In celebration of our magazine’s ten-year anniversary, we’re catching up with past contributors this summer via our process profile series. In today’s profile, Issue 6 contributor Brynn Saito reflects back on her poem “Dinuba, 1959.”
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Inspired by communion with a photograph, this short poem inquires into the life and spirit of my mother, Janelle Oh Saito. In the photograph, my mother is about five years old, appearing as the poem describes: bright-eyed before the Dinuba, CA, farmhouse in a white dress. Rereading it now, I see how much my “terrible need to know” has shaped my poetics over the course of the last decade, in the time since the poem manifested itself on the page. In my mother, I’ve forever intuited an unsheltered, untouched wonder—a powerful wonder that tips into joy and laughter so easily. Alongside this energy, I’ve felt a fiery rage, born from what she endured as a child and fueling her current community work. In trying to understand her life, her personhood, I was—I am—subconsciously seeking to know something elemental about myself and something true about the histories shaping our family and making possible the worlds awaiting us. The photograph, then, was a portal to past and future.
I’ve returned, after nearly twenty years away, to my hometown of Fresno, CA, to live. Fresno is the primary city in the middle of the sprawling Central Valley—the valley where my immigrant elders labored; to where my grandparents returned after the Japanese American incarceration of World War II; where my mother’s grandparents settled after fleeing Korea, which, at the turn of the twentieth century, was suffering and surviving under the brutal Japanese occupation. My “terrible need to know,” first articulated in this poem, has, in the short time I’ve been back, unearthed new stories from the memory trove. Closer now to the land that made us and living about a mile from my parents’ house, I’ve become a listener and recorder. (Visit Dear— to see one community-based poetry project that has bloomed into a living archive of letters and portraits.) I’ve also nudged my mother (and father) into writing and telling their own stories, which they’ve performed before large audiences—something I never expected to see.
“I know who she becomes and why,” goes the poem. “But the how will escape me / continues to escape me.” Will, perhaps, always escape me, as our knowledge of the past is forever incomplete. But a desire fills that gap—an imaginative power that drew me to the photograph and draws me still: to the wellspring of memory and feeling, to a place beyond language where I commune with the energies that came before me, where I remember and make whole the body of my future self.
“Dinuba, CA, 1959” was published six years ago in Lantern Review, scrawled (most likely) in a workshop setting, and chiseled down to its three sentences for its inclusion in my second book. Today, it continues to undisguise itself, reveal itself—as the most lasting poems (and people and places) do.
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Brynn Saito is the author of two books of poetry from Red Hen Press: Power Made Us Swoon (2016) and The Palace of Contemplating Departure (2013), winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award and a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. She recently authored the chapbook Dear—, commissioned by Densho, an organization dedicated to sharing the story of the World War II–era incarceration of Japanese Americans. Brynn is assistant professor of creative writing in the English Department at Fresno State and codirector of Yonsei Memory Project. More at brynnsaito.com and yonseimemoryproject.com.
As an Asian American-focused publication, Lantern Review is committed to promoting diverse voices within the literary world. In solidarity with the Black community and in an effort to amplify Black voices in poetry, we’ll be sharing a different book by a Black poet in each of our blog posts this summer.
In anticipation of the ten-year anniversary of our first issue, we’re excited to return to our process profile series. Over the course of the summer, we’ll be catching up with past contributors as we ask them to reflect on their process for either a poem of theirs—whether one that appeared in LR or one that they’ve written more recently. Today, as we close out APA Heritage Month, we’re excited to kick off the series with a profile from Issue 4 contributor and former blog staff writerMonica Mody, who reflects on parsing both Motherlines and borderlands as she wrote her recent poem “Nani’s Letter” (first published in Kajal Magazine).
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“Nani’s Letter” was published in Kajal Magazine earlier this year. It appears, as well, in my 2019 PhD dissertation, “Claiming Voice, Vitality, and Authority in Post-Secular South Asian Borderlands: A Critical Hermeneutics and Autohistoria/teoría for Decolonial Feminist Consciousness.” I maintain that cross-genre and multi-genre writing makes space for the insurgent epistemologies of the borderlands—in this, I am joined by Gloria Anzaldúa, whose theory of the borderlands continues to animate new decolonized pathways.
“Nani’s Letter” is an epistolary poem, written as the letter that my grandmother might have sent to me across time—across the Partition of India—across the legacies of trauma and silencing. The violence my grandmother saw is not a matter of the past for the Indian subcontinent, which is yet to heal the national trauma of colonialism and of the Partition. What follows are synergistic excerpts that precede the poem in my dissertation.
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In 1947, my two-year-old mother lost her mother. Grandmother—Nani—was killed by a rioting mob during the violence that spread in the wake of the Partition of India and Pakistan. She was killed by the mob in her own village, along with her sister-in-law and nephew.
In 1947, I lost my mother’s mother. For a long time, I did not realize that this one loss imbricated multiple losses. Growing up, it was not only my grandmother who was absent from my life: entire lifeworlds she would have brought forth were absent too. Naomi Ruth Lowinsky writes, “Standing at the crossings of family history, generational change, and archetypal meanings, a grandmother locates her grandchild in the life stream of generations. She is the tie to the subterranean world of the ancestors; she plays a key role in helping a woman reclaim essential aspects of her feminine self. Standing close to death, she remembers the dead. She tells their stories, hands down their meanings and their possessions.”
Without a grandmother or grandmother figure around as a child, I did not have a guide into this wider circle of relationships. And yet, it was not a loss I fully comprehended. The silence around Ma’s family and what they had gone through shrouded my ability to perceptually be aware of the contours or depth of the loss. In writing about my grandmother, then, I am reclaiming not only her, but also myself from silence.
Crossing the Border
Before the Partition, Ma’s family lived in Dera Ghazi Khan, a district in the Punjab Province. The violence that erupted before the Partition took both Nani and the wife of Nana’s younger brother. The exodus also tore the family from the land they had lived on—their embedded histories.
These losses are also mine. The shared border between “me” and “them” is where silence has collected around these losses.
One way to recover the stories in this silence is for me to cross the border, return to Dera Ghazi Khan. I must recreate the borderlands to return to Nani—to mourn these losses and find healing. “Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.” Heeding this guidance from Anzaldúa, I will perform the return first in memory and in imagination. As I articulate this journey in writing, I want it to light up the hauntings, relationships, narratives in my motherline. I want it to intervene in the improbability of an actual return to Dera Ghazi Khan.
For a while, I become a proto-colonial armchair traveller, travelling to Dera Ghazi Khan via W. W. Hunter’s The Imperial Gazetteer of India. It takes me a moment to recognize the irony in this. The Imperial Gazetteer was among the projects undertaken after the 1857 Revolt to provide relevant and reliable information to the colonial administration so as to better map, measure, and control the native populace. It is a prototype of systematized knowledge production based on an ethnological focus on race, caste, and religion. The ethnographic accounts provided in the gazetteer—along with census reports—reflected the nineteenth-century colonial policy of relying on racial science to justify British domination over India. India was the “laboratory of mankind”—and in this laboratory all kinds of cultural differences between different groups of people were naturalized under racial and ethnic categories.
Unhappily, projects such as the gazetteer and the census also eclipsed all other forms of knowledge production. The epistemologies behind such knowledge production are precisely what I am seeking to decolonize within myself.
The Imperial Gazetteer does not recount the dreams of the people living in Dera Ghazi Khan in 1885. It does not tell us the stories that were told to its young or the songs that were sung around the fire. It does not seek to see into their hearts or the soaring of their souls. It does not give any sense of what they cherished or valued, of who they really were. Being attentive to these would have meant giving the colonized interiority—and ascribing to them a fullness of humanity.
Thegazetteerwas not interested in Dera Ghazi Khan as a place, which in cultural geography is a social concept. Place designates that which is “created by people: it is lived experience; it is the ways in which people use and imagine space.” This is in contrast to space: the physical, three-dimensional expanse. Space is a configuration of geography that enables distance—rather than intimacy—to be an interpretive norm. Space exists within conventional awareness because distance can be identified as an interval between separating objects. Distance, detachment, disinterest: these are the epistemological attitudes through which positivistic colonialist logic comes to articulate what it claims are universal organizing principles—and comes to disarticulate dignity, embeddedness, intimacy.
The gazetteer, with its claim of presenting empirical and statistical data, created sufficient distance between the people being studied and the “neutral” administrators undertaking the study to legitimize colonization. Colonial expropriation and subjugation depends upon articulating sufficient separateness between the colonizer and the colonized; the “data” in the gazetteer made this separateness possible.
This goes against my intended goals for performing a return—to come to a deeper, more soulful knowing of my grandmother and her affective life, to locate myself in the life stream of generations. There must, then, be a different way than a colonial tool to find my way back to my grandmother.
To Know: To Reconstruct
I was made by my grandmother, even if I never knew her. To know her, I turn to the relational hermeneutics of creative reconstruction, to imagination. It is not graspability I seek, but evocation. Without lived or inherited memories—amidst so many fragmentary narratives and silences—how may I rediscover my connection to this ancestress, to my motherline? How may I center my grandmother’s voice and agency? How may I restore to myself a voice that knows its own falterings, silences, and cries as part of a stream of generations?
 Lowinsky, The Motherline, 115.
 Anzaldúa, Borderlands, 87.
 Marriott, The Other Empire, 208–13; Arondekar, For the Record, 12–13. In her monograph engaging with the colonial archive, feminist and queer/sexuality studies scholar Arondekar suggests that the massive archive of texts from this period relied on for imperial governance “literalized the distance between colonizer and colonized.” Ibid., 13.
 Pinney, “Colonial Anthropology in the ‘Laboratory of Mankind,’” 252–63. As I read historian John Marriott’s research on the construction of caste and racial typologies in nineteenth-century India, I was nauseated to realize that these typologies continue to pervade the mindsets of contemporary Indians: that I, too, have unconsciously internalized the taxonomy of what Marriott phrases “physiognomy, colour, and physique.” Marriott, The Other Empire, 211.
 Marriott, The Other Empire, 214.
 Van Schendel, “Spatial Moments,” 99.
 Lawlor, Voices of the First Day, 41.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: La Frontera = The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.
Arondekar, Anjali R. For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
Lawlor, Robert. Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1991.
Lowinsky, Naomi Ruth. The Motherline: Every Woman’s Journey to Find Her Female Roots. Carmel, CA: Fisher King Press, 2009.
Marriott, John. The Other Empire: Metropolis, India and Progress in the Colonial Imagination. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.
Pinney, Christopher. “Colonial Anthropology in the ‘Laboratory of Mankind.’” In The Raj: India and the British, 1600–1947, edited by C. A. Bayly, 252–63. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 1990.
van Schendel, Willem. “Spatial Moments: Chittagong in Four Scenes.” In Asia Inside Out: Connected Places, edited by Peter C Perdue, Helen F Siu, and Eric Tagliacozzo, 98–127. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.
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Monica Mody is the author of Kala Pani (1913 Press) and two cross-genre chapbooks. Her poetry also appears in Poetry International, Boston Review, Indian Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, and Immanence Journal, among other places. She holds a PhD in East West Psychology and an MFA in creative writing, along with a more rarely used degree in law. She was recently awarded the 2020 Kore Award for Best Dissertation in Women and Mythology for her multi-genre dissertation which utilized theory, memoir, and poetry. Her previous awards include the Nicholas Sparks Postgraduate Writer-in-Residence Prize from the University of Notre Dame, Naropa’s Zora Neale Hurston Award, and the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing. Monica was born in Ranchi, India.Additional work drawn from her dissertation can be found here and here.
Paisley Rekdal’s Animal Eye (University of Pittsburgh Press)–I just read a galley copy last week and loved it! I loved the way the poems moved–they never settled for the simple epiphany, but kept working and working, sometimes doubling back and reinventing themselves.
D.A. Powell’s Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (Graywolf Press)–I’m a native Californian, and I love the way that Powell maps the landscape of Northern California, looking closely at its history of immigration, exploitation, personal histories, etc.
Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire (W.W. Norton)–I haven’t read the book yet, but ALL my friends have recommended it to me.
Breathtaking reworking of the graphic novel form by the Pardhan Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam, which opens out the story of BR Ambedkar’s life into a multilinear, multi-layered narrative about how caste oppression continues in contemporary India.
Purvi Shah’s Terrain Tracks (New Rivers Press, 2006), which explores migration as potential and loss, won the Many Voices Project prize and was nominated for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award. Her work fighting violence against women earned her the inaugural SONY South Asian Social Services Award in 2008. In 2011, she served as Artistic Director for Together We Are New York, a community-based poetry project to highlight the voices of Asian Americans during the 10th anniversary of 9/11. She believes in the miracle of poetry and the beauty of change. Check out more of her work at http://purvipoets.net or @PurviPoets on Twitter.
For APIA Heritage Month 2012, we are revisiting our Process Profile series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a poem (or group of poems) from inception to publication. As in the past, we’ve asked several Lantern Review contributors to discuss their process for composing a poem of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Purvi Shah discusses her poems, “’Some didn’t make it. Some did.’” and “’This is MY NY.’”, which appeared in Issue 4.
Some say this is woman’s territory: to know what is unspoken in the midst of what is spoken.
It is also territory of the poet, who in lyric enacts what is said, what we fear to say, and yet what we must make known without it ever being said.
Conversation 6: Split This Rock
We were asked, when dialoguing after sharing excerpts of Together We Are New York—a community-based project with Kundiman poets honoring the voices of Asian Americans as part of the 10th anniversary of 9/11—whether it was difficult to write poems in response to conversations with community members. After all, to capture an individual’s story or fullness of experience is a mighty task. Even many biographers fail. So how does a poet approach someone’s horizon?
Zohra Saed, who had interviewed her charming father for the project, astutely responded how she realized in the process of this writing that her poems had always been in conversation—previously, she had just been talking to herself. As the audience chuckled, I marveled at the truth of Zohra’s humor-filled revelation and thought about the layers of conversation embedded in my poems, including these I had written for Together We Are New York.
We often think about the buzz poems create but not the buzz that creates poems. Then again, flight—or fall—is rarely one way.
Margaret Rhee is the author of the chapbooks Yellow (Tinfish Press, 2011) and University Dreams (Forthcoming 2012). She is the managing editor of Mixed Blood, a literary journal centered on race and innovative poetics edited by C.S. Giscombe. In April, she curated the literary reading, “Body Maps: A Digital/Real Asian American Feminist Poetics” for the Asian American Women Artists Association. As a new media artist, she works on feminist participatory digital storytellingsupporting issues of HIV/AIDS awareness for women incarcerated in the San Francisco Jail. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate in Ethnic Studies and New Media Studies at UC Berkeley. She is a Kundiman fellow.
For APIA Heritage Month 2012, we are revisiting our Process Profile series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. As in the past, we’ve asked several Lantern Review contributors to discuss their process for composing a poem of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Margaret Rhee reflects upon her new media piece “Materials,” which appeared in Issue 4.
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It begins with a drive. The road up to Santa Cruz from Berkeley is a winding one. Largely known as one of the most dangerous highways in the state, Highway 17 wraps around the Santa Cruz Mountains with sharp pretzel turns and dense traffic on weekday afternoons. It’s my first trip to Santa Cruz. And I am driving a big, used silver Volvo station wagon, one bought just a few weeks before. My dear friend and colleague Kate Darling is in the passenger seat helping with Mapquest directions. We finally arrive safely at our destination, the first ever Science Studies creative writing workshop, organized by Martha Kenney and held at the University of Santa Cruz.
Soon after arriving at the workshop space, we found ourselves having lunch with much admired feminist scholar Donna Harraway. It was beyond lovely. Kate and I shared about our drive up. Donna joked that people in Santa Cruz often say that the road keeps those they don’t want out of Santa Cruz! In between bites of salad I laughed, not only because this was funny, but because it was probably true. I laughed out of relief as well, not believing we actually made it up that long winding road.
Our assignment prior to the workshop was to write a creative piece inspired by our scholarship. I was thrilled by the possibility of combining, intersecting, and interweaving theoretical questions I had with poetry/poetic form. At lunch I wondered what the feedback process would be like for the cross-genre works written for the prompt.
I’m a doctoral candidate in Ethnic Studies and New Media Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and my interests includes the intersections of science, technology, and race. But I’m also a poet and new media artist with similar concerns. I like intersections, interventions, and mutations.
Tarfia Faizullah’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, Ninth Letter, New Ohio Review, Passages North, Poetry Daily, Crab Orchard Review, Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets, and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, she received her MFA in poetry from Virginia Commonwealth University, where she served as the associate editor of Blackbird. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, a Bread Loaf Writers Conference Margaret Bridgman Scholarship, a Kenyon Review Writers Workshop Peter Taylor Fellowship, a Ploughshares Cohen Award, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and other honors. She lives in Washington, DC, where she helps edit the Asian American Literary Review and Trans-Portal.
For APIA Heritage Month 2012, we are revisiting our Process Profile series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. As in the past, we’ve asked several Lantern Review contributors to discuss their process for composing a poem of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Tarfia Faizullah reflects upon her poem “At Zahra’s Salon for Ladies,” which appeared in Issue 4.
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It actually did begin at Zahra’s Salon, with my head tilted back.
Auntie Neelam and I never spoke, though she has always been gentle with me and I have never gone to another stylist.
That day at the salon, Ghulam Ali’s song Chupke, Chupke began to play.
It had been many, many summers since I had last heard that song.
My younger self rose up.
I went home and began to try to affix the atmosphere of the salon, the deft, elegant movements of Auntie Neelam’s fingers.
I listened to Chupke, Chupke over and over again.
I called my mother, cradled the phone against my shoulder to take notes while she translated Chupke, Chupke for me.
I began to remember that other, younger summer.
The summer I had started growing out of my swimsuit.
How bewildered I was, how frightened by all that dark hair shadowing across me.
“I can feel that other day running underneath this one,” Anne Carson wrote, and similarly, I strongly felt the summer of my youth below that present one.
As adults, we take for granted the agency we have to strip our bodies of their darkness.
The poem has always been in second person. It had to be so that I could clearly see both my younger and adult selves as I was addressing them.
“At Zahra’s Salon” took me two years to write.
I am interested in the possibilities of collage, of braiding together multiple elements.
I love David Shields’s assertion of collage as “a demonstration of the many becoming the one, with the one never fully resolved because of the many that continue to impinge on it.”
It took two years to try to weave together the salon, the song, and those other summers while ensuring each element remained singular and intact.
One day, I asked Auntie Neelam about her life.
She was born and raised in India, and is married and has a child.
I think she was as startled as I was.
She started telling me about her wedding day.
I remembered my own wedding, the way my body was purified, decorated, posed.
She gave me a mishti.
I left the salon, my face smarting.
One of the red brick walls was covered in clematis vine.
The sky was so blue.
I wanted to write a poem that could dwell in nostalgia, that could dwell in those first feelings of hunger without fully leaving the present.
I wanted to write a poem that acknowledged the beauty and terror of solitude.
This week’s Digital Broadside, which features Janine Joseph’s “Narrative” from LR Issue 4, was designed by Bethany Hana Fong, an SF-Bay-Area-based artist and designer whose black and white portraits of her grandfather appeared in Issue 2. We love the way that the quirky, collage-like nature of Bethany’s design echoes the fractured whimsy of the narrative tellings in Janine’s poem. We also like the effect that designing each version (printable and wallpaper) in a different orientation had on the possibilities for reading the poem itself. While the print version preserves the original (vertical) arrangement of stanzas, the wallpaper version floats them side-by-side into a matrix-like grid, so that the stanzas can be read in juxtaposition, as well as linearly. Both versions of Bethany’s beautiful design can be downloaded over at our “Digital Broadsides” page.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed our Digital Broadside series this April. And as National Poetry Month draws to a close, we hope you’ll consider telling us about what you did with the broadsides that you downloaded. Did you hang a copy somewhere unusual? Did your new wallpaper or cubicle decoration lead to any interesting conversations? Did having a poem on your desktop or physical wall inspire you in your own writing life in some way? We’d love to hear your stories— leave us a comment, post a note on our Facebook Wall, or Tweet us to share!
I was led to design Neil Aitken’s “Memory” because of the poem’s vivid play on the concept of memory and its correlation with “the sum of mere data.” It awoke something nostalgic in me, and I was organically drawn to these lovely lines: “What is memory? / And who is it that slips in at these odd hours … / Who is it that stirs upstairs in my mind … / Here, my father is alive again, once more…”
In the same breath, after learning the intent of Aitken’s poem and its connection with Charles Babbage, I researched the life of Babbage and began to design the poem organically. Designing tends to be a visceral experience for me, and as a result, the visual themes of absence and gradient holes took hold. I hope I designed a broadside that is pleasurable to Aitken and the heart of the poem.
I think it’s safe to say that Melissa has successfully captured at least our hearts with her gorgeously illustrated design!
Melissa’s lovely interpretation of “Memory” is available in two forms—as a printable .pdf, and as a desktop wallpaper—and can be downloaded at our “Digital Broadsides” page. We hope that you’ll download both—and that, especially if you hang or leave a copy of the printed version in a public space, you’ll share a picture with us (on Facebook, on Twitter, or by email), and tell us about any stories that might be generated when others encounter it.
Happy Friday, everyone! As we explained in our update on Monday, we’re celebrating National Poetry Month this year by offering a series of free Digital Broadsides, designed by Asian American designers (many of whom are poets themselves), and featuring poems from past issues of LR. Today’s broadside, which showcases R.A. Villanueva’s “Vanitas” from Issue 4, was designed for us by the talented Debbie Yee, a poet, Kundiman Fellow, and print artist who lives and works in San Francisco. Debbie’s design for “Vanitas” is available for download in two formats—as an 8.5″ x 11″ printable .pdf, and as a desktop wallpaper (in three different sizes, to fit screens with 4:3, 16:10, and 16:9 aspect ratios, respectively). Click here to visit our new “Digital Broadsides” page, where you can download the broadside in your format of choice.
As a multi-disciplinary artist, Debbie often combines her interests in the visual with her writing and knowledge of bookmaking in order to produce beautiful short-run chapbooks and other pieces of literary art. For her latest project, which is funded by a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, she has committed to giving away 100 copies of her own handmade chapbook, Handmade Rabbit Society, in exchange for each recipient’s sharing the name of a self-published or small- or micro- press chapbook that he or she has purchased in the last 18 months. The goal of this exchange project, Debbie writes on her web site, is to turn more “people on to the chapbook format and [introduce] the work of emerging poets and writers.” You can read more about Debbie’s project and find out how to participate on her site, Linocat.
We hope that you’ll take a moment to download, print, and post Debbie’s beautiful interpretation of “Vanitas” somewhere where others can see and encounter it—perhaps a bathroom stall, a classroom, a bulletin board, a door, a refrigerator. If you post a copy somewhere public or have stories to share about what happens when you do, we’d love to hear about it. Send us an email (editors [at] lanternreview dot com) with a photo and an explanation, or, if you’re on Facebook, upload a picture of where you hung the broadside, and tag us! (@Lantern Review). When National Poetry Month is over, if we gather enough stories and photos, we’ll do a little feature post highlighting some of our favorites here.