Happy National Poetry Month! In honor of the occasion, we’re sharing thirty of our favorite, most imaginative, playful prompts with you on the blog this morning. Whether you’re participating in NaPoWriMo and writing a poem every day this month or you’re just looking for some occasional inspiration, we hope these prompts will bring out your inner, childlike creativity and help you refresh and renew your writing practice—during April or any time of year. (Pro tip from this former classroom teacher: these tried-and-tested prompts work great for young writers, too!)
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30 DAYS OF POETRY PLAY
Write an opposite poem (inversion). Take any famous poem and write the exact opposite of it, line by line. If the poem describes a “warm and fluffy towel,” turn it into something like “icy, hard concrete.” If the poem says that the speaker “sprinted,” have them “crawl.”
Write a poem about a color as if it were a person. Describe what it sounds and smells like, what it dreams about at night.
Write an abecedarian poem. Start with a line that begins with A, then add a line that begins with B, and so on, all the way down to Z. For an extra challenge, try continuing your sentences over multiple lines.
Stack up some books with their spines facing out and use their titles to make a poem.
Make up a superstition and write about what might happen if people don’t follow it.
Translate a classic poem into all emojis, word by word.
Write a poem that consists entirely of questions nobody can answer (like: “Where does the snow hide its mittens?”).
Find a picture or photo that intrigues you and write about what you see.
Write a poem that consists entirely of lies; the sillier the better.
Write a poem that takes a figure of speech literally. (What would happen if it really did rain cats and dogs from the sky?)
Write a postcard about the weirdest place you could imagine (like inside your sock drawer or on top of spaghetti covered with cheese), but describe it as if it’s an amazing vacation spot. Then mail it to a friend.
Make an erasure poem by taking another piece of writing (anything—like junk mail or the newspaper) and crossing out words with a thick, dark marker. The words that you keep are the poem.
Write a serious ode (a poem of praise) to an extremely ordinary, boring, or ugly object.
Write a poem in the form of an alternative definition for a word—using a meaning that you might not find in the dictionary. Get creative; tell a story about it or give examples.
Write a portrait of someone you know by describing an object that reminds you of them.
Write a poem in blank verse. That’s a poem that doesn’t rhyme and where every line follows this beat: ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM.
Write about a journey. Then make an upside-down poem by reversing what you just wrote so that the last line becomes the first line, the second-to-last line becomes the second line, and so on.
Write a poem where you intentionally break one grammar rule over and over again.
Write a recipe for something that isn’t food.
Make up a descriptive name for an imaginary body of water (like “The Bay of Cats” or “The Popcorn Sea”) and write a poem about that place.
Write a poem in the voice of a historical person or fictional character.
Borrow a line from a science or math book or article and use it as the title of a poem.
Write about a meal shared with someone you miss.
Write a poem about an activity where the sounds of the words imitate the sound of what you’re doing. If you’re jumping in leaves, crunch and crackle your way through each crisp line. If you’re drinking boba, let your words slurp and slosh and quietly squish against your teeth.
Write a choose-your-own-adventure poem where the reader gets to choose which line to read next.
Write a poem in the form of directions to a place (real or imaginary) that is important to you.
Write a poem in the voice of an inanimate object.
Write a list of things that you’ve forgotten. Then turn that list into a poem.
Cut up a newspaper or magazine article, then rearrange the words and make as many of them as you want into a collage poem.
Write a poem with a hole (literal, typographical, or figurative) in the middle of it.
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We’d love to see what you create with these prompts! Share a snippet with us on the comments below or on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview) using the hashtag #LR30DaysofPoetryPlay.Happy writing!
These are strange and heavy times we’re living in. As many of us find the physical confines of our daily worlds suddenly reduced to the square footage of our homes, books—more than ever—can help us to feel connected to the outside world. Whether you’re restless, in need of solace, or simply lonely for another voice, here are some new and recent books by APA poets to keep you company.
Though LR contributor Michelle Peñaloza’s Hillary Gravendyk Prize–winning debut collection came out last August, it’s been on this editor’s reading list for what seems like forever. I was a big fan of Peñaloza’s 2015 chapbook landscape/heartbreak (Two Sylvias 2015), with its powerful, geographically grounded vignettes and close attention to imagistic texture, and Former Possessions seems to promise a similar deep engagement with the complex layers of trauma and history with respect to narratives of place and migration.
Sok masterfully weaves together the skeins of narratives left fragmented by the legacy of war, trauma, and diaspora with a skillful hand, moving fluidly between past and present; Cambodia and Pennsylvania. Together, the poems in this debut collection comprise a whole cloth that is by turns tender and unflinching—not unlike the beautiful length of strong yellow silk (handwoven by the author’s grandmother) whose image wraps the cover of the book itself.
Yes, PAGPAG is fiction, not poetry, but it’s by LR contributor and APA literary great Eileen R. Tabios—we’d be amiss not to feature it! Hot off the presses (it was released barely a fortnight ago), this collection of short stories is not one to miss.
In “Behind the Book,” we chat with authors of new or recent collections about craft, process, and the stories behind how their books came into being. For this installment, we spoke with poet Soham Patel about punctuation, music, the rituals of preparation that surround her writing practice, and the James Baldwin story that inspired her gorgeous second collection,ever really hear it (Subito, 2018).
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LANTERN REVIEW: Where and how do you like to work when you write? What rituals help you to persist when you come to the page?
SOHAM PATEL: In my writing practice, I attempt to balance a fair amount of discipline and play. I like to write poetry in my home. My poetics believes that we embody language when we come to the page, so in terms of rituals I have several that persist: like these days, it’s making sure I do, even for just a few minutes, some kind of meditative exercise—like walk the dog or some yoga, even if it is just one concentrating breath to declutter my mind and detox my body. I also like to tidy up my home and then read as a way of honoring the work that’s been done before mine and has brought me to this privilege of being able to write. So today, for example, I skimmed these interview questions, folded some laundry and swept the floor, then reread James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” before sitting down to write this.
LR: ever really hear it takes its title from a James Baldwin quote: “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it.” And, in fact, music, sonics, and performance are a central motif of the book. Why music? Can you tell us a bit about how you came to choose music as a connecting thread?
SP: The protagonist in “Sonny’s Blues” utters this sentence in the final scene while he’s watching Sonny play jazz music onstage at a nightclub in Harlem. Baldwin writes so beautifully about music’s power, its ability to be both a cure and a force that could break you into a bunch of pieces. Sometimes we burst into song like we burst into tears or laughter. When I was growing up, music was ever present because my family spent a lot of time in cars, where my parents would play their tapes from India between songs my sister and I asked to listen to on the local radio stations. Music is a mystery to me in terms of just how its power works—to change a mood, for example, and how it works on a disciplinary level because I don’t know how to read it. ever really hear it was born from my thesis at the University of Pittsburgh MFA, where I was using my time to explore these questions I had about music through poetry. Ben Lerner taught us about how Jack Spicer believed the poet was transmitting messages from radio static. Poetry was a chance to interrogate lyric’s limits and the possibilities of the speaker in many contexts.
LR: Many of the poems in the book are headed by a series of four colons in lieu of titles. And, in fact, the colon becomes much more than a punctuation mark throughout the book—it’s a linkage for analogous terms, a break, a permeable membrane, a connecting track, a beat or rest in the line of the lyric, a musical notation in and of itself. Can you tell us more about the thought that went into this choice? Why the colon, and how did you settle upon the internal grammar of its usage throughout the book as you were putting the project together?
SP: The project—as a book—for me is, most importantly, a made thing. Most of the poems are meant to sit on one page so that the physical act of the turning of the page becomes a part of the pause that occurs while moving through the book. There are five poems towards the beginning of the opening section that perform as a sequence across more than one page and are connected by the “::::” colons. In early compositions I repeatedly listened to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song “Gold Lion” four times and wrote while trying to focus my listening to just the drums, then again for each guitar, then just focusing on Karen O’s words and vocables. At MFA school, Dawn Lundy Martin had us study Myung Mi Kim’s Dura, and that’s where I first saw the “:” on the page, hanging out at the top where a title should be, in a place where a colon traditionally would not be found. The subversion was so vanguard to me, and I began to think about how breaking punctuation rules might be necessary when building a poem’s structure in order to keep the language of it live. I am drawn to the stacked order and open space the colon holds, the way it is a parallel, mirrorlike. Four in a row is like a stutter to me and also an ellipsis turned to a stop. I wanted the colon to do all the things you list—and pay homage to Dura’s sequences.
LR: The work, as assembled, feels so beautifully seamless—like a continuous whole rather than a group of poems collected together. How did you go about approaching the shape of the project as you were composing?
SP: Thank you. In a manuscript workshop at MFA school, Lynn Emanuel suggested we make sure the last line of one page carried on somehow to the first words on the next page. After about four years of drafting the poems, the titles felt like a distraction, so I removed most of them, then titled each page “song:”—but that approach felt incorrect (like a placeholder), too, so I then removed titles and spent a couple more years moving each page into different movements. While I was doing this, I was also assembling the poems for my first book, to afar from afar, which was initially arranged based on the three Ayurvedic body constitutions, and so I decided to also try this structure out with ever really hear it. In the end I flipped the order and put the last movement first.
LR: A personal craft question for you: What are the road signs, the internal notes that tell you you’ve arrived, when you’re writing—whether you’re working on an individual poem or a larger project? How do you know when a poem is finished? How did you know when this manuscript was ready to go out into the world?
SP: In practical terms, I needed to send the manuscript into the world in hopes that it would get picked up so I could be considered for the kind of employment I was seeking after I earned my PhD. Otherwise, I practice poetry through large projects that require intense study, durational scope, and can take on various forms. I revise obsessively—and slowly. For this book, I approached the poem as I would a song. I used to play the guitar and sing, so memorizing lyrics and chord progressions has been embedded into me. A poem on a page is finished when I have it memorized—not always by heart but sometimes by sight or by ear; I can encounter the first line and anticipate what’s coming next, where and why the next en- or em-dash appears, and even where there’s space for spontaneity when performed. A good road sign for me is that when I can fully embody the poem (or it me), I have no doubts about each part of it and can account for every strategy made in building a thing that is solid but still porous.
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Soham Patel is the author of the poetry collections to afar from afar (The Accomplices, 2018) and ever really hear it (Subito Press, 2018). A Kundiman fellow, Soham is also an assistant editor at Fence and The Georgia Review.
In “Behind the Book,” we chat with authors of new or recent volumes of poetry about craft, process, and the stories behind how their books came into being. For this installation, we spoke with poet, translator, and zheng harpist Fiona Sze-Lorrain about the importance of listening, her belief in “time and erring from time to time,” and the pleasure of engaging Ye Lijun’s poems in her newest work of translation, My Mountain Country (World Poetry Books, 2019).
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LANTERN REVIEW: What first led you to the work of Ye Lijun? How did you come to translate her poems?
FIONA SZE-LORRAIN: This question is similar to “What first led you to writing a poem?” etc. Ye Lijun’s work appeals to me in part because we share similar preferences: music, visual arts, stargazing, a life outside the mainstream, and more.
LR: Your English translations of Ye’s poems carry a beautiful musicality to them. Can you describe your strategy for considering differences in sonics when translating across languages? What factors do you consider when translating Chinese sonics for the Anglophone ear?
FSL: The main thing I do is to practice listening, which might not be what one typically associates with translation when one translates. Some translators could be more concerned with the mot juste, the authenticity of texts, for instance, and these are legitimate concerns. I think beyond the technical, textual, or theoretical issues, there can be a more spiritual path. Once one starts focusing on differences—or similarities, for that matter—in sonics, and thinks about obtaining the “perfect pitch,” one is on a different path. To illustrate metaphorically, I cite two verses from Ye Lijun’s “Whereabouts”:
A mountain. Down the mountain a tunnel, sometimes echoes of singing late at night
LR: Did you have a favorite poem to translate from among those that appear in My Mountain Country? If so, what made the experience of working on it so pleasurable?
FSL: Yes, in fact, I do have several favorite poems: “Portrait at Forty,” “In Pingyuan Village,” “Grass-things,” “Back to Lotus Summit,” “Personal Life,” “Delirium,” and others. It isn’t difficult to share why the experience of working on these poems was, to borrow your words, “so pleasurable”: I like the poems, their narratives and simplicity. Beyond the “pleasure experience,” the poems themselves believe in contentment. They aren’t competitive and do not care about dominating others or being right. I am still learning much from the poems in My Mountain Country.
LR: You have also authored several original collections of poetry. How does your process for revising, ordering, and putting together a translated work differ from your process for putting together a collection of your own poems (if at all)? Are there any constant stars to which you find yourself returning time and again?
FSL: I have written three original collections of poetry. I don’t know if three is defined as several. I have written poems that can’t find a place in those three books. And I have written poems that are just terrible, even though they need to be written. The curiosity about one’s process of putting work together in aim of publication—in “book form”—is a results-oriented question and outlook. It produces a certain voyeurism. If one begins to figure a formula out for all these mysteries, in hope of applying it as frequently as possible to as many projects possible so as to achieve “success,” one is seeking a product and writing for a commodity culture or industry. It is hard for me to champion that sort of mentality. I believe in time and erring from time to time:
I have returned . . . Again and again in the backyard I plant seeds, mistakes, love —from Ye Lijun’s “A Mountain Hut”
LR: You say in your note at the end of the book that you first began translating Ye’s poems in 2011, nine years ago. When working on a project over such a long period of time, what helps you reorient yourself and gain a sense of overall trajectory each time you return to the work?
FSL: Why think of nine years as “long” or “short”? Three seconds can be short or transient, but three seconds in bed with a lover is another thing, another permanence. If you believe in time the way I do, this question will take care of itself. This goes for the anxieties of translation. The “kick” one gets out of poetry—and its translation—has to do with one’s willingness to take the path of and in an unknown spacetime.
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Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, translator, and zheng harpist who writes and translates in English, Chinese, French, and occasionally Spanish. The author of three books of poetry, most recently The Ruined Elegance (Princeton, 2016), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, she has translated multiple volumes of contemporary Chinese, French, and American poets. Her work was shortlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award and longlisted for the 2014 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Her latest translation is Ye Lijun’s My Mountain Country (World Poetry Books, 2019). A Blue Dark, a joint exhibition of Fritz Horstman’s ink drawings alongside Sze-Lorrain’s poems and translations handwritten in ink on treated washi, was held at the Institute Library in New Haven last summer. Sze-Lorrain is a 2019–2020 Abigail R. Cohen Fellow at the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination. As a zheng harpist, she has performed worldwide. She lives in Paris.
— Note: This post was updated on 1/27 to reflect a corrected version of MY MOUNTAIN COUNTRY’s cover image and an update to our introduction: Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, translator, and zheng harpist; not merely a poet and translator. Our sincere apologies for the previous errors.
UPDATE (2/7/20):We’re just floored by the outpouring of support you’ve shown during our February extended reading period.In just one week, we’ve managed to hit our monthly submissions limit again! Unfortunately, this means we’ll have to wrap up 2020 submissions a couple of days earlier than anticipated. We are so sorry if you had been intending to send in something in the last push before this Sunday, but please know that we are incredibly grateful for your support and hope we will get to hear from you next time! A million thanks once again, and please don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any questions.
UPDATE (1/19/20):Thank you, everyone, for your tremendous response! Much to our surprise, we’ve hit our submissions limit for the month of January much earlier than expected and will have to shut down for a bit until our counter resets in February. To make up for the missed time, we’ll reopen submissions again for a short time from February 1st–9th. (If you tried to submit, and the form was closed, we are sorry; please do try again in February!) We apologize for the inconvenience—but thank you a million times over again for your support and interest. Please check back again on February 1st!
Happy New Year! We hope today finds you refreshed and ready to take on whatever new creative challenges the year brings. This morning, we’re excited to announce some fresh news of our own: open submissions for our 2020 season is finally here!
For our 2020 season, we’re taking submissions of original poetry and visual art (including photography) through January 31, 2020. This June will also mark the tenth anniversary of our first issue’s release, and we’re excited to be celebrating a decade of publishing Asian American poetry on the web. We’ve got some exciting new plans in the works for our anniversary year—so stay tuned for more updates in the weeks and months to come.
We hope you’ll consider sending us something of yours this submissions period. As in years past, it’s free to submit via Submittable (we don’t charge any reading fees), and we’re actively looking for new voices to feature in the year to come. A very happy 2020 to you and yours—and we look forward to reading your work!
We’re thrilled to announce that Lantern Review Issue 7.3, our third and final issue of the 2019 season, is now live! This dazzling collection features poems by Karan Madhok, Jane Wong, Annette Wong, Tessie Monique, Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé, and Melody Gee, as well as artwork by Sisavanh Phouthavang-Houghton and Tonya Russell. The issue is curated around the theme “Construction(s),” a title inspired by both Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé’s prose poem “The Beach, and the Important Failure of Utopia Creation” and Melody Gee’s tender lyric “And So More,” two very different pieces that are both invested in questions of world-making, building, and becoming.
There are fewer things more satisfying than curating a conversation between the kinds of diverse and divergent voices that appear in Issue 7.3. We’ve anticipated the release of this issue for months and are delighted to showcase these artists’ rigorous, artful considerations of what it means to construct, to deconstruct, and to perform identity and the body in new, complex ways.
In looking back on this year’s issues, we’re incredibly grateful to our contributors for believing in Lantern Review‘s mission as a journal dedicated to excellence and diversity in Asian American poetry, as well as to all of you, our readers, for your continued support. Thank you so much for joining in the conversation, especially as we’ve taken the leap of relaunching the magazine this year.
We hope you’ll enjoy Issue 7.3—and as always, we’d love to hear what you think! Leave us a comment below or catch us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter: @LanternReview.
In “Behind the Book,” we chat with authors of new or recent collections about craft, process, and the stories behind how their books came into being. This month, we spoke with poet Eugene Gloria about writing into the political, the lyric impulse, and how the notion of “the book [as] a unified song” guided him while putting together his unflinching new collection, Sightseer in This Killing City(Penguin-Random House, 2019).
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LANTERN REVIEW: Sightseer in This Killing City responds to recent reactionary politics around the world, including in the Philippines, the US, and Europe. Did the project that became this book evolve into its political perspective over time? Or were its politics there from its genesis, and if so—was there a particular political moment that served as the igniting spark?
EUGENE GLORIA: Some of the themes that have emerged from my work over the years have explored masculinity and gun violence, displacement and grief, as well as beauty. I think I still find myself writing about these things. When I first imagined working on this collection of poems, I was interested in interrogating the person I have become after living in Indiana for many years. The initial title of my manuscript was “Karate, Guns, and Tanning,” named after a strip mall near where I live. But then the results of the US presidential election of 2016 happened around the same time the Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte as their president. I wrote a significant portion of Sightseer in This Killing City while living and teaching in the Philippines while on a Fulbright grant in Manila. I guess it’s safe to say that the book’s political perspective (when it was being shaped as a book) became a response to the collective grief many of us share in the era of Trump and Duterte and the mass killings we now experience with alarming regularity. So I ended up adding newer poems and taking out some older ones that no longer fit.
LR: Many of the poems in Sightseer are written in persona. How did Nacirema (the primary persona in the book) first find her way to you? Did composing in her voice shape your own process and craft at all as you worked on the book?
EG: The name Nacirema comes from Horace Miner’s essay “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” from American Anthropologist, published in 1956. It was a satire of sorts addressed to other social scientists. I loved the idea of a name meaning “American” except spelled backwards. I was working on a poem about a Filipino nurse I knew from my old neighborhood in San Francisco when I first encountered the name via the visual artist Michael Arcega, whom I met at the Montalvo Artists Residency. He told me that he stole the name from Miner, and so I didn’t need his permission to use it as the name of a character in my poem. From “Nurse Nacirema” came “Ave Nacirema,” then gang-banger Nacirema in one of “The War on Drugs” poems, then Camino Nacirema in “My Sad Economist on the Nature of Things”—and so on. Having a character to work with allowed me to extend my examination of identity as a performed thing and not rely so much on the “I” persona who is also a stand-in for myself. And so, yes, developing a voice through Nacirema allowed me to take various directions with my collection that I hadn’t originally imagined.
LR: Music heavily informs the syntax and sonics of the poems in the book. How does music factor into your writing process? How did it factor into your process for writing Sightseer?
EG: I often find myself revisiting my student days in writing workshop whenever I’m in the classroom with my students at the university where I teach. I find myself sometimes saying the same thing my teachers used to say to me about my poems: “So where’s the music in this?” I’ve always imagined music as feeling and sentences having their own level of sound in order to create “big” feelings. Sometimes you need to suspend sense in order to privilege music. As I’ve grown as a teacher who writes poems, I’ve allowed myself to experiment with formal structures in order to create new sonic possibilities for my narrative poems. “The Suitcase” is one example from the collection that comes to mind. Of course the lyric impulse takes over whenever I resist telling a story in my poems.
LR: The book is broken into four parts that function almost like dramatic acts or musical movements. Can you tell us more about the process by which the overall form of the book came together? For example, did you first decide upon the overall structure and then write into each section? Or did you begin with a looser assortment of poems that began to group themselves as you wrote?
EG: I once met a poet who told me that she was working on her latest collection, and she was starting with the table of contents, listing the titles of poems she still had to write. Knowing her work, I didn’t think she was kidding. I’ve often toyed with the idea of putting together a book in the same way. I write in this old-fashioned way of crafting one poem at a time until I think I have enough for a book. Conceptualizing the collection is an entirely separate process. At one point, I had imagined the book in the form of a two-album set and calling it “The Essential Nacirema”—each section of the book as one side of a vinyl disc. Arranging my poems in sections allows for significant pauses, breathing room, and allows for the ending poems to resonate until the reader moves to the next section. I go back and forth on creating sections or not having them. Somehow it made more sense to do it for this collection.
LR: This is your fourth book. Have you found that your approach and perspective to shaping a manuscript has changed over time? If so, how has it evolved? If not, what are the constant stars that have always seen you through your projects?
EG: I think it was Robert Frost who said that when you’re putting together a collection of poems and you have twenty-four poems written, the twenty-fifth poem will be the book. The idea of the book being a unified song is also a guiding principle for me.
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Eugene Gloria is the author of four books of poems—Sightseer in This Killing City (Penguin-Random House, 2019); My Favorite Warlord (Penguin, 2012), winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award; Hoodlum Birds (Penguin, 2006); and Drivers at the Short-Time Motel (Penguin, 2000), a National Poetry Series selection and recipient of the Asian American Literary Award. He is the John Rabb Professor of Creative and Performing Arts and English professor at DePauw University.
Happy first week of autumn! Today, we’re excited to debut a brand-new blog series. In “Behind the Book,” we’ll chat with authors of new or recent collections about craft, process, and the stories behind how their books came into being. It’s our privilege to start off the series by chatting with contributor and longtime friend of the magazine Oliver de la Paz. Read on to learn how he pursues the discipline of returning to the page amid the busyness of family and academic life and how he grapples with writing about deeply personal subject matter—as well as about the long spool of a journey that led him to the heart of his breathtaking new collection, The Boy in the Labyrinth(U of Akron Press, 2019).
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LANTERN REVIEW: Can you tell us more about how the project for The Boy in the Labyrinth was born? Was there a specific generative moment, as in the encounter with Alicia Ostricker you recall in the Credo? How did the pieces of the story begin to make their way to you—and at what point did you realize that the boy in the labyrinth was your sons?
OLIVER DE LA PAZ: I had made a trip to read for the Slash Pine Festival in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, around 2007 or 2008. That was right around the same time my wife, Meredith, was pregnant with our first son. The poet David Welch had read a few poems, which really had resonated with me in terms of tone, so I tried my hand at a few prose poems that were operating at a similar tonal level. And I thought nothing of it. I kept writing these poems about a mysterious boy in a labyrinth. The writing got a little more frenetic as the magnitude of raising a neurodiverse child as someone who was neurotypical and completely uninformed about parenting started to sweep through my consciousness. But I didn’t connect the fact of the poems with the story of my sons until later, honestly. I continued with the strange little tone prose poems about this boy for almost ten years without looking up and realizing what I was doing. Once I realized their connection, I stopped writing them and started writing poems that ended up being the connective tissue—the questionnaires and the story problems started to trickle into the work about three years ago, and that was when I realized what I had in front of me. The poem “Credo” that opens the book was borne out of necessity. I realize that the book suffers a fatal flaw, and that is context. I had to acknowledge, in writing, my fumbling manner of writing around my anxieties and face them head on.
LR: You begin with apology (specifically, to your neurodiverse sons for writing about them)—something that, you inform the reader, is part of your writing ritual. What is the significance of apology in your writing process? While writing this book in particular, how did you weigh and wrestle with the implications and responsibilities of writing about your children?
OD: Well, I’m still quite uncomfortable about this book and that it’s out. Part of that discomfort is because I’m writing about my sons. At the time of the start of the work, they were really young and didn’t have a whole lot of say in what it was that I was doing. There was no correction from them in my wrestling with my understanding of neurodiversity. Now, my oldest kid’s almost a teenager, and he’s clearly delineated for me his boundaries. He’s read through the tricky parts, and he’s given me a nod, but further on down, I’m not sure how he’ll feel, and so we may have a very different conversation about this book. And so the apology is, in many ways, for the future. I acknowledge that this book is an artifact of a particular time that fixes my sons at a particular age with struggles that are/were particular to a specific moment in time, and in many ways we have all moved beyond that time.
LR: The impetus behind this book is so personal. Did you ever feel the need to give it space for a period of time when engaging with it felt too emotional? If so, what did those moments of space look like for you, and how were you able to keep bringing yourself back to the work each time?
OD: Oh, absolutely. I worked on other projects to get my mind off of this project. I published Post Subject: A Fable, and I worked on a sixth manuscript. The two projects outside of The Boy in the Labyrinth were much more observational, though what remained intact was the allegorical nature of the writing. I think that thread spreads throughout my work. But then I’d be reminded that I also needed to tend to the more personal work. I don’t know about how other writers work, but I’m usually juggling two or three manuscript ideas at once so that if my mind is fatigued by any given project, there’s always another work that needs my attention. Again, I had worked on the poems in The Boy in the Labyrinth for nearly ten years, so I took many breaks away from the book to get my mind right but also to accommodate being a dad and being a teacher.
LR: How did you find your way to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur and the use of the Greek ode as a form by which to structure the movement of the book? What craft considerations informed your process while trying to shape the narrative within this Classical framework?
OD: The structure came later. Part of my responsibility in working on such a large singular work is to usher a reader through its girth. It’s extremely dense and seemingly repetitive, which is the nature of obsession and writing through accretion. By imagining the work as akin to a Greek ode, I was also thinking about how the structure of the Pindaric odes commemorated events and how there were predictable elements of ceremony and ritual. I take my kids to church, and there are always particular rituals that they understand (they especially know when mass is about to end). So the Classical structure helped me organize the large morass of writing that I had done, but I also wanted to help the reader through the journey.
LR: How, if at all, did your process of composing the narrative prose poems in this book differ from your process for writing into the other forms that surround and weave through them (e.g., medical questionnaires, “story problems,” etc.)?
OD: I usually alternate between writing in verse and writing in prose forms. As I had mentioned, I’m usually juggling several projects at once, and I had been writing Post Subject: A Fable concurrently with The Boy in the Labyrinth. Both of these manuscripts take their cues from allegory and fable, and I had always associated parable and allegory with very short, concise prose. I wanted to interrupt the fabulist tendencies by writing in a more clinical mode. And I wanted to interrogate the form of the standardized test or the medical questionnaire, but mostly, in my process, I truly and actually needed a break from the discursive mode of allegory. The first of the works to be written outside of the allegorical mode was the “Autism Spectrum Questionnaire: Speech and Language Delay.” And that opened my mind up to other possibilities of writing that were in dialogue with the allegorical stories. They were all written together as a chunk—I don’t write throughout the year. I wrote almost exclusively in the summer for a very short and dynamic amount of time. So, naturally, when I started down the path of writing out these questionnaires, more and more came about because of the intensity of my limited writing schedule.
LR: What were some of the joys and challenges of working on a project over such a long period of time? Do you have any advice for maintaining (or fostering) a sense of continuity among pieces written at very different points in time?
OD: Again, given my really limited amount of writing time due to parenting and all the other duties that are part of teaching in academia and being a spouse, I had to make some concessions with who I was as a writer, and so I developed a practice that grants me an immediate path when I take the task of writing up the following day. What you don’t see in The Boy in the Labyrinth are the cues that I left myself in syntax and structure that allowed me to continue the sequence. A number of them got cut in the final edits. I will say that Post Subject: A Fable shows many syntactic gestures that I used to help “warm up” my writing brain. I paint on big canvases. I almost always think of individual poems with respect to the poems adjacent to them—how a particular poem activates or negates the work surrounding it. I think in motif and pattern, and I love making bigger connections both in my own writing and in the work of writers whom I enjoy, either in individual poetry collections or a life’s work.
Of course the challenge of writing in such modes is almost always sustaining the work, and I suppose I enjoy the discipline of continuous project building. In the end, there’s something about working on a singular, sustained project that is akin to controlling one’s time.
My mother wakes up every day at around 4 AM, makes her coffee, reads, and then does her exercises. She has done this all my life. She is now in her late seventies, and she has Parkinson’s, but her ritual still persists. I admire her defiance, and in a way, writing in such an insistent, systematic, and sustained way is a kind of defiance for me. A way of making space for a ritual against the din of the world.
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Oliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard, Post Subject: A Fable, and The Boy in the Labyrinth. He also coedited A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. A founding member of Kundiman, Oliver serves as the cochair of the organization’s advisory board. He has received grants from the NYFA and the Artist Trust and has been awarded two Pushcart Prizes. His work has been published or is forthcoming in journals such as Poetry, American Poetry Review, Tin House, The Southern Review, and Poetry Northwest. He teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at PLU.
Happy Friday! As we near the end of one year of our magazine’s being back in (virtual) print, the Lantern Review team is delighted to announce that we have nominated the following two poems for Best of the Net 2019.
“I say, Minidoka— what the birds mean is that there is no such thing as safety, barely shelter.”
Shamala and Todd’s poems sing in the dark. They whisper quietly in the mind’s ear, masterfully and unflinchingly tuning image and syntax line by line. Their tightly crafted openings and endings deliver a powerful gut punch each time we read them, and we’re so grateful to have gotten the chance to publish these two beautiful pieces this year.
Congratulations, Shamala and Todd, and we wish you the very best of luck in the Best of the Net selection process!
A new school year is upon us, and if you’ve been following us for a while, you’ll know that we’re passionate about diverse books in the classroom. Anthologies are wonderful resources for teachers hoping to integrate a range of poetic voices into a curriculum, and luckily, 2019 has been especially bountiful in terms of new poetry anthologies and edited collections that feature diverse voices. Read on for three such titles that have caught our eye this year—and that we think would make fantastic additions to any classroom in the 2019–2020 academic year.
In assembling Halal If You Hear Me, editors Safia Elhillo and Fatimah Asghar set out to create a space that celebrates the diversity of the Muslim community. In her introduction, Elhillo writes of growing up afraid of “performing my identity incorrectly.” Asghar, too, writes of her own longing for acceptance. In contrast to shame and alienation, the editors have envisioned Halal If You Hear Me as a space of solidarity and freedom—a testament to the notion that, in Elhillo’s words, “there are as many ways to be Muslim as there are Muslims.” It’s safe to say that the editors have roundly succeeded: from Kazim Ali to Warsan Shire, the broad variety of poetic styles and backgrounds represented in Halal If You Year Me span a truly impressive range, singing and grooving across genres and generations. Halal If You Hear Me would make a fantastic choice for a high-school or community teaching setting, where its broad accessibility would make it an inviting point of entry into poetry. College-level and graduate courses, too, would benefit from the inclusion of this vibrant volume in their syllabuses.
In a time where the notions of borders, migration, and citizenship are under constant scrutiny, Ink Knows No Borders seeks to highlight and celebrate the diversity that immigrant and refugee voices bring to the table. Write editors Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond in their introduction, “These lived stories, fire-bright and coal-hot acts of truth telling, are the poet’s birthright—and a human right. [ . . . ] Not only does ink know no borders; neither does the heart.” Indeed, this anthology sings with colorful narratives that bear witness. Featuring more than sixty poems that engage an enormous range of communities and experiences, the volume combines beloved favorites like Li-Young Lee’s “Hymn to Childhood” with more recent works like Aimee Nezhukhumatathil’s “On Listening to Your Teacher Take Attendance” and features a star-studded list of contributors that includes many of my [Iris’s] own favorite poets to teach—Joseph O. Legaspi, Franny Choi, Ocean Vuong, Alberto Ríos, Juan Felipe Hererra, Ada Limón, Bao Phi, and more. Ink Knows No Borders would be a wonderful text to teach in any high school or community setting or as an addition to any undergrad- or graduate-level reading list, while individual poems from the volume could also shine in the middle-grade classroom. To get you started, Penguin Random House, which distributes the book, has even helpfully provided a teacher’s guide to aid with introducing selected poems from the book to young readers.
Born out of a student-teacher collaboration, this landmark volume thoughtfully collects together craft essays by poets of color—including numerous APA voices such as Ching-In Chen, Sasha Pimental, Ocean Vuong, and Craig Santos Perez. In keeping with the “windows and mirrors” principle, which proposes that students need to read texts that both offer glimpses into others’ experiences and reflect their own, Of Color tackles the need for diversity among not just primary works, but also among secondary writings on poetics, theory, and craft. In her introduction, coeditor Luisa A. Igloria recalls how the project came into being after a meeting when Amanda Galvan Huynh (who was then her student) confessed her frustration that “there was nothing in [her craft and theory courses’] syllabi or course reading lists that reflected who she was back to herself” (19). Indeed, the resultant volume speaks to a desire to carve out and create not just a resource—but a community. Writes Huynh in her own introduction, “To BIPOC writers: I hope you find what you need to hear in these pages, the support, the love, the struggle, and the reassurance that you are not alone in this poetic artistry” (16). A beautiful testament to the strength and importance of community, Of Color would be a strong addition to any undergraduate or graduate creative writing syllabus.
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What books that you encountered in school helped open your world to diverse voices? If you’re an educator, what texts have you loved for including racially diverse perspectives in your curriculum? Share your recommendations with us in the comments or on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).