. It’s an ideal number of syllables. Barbara’s selection inspired me to challenge my Poetic Technique students to create titles that are five words or longer. On a side note, regarding the title poem, I really have my mentor, David Kirby to thank for the capital “W” in “With the Killer Legs.” He told me to change it to a capital “W” to make my poem more like a Prince song. Brilliant.

How do you decorate your writing space?

Haha! I remember this was the question I suggested in my Chinatown Sonnets interview. Thank you, William. I decorate my space with a lot of knickknacks, Kidrobot Blind Box toys, Sanrio figurines, and little gifts from friends. I like a lot of color and animation. I hate the stereotype that artists and writers can only work when moody. You’ve got to be able to write regardless of mood.

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

I like to do what I call a “test run.” I think it’s crucial for poets to be willing and able to revise over and over and over and over again. The “test run” doesn’t necessarily refer to a specific strategy or device, but what it means is having the poet keep the original copy of the poem, make a copy, and then experiment the craziest ideas on that new copy. And then repeat, repeat, repeat. It’s important not to get too attached to the work in its original form—that makes one unnecessarily defensive. Instead, it’s important to test out any and all new ideas. Innovate. Do a “test run” on a poem like you would a “test drive” on a brand new vehicle.

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

What’s your beverage and/or snack of choice while writing?


Dorothy Chan is the author of Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018) and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets, The Common, Diode Poetry Journal, Quarterly West, Blackbird, and elsewhere. Chan is the Editor of The Southeast Review.

Shauna Osborn

“Surrounded by different tongues as a young girl attuned my ear to the cadence and verve that makes each one distinct.”

Osborn.pngArachnid Verve (Mongrel Empire Press, 2016)

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

For the first seventeen years of my life, I lived in a small, rural, agriculturally based town in southwestern Oklahoma. The oldest of three daughters in a working class family, I became a primary caregiver for both my younger sisters at an early age. Both our parents worked evening and graveyard shifts—my father at a tire factory and my mother as a convenience store clerk. We lived in a trailer home on my grandparent’s land right next door to their house. Everyone in the family worked as field hands through harvest season, primarily bailing and hauling alfalfa.  I grew up hearing four different languages almost daily. Many of my poems code switch between those languages– Numu tekwapu (Comanche), Spanish, German, and English. Surrounded by different tongues as a young girl attuned my ear to the cadence and verve that makes each one distinct. It became easier to connect each language with its cultural markers and the spices inherent to its sound. Because of this, my poems often create a landscape common to working class multi-lingual life in rural America.

My uncle told me as a child what I’d be when I grew up. He said because I wrote and read more than any adult he’d met, that meant I’d have to be a teacher or a book writer. I didn’t believe him, because I didn’t know anyone who’d written a book and teaching meant you had to go to college—another thing that was out of the ordinary where I lived. Yet, since then, those are two of the things I’ve included in my career path. Thus, my uncle had figured me out way before I ever did. When I was younger, I wrote mainly fiction. I didn’t write much poetry until the second or third year of my undergraduate degree. It took a lot of encouragement, practice, and small successes before I thought I could write things that other people would want to read. When I found out I got accepted into an MFA program, that started to change and the possibility of being a writer seemed real for the first time. It still feels strange when people tell me they’ve read my work or enjoyed reading my book. It’s a good strange, though.

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?

Certainly. Also, if you go to my website, there’s a mini collection of poems from the book available for download with the press kit. The first poem in the book, “Antes Taabe (Before the Sun)” sets the tone of the collection.

poem 1

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

I’m a big fan of backstories (well, all forms of story, really). That’s one of the reasons I included so many notes about my poems that tell the backstory/inspiration/etc in the book. It’s hard to pick one as the most meaningful, especially since many of the poems in the collection are written portrayals of people I know especially well. If I had to choose just one, I’d go with one that isn’t a poem focused on those folks (just to keep it equal between all of them) and is focused on one of my favorite musicians. “Song for Nina” came about while mourning the loss of Nina Simone on the day she passed. Her music has always hit me square in the solar plexus and left me an emotional ball of goo. She’s amazing—every single part of her goes into her songs and you can feel it when you listen. She wrote and performed some of the most amazingly overt political works during the Civil Rights movement, which almost killed her career. I remember hearing about her death like it was yesterday—it shook me pretty hard. After walking around in a daze, listening to her albums for several hours while mourning, I started writing. The poem became my eulogy for her—a way to show gratitude to her for what she created.

I’m pretty calloused when it comes to death—I’ve had a lot of close family and friends pass. Somehow, the creatives I really admire bring out a response that’s quick, strong, and usually lyrical when they pass. The death of people I know personally goes a completely different way—it takes a while of mourning (sometimes years) to find anything articulate/lyrical to say in response. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to work—the closer someone is to you, to harder it is to move on, intellectualize the loss, etc. With people like Nina, it’s easy to visualize the hole they’re leaving when they pass and the gifts they’ve left for us.

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

To be honest, I think the whole collection is a misfit in some ways, very much like me. From the content and varied inspirations for the pieces to even the press that published it. Like the namesake of the press, the book’s a mongrel—a mixed breed of poems that mainly focus on characters living the Southwestern life, which is one of misfits, outlaws, wolves, and coyotes.

What are you working on now?

I have seven book projects on the burners now, but currently am focusing on the research and drafting of a poetry collection focused on quantum physics and identity     politics. I’m also spending a great deal of time building Puha Hubiya, a nonprofit            Indigenous literary arts organization I founded less than a year ago.

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

If you’re passionate about your writing, find a way to do it that will allow you to fuel that passion. Build a community of writers you can talk to and share work with, find people who value your work, and challenge yourself often to build your writing skill sets. Every form of writing can influence and inspire work in another genre—studying poetry can make you a stronger editor of prose and writing dialogue in plays can help build stronger character- and voice-driven pieces for your poetry or fiction. Outside of practicing your own writing, the best way to build your skills is to constantly read what others have published—both in your chosen genres and out. You cannot quantify how much what you pick up to read will influence how (and what) you write.


Shauna Osborn is an award winning Numunuu (Comanche)/ German mestiza artist, researcher, secret agent, and wordsmith. Shauna earned a BA from the University of Oklahoma, an MFA from New Mexico State University, and her list of honors includes a Crescendo Literary Fellowship, a National Poetry Award from the New York Public Library, and the Native Writer Award from UNM Summer Writers’ Conference. Shauna is the founder and Executive Director of Puha Hubiya, a nonprofit Indigenous literary arts organization. Arachnid Verve is her debut poetry collection and an Oklahoma Book Award finalist.

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

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.