Looking Back at 2017

Here are our twelve most-read interviews of 2017.


Khaty Xiong

“Hold fast to your obsessions, and be faithful.”

Ode to the Far Shore (Platypus Press, 2016)



Aaron Coleman

“I’m obsessed with figuring out what home is and can be. What faith is and can be. What love, violence, masculinity, kinship, desire are and can be…”

St. Trigger (Button Poetry, 2016) 



Nicole Sealey

“I’m obsessed with the human condition—I’m a stereotypical poet in that way.”

The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named  (Northwestern University Press, 2016)



Chloe Honum

“I wanted to write into [the] opening created by bewilderment.”

Then Winter (Bull City Press, 2017)



Zeina Hashem Beck

“I think the act of writing poems is, in its essence, an act of translation.”

There Was and How Much There Was  (smith|doorstop, 2016)

Louder than Hearts (Bauhan Publishing, 2017)



Eileen R. Tabios

“I tinker a lot with subverting the form of (auto)biography.”

IMMIGRANT: Hay(na)ku & Other Poems In A New Land (Moria Books’ Locofo Chaps, 2017)



Elizabeth Acevedo

“I’m moved by the conversation I think we are all having of considering place and home and the ferocity of language it takes to reclaim all the pieces that make us.”

Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016)



Aozora Brockman

“Do we lose our ‘selves’ when we lose our memories?”

Memory of a Girl (Backbone Press, 2016)



Mary B. Moore

“Poetry is a way of discovery for me, not an after-the-fact recording of insight. Poetry is the insight.”

Eating the Light (Sable Books, 2016)


2017-11-09 (2)

Momtaza Mehri

“For me, there’s always been an uncritically indulgent element to the act of observation, especially from the perspective of the diaspora. I wanted to speak to that as much as it could possibly be spoken.”

Sugah Lump Prayer (Akashic Books, 2017)



Yalie Kamara

Yalie Kamara

“The driving obsession for the chapbook was the desire to write about how humans interact with the world when they feel loved, isolated, or both.”

When The Living Sing (Ledge Mule Press, 2017)



Anders Carlson-Wee & Kai Carlson-Wee

“[Two-Headed Boy] is about the danger of intimacy, the endurance of family, and the redemption and camaraderie of adventure.”

Two-Headed Boy (Organic Weapon Arts, 2017)



Sahar Muradi

“Within a world of braided oppressions, language remains both a source of pain and promise.”


[ G A T E S ] (Black Lawrence Press, 2017)

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

I guess my path to writing started before me. In a mother who, as a young person, wrote stories and poems and buried herself in books, and in a father who would recite Hafez and Rumi with the ease of rattling off his own name. It was in the rupture of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that would send my family fleeing to the U.S. and in all of the feelings and question marks after that would like landmines dot the entirety of my upbringing, which I discovered I could only near through poetry. It was in the swing-less playground of our apartment building in Queens, NY, where I was humiliated for not speaking English correctly and which put a kind of flame under me. It came in being uprooted constantly from rental home to rental home, from NY to Florida, so hungering for the stake of a word. It was in the championing of mentors like Mr. Bowen (teacher of algebra, not English!), who, in the eighth grade, handed me the collected works of Langston Hughes and asked me to keep a journal of my thoughts. By high school, I had three obsessions: R.E.M., thrift stores, and reading & writing. The last two remain.

How do you decorate your writing space?

My writing space is my journal, so that would mean wherever I am with my unruled pages—at my bedside, in a subway seat, at the airport gate. But my dedicated corporeal writing space is my desk at home, a small apartment I share with my partner. He is a minimalist, and I a thrift store whore, so you can imagine the battles waged. But my desk is mine, so it’s the one spot in our home that is highly populated, and by ephemera, ancestors, and amulets. A broad, long surface of Danish mid-century that can hold it all: a vintage Underwood typewriter from my landlady, a felt Kyrgyz shepherd with a spear of local driftwood from a neighbor, guinea fowl feathers in a bottle, a broken blue tile from my parents’ house in Kabul, my father as a young George Harrison (he passed last year), his handwritten Hafez poem to me for my MFA graduation, my grandfather framed in a karakul hat, my grandmother newly married in her teens, shelves of handmade journals and morning pages going back twenty years, an old floral tin “God Box” full of paper prayers, a small note that reads “I write to ease the passing of time,” a tall stack of current reads [in the pile: Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas and Amal Al-Jubouri’s Hagar Before the Occupation], and countless other solaces.

Muradi 2

 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?

[ ]

The one that belonged to her
The one where the light hit for the first time
The one between our houses
The one I crawled through to sleep on his chest
The one the dog squeezed through
The one at three over the candle and cake
The one at three at the checkpoint
The one between the earth and the sky, the refrigerator with wings
The one where he met us after one year and was a stranger
The one at the park, the one at Up Park, the one at Down Park
The one that pierced my face and they pointed and laughed
The one that took them away from me in a tube and sent them back to me tired
The one he went through, hairs shooting out
The one she went through, blood turning up
The one we all went through to get to the blinking lights with the cherries
The ones we put up when she was born
The ones we passed to leave for good
The ones we paid quarters to get through
The one they learned the names of Presidents for
The ones they needed social security numbers for
The one I touched in the dark of my room
The ones we couldn’t talk about, ever
The one we had to close behind us to stay in, to keep neat, to not be tempted
The one we tried to jump and failed
The one he jumped and wasn’t forgiven
The ones in the books that made animals of us
The ones that told us who we weren’t
The ones that hurt, that swung and cut and rattled long after they left
The ones that kept flowers
The one I went through to go north, to go abroad, to go east, to find my cardinal ways
The one she went through too tired to find her way
The one they have chosen to give them purpose
The different one I have chosen
The one I haven’t yet found
The one I am looking through now with the narrow slots and passages unseen

Why did you choose this poem?

This is the opening poem of the chapbook. I chose this poem because the title of the book comes from it. Originally, this poem was titled “Gates,” but none of the poems in the book have titles; they are preceded by a [ ], indicating a gate. It is the invocation, a kind of chant and invitation to pass through into the book. It reads very autobiographical, though it braids the personal and the social in a way that I think the rest of the book follows. It also reads summative, and that feels about right: as if I had to go through all of what I did to arrive at this point, this opening, this book, this—fill in the moment.

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

The panic that was my MFA. Not panic. I had largely a great experience at Brooklyn College. Most of the poems are from my thesis manuscript. That was a full-length book, but I’m not sure it worked well as one. However, as a chapbook, it does. At least Black Lawrence Press thought so!

What’s your chapbook about?

One of my professors used to say, “poems aren’t about anything.” We’d have long conversations about this. What qualifies a poem? How much is intention? Imagination? What is foreclosed by trying to say something vs. letting the poem dictate?

I’ll answer by speaking to the atmosphere they grew out of. Most of these poems were written between 2013-2016 and while I was in grad school. And that was a time of great experimentation for me. I tried on diction and tones and forms that felt new and strange and not “me.” So the poems have the twin flavor of mine/ not mine, and ultimately, I suppose, freed me of that concept. It was necessary to push against habit.

They also largely arise from a particular moment in time: when my father was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, when I married my partner, when we marked the 15th year of the US occupation of Afghanistan. Some pieces look back: at Guantanamo, at conflict in northern Mali, at travels. Most of them interrogate language in some way. So all of that is in the mix.

Here’s how I described it to my publisher:

[ G A T E S ] engages the themes and intersections of language, power, war, and illness. A poem, like a gate, may function as a passage—physical and literary—a threshold, a corridor, a barrier. The bracketing of the book title and the individual poems invokes the limitations of language to address individual and collective loss. The loss of a homeland meets the loss of a dying father meets the loss of meaning amidst war, racism, and environmental degradation. The work interrogates the contemporary moment’s collapsing of space, where the near and far, the private and global, are no longer distinct. Languages of politics and intimacy are in constant tension so that the violence of an occupied Afghanistan cannot, for example, be separated from the violence of the father’s cancer treatment. The poems ask, how is language a function of (in)justice? How is a life valued? Whose life? Whose poetry? Within a world of braided oppressions, language remains both a source of pain and promise.

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 oldest poem in the book is the one that begins “Kabul.” It was previously titled “A Secret Life in Misspelled Cities,” and was part of a project for dOCUMENTA (13), which included my friend and fellow poet Zohra Saed’s work, “The Secret Lives of Misspelled Cities,” and our personal photographs. The misspelling refers to the auto-correct function in Word that renders Afghan cities like Herat into Heart, or the historical and colonial spellings of such cities throughout time. My poem is based on my time living and working in Kabul from 2003-05. I was a young returnee to the country, and my experience there was very powerful, beautiful and traumatic. So much of my writing during that time and about that time has been fragmented. The fragment and the vignette are two forms that I often return to, and, I think, necessarily so given the content. Nothing feels complete, and saying a thing entirely is impossible, especially about a “homeland.”

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

I loved this process. It was tortured and playful and something nearing divination. I was having a hard go of arranging them, when one of my professors, Ben Lerner, recommended that I “chop off the titles” and try rearranging them that way. So listening between poems without the hiccup of the title. I deleted the titles and then spread all the poems out on the floor of my apartment, which, thanks to my partner, was bare and neat. Then it was a bit of faith and a bit of Frogger, forward, backward, at the top, in the middle. Eventually, a kind of organic rhythm emerged. The poems actually worked better without the titles, so I lopped them off permanently. The table of contents is arranged by first line.

The progression in the chapbook goes a bit like: self, world, self in world and along the lines of faith/doubt in both.

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

Well, because of the rogue time of grad school experimentation, several feel like misfits. But the two most egregious are, by first line, “We have lorded over nature,” and “Tell us about your violence and its relativism.” Both were written while listening to Democracy Now! I have an exercise, where I write while listening to the broadcast and draw language from the airwaves. But it’s not just language-culling, it’s also a way of engaging with the news that feels generative and not simply reactive. They are misfit in their wordplay and disregard for the lyric or “beauty” in a poem.

Do you have a favorite revision strategy? 

I suffer from acute perfectionism. It does not serve me or my poetry. I can noodle (as a colleague in copywriting once referred to my defect) a line until it’s lifeless. My favorite revision strategy is control-Z. To near the original spirit as much as possible. More often than not, it means letting go, or at least returning later and with fresher and kinder eyes.

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 first book I bought from Black Lawrence Press was Hala Alyan’s wonderful Four Cities. With my purchase, I received a lovely personal email from the press thanking me. Seeing how warm a place it was, I submitted to the open submissions not long after. So to my delight, I received a warm acceptance. And it has been nothing but loving since! Kit Frick, the Chapbook Editor, and Diane Goettel, the Executive Editor, have both been a dream to work with. They really take care of their authors, from how often and well they communicate to their care with each step toward production. And they’ve been tremendously patient with my revisions and the addition of a Notes section. It has been an incredibly smooth process so far.

Similarly, I truly lucked out with knocking on my friend Yolandi Oosthuizen’s door for help in coming up with a cover. She’s an amazing graphic artist who’s produced work for all kinds of media, but this was her first poetry book project. (Mine too!) She read the manuscript, after which she asked very thoughtful questions, and we had great email conversations leading to her making a mood board to consider imagery, textures, colors, font, and tone. From there, she presented several concepts, and several iterations of each—to serif or not to serif, for example—all of which I fell in love with, but ultimately chose this stunning watercolor she made. It has been one of the best parts of putting this chapbook together, both the collaboration and the exercise in thinking through the aesthetic elements.

What are you working on now?

I just finished a poem for a video project shot by my friend and artist Gazelle Samizay on Manzanar, one of ten Japanese American concentration camps in the US, and the histories and evocations of oppression in that landscape.

I have slowly been working on a prose piece about grieving my father’s death and the multiple deaths embedded within such a loss. I’m also writing (and sketching) a bit on toxic shame.

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

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


Sahar Muradi is a writer, performer, and educator born in Afghanistan and raised in the US / is author of the chapbook [ G A T E S ] / is co-editor, with Zohra Saed, of One Story, Thirty Stories: An Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature /  is a Kundiman Poetry Fellow and an AAWW Open City Fellow / has an MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College, an MPA in international development from NYU, and a BA in creative writing from Hampshire College / directs the poetry programs at City Lore / and dearly believes in the bottom of the rice pot. Author photo by Krista Fogle. Cover design by Yolandi Oosthuizen.


Lesley Wheeler

“My favorite little books are in some way about littleness: brevity, children, small fetish objects. I’m charmed when poets pick up thematically on the compactness of the chapbook.”

lesleywPropagation (dancing girl press, 2017)

How do you decorate your writing space?

I write in all kinds of spaces, but my home office faces House Mountain, and its changeableness is riveting. The slopes can change color from minute to minute, especially in the morning, when they reflect sunrise. The view starts with an ordinary street, and the mountain is crisscrossed by electrical wires, but the landscape transcends it all. So while I’ve decorated my writing space with a haiku calendar, some shed antlers I found in a park, and lots of prints and books, the mountain steals the show.

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?

With thanks to Thrush, the journal where it first appeared, here’s Absentation:


Why did you choose this poem?

It’s the opening poem, initiating some narrative threads and recurrent images about fairy tales, the Virginia woods in early spring, and what it can be like to inhabit a changing body. Propagation concerns the stories we tell about ourselves at crisis points, and a lot of women I know return to fairy tales to describe their own moments of initiation or transformation.

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

A few favorites are Parallax by Elizabeth Savage, Darling Hands, Darling Tongue by Sally Rosen Kindred, and Seven Boxes for the Country After by Janet McAdams. On my desk right now are two delicious new ones, Outsiders by Cherise Pollard and Keine Angst by Zayneb Allak.

I blogged here about the historic link between folk tales and chapbooks, but I also find that my favorite little books are in some way about littleness: brevity, children, small fetish objects. I’m charmed when poets pick up thematically on the compactness of the chapbook.

That said, both my chapbooks are long poems or lyric sequences, depending on how you define them, and my influences in that mode are less contemporary. Works by H.D., Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Merrill, and Rita Dove have been particularly important to me over the years.

What’s your chapbook about?

On the first of April, a woman walks into the woods. She’s about forty years old and on the cusp of some big decisions; she may also be accidentally pregnant. Weirdness ensues.

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?

That’s easy because I drafted it in order, one poem per day during April, 2014. I was mining Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale for writing prompts, and he describes Russian folk tales as possessing thirty or thirty-one “functions,” which seemed like a perfect resource for National Poetry Month. “Absentation” is the first function.

I spent years revising it all, but the seed of each poem remained the same. I wrote these poems in different locations and at different times of day, but I took a lot of walks to ground myself in seasonal changes—what bloomed when, especially. Time acts strangely in Propagation and I wanted it to seem that when my protagonist emerged from her two-hour trail loop, a month had somehow passed.

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

Stylistically and formally I tried to keep pivoting—to move in an associative way, as a renku does, in order to complicate an otherwise linear narrative. This means I created a host of misfits: sonnets and list-poems and epistles. The most peculiar one is an exchange of cellphone texts.

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?

Kristy Bowen runs dancing girl press and designs the chapbooks. Usually a cover involves a prolonged negotiation, but this time she just showed me her idea and all I had to do was say “yes.”

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

My very first poetry collection was the chapbook Scholarship Girl, published in 2007 by Finishing Line Press. Its poems became the core of Heterotopia, my second poetry collection, which won the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize in 2010. Basically, I versified in obscurity for years and years, but after that chapbook, publications started adding up.

What are you working on now?

My next poetry collection is unrelated to Propagation, but it shares the chapbook’s investments in place and gender. Many of my new poems concern the racial history of the small Southern town in which I find myself, and they also worry over questions of ambition at midlife. My working title is She Will Not Scare, and it’s more or less about turning fifty in what remains of the Confederacy (too much, around here).

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

Pursue whatever obsesses you, and if that’s writing, do a lot of it. Read everything. Fail often and keep aiming high. But also know that it’s basically impossible to make a living at it, so think about what kind of day job would best support your literary habit. I’m a professor so I’m in the full-immersion camp, but some people are happier in positions that pay the bills but can be left behind at five o’clock. That way your verse or your prose can be thoroughly your own thing; you are beholden to no one. And you’re bringing different perspectives to writing, which is important for the art.

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

I’d be interested to hear more reflections on how chapbooks are different than full-length poetry volumes—not just halfway points but different creatures entirely. And then there’s the secondary question of how one might publicize them differently. Thank you so much, William, for making space for that!


Lesley Wheeler’s full-length collections are Radioland, The Receptionist and Other Tales, Heterotopia, and Heathen. Her poems and essays appear in Ecotone, Copper Nickel, Crab Orchard Review, and other magazines. She teaches at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.





Tania Runyan

“Not surprisingly, facing what I don’t want to face usually results in my best writing because I have to grapple with honest feelings and doubts.”


What Will Soon Take Place (Paraclete Press2017)

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?


No cave, cleft, or ocean shattering bluffs.
The only trumpet “Hot Cross Buns”

blatting from my daughter’s open window.
I circle the block to find my messengers:

a whimpering beagle roped to a magnolia,
ear flipped inside out. Cracked rainbow pinwheels,

plaster Nessie in the dandelions, all bought
and positioned for some prophecy of beauty.

If only a forsythia opened by my bedroom window,
I would spend a week in resurrection. If only

a birdbath and bench for prayer. Or a cherubim
on the front steps, concrete wings spread

over a basket of trailing lobelia. Who could hide
from that serene, carved smile? But we always enter

through the garage instead: crushed milk bottles,
mud-scabbed boots, jump ropes coiled

with shovels and bikes. They were never meant to lie
in our way. Like it or not, they speak.

Why did you choose this poem?

This is the opening poem to the collection, paralleling St. John’s receiving the angel’s message at Patmos before beginning the book of Revelation. The poem introduces my “messengers”–the workaday objects and images from suburban life that can’t help but speak to me as they place themselves, in this case quite literally, under my feet.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

For many years, I was obsessed with writing about scripture, particularly scripture that I didn’t want to deal with, such as the words of Paul in Second Sky. Not surprisingly, facing what I don’t want to face usually results in my best writing because I have to grapple with honest feelings and doubts.

What’s your book about?

The poems “cover” the book of Revelation from beginning to end.

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

The arrangement was pretty easy because I just “wrote through” Revelation from chapter 1-22. The title was difficult, as always. I don’t think I’ve ever stuck with my first title for a book; I’ve always changed it at least a couple of times with the help of an editor. I can’t even remember all the titles for this collection, though I know at once it was called Flame, Linen, Diadem.

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

Many of these poems are deeply personal, but I will have to say “The Sun Shall Not Strike Them” holds a very important back story.  Over the course of a year or so, my friend shared traumatic details of her childhood abuse during our weekly walks–and also experienced quite a bit of healing. I can’t even begin to understand what she went through, but writing about it gave me just a little bit of empathy as I worked to understand and pray through her pain.

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

“Outside Delta, Utah,” is a weird one. I wrote it in response to a workshop exercise that demanded twenty specific requirements. I don’t remember the requirements, which is probably a good thing because perhaps the poem is indeed working naturally. Still, the poem’s about a bunch of old shoes speaking to me prophetically.

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 think the last poem I wrote was “The River of Life.” I spent a good deal of time working on those last couple chapters of Revelation, those words and images that do describe a sense of completion, renewal, and eternity.

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

I take revision very seriously, following a number of strategies I don’t always think about consciously. I wrote How to Write a Poem as a way to distill and describe those steps so as to help others who haven’t quite internalized the process. Hint: there are many strategies!

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a memoir/essay collection about my fraught relationship with California, the home of my youth. It’s a long, complicated process, but there is no turning back now that I have so many fellow writers giving me encouragement and holding me accountable to get this thing written!

What is your favorite piece you’ve written? Why?

I feel close to several poems and essays, but “Putting on the New Self” seems to connect with a lot of people who have struggled under the burden of not doing the “Christian thing” well enough. I do think about audience a lot and want to challenge my readers. When a poem becomes a reader’s favorite, it starts to become one of mine as well.

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

I love music, playing fiddle or mandolin almost every day. I grew up spending as much, if not more, time in orchestra as I did writing. When times are crazy, however, I prioritize writing over the music, although the rhythm, resonance, and expression of strings have always influenced my work and cannot be left alone for long.

How has your writing and writing practice evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?

As a younger writer, I had to get every word perfect before moving on to the next line. Now I’ve taken on more cyclical habits of generating and revising.

What kind of world do you think your book creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?

I hope my collection creates a world in which readers can grapple with a difficult but beautiful book in the Bible, Revelation, in a way that challenges their preconceived theologies.

What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?

The Collected Poems of Tania Runyan. That would be nice someday!

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

Read a lot. Read nonstop.


Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections What Will Soon Take Place, Second Sky, A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her guides How to Read a Poem, How to Write a Poem, and How to Write a College Application Essay are used in classrooms across the country. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, Saint Katherine Review, and the Paraclete book Light upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011. When not writing, Tania plays fiddle and mandolin, drives kids to appointments, and gets lost in her Midwestern garden.

Momtaza Mehri

“I’m endlessly fascinated with the odds of being a specific person in a specific place at a specific time. The arbitrariness of it all.”

2017-11-09 (2)

Sugah Lump Prayer (Akashic Books, 2017)

How do you decorate your writing space?

Right now, I’ve got my favorite embroidered pillow next to me. I decorate sparsely, but I’m always surrounded by a stack of books, my laptop and a water bottle. I keep it as bare as possible as it helps lessen distractions.

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

excerpt from Clockwise


Dew or the wetness on a man’s cheek.  Find me a distinction.
Both descend at night,
leave by morning.
I want to believe in so much more than this.
I want to say we are more than our geographies of loss

and believe it. Help me believe it.


What is there to write about after exile?
After this dress of loose skin
and zipcodes?
After the blue sighs of those before us?
Wait for it. Our backs straining into loaded crossbows,

in the meantime.
I think I’ll write about the rain making an industrial disaster

out of your neat face
and that time I used your toothbrush to fix my baby hairs in the sink
and never told you.

Why did you choose this excerpt?

It’s part of a longer poem that helped me interrogate my own understanding of empathy and its limits. The thin and equally monumental line that divides me from those I call kin. Clockwise came out of this need to articulate a kind of cognitive dissonance I feel whenever I witness the televised death and degradation of my people and then think there’s any way to have that recognized and represented on the page. Or that I have to be the one to do it. For me, there’s always been an uncritically indulgent element to the act of observation, especially from the perspective of the diaspora. I wanted to speak to that as much as it could possibly be spoken.   

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

This question is such a nightmare for me. Chapbooks whet the appetite, and I usually devour them in one sitting. Ladan Osman’s Ordinary Heaven, Kill the Dogs by Heather Bell and Ochre by Gla4 are outrageously good chapbooks. 

What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about your writing?

That I love a deceptively simple poem. I’m conscious of having so much going on in my own poems, so I admire poets who can stay true to the exoskeleton of a line and draw something much bigger from it. I also like chapbooks that challenge my own biases around structure and continuity.

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

Movement. I’m obsessed with movement of peoples, borders, temporality, ideas. Movement and the possibility or impossibility of return. I’m endlessly fascinated with the odds of being a specific person in a specific place at a specific time. The arbitrariness of it all. How displacement is embodied from generation to generation. The terrible joy and pain of never having the luxury of standing still. Why I enjoy the kind of safety I was born into and what makes me different from those who look and speak like me who don’t. The wounds I carry by proxy; what it means to inherit and then assume ownership over traumatic histories and presents that aren’t really yours.

What’s your chapbook about?

It’s about my own movement as well as that of those around me, both across and within borders. The domestic and communal scenes that depict that movement in all its beauty and fraughtness. I use the five Muslim prayers to ground the people and places in my poems; that’s the one thing that stays constant in any Muslim individual’s life. To bow down wherever you may be in the world and face the same direction. Bittersweetness is also a recurring theme, both literally and figuratively. Beyond me having a sweet tooth, I associate sweetness with traditional family gatherings over tea, histories of illness, childhood indulgence and delicious moments stolen away even in the worst of times.

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 oldest is “Grief in HTML.” I wrote it at least three years before the rest of the chapbook. It was during a period of my life that was marked by constant worry about family members who were living in Mogadishu and were always under the threat of violence. Beyond that, what struck me was how mundane we considered it and how desensitised I’d become. To the point of hearing about a bombing and automatically thinking I should probably Whatsapp my father to check if he’s, you know, alive. Or the death of family friends and their still active Facebook profiles. At that point, I started thinking more about mourning as a technology and our own survival strategies as ever evolving.

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

The poem “Choices,” which is dedicated to my paternal grandfather. He was killed in the civil war. I’ve never met both of my grandfathers but they have always loomed in the background as these larger than life figures who I got to know through stories and photographs.

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

“If He Wills It” is the one. It’s about a very specific memory that can be interpreted either way. Maybe it’s about a checkpoint. Maybe it’s about a boy. I’m still trying to figure it out.

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

This might sound weird but if there’s a line or turn of phrase I’m unsure about, I sing it. I don’t bawl it in the shower or anything like that, but I do repeatedly hum it (Kid Cudi-style) until I make sense of what needs to be changed. It also helps to print your poem and hold it out in front of you at arms lengths just to purely focus on how it looks on the page.

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?

I couldn’t have asked for a better editor. Kwame Dawes is legit one of my favorite poets, so being edited by him was a dream. Akashic Books was fantastic to work with, and it was wonderful being part of an established series like the New Generation African Poets. The beautiful cover art was by the late Eritrean painter Ficre Ghebreyesus. I’m still really hyped about how it all turned out and how smooth the process was.

What are you working on now?

My first full collection. I feel like it will kill me, but I’m willing to die trying.

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

You’re always told to do the readings, but it’s important to remember we don’t all read the same way. Think about the baggage you bring to whatever you are reading and how that influences what you take away from it. Find time to read work you dislike or don’t ‘get’. Sharpen your critical scalpel. Trust yourself. Everybody’s winging it anyway.


Momtaza Mehri is a poet, essayist and literary researcher. Her poetry has been featured in DAZED, Buzzfeed, Vogue, BBC Radio 4, Poetry Society of America and Poetry International. She is a Complete Works Fellow and winner of the 2017 Out-spoken Page Poetry Prize. Her chapbook sugah lump prayer was published in 2017. She also edits Diaspora Drama, a digital platform showcasing international immigrant art.



Jessie van Eerden

“Writing things myself seemed the best way to participate in the memorialization of small parts of the world.”

jessieThe Long Weeping: Portrait Essays (Orison Books, 2017)

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

I grew up in the Whetsell Settlement in rural West Virginia, a small mostly-paved loop of thirty families or so tucked into the mountain. My family lived more toward the top, so the space was windy and open, and there was a fluidity between outside and inside—meaning, out through the screen door to the yard and field and back in to the kitchen, and meaning also inside the person and outside the person, both always seeming equally hallowed. I was the youngest of four, and as we watched Saturday morning cartoons, taking turns churning butter, I felt such a hugeness in my siblings, inner lives that always hummed, as we churned, as we flailed around and built forts with feed pallets. I was a lucky kid to have my imagination nurtured there. As young as eight, I tried writing poems. In second grade, I had a diary that locked, with a sleeping kitten on the cover, in which I took notes on the Book of Revelation. In college, after I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, my journals were addressed to A.D., or sometimes to God, or sometimes to myself but that seemed a riskier addressee. I wrote a lot of letters and still do. As a child, I had a penpal from Finland—Maria—who sent me Finnish paper dolls and cut-out flowers and enlarged my world. I didn’t live outside of West Virginia until I graduated college, so missives from the world from people I kind of knew (like Maria) and people in books were how I came to know things beyond my own boundaries. Writing things myself seemed the best way to participate in the memorialization of small parts of the world.

Could you share a representative or pivotal excerpt from your book? Perhaps something that that invites the reader into the world of the book?

Here is a short excerpt from the longest portrait in the book which shares the book’s title. It’s a sectioned portrait Rizpah, a concubine of King Saul mentioned by the biblical prophet Samuel; according to a couple of verses in 2 Samuel, when six of Rizpah’s sons and grandsons are executed, she spends seven months keeping animals away from their bodies. This fictional essay became, for me, a meditation on grief.

A Dream of Kites

She stands on a hill not welcoming the wind. She knows what it will bring. She longs for solitude. This is unseasonable, it’s winter with a warm spell whipped with wind which means a day for kites, and their boy-hands work at it all morning, to catch up with the wind before it dies, or goes elsewhere. They build the kites from dowels and newsprint, lace and coffee filters, screen mesh, T-shirt sleeves, ribbons. Come fly, they plead, and her voice is too sharp, No, go on, as her blown hair webs her face and hides her away, her dress wrung by the gusts and trapping her legs where she stands. The boys run ahead and she stays apart and it is almost sundown so the kites pink up in perfect light as they shrink into the sky. The trimmings tear off but the paper bodies stay solid and what she knew would happen happens, watching the youngest let out more string: You were one of the ones inside me, now on the outside—I see it for the first time when you fly the kite, the string wrapped around a stick, we are two and I don’t know you. Just like that. Strangers.

The wind pastes her dress to her body, each of her curves tight unto linen so it’s difficult to move, it is slow, but she makes it to the youngest whose head comes only to her navel, and she is not magnanimous, no: she grabs the spool of kite string from his hands and holds tightly, trying to rein it in, to bring the speck of translucent color back to the ground. It won’t be called back, she grips the spool more and more tightly round, frantic, trying to memorize his small face at the same time.

And that’s when she wakes on her rock by the river, and her hand is not on a wound spool at all, but around the neck of a bird, one of the smallest, one that has grown familiar with her. Dodging her stones and her swats, it often sleeps in her hair with its head tucked behind the lobe of her left ear as if about to tell her a secret, but it never speaks, and she has nearly killed it now—must have grabbed it in her sleep. She holds the tiny throat, feeling with her thumb the little bird heart like a white blister to burst, and she doesn’t want to let go because the kite will be lost, the boy will cry. She holds tightly and, oh, she can feel the heart like a tiny seed, loose and unencumbered by a large and clunky chest bone like hers. Just a grape seed loose in pulp and pressed, and pressed. But the eye of fright and appeal gets through to her dream-mind and the kite colors fade. She cannot call them back. She cannot save them. She can­not save the self that refused them. She saves the only part of her that can be saved: the thumb at the bird’s throat: lifting it, she lets go. Or, anyway, unpins the thing, but still softly rings the neck. Pets. Howls.

Why did you choose this excerpt?

I’m not sure, but it’s often been a magnetic section for me. The recurrence of imagery here is important to me, the kites, the birds, the estrangement from self and others. It’s a new kind of writing for me, too, to enter the dream-mind as an extension of the essayistic imagination. The section is a sample of the blur between pure fiction and the essay’s impulse to seek something doggedly through all the wrinkles in the brain. This long essay also tries to depict and embody the relentless instability of emotions in grief: regret, guilt, anger, relief, hate, love, regret again, guilt again, and so on. This section seems to exhibit that attempt. Also madness, the kinship madness has with grief in its power to unmoor. The section shows, in all that instability, that there are inexplicable moments of mercy.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

When I read Simone Weil the first few times, I was struck by her notion that “contempt is the contrary of attention.” I wanted these essays to be acts of attention. Contempt rules our world and tyrannizes the way we act with one another, whether it manifests as self-aggrandizement or ridicule or pity. That’s an Annie Dillard verb too, the imperative: attend. It’s perhaps one of the essay form’s highest functions.

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

“Woman with Spirits” may be the oldest in terms of material I was trying to access. I first wrote about Eliza when she was still living and I was fifteen and my high school English teacher Fran Kirk (a wonder) used photographs to unlock our stories, and Eliza’s being photographed was a story I wanted to unlock. I knew her story only second-hand, but it felt central to understanding the place I came from. Fast forward many years and many theory books on photography later (Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, John Berger, Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber), I tried the material as an essay in grad school, first somewhat flatly, as a straightforward narrative about the photographers coming to Eliza’s during the War on Poverty media campaigns; in that version, the essay did explore ethics of photography and the nature of how we see one another, but it had no lift. Then I came across this line from Kafka: We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes. I tried the lines as an epigraph and meditated on the connection between photography and driving someone away, exorcizing someone, and then new strands entered the essay: a narrative of an exorcism I’d witnessed in Eastern Europe, and a sub-strand of an exorcism I’d heard on Christian radio as a child. I further researched Walker Evans’ documentary photography that was made in my home state and other material on the ethics of photographing the poor, and over time, I was able (I hope) to begin to show the complexity of portraiture itself. Since the essays that follow “Woman with Spirits” in the book are also portraits in varying degrees, they all exist for me in an uneasy space that I hope might provoke conversation about how we see and regard one another.

How did you decide on the title of your book?

The prologue to the book is a distillation of what used to be a very long essay called “The Beatty Portraits” that focused on members of Beatty Church in my home community. There was, as the prologue depicts, a hand pump for drinking in the grove across the road from the church which had no indoor plumbing. Its emblem of spiritual thirst has always remained central for me, a key image that helped my young self become. Once, describing the drink from the pump, I used the phrase “a long weeping kiss,” which eventually got cut for its inaccuracy, but I remained drawn to the mix of grief, longing, and love the image held. Thus, the title. Also, the book’s title is an homage to Dorothy Day whose spiritual autobiography The Long Loneliness is a major influence on my life and writing.

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

The extended, episodic portrait of Rizpah may be the most meaningful to me because it best embodies the act of portraiture as the seeking of companionship, as the need to fix on someone’s face. I had my own versions of grief going on at the time of writing about her, and she was someone I could sit down in the rocks with, not as a mirror for me—her griefs are unspeakable and not to be conflated with mine—but as a soul that bore what was unbearable—as many people do every day—and as a way to embody the question (without answering it in a facile way): what’s on the other side of life’s disappointments and devastations?

Could you share with us a glimpse of your writing practice or process for this book?

This book evolved over twelve years. I did not work on it consistently; in fact, I wrote two novels during that period. But I always return to the essay form, even when immersed in a novel project. Essays written and revised over such a long span, though, shift significantly in voice and focus. So I had to revise, or revocalize, older essays as the manuscript came together. It helped me to focus on the portrait form, to limit the kinds of essays I wanted to include. And the theme of loss and grief also coalesced across essays, grief over immediate losses (like a divorce) and also grief inherent to human existence.

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

I don’t know if I have a favorite strategy, but it often helps me to cannibalize parts of essays, or whole essays (or even sections across genres—failed poems or short stories or novel chapters) and use them in new work. One short essay in the book, “Work Ethic,” is actually an outtake from the novel I’m working on. My mother still uses a wringer washer and she keeps a few other washers around (covered neatly with a quilt and used as a shelf for the time being) so she can cannibalize them for parts when she needs to. I do this a lot with passages—lone sentences or images, or big chunks, or scraps of dialog, phrases I obsess over that don’t work in another project. Sometimes it can lead to a happy accident of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “widowed image,” an image shaved from its context and used someplace unexpected so that it takes on new vibrancy. My process of writing “Without” was one of cannibalization (which is a pun of sorts, I suppose, since the essay focuses on eating and nourishment). I had an old essay about fasting that bore the title “Without,” and I had another called “The Slaughterers Copybook” which looked into the butchering of animals I did as a child, and I had a ton of notes on Simone Weil, as well as a long readerly autobiography from my history of reading her at various times in my life. The material started layering in together and became, I hope, a more dynamic essay than any of those singular pieces were on their own.

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

I felt a strong resonance with Orison from the very beginning. Their commitment to spirituality as valid and relevant and highly fraught subject matter attracted me, and they’ve been great to collaborate with. Luke Hankins is determined in his work to produce quality books, and I loved going back and forth with Nathan Poole, the nonfiction editor, on revisions for the book. I felt they understood my intentions and honored them (and also reined in my sprawling syntax). I’m thrilled, too, that Vince Trimboli—a fine WV artist and fine poet who graduated from the MFA program at WV Wesleyan College that I direct—gave us permission to use his artwork for the cover.


Jessie van Eerden is author of the novels Glorybound (WordFarm, 2012), winner of ForeWord Reviews’ Editor’s Choice Fiction Prize, and My Radio Radio (Vandalia Press, 2016), and the essay collection The Long Weeping (Orison Books, 2017). Her work has appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing, The Oxford American, Willow Springs, and other publications. Jessie holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa and directs the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College.




Sarah Fawn Montgomery

“Narrative is its own kind of medicine.”

Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Regenerate: Poems of Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2017)

You open the poem “After Electric I” with the lines, “After the electricity / her mouth slipped open / and her tongue loosened / all over—spilled out / what doctors wanted.” Similarly, in your essay “My Voice for their Drugs,” you create striking images of the inhibition of speech: “There is a salamander in my throat, his black body slimy with regret, his claws piercing my words.” How does this theme of the inability to articulate experiences characterize your work?

I’m interested in the inability to articulate experiences as it is related to silence. There is a long history of silencing medical patients, for we tend to value medical authority rather than patient perspective. Those with mental illnesses have the added difficulty of “proving” they can be trusted and being required to tell their stories within a framework of reality they may not occupy. It is hard to describe the outrageous fears of anxiety, the compulsions of OCD, or the truth of hallucination to those for whom they are not a reality. The burden falls on patients to frame their stories in a way the healthy world understands or is willing to accept. Silence, then, becomes a powerful tool by those in power to regulate which narratives are privileged and which are stigmatized.

At the same time, however, silence can be an active, purposeful rhetorical move, a choice that grants power by way of its agency. Patients can choose what to reveal and to whom. Those who feel forced into certain narrative pathways or coerced into certain power dynamics can employ silence as a strategy. They can voice their stories within their communities, resisting dominant narratives to share with audiences that are willing to accept diverse ways of knowing, being, and telling in the world. My work is interested in both these forms of silence and tries to tease out the implications, pitfalls, and possibilities of articulating the inexpressible. I want to fill imposed silence with narratives that complicate our understandings of mental illness, but also employ silence as a strategy through white space, time shifts, and experimental form.

In “Bloom,” you describe a pit – “dense walnut wrinkle” – that transforms by the end of the poem into a “pearl / luminescent.” Is this conversion analogous to the process of embracing mental illness as a part of identity? How does that journey inform your poetry?

Absolutely—we often rely on the narrative that mental illness is wrong and that patients must “fight,” branding them a “failure” if they somehow do not succeed in ridding themselves of their diagnosis. But for many, mental illness is the lens through which we view the world. It is an embodied, lived reality that cannot and should not be separated from the individual. Accepting my anxiety, OCD, and PTSD as inherent parts of my identity rather than deficits or embarrassments was crucial to my understanding of self and mental diversity. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate these qualities about myself, for though they can pose challenges, they enrich my understanding of the world, my engagements with others, and my ability to be a writer, editor, and teacher. I am far better because of them, a narrative that flies in the face of what we are often taught to believe about mental illness—and something I examine in my forthcoming memoir, Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir.

“Prescription Doll” seems to take a harsh or perhaps contemptuous view of prescription medication for mental illness. “Prescription dolls simply need a windup,” the poem opens, “pinprick pills to turn keys.” It ends with the line, “Wind yourself up, rosebud mouth. Smile.” Do contempt and sympathy both play a role in this poem, and if so, how?

Medications help millions of people with mental illnesses survive—for many, a prescription is the difference between life and death. One of the worst criticisms of mental health care is that people are weak for taking medications. So I’m not critical of prescription medications as much as the rhetoric surrounding them, particularly in wellness marketing. This poem responds to a series of print and commercial Pristiq ads that depict depressed patients as windup dolls slowed to a stop—or “broken”—because of their illness. When medicated, the dolls are suddenly “fixed,” reenergized and productive. What is problematic about this narrative is that it dehumanizes patients and oversimplifies mental illness, making it a mechanical malfunction with an easy fix—even though medications do not always work for patients and certainly not as quickly as the advertisement makes it appear, and many patients manage symptoms with multiple approaches. The ads also imply patients must perform certain tasks or roles to be considered “well” or “productive,” which becomes a means to police behavior and emotion.

More problematic, however, is the fact that nearly all of the dolls are women, as though only women need to be medicated, or worse still, as though mental illness is a woman’s illness. When “wound down,” the dolls each wear drab, ill-fitting clothing, their hair hanging limply about their expressionless faces. They are overwhelmingly depicted alone.  Dolls who take the medication wear bright, formfitting clothes and perform gendered tasks like hosting parties, cooking for families, and doing yoga. The narrative constructed in the ad is that mentally ill women are unattractive, unfashionable, and unlovable. Even the use of dolls to replace women is suspect, shaping our cultural expectations about gender roles and responsibilities and our ideas about what constitutes a “normal” or “sane” woman.

Does composing poetry energize or exhaust you? What about writing nonfiction?

I derive energy from writing each genre but find poetry to be a welcome respite from the personal reflection required of me in nonfiction writing. Writing memoir in particular requires me to dig through my past, focus on myself, and in the case of Quite Mad, spend long moments with painful memories and occupy unhealthy or unhappy mental spaces in order to more effectively write about them. While I’m immensely proud of this book, the writing was long, emotional, and anxiety-producing. Not all of my nonfiction requires this—I enjoy place-based writing, science writing, and the intellectual movement afforded by the personal essay—but my memoir certainly proved taxing.

I began writing poetry as distraction or palate cleanser from my memoir. In poems I can write about anything—strange science facts, historical tidbits, a rainy day. I can occupy other voices, which was a kind of freedom when memoir required me to stick closely to my experiences and my family’s history. I examined space exploration in my first poetry chapbook and living on the Great Plains in my second. And Regenerate, while inspired by my own experiences with mental illness, is largely a collection of persona poems from historical and literary madwomen. Along the way, I discovered that I enjoy writing both and now write the two genres simultaneously—working on particular elements of craft in one genre (voice or image or rhythm) invariably leads to discoveries in the other.

“Stain” evokes a dark image of an abusive partner in a relationship: “his hand patting / her hindquarters / insistent then, as now / as he pulls her / towards his eager body.” Has the subject of abuse impacted your writing? Could you tell us a little about this?

The link between trauma and mental illness cannot be understated, and my discussions of mental illness invariably involve discussions of abuse—violence leading to diagnosis, violence in the treatment of mental illness patients in this country, the violence we erroneously label as a symptom of mental illness. Mental illness rates have historically been much higher for women, and much of this can be attributed both to the ways we treat the female body and mind and to the violence that so often accompanies the female experience. When we look at rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, harassment and stalking, unpaid and underpaid labor, the burden of invisible domestic labor, and other factors, it can come as no surprise that so many women experience depression, anxiety, OCD, and PTSD. When it is reinforced daily that women are less than, are wrong, are not worthy, are disposable, are broken, it is no wonder bodies and brains react with pain, fear, dissociation, and confusion. It is not just my writing about mental illness that is fueled by explorations and critiques of cultures of abuse, however. My previous books and current projects about the history of the Great Plains, representations of wicked women, and the cultural expectations of motherhood all require an acknowledgement and an interrogation of the roles of systemic abuse.

In your nonfiction essay “My Voice for their Drugs,” you discuss the inherent incommunicability of pain. Citing Elaine Scarry, you write, “Sufferers cannot articulate their truths and those without pain cannot begin to comprehend. What exists for those in pain is simply unreal to those without it.” However, you have also commented on the relief that can come from sharing struggles with friends and being part of community. How, if at all, has this redemptive aspect of community influenced your writing?

While it is difficult to share the experience of pain with those who have no context for the reality of chronic mental and physical ache, there is a wonderful relief, a joy even, in recognizing your lived experience in others. I’ve received far more nurturing from the stories of other patients than I have from medical writing, and the vibrancy of the community has reframed the way I view my illnesses—mental illness is an inherent identity I claim proudly, a benefit that allows me to see the world more richly and to live in it more fully. Erasure occurs when patients are met with disbelief time and again, so to have someone see you—to not only accept, but to validate and value your story—is incredibly healing. Narrative is its own kind of medicine.

A theme that emerges from “My Voice for their Drugs” is the overwhelming inability to speak up about mental illness, the kind of seizing that occurs when trying to articulate such confusing and complicated emotions. However, you write so eloquently and with such vivid imagery: “Shortness of breath like the time I blew up too many balloons, like falling into the deep end of a pool as a child, like running in the humid south, like breathing through gauze, through purple velvet, like eating too much shortbread or chewing on a cotton ball.” Could this irony be seen as a statement about the empowering nature of writing?

First, thank you! And yes, writing opens up both literal and metaphorical spaces for narratives often overlooked or ignored in favor of medical texts and perspectives. Part of what we require from patients is a reliance on symptoms, medical terms, the power structure of physician and patient, and a particular narrative arc that requires patients to translate or edit their narratives for the healthy world. These requirements can be incredibly limiting for patients who may have other ways of articulating their pain, but creative writing and narrative medicine empower patients to craft narratives on their own terms, to determine what is important, to establish and enforce the tools they believe necessary to the tale, and most important, to take ownership of the narrative with a kind of agency and action a ten-minute doctor’s visit simply can’t accommodate.

In “Marguerite,” the voice in the poem seems to be collective first person: “She paused by the door as if to speak, / and how we wished she’d used that mouth.” Who are the speakers in this poem, and how does your poetry represent the voices of those other than yourself?

This is one of the few poems in the book directly inspired by my own life—the poem describes a girl bullied by boys on the school bus each day. I distinctly recall riding the bus: many girls confined to a few seats in the front while a few young male students occupied much of the rear, antagonizing female students and threatening them with bodily injury if they entered male-claimed space or even so much as spoke back. Marguerite was one of the last to get on the bus each day so she had to sit in dangerous territory and experience daily harassment, which she did stoically and silently. The “we” in this poem are the girls who witnessed as Marguerite claimed space from those that sought to deny it to her. We were both proud of her efforts—we never ventured to the rear—and simultaneously wished she were braver, as she never spoke back and was clearly made miserable by the taunts. In many ways, Marguerite was scapegoat and saint, someone we hoped we’d never become yet also desperately wished to emulate. Stories like this are hardly new, so this poem and others in the collection voice a collective “we” that silently witnesses harassment, abuse, and violence and occupies poetic space in order to challenge culpable silence.

Do you prefer writing nonfiction or poetry? What about an idea indicates to you that it would be better expressed in nonfiction or in poetry?

I enjoy writing both and tend to work on projects in two genres simultaneously. For example, right now I’m hard at work on a collection of poems and a collection of essays. Certainly length and space play a role in determining the genre of each project—the scope and subject of my current nonfiction project requires the length and narrative space of the genre. But the creative processes each genre affords also influence my decisions—I tend to be more playful with poetry and more reflective in prose—so the project usually determines the genre. And the flexibility and freedom to move between genres—and in many cases to break the arbitrary borders between them—is something I derive energy from as a writer.


Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of the forthcoming nonfiction book, Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, as well as three poetry chapbooks, including Regenerate: Poems of Mad Women. Her work has been notable in Best American Essays and her poetry and prose have appeared in The Normal School, Passages North, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review, DIAGRAM, Terrain, and others. She has been the Nonfiction Editor for Prairie Schooner since 2011, and is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University, where she teaches creative writing, disability studies, and women’s literature.