2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Neil Aitken and Rumit Pancholi

Neil Aitken and Rumit Pancholi
Neil Aitken (L) and Rumit Pancholi (R)

Today, we’re sharing the final installment in our mini series “2 Poets, 4 Questions.” Each week in this series, we’ve been pairing up two different emerging APIA poets and asking them to answer a set of four identical questions. Today’s post features a pair of poet-editors, Neil Aitken (author of  The Lost Country of Sight) and Rumit Pancholi (author of the chapbook Anatomy of a Ghost), who reflect on the things that haunt their poetry, putting together their first manuscripts, and the joys and challenges of editorial work

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LR: What ghosts haunt your poetry? What are the voices and stories that dog you, the specters that find their way into your writing again and again?

NA: Landscapes, mostly. I hold fast to memories of Saskatchewan and the childhood I spent there working in the sun, or wandering through vast fields of grain in the summer, staring up at a sky that refused number or name. I carry all sorts of things with me in my work and in my life. Behind every new city lies an array of the ones I have left behind, large and small—but it’s always the prairies that end up dominating that view: the abandoned farmhouses, the forgotten roads, the fences that run the length of the horizon, everything speaks to something out of time, yet grounded to earth and sensation.

There are people that linger at the edges of my writing as well. My father, for one, now seven years gone into silence, and his voice, which I’ve kept preserved on a little tape recorder, stored in a drawer, waiting for the day I can bring myself to listen to it again. He was my first mentor—the first to encourage me to write, to draw, to imagine things beyond the world around me—and to value the power of language as a means of transformation and possibility. When I teach I find myself falling back on not just on what he taught me, but how—the ways in which he refused easy answers, but equipped me to search out my own.

As a programmer turned poet, I’m haunted the memory of my first encounter with contemporary American poetry, of standing in the aisle of a used bookstore and thumbing through a copy of Philip Levine’s New Selected Poems, and the way “Letters for the Dead” rose from the page and took over my entire imagination. How is it possible, I remember thinking at that time, that one can create so much longing, beauty, and music out of such plain speech? I wanted to write like that—and that yearning has carried me on a remarkable journey, page after page, through the minds and worlds of other great poets.

Lastly, I’m haunted by something the artist Kandinsky once wrote:

“Everything that is dead quivers. Not only the things of poetry, stars, moon, wood, flowers, but even a white trouser button glittering out of a puddle in the street… Everything has a secret soul, which is silent more often than it speaks.”

I love the notion of a secret soul that lurks in even the most mundane and forgettable of things and the way it opens up the space for wonder and surprise, even gratitude.

RP: I’m haunted by the inexorable draws of expectation, especially of Speaker = Poet. Often I feel that creative writers are expected to write, and do write, as I have in my work, about the issues that concern their race/ethnicity, gender, and sexuality—an innocuous trifecta that intersects with love, pain, grief, and other sentiments in modern poetry. Past scholars, instructors, and mentors have given valuable guidance in steering me toward more about my lived experiences as a young, gay non-White writer and to tap into those avenues for creative writing fodder, to dig deep and wide. I have, and the result has been forced, uncooked, and unsatisfying poems that are eventually stashed in a folder on my computer labeled “Pending” only to be sheepishly dropped into the Recycle Bin months later. What was inhibiting me from reaching poems that I could read and reread without sounding standard and cliché? Over the years, I’ve begun to learn and identify that simply writing about those themes doesn’t create the spark I seek. After having written and destroyed hundreds of poems about an unrequited love or a jilted lover or the nuances of growing up constantly responding to gayness, otherness, non-Whiteness, I’m haunted by the “I” Rumit voice versus the “I” speaker voice that has to grapple with being within the poem and apart from the poem while simultaneously being inviting, charming, sexy, relevant to a reader. When I return to those common themes as a springboard, and when I do gain admirable momentum, I ask myself how this poem is different from other same-theme poems written by another “young, gay non-White writer.” That harangues me the most whenever I think I see the Finish Line.

Continue reading “2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Neil Aitken and Rumit Pancholi”

LR News: Issue 6 Is Here!

LR Issue 6 Cover
LR Issue 6

This morning, it’s our pleasure to announce that the sixth issue of Lantern Review is now live! Featuring poems by Michelle Chan Brown, Rachel Ronquillo Gray, Lee Herrick, Matthew Olzmann, Brynn Saito, Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut, and Shelley Wong, and a special feature on translation in process that highlights the work of Fiona Sze-Lorrain and Don Mee Choi, Issue 6 is slim, but by no means short on quality. Even the cover art has a story of its own: the words that appear behind the negative space of the butterfly cutouts are actually pieces of text from one of the poems in the issue—Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut’s “in the town of colorblind.” Issue 6 has been a joy to curate, and we are exceptionally proud of the cohesiveness and strength of the body of work that appears within its pages. We only hope that you’ll find it as utterly pleasurable to read as we found it to put together.

To enter the issue, click here or on the cover image at the top left of this post. We’d love to hear what you think about the issue, so leave us a comment or reach out to us on Twitter or Facebook to let us know. And of course, if you experience any technical issues while browsing, please don’t hesitate to drop us a line at editors [at] lanternreview.com at any time; we’re always grateful for your feedback and will do whatever we can to assist you in improving your reading experience.

A very happy Wednesday to you, and safe travels to those who are traveling to Seattle for AWP.

Many thanks, ever and always, for your continued support

Peace and Light,

Iris & Mia
LR Editors

2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Eugenia Leigh and Hossannah Asuncion

Eugenia Leigh and Hossannah Asuncion
Eugenia Leigh (L; Photo by An Rong Xu) and Hossannah Asuncion (R; Photo by Naomi Miller)

Today, we bring you the second installment in our mini series “2 Poets, 4 Questions.” Each week in this series, we’re pairing up two different emerging APIA poets and asking them to answer a set of four identical questions. Today’s installment features two New York—based poets who are both alumnae of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program and Los Angeles transplants: Eugenia Leigh (author of the forthcoming Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows) and Hossannah Asuncion (author of the chapbook Fragments of Loss).

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LR: February, when we’re entrenched in the miserablest depths of winter, always seems to be a month of cravings: for indulgent foods, for human connection, for warmth, for light, for the coming of spring. (Margaret Atwood called it “a month of despair, / with a skewered heart in the centre” when one thinks “dire thoughts, and lust[s] for French fries with a splash of vinegar.”) As a poet, what are your literary cravings? What whets your creative appetite, haunts you, and keeps you coming back for more?

EL: My obsessions and “literary cravings” vary in accordance with my life seasons. They’re usually songs. Sometimes quotes. When I feel restless with those “dire thoughts” Atwood warns us about, I will expend myself tracking down the one song that resonates in both meaning and mood, then sit still and loop that song through my earphones for hours. Or I will stare at a quote for any length of time to absorb its meaning. This Franz Kafka quote, for example, carried me through bitter homesickness when I first moved to New York: “It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.” At the risk of sounding insane, I’ll admit I would stare at these words for entire evenings because I believed I could will them to come true.

During the season that produced my first book, I spent hours alone with Brand New’s 2006 album, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. Especially “The Archers’ Bows Have Broken.” I was far from having any semblance of faith in anything at the time, but I couldn’t get enough of the idea of “a God that we found lying under the backseat” or a God in other mundane or sacrilegious positions and scenarios. In 2008, when I moved to New York, The Fray’s “You Found Me” gave me a similar haven. The God in this song is “smoking his last cigarette,” so I trusted this God enough to indulge the idea of him. Maybe it’s correct to say I’m always lusting after the other worlds beyond this one. The Unseen. Unless a piece of art has an element of the mystical or the supernatural or the impossible, it’s difficult for me to crave it. Love it and be moved by it, sure. But likely not lust after it.

HA: I experienced an almost hubris recently that I,  a poet—an occupant in the field of emotional cryptology,  am actually very not-knowing of my feelings.  And so I like words that investigate and excavate—I like vulnerability and searching. I very much like the answer, I don’t know, but here is the doing and undoing of my world of questioning. The poets who are doing that for me right now are Ocean Vuong and Eduardo Corral.

Continue reading “2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Eugenia Leigh and Hossannah Asuncion”

Editors’ Corner: Making the Most of AWP (Without Losing Your Sanity)

Mia and I tabling with our APIA lit mag colleagues at AWP 2013.
Mia and I in the AWP 2013 bookfair with our APIA lit mag colleagues.

AWP 2014 is just around the corner, and although neither Mia nor I can make it this year, I thought that—for those who are going—I would share a bit of what I’ve learned from past years about how to get the most out of the weekend without letting it break me. Don’t get me wrong; I love AWP. It’s an amazing resource and a great opportunity for networking, for encountering new work, for hearing literary heroes read or speak, and for participating in critical and creative exchange with other writers. But AWP is also enormous. It’s filled with thousands of people, the schedule is packed with pages upon pages of events, and the bookfair is filled with hundreds of tables offering items for sale. I can’t claim to speak for everyone, of course, but for writers like me—who happen to be introverts, travel on a budget, and/or struggle with decision paralysis when faced with choices as simple as which variety of dish detergent to purchase—this can sometimes feel incredibly overwhelming. Fortunately, over the course of the five AWP conferences that I’ve attended, I’ve discovered that a little planning and pacing can go a long way toward making my experience healthier, more manageable, and altogether more enjoyable and fulfilling. If you’re going to AWP for the first time this year, or even if you’ve been before and want to minimize the crazy-making aspects of your experience this time, read on for some tips.

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1. Pack light, but be prepared. Check the weather forecast for the host city and try to pack appropriately (the last three years, it snowed heavily during the conference, and I was extremely glad that I had brought my winter boots and thick coat with me). Be sure to pack shoes that you’ll be comfortable walking or standing in for long periods of time, and that will provide you with some measure of protection from wet or cold weather. I also suggest planning to dress in layers during the conference. Especially during colder weather, hotels and conference centers tend to keep their heat up pretty high, and the bookfair in particular can be sweltering with all of the people milling around inside, so it’s a good idea to wear a couple of layers in case you start feeling very warm indoors (overheating inside the building is just as miserable as freezing outdoors). Also, if you have business cards, bring them! And if you don’t, I suggest considering getting a few made up with your name, email address, social media handle(s), and web site if you have one: Overnight Prints offers a great bargain for a solid product; for those who want something a little prettier, I highly recommend Moo.com. Lastly, don’t forget to leave extra room in your suitcase (or to pack a second, collapsible bag that you can pop out and fill up later). You will inevitably come home with books and other treasures, and you’ll want someplace to put them.

2. Plan your schedule selectively and strategically. Before the conference, look at the schedule and decide what events are absolute must-attends for you (if possible try to limit yourself to one of these per day; you’ll inevitably add more on later, but since there are so many events, it’s helpful to begin the conference with a sense of which events you would absolutely regret missing). Once at the conference, re-evaluate every evening, and map out two to three “target” panels to attend the next day, but be flexible. If other panels happen, wonderful! If not (and even if you don’t make it to all the events you’d planned to go to), don’t kick yourself. If you find that you really need a nap instead of attending that reading, take the nap (if you fall asleep while sitting in the audience at the reading, you’ll be missing it anyway).

Continue reading “Editors’ Corner: Making the Most of AWP (Without Losing Your Sanity)”

2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Monica Mody and Cathy Linh Che

Monica Mody (L) and Cathy Linh Che (R)
Monica Mody (L) and Cathy Linh Che (R)

We’re excited today to introduce a new, three-part mini series to the blog. For each part in this series, we’ve paired up two different emerging APIA poets and have asked them to answer a set of four identical questions. Today’s installment features two poets with very different aesthetic styles but intersecting thematic interests: Monica Mody (author of Kala Pani, which was recently published by 1913 Press) and Cathy Linh Che (author of Split, forthcoming from Alice James Books in April).

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LR: In the wake of Valentine’s Day, we’ll start with this: what are your literary obsessions, and what breaks your heart? 

MM: Literary obsessions // Poems that catch me by my throat & pull me into the heart/breast of the poem. That dwell in the mouth of the beast and its opposite, its wholeness. That trigger an ache in the body, or bliss. On whom the eye falls and there is nothing but light. Poems of the earth, troubled about the relationships of humans with non-humans. That peel the crust of indifference off my eyes. Some of these poems have not yet been written. Two collections that I am looking forward to being obsessed with are Lucas de Lima’s Wet Land, and Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, Don Mee Choi’s new translation of Kim Hyesoon.

Heartbreaks // When poets write only to follow trends or to matter to the opinions of others, rather than let their hearts be broken in the writing of poems or dragged by wildness into that space that is of the animal the plant, relational, non-speaking, verboten. // When poets stay on the surface of poetry, stymied at the edge not jumping, stay with the dry husk of consensual meaning and consensual reality, stop themselves with rules and how-to’s.

CLC: Who are my literary obsessions? Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Srikanth Reddy, Jack Spicer, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, and James Baldwin. I’m interested in precise, intelligent, beautiful writing that takes great risk. What breaks my heart (in the best kind of way): honesty. My own and other people’s ability to speak up and out about issues that feel exposing and vulnerable.

Continue reading “2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Monica Mody and Cathy Linh Che”

Editors’ Corner: Books We’re Looking Forward to in 2014 (Part 2)

Books We're Looking Forward to in 2014, Part 2

Today, just in time for the start of the year of the lunar new year, we’re finishing off our two-part roundup of books that we’re looking forward to in 2014.  Last week’s post (part 1) focused on recently published titles, while today’s (part 2) focuses on forthcoming books that are due out later this year.

Note: the books discussed below are divided by category according to whether they are currently available for pre-order, or whether specific details of their release have, as of this posting, yet to be announced. For each category, books are listed alphabetically by author.

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Available for Pre-order

Split by Cathy Linh Che (forthcoming from Alice James Books in April 2014)

Split is the latest winner of the Kundiman Prize (the previous years’ awards having gone to Mezzanines by Matthew Olzmann and Pier by Janine Oshiro). Cathy Linh Che is a poet who writes with clarity and shattering vulnerability. I heard her read from portions of Split, which intertwines histories of personal trauma with the inherited trauma of war and displacement, at last year’s AWP, and watched the crowd be visibly moved as she began to cry on the podium. Che said recently, in a feature on the Blood-Jet Radio Hour’s blog: “at a reading, a young woman called me ‘the crying poet.’ She’d witnessed me bawling my eyes out at not one, but two of my own readings. I was a bit embarrassed by the nickname, but now it is a moniker I am proud of! If a book or reading is moving, I tear up. It is how I determine whether or not a work is good. Does it move me? And after I put down the work, does it endure?” I very much respect this: here is a poet who is willing to own the porousness between her work and herself, who is willing to allow herself to be moved by both the process and the “read” experience of her own writing. I can’t wait to read Split. 

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Turn by Wendy Chin-Tanner (forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in March 2014)

This is a special one for us here at LR. Wendy has been our staff interviewer for the past three seasons (she’s the one who’s been responsible for bringing you the insights of everyone from Garrett Hongo to Don Mee Choi), and we are so very ecstatic that she has a book forthcoming! We first got to know Wendy through her sonically rich, smart, politically-attuned poetry—we published a piece of hers in Issue 3 and enjoyed it so much that we made it the “closer” for the main body of the issue. Since joining the blog staff, she’s been a huge asset to the team, contributing colorful and extremely thoughtful interviews each month.  We were thrilled when we learned that Sibling Rivalry had picked up her book, and are very much looking forward to reading it in a couple of months’ time.

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Continue reading “Editors’ Corner: Books We’re Looking Forward to in 2014 (Part 2)”

Panax Ginseng: The Compassionate Sentence

Panax Ginseng is a bi-monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those with hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the English language’s congenital borrowings and derives from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” together with the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” This perhaps troubling image of one’s roots as panacea informs the column’s readings.


Isamu Noguchi's "Seated Female Nude: Scroll" from 1930.
Isamu Noguchi’s “Seated Female Nude: Scroll” from 1930.


Every line and stanza in Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Hello, the Roses (New Directions, 2013) discharges a single sentence, a mysterious effect.

It’s nothing like the prophetic long line of Whitman’s mad children, no Ginsberg howling on the street corner, saxophonic riffing and swelling, breathless in the moving city as it spills at the seams, flooding forth—

Not quite. Nor is it the disguising work of prose[-block] poetry. Prose poems are camouflaged in continuity, text-wrapped and pressurized without white space. Usually this means, even in narrative prose poems, a sinuous and subterranean movement. This allows an ending to suddenly lift upward out of horizontal motion. (Matthew Olzmann does such sequencing exceptionally well in his lineated poems, using absurd humor for torque.)

But Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s long line in Hello, the Roses is uniquely specific. Observe, from “The Mouse”:

I can’t recall the beauty of the almond trees.

I’m unable to distinguish between seeing trees, my instant awareness of ethereal beauty and trying to remember images of our having been in Greece.

The moment I think of trees, they diffuse into beings whose frequency so differs from mine, I can’t see them.

They connect with each other in groves that seem celestial, yet our worlds unify.

The dawn of the possibility of their appearance as form, stone, shifts probability toward angels. (12)

Continue reading “Panax Ginseng: The Compassionate Sentence”

Editors’ Corner: Books We’re Looking Forward to in 2014 (Part 1)

Books We're Looking Forward to in 2014, Part 1It’s the first month of the new year, and so much news about exciting new books has come across our desk of late that we thought we’d put together a couple of roundup posts in order to put some of the titles that we’re most looking forward to reading in the coming year on your radar.  In today’s post (part 1), I’ll be discussing six recently published titles (five full-length books and one chapbook) that have made top priority on my to-read list for 2014. Part 2 (which will follow next week) will focus on forthcoming books that are due out in 2014.

Note: the books discussed below appear alphabetically by author; the order in which they’re listed does not reflect any sort of ranking or order of preference. (We’re equally excited about all of them!)

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The Arbitrary Sign by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé (Red Wheelbarrow, 2013)

Desmond Kon is a two-time contributor to LR (his work appears in both issue 1 and issue 5), and both times that we’ve published him, Mia and I had a really hard time choosing just two of the poems he’d sent in each batch. Desmond’s work interests itself in philosophy, visual art, pop culture, and the sounds and textures of language: he is interested in dadaism and in other forms of the avant-garde, and has a unique gift for finding the music in both “high” language (such as academic jargon) and “low” forms of speech—slang, text speak, gossip column patter. The genius of his poems lies in their polyglot nature—the way that he mixes contrasting modes of speech and weaves easily in and out of a variety of languages. His pieces work because there is a delightfully haphazard quality to their approach, a lightness that plays against both the weight of the poems’ scale and subject matter and the deliberate care with which the poet has gathered, built up, and sculpted their many intricate layers of texture and pattern. Desmond, a highly prolific writer, has published multiple chapbooks (both in the US and in his home city-state of Singapore) and has a long list of journal and anthology credits to his name—and for good reason. I’ve no doubt The Arbitrary Sign—a philosophical twist on the form of the classic alphabet book—will be as delightful as the rest of his body of work.

For a sneak peek at The Arbitrary Sign, head on over to Kitaab to read six of the poems that appear in the collection.

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Kala Pani by Monica Mody (1913 Press, 2013)

This is a book I’ve been looking forward to for a long while now. Monica wrote for us as a staff reviewer from 2010 through 2011, and we later had the privilege of getting to publish a poem of hers in issue 4. Her work is deeply invested in myth and parable, and the textures of her writing are rich and sinuously complex—by turns liquid and transparent, and by others, knotty and grotesque. She has an exceptionally keen ear for music and magic, both of which suffuse her work.  I had the pleasure of getting to read and workshop portions of Kala Pani back in 2009. It is a hybrid piece (partway between poetry and prose) that takes up the narrative of a group of world travellers who converge around an ancient tree.  In it, the poet deftly plies together the fibers of what at first appears to be an allegory-like story, only to tease and unspun these threads mid-strand and remake them again (differently) in the next breath. What I admired most about the manuscript when I saw it in workshop was the way in which the tapestry of the piece’s language shatters and shifts at a moment’s notice—like quicksilver. Monica is a brilliant critical thinker, in addition to being a talented poet, and it shows in the deeply intelligent nature of her writing: though she is keen to investigate notions of trauma,  geography, time, race, gender, spirituality, etc., her writing neither preaches endlessly nor holds to an overly simplistic view of the political: rather, she holds questions up to a mirror, testing them on a knife’s edge. She recognizes that the notions of place and identity are inherently fraught with instability, and she both celebrates and problematizes this complexity: the characters of which she writes transform and bleed into one another, metamorphose and cycle back to avatars of themselves, over and over again, in many different ways. It’s been a couple of years since 1913 first announced that it had acquired Kala Pani, and now that the book is finally out, I can’t wait to read the finished product.

Excerpts of Kala Pani can be found at The Volta, the Boston Review, and Lies/Isle.

Continue reading “Editors’ Corner: Books We’re Looking Forward to in 2014 (Part 1)”

A Conversation with Brynn Saito

Brynn Saito
Brynn Saito


Brynn Saito is the author of The Palace of Contemplating Departure, winner of the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award from Red Hen Press (2013). She also co-authored, with Traci Brimhall, Bright Power, Dark Peace, a chapbook of poetry from Diode Editions (2013). Brynn’s work has been anthologized by Helen Vendler and Ishmael Reed; it has also appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Pleiades. Brynn was born in the Central Valley of California to a Korean American mother and a Japanese American father. She is the recipient of a Kundiman Asian American Poetry Fellowship, the Poets 11 award from the San Francisco Public Library, and the Key West Literary Seminar’s Scotti Merrill Memorial Award. Currently, Brynn lives, writes, and teaches in the SF Bay Area.

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LR: Travel, motion, and of course arriving and departing are recurring themes—the scaffolding of the book, even—in The Palace of Contemplating Departure. What was the process by which they became so significant for your collection?


BS: Basho says: “I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind–filled with a strong desire to wander,” a sentiment that resonates with me. Almost more than the journey itself, I love dreaming of the journey–imagining the wonder and existing in the space(s) of desire. Some of that desire fuels the work in the book. Other poems were born out of actual journeys and travels–moves from east to west and back again, departures spurred by broken loves; stories of forced relocations. I wrote most of the book during the [previous] decade of my life, a decade in which I was saying goodbye a lot–to friends, cities, lovers, and myriad versions of myself.

LR: When reading and especially listening to you read from your book, one can hear some strong liturgical cadences, as in “Trembling on the Brink of a Mesquite Tree.” Can you talk a bit about what influenced these prayer-like sounds in your work?

BS: Ah, great insight! I’m only now realizing the extent to which poetry, for me, is prayer–a way of speaking to the unknown and collecting the echoes spoken in return. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but I have a strong interest in religious cultures, most likely rooted in my upbringing in both the Buddhist temple and the Christian church. The “Word” was everywhere, in childhood: chanted during Buddhist death rituals, spoken by the pastor on Sunday mornings. I read the Bible and internalized the cadences: in the Bible, as in many texts created and passed along with recitation and song, the word “and” strings together the many passages, creating a fluid and unstoppable delivery. My poetry is influenced by these traditions, and strives for a sort of spoken quality: I pay attention to how the poem sounds–its rhythms and pacings–much like something sung or chanted.

LR: The Palace of Contemplating Departure is divided into four sections: “Ruined Cities,” “Women and Children,” “Shape of Fire,” and “Steel and Light.” Can you tell us a bit about what each section represents and what led you to this narrative structure?

BS: Organizing the poems was one of the hardest tasks. Two moments come to mind as pivotal in formulating the structure of book: first, sitting in a cabin in the Michigan woods with my dear friend and poet, Traci Brimhall, a bottle of wine, and the pages of the manuscript splayed out before us on the floor. It was so helpful to have an outside eye look at what seemed to be a mess of incoherent voices. The second moment that comes to mind is me in my home in San Francisco taping the pages of manuscript to the various walls in my bedroom, so I could see how it was all literally hanging together.

After much guesswork, the form emerged: four parts–two short sections comprised of persona poems (“Women and Children” and “Steel and Light”) and two longer sections comprised of dramatic narrative poems rooted in lived experiences (“Ruined Cities” and “Shape of Fire”). Once the structure emerged, it seemed fated, in some strange way, thought it took years to find itself.

LR: Do you find that your post-MFA writing differs from your pre- and mid-MFA writing, and if so, how?

BS: I’d like to think I’m becoming better at this poetry thing as I get older, but who knows. I’m trying to try less, if that makes any sense–I want the work to be more playful, and less conscious, at the outset, of what it is “about.” More improvisational and surprising. I think the earlier poems were more content-driven: I wanted to write about something and would try hard to do so. Now, I let the writing reveal the subjects; I follow the voices that emerge with curiosity. I hope that makes for fresher, livelier work.

LR: During your MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, you met Traci Brimhall, with whom you co-wrote the chapbook Bright Power, Dark Peace. Can you talk a bit about your collaborative process with Traci? What did you learn about your own writing from the experience? Have you applied any of those techniques or lessons to subsequent work?

BS: Traci and I live in separate states (Michigan and California), so we co-wrote the chapbook using a shared Google document, each of us taking turns writing one stanza at a time until the poem was complete. Waiting for a stanza to appear is a little like waiting for the voice of the poem to emerge so you can follow the voice into the poem’s core energies and desires. It’s daunting, surprising, and a great exercise in letting go, in getting out of the way of yourself and your intentions for the poem. This was the greatest lesson of writing collaboratively: surrendering to the creative act, and seeing what emerges. I now consider all of my poems to be co-written, to some degree: it’s not just me and my intentions for the work in the creative space. There are other voices, other directions the poem might grow in, if I’m daring enough to give in to the moment.

LR: How do you balance your teaching life with your writing life? Does one feed into the other, and if so, how?

BS: As I see it, a classroom is a community–it’s a potentially imaginative, challenging, wild, and inspiring space in which all of us learn new things about each other and the world in which we live. Approaching a learning community with that mindset sustains my own artistic practice: I’m inspired by my students and the ways in which we converse and connect. On the other hand, I’m not sure if “balanced” can describe my writing/teaching (or art/work) life, at the moment! Like many in the arts, I’m in the position of holding a number of jobs, at any one moment, none of which are usually guaranteed past six months or so. There’s a kind of dynamism in the flux, which I’m grateful for–a flexibility allowing for travel and motion. There’s also a kind of low-grade anxiety which can hinder the writing process. I love teaching for the designated spaces of inquiry and transformation. I wonder, now, how to create more spaces like this in my life, in ways that are sustainable.

LR: As a member of an Asian American family that has been American for multiple generations, how do representations of your family’s experience come into play in your work, and what poetic strategies do you employ to handle them?

BS: This is one of the most alive questions for me, at the moment. I wonder how to write about past histories, those legacies of oppression and freedom that live in the present moment, using the tools of poetry. In The Palace of Contemplating Departure, I use persona poetry to tap into the voices of my grandparents’ generation; I hope to do more of this in the new work. There are blankets of silence, gaps in the narratives of my family’s past; there are fruitful tensions and polarities (Japan and Korea, East and West, the occupied cities and the dusty farmlands of my family’s arrival); there are ghosts. I am free–in a way that my grandmother wasn’t free, and my great-grandmother wasn’t free–to take up the pen and write write write into the silences. I aim to pursue that freedom to its end.

LR: You have spoken about the importance of community among poets. What do you think might be some practical measures that poets can take to foster community, especially post-MFA?

BS: I suppose a community is a little like a garden: it requires some tending to, in order to grow–a consistency of attention, accountability, investment. Sometimes, during certain “seasons” of my life I do this well; at other times, I don’t. Last August, for instance, Kundiman poets Dan Lau, Debbie Yee, Mia Malhotra and I formed a virtual writing community, in which we wrote a poem a night and emailed it to one another. It was such a fun and, ultimately, fruitful exercise. The new work that emerged there has formed the basis of my second book. I’d say to post-MFA poets: be diligent about forming online or face-to-face collectives with folks who will forever bother you with the questions: Are you writing? Why not? Want to write together?

Both my experience in the Kundiman fellowship and my friendship with Traci Brimhall have taught me that being a good literary citizen is about cultivating authentic connections and caring about one another. It’s about believing in and championing one another’s work. It’s a model that goes against the individualism so prevalent in a competitive, capitalistic North American social framework. Like many others, I wish I had more concentrated time for such invigorating and care-full spaces. But, as the poet Judy Grahn recently reminded me: little by little. Suddenly, you’ll look up from those stolen moments of writing and realize you’ve written another book.

LR: What projects are you working on now?

BS: I’ve become fascinated with the figure of the spiritual warrior–fighting monks, brave women, fierceness in times of brokenness. What are the myths that sustain such strength, such inner resiliency? What does it mean to fight for what you love? I see myself doing some reading, researching, journaling, and traveling, in order to trace this new inquiry. We’ll see what emerges when I “leave and leave into the questing” (as Linda Gregg puts it). More departures, more journeys. But this time, a focus on arrival: arriving to myself, arriving more fully to the things that I love.

Staff Picks: Favorite Reads from 2013

It’s that time again! It’s become a tradition, at the end of every calendar year, for the staff to post a list of favorite reads from among the books that we’ve read in the past 365 days. Without further ado, here are our picks for this year.

Recommended by Iris



by Matthew Olzmann
Alice James, 2013

Iris’s comments: I’ve been a fan of Matthew Olzmann’s work since I first met him and heard him read during an AWP panel in 2009, and Mezzanines did not disappoint. Quirky, humorous, and at times profane, but always grounded by dint of its razor-sharp observations about human nature and an underlying sense of deep empathy, the voice of his poems fills up the space of the imagination with a childlike wonder that is at once riotously absurd and insanely beautiful. Few poets could successfully mix tender intimacy with wry, self-conscious humor (such as the “product placement” in the poem “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem,” which apparently prompted PepsiCo to send the poet a letter of thanks in real life!), and yet Olzmann does so effortlessly and always with great aplomb.


The Saints of Streets
by Luisa A. Igloria
U of Santo Tomas, 2013

Iris’s comments: Luisa A. Igloria’s new collection, The Saints of Streets left me breathless. As is par for the course in her work, Igloria writes with beauty, strength, and piercing intimacy, precisely interleaving light and shade like a master of shadow puppets. I am told that the poet has several other collections’ worth of poems brewing (thanks to her poem-a-day project over at Via Negativa), and I cannot wait for the next installment.

LifeOnMarsSMLife on Mars
by Tracy K. Smith
Graywolf, 2011

Iris’s comments: Last, but not least, on my list is an older title, Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars—winner of the 2012 Pulitzer. I’d heard Smith read at the 2011 Page Turner Festival and had been captivated by the empathy inherent in the persona poems that she’d shared. It was no surprise to me, then, that I fell headlong for Life on Mars, a haunting collection that explores science and the domestic/private life of the scientist and the poet. Life on Mars won the Pulitzer for a reason: it is simultaneously tender and steely, masterfully integrating the infinite scale of the particulate cosmos with the particular stuff of the everyday. Smith’s poems about her father, a retired NASA scientist, are especially moving. I began the book while home sick from work one day, read it all in one sitting, and when I finished, I closed its pages and wept.

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Recommended by Wendy



The Palace of Contemplating Departure
by Brynn Saito
Red Hen, 2013

Wendy’s comments: Brynn Saito’s The Palace of Contemplating Departure is a sublime meditation on arrivals and departures, childhood, sisterhood, lost love, and freedom. From cityscape to dreamscape, these poems are deeply felt and fully realized.

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Recommended by Henry


The Proxy Eros

by Mookie Katigbak
Anvil, 2008

Burning Houses
by Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta
University of Santo Tomas, 2013

Henry’s comments:
 I first encountered Mookie Katigbak’s “As Far As Cho-Fu-Sa,” a variation on Pound’s adaptation of the Li Po poem, when I was just starting to take poetry seriously. I remember actually getting upset that she had nothing more published at the time. So imagine my joy when I rediscovered Katigbak just this month, whose name has since expanded, and who now has two books of poems which contend with myth and canons in gorgeously clarifying visions. These lines from that early poem (which you can find in The Proxy Eros) have echoed with me for years: “What I am, ever, is this: composure of stones. . . . / /But nothing moves. Somewhere / You are actual. Happen to me there.”

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Recommended by Jai


Islands Linked By Ocean

by Lisa Linn Kanae
Bamboo Ridge Press, 2009

Jai’s comments: I was blown away by Kanae’s experimental text written in (and about) Hawaiian Creole English and pidgin, “Sista Tongue.” This collection of her short stories is deeply moving, flat-out hilarious, and strengthened by the sharp vulnerability in each character’s voice.


by LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs
Belladonna, 2013

Jai’s comments: This book is sonic genius . . . Diggs is sonic genius. A multilingual text written in Cherokee, Japanese, Spanish, Quechua, Yoruba and more, it is a (re)sounding “werk” of kinesthetic/kine-sonic delight.


M. NourbeSe Philip
Wesleyan University Press, 2008

Jai’s comments: In 1781 on the slave ship Zong, over 150 slaves were thrown overboard in order for the ship’s owners to collect insurance money. Philip grasps at these submerged voices, a drowned language. Reading this book is disorienting and chaotic—letters are jettisoned from words, phrases are cast and broken. In this horror, in this violence done unto language/bodies, the dead arise from the sea.

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For additional reading, we also recommend any of the following titles that we featured here on the blog during 2013:

What were your favorite reads in 2013? Tell us in the comments, or share a link with us on Facebook or Twitter! Have a safe and wonderful new year, and we’ll see you in 2014.