Interview with John Whitney Steele

John Whitney Steele, author of The Stones Keep Watch, in conversation with Randal A. Burd, Jr.

EXTRA! Read a review of The Stones Keep Watch.

Randal A. Burd: I was honored to have the opportunity to interview the poet, John Whitney Steele, author of recently released The Stones Keep Watch (Kelsay Press, 2021) to discuss his work. I was drawn to his work because of my love of poetry that demonstrates humble introspection as well as astute observation. Steele’s work does both exquisitely. When asked to identify his muse, he is quick to name his spiritual practice of yoga and Zen and his love of nature as his primary inspirations.

Burd:. Where does The Stones Keep Watch fall in your poetry career?

John Whitney Steele: I started writing poems in high school and took a poetry writing class during my first year of college. Then I pretty much gave up on writing for the next four decades as I pursued my career as a clinical psychologist, mindfulness instructor, and yoga teacher. It wasn’t until 2015, when I enrolled in the MFA Creative Writing program at Western Colorado University, that I began writing in earnest. A year later, when Blue Unicorn was the first journal to accept one of my poems and the editor later nominated it for a Pushcart Prize, my poetry career got a boost. This year, Kelsay Books’ publication of my first collection, The Stones Keep Watch, catapulted me into what I have found to be the most challenging aspect of my role as a poet: building a website, promoting myself on social media, setting up a Zoom reading; in short, going public.

BURD: I had read that you came to writing poetry later in life. What first inspired you to write poems?

STEELE: I’m not sure what first inspired me, but as an extremely shy, introverted child, I was so socially withdrawn that the natural world and books were my closest companions. I was an avid reader of fiction and lapped up the poetry we studied at school and the bible stories I was exposed to at Sunday school.

During high school I took up guitar, sang folk songs and wrote a few poems. My social isolation may have contributed to my need to express myself through music and poetry. The feedback I got from my creative writing professor, the poet, Frank Davey, during my first year in college, gave me a sense that I had some talent.

Though I thought about pursuing creative writing and supporting myself as an English teacher, I doubted my ability to flourish in either field and decided instead to major in psychology. During grad school, my involvement with a Sufi community awakened my interest in Rumi’s poetry. By the time I had turned 40, I had left the Sufi path and become deeply involved in yoga and Zen. This led me to start reading Japanese haiku and Tang dynasty poets.

When I started offering meditation classes, I read some of Mary Oliver’s poetry, which was relevant to what I was teaching. My long-neglected urge to write kept resurfacing and I experimented with haiku. When I turned 60 and started to think seriously about retirement, I was haunted by Mary Oliver’s question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I had long regretted neglecting poetry. It was clear to me that I wanted to give it another try. I started by auditing an undergraduate creative writing course at CU Boulder. Though I started writing poems again and received some good feedback, the workshop format of the class provided no instruction in craft.

Searching online I found the MFA program at Western Colorado University, one of the few programs that focused on writing formal verse. Although the tuition fees gave me pause, I decided it was now or never, and took the plunge. And that has made all the difference. [NB: line from “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost.] I wasn’t thinking about publishing. I simply wanted to learn how to write, but one thing leads to another and here I am.

BURD: Who or what is your muse now? I noticed that climate change is a common theme throughout your book, along with some political commentary. Is that what continues to drive you?

STEELE: My inspiration comes primarily from two sources: my love of nature and my spiritual practice, rooted in yoga and Zen. I’d rather sing songs of praise than write about climate change and politics. However, my angst and grief in relation to our inadequate response to the climate crisis has been driving me.

I love the natural world and my instinct is to preserve it. But the population explosion, the demand for constant economic growth, and the catastrophic destruction of the ecosystems and habitats we and other species depend upon is taking us in the opposite direction. And so, I felt compelled to write about the climate crisis and the politics of denial. Now that The Stones Keep Watch is behind me, I’d like to move on to other themes.

BURD: Do you write your poems to facilitate change outside (in the world) or change inside (in the reader)? Do you personally find writing poetry to be a cathartic process?

STEELE: I write because I am fascinated by words, the incantatory power of repetition, rhythm, rhyme, assonance, alliteration and so on. As much as I would like my words to facilitate change in the hearts of readers and to see that change ripple out into the world, it is certainly not in my mind when writing poetry. Writing is cathartic for me. It makes me more alert and responsive to myself and the world, gives me the ability to articulate my feelings on the deepest level, and as Frost so famously said, a well-wrought poem ends “in a momentary stay against confusion.”

BURD: Who are some of your favorite poets? Which poets have influenced your writing?

STEELE: In addition to poets I have already referred to, my short list of favorites must include the likes of Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Hopkins, Dickinson, Whitman, Millay, Yeats, Frost, Jeffers, Larkin, Heaney, Rilke, and Merwin, not to mention the countless contemporary poets whose work I admire.

As for the poets who have influenced my writing, it’s hard to say. Some have told me my poems resemble those of Jeffers. Others have mentioned Keats, Wordsworth, Frost, Snyder and Charles Wright. But it seems to me that the body of literature contained in The King James Bible has been my biggest influence.

BURD: I notice your style in this collection is a mixture of classical and contemporary. It is often said that traditional forms, rhyme, and meter are unfairly shunned in today’s literary circles. Have you had difficulty placing some of your more traditional pieces in poetry magazines?

STEELE: No, not really. Though it has required a lot of research to find publications that welcome formal poetry, plus a thick skin and dogged determination in the face of multiple ‘no-thank-you’ responses from editors, I have managed to find good homes for most of the poems I have sent out.

BURD: What is your process for writing poems? Is it deliberate and scheduled or as the inspiration comes?

STEELE: I don’t schedule writing time. I write as the inspiration comes. However, there is definitely something deliberate about my process. I make writing my top priority, set aside plenty of unstructured time for it, read the work of other poets and follow up on every lead that my muse offers.

Inspiration is most likely to come while walking in nature, practicing yoga, doing zazen, or upon waking from sleep. Once I get started on a poem, the muse grabs me by the collar and won’t me let me go. I wrestle with it day and night. New ideas bubble up in my sleep or while out walking or practicing yoga or doing the dishes, and I jot down notes or go straight to my laptop to revise whatever poem I am working on.

I find my participation in weekly poetry feedback sessions with a group of poet friends is a strong motivator. I do my best to bring a new or revised poem to every meeting. If a week or more goes by without starting a new poem or continuing to finesse an older one, I worry that my muse has abandoned me or I have abandoned her. I start to doubt myself, wonder if I have somehow lost the knack of writing and think that I’ll never experience the joy of writing another poem. Almost every poet I talk to encounters similar cycles of monsoon and drought.

BURD: How long did it take for this book to come together?

STEELE: I wrote the poems over a period of five years, along with many other poems that don’t fit into the theme of this book. I pulled the poems together over the course of a couple of months and then sent my manuscript to a few publishers. A couple of months later, an acceptance email from Kelsay Books showed up in my inbox.

BURD: I notice your back cover has blurbs from poet laureates of three different states. Were these blurbs hard to obtain? What was the process?

STEELE: I wanted to ask Joanna Macy, an environmental activist, author of twelve books, and scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology, but I had no personal connection with her. However, I remembered that a friend who teaches environmental leadership at Naropa University had helped organize a workshop Macy had given. When I contacted my friend, she told me that at age 92, with declining health, Macy is saving her energy for the work she values most and is no longer accepting requests for book reviews or blurbs.

Then, I thought of Jane Hirshfield, a poet who writes at the intersection between poetry, the sciences, and the ecological crisis, but I couldn’t find any way of contacting her. So, I reached out to three prominent poets I have met and whose work I admire. Fortunately, all three said yes, and sent wonderful blurbs that gave me new perspectives on what I had written.

BURD: The Stones Keep Watch is published. The reviews are trickling in. What is next for you?

STEELE: My full-length book, Shiva’s Dance—a collection of sonnets about yoga, which more closely resembles the songs of praise I want to be writing—was accepted by Kelsay Books last summer and scheduled for publication in the spring of 2022. After having had no nibbles from the contests and publishers I had been offering the manuscript to for over two years, I was quite relieved to get the good news from Karen Kelsay.

I am currently working on memorizing as many of the sonnets as I can in preparation for a promotional video in which I will be performing yoga poses as I recite poems from the collection. I will soon be working on sending the manuscript out to book award contests and reviewers and setting up reading events.

After being distracted from creative writing over the past couple of months by my efforts to promote my chapbook, I am looking forward to setting aside more unstructured time in the hopes that I will be inspired to write new poems. As for what I will write, I have no idea. My muse has a mind of its own!

John Whitney Steele is a psychologist, yoga teacher, and assistant editor of Think: A Journal of Poetry, Fiction and Essays.  He is a graduate of the MFA Poetry Program at Western Colorado University. His poetry and book reviews have appeared in numerous print and online journals. Born in Toronto and raised among the pines and silver birches of Foot’s Bay, Ontario, John now lives in Boulder, Colorado where he often encounters his muse wandering in the mountains. John can be found at 

Randal A. Burd, Jr. is an educator and the Editor-in-Chief of the online literary magazine, Sparks of Calliope. His poetry has received multiple awards and has been featured in numerous literary journals, both online and in print. Randal’s 2nd poetry book, Memoirs of a Witness Tree, is now available from Kelsay Books and on Amazon.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

They Become Stars: History as Poetry

They Become Stars by Liz Marlow was the Slapering Hol Press’s 2019 Chapbook winner.

A Conversation with Deborah Kahan Kolb

When I first held Liz Marlow’s chapbook They Become Stars (Slapering Hol Press, 2020) in my hands, I was struck by the beauty of this finely crafted book. It’s a work of art to be carefully read and absorbed. The haunting photos, on the cover and throughout the slim volume, demand to be noticed, as Marlow’s poems about one of history’s darkest eras demand space in the reader’s heart and mind.

I reached out to the author to ask her about her inspiration and process for this work.

Deborah Kahan Kolb: First of all, congratulations on winning the 2019 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition. How would you describe your experience working with the editors of Slapering Hol Press as they shepherded your chapbook into being?

Liz Marlow: Thank you! I had an incredible experience working with the editors of Slapering Hol Press. They believed in my chapbook and provided solid suggestions for revision but gave me the creative license to revise as much as I wanted. However, I found that all of their suggestions and questions helped elevate my work in one way or another. Even if I thought that one of the editors might have misunderstood a line, I took it to heart and saw that the entire line or stanza was weak and needed to be revised. Even though the chapbook was published over a year ago, I have applied their general suggestions (such as playing more with enjambment and connecting images more thematically) to poems that I have recently drafted. I honestly could not have imagined a better experience.

DKK: Your work touches me deeply, not only because of its evident merit but because the subject speaks to me personally, as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. Many Holocaust poems I’ve come across treat the topic in overarching, all-encompassing terms. Yet you manage to individualize the general atrocities, even to the point of making this brutal time in history accessible, in a way, by detailing specific places, names, and dates. What inspired you to delve into the particular historical figure of Chaim Rumkowski?

LM: My great-grandparents’ brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and cousins did not have the means to come to the United States before World War II. As far as we know, all of those family members perished in the Holocaust, because my great-grandparents stopped receiving mail from family members in Europe shortly after Germany invaded Poland. I wanted to piece together what happened to them. As I researched towns in which I know for certain my family lived and potential ghettos where they might have been deported, I stumbled upon Chaim Rumkowski: Judenrat Chairman of the Łódź Ghetto. What drew me first to him was the fact that he was both a victim of Nazi exploitation and a sexual predator. Some historians believe that had the war ended a year before it did, he would have been considered a hero for how many Jews he saved, because the Łódź Ghetto was the last that the Nazis liquidated due to him establishing more than a hundred factories inside the ghetto for Nazi supplies. As arguably the most powerful Judenrat Chairman in Nazi Germany, there is no way of knowing exactly how many women and children he sexually molested. Therefore, as I read about him, I wanted to give those powerless children a voice in my work. My goal was to get as specific as I could so that a reader could not walk away without remembering what happened to these children. I wanted these dead children to regain power. Even though he was an extreme personality, there were many extreme situations during the Holocaust, and over two hundred thousand Jews were sent to the Łódź Ghetto throughout World War II. Since he was Judenrat Chairman of the ghetto from its establishment in October 1939 until its liquidation in August 1944, his influence and power affected all of those people.  Additionally, even though these poems are detailed with specific dates, the experiences are universal in many ways in how some people in power exploit the powerless and in how some individuals will do whatever it takes to survive difficult situations while others give up.

DKK: Throughout the collection, but especially for speakers Miriam and Shayna, you use strong, colorful images of candy and fruit: “green gummy bears,” “tart apples,” the colors and flavors of “candy pebbles” in “Miriam Arrives at Chaim Rumkowski’s Orphanage”; and “plump/like plums” and “overripe cherries” in “Shayna Sees Chaim Rumkowski for the First Time.” Can you describe the connection of these images to the work as a whole?

LM: Because most people who have read about the Holocaust remember images of Muselmänner—starving humans reduced to skin and bones, I thought that the juxtaposition of starvation with descriptions of types of food that Jews had little or no access to in the ghetto world (such as fruit), would emphasize that hunger. In my mind, a person like Shayna, in her hunger, would be obsessed with food and see it everywhere—even in people’s faces. Additionally, Chaim Rumkowski was known for sexually exploiting women and children in the ghetto and in the orphanage where he worked before the war. To me, that was an extra layer of horror during an already horrific time for Jews. As I read about him, what struck me the most was the fact that he had control over who received the limited special food items (such as candy and fruit) and used that control specifically for the exploitation of children. Therefore, I was drawn towards using candy throughout the chapbook to highlight that exploitation.

DKK: Music—its sound and texture, its instruments, its connection to memory—is another powerful vehicle that drives many of your poems. How do you use music to convey ideas as they relate to the sounds of the Holocaust?

LM: It was extremely important to me that music be a driving force in the chapbook, because I had based the character, Miriam, on a real young musician Holocaust victim who loved music and played extremely well for how young she was up until Rumkowski molested her. Because she haunted me while I wrote the chapbook, there were times that I tried to imagine how she would describe the world around her. For example, even though the child that Miriam was based on had already died (via a Nazi guard) when the Vel d’Hiv roundup took place, I had her in mind when I wrote the “sound” section of “Vel d’Hiv Roundup of 7,000 Jews Detained in a Cycling Arena.”

DKK: The ghostly photographs included in the book add an element of otherworldliness to a collection rooted in the specifics of the young victims’ lived realities, their suffering and terror. What do the photos of these children express and how do they add texture to your poems?

LM: Lynn Butler created the double exposure photographs used for the cover and pages in the chapbook, which include a Jewish orphanage in France where all but three of forty children died in Auschwitz, overlaid with those child victims. Because the first three poems of the chapbook take place in a Jewish orphanage in Łódź, I thought of Lynn Butler’s work as photopoetry to accompany my poems. Since the photos of the children are negatives, they are ghostly. Even though her photos are from a different orphanage than the one I wrote about, they are appropriate to me because out of over 10,000 known school children from the Łódź Ghetto, there were only 27 known survivors. Miriam is a ghost. Shayna is a ghost. The children dancing on the cover of my chapbook are ghosts. I tried to do what Lynn Butler did with her photos—put faces to child victims from the Holocaust. Lynn Butler’s photos of the children were originally included in The Children of Izieu: A Human Tragedy by Serge Klarsfeld. I am extremely grateful that she worked with Serge Klarsfeld and the editors at Slapering Hol Press so that those photos could be included in my chapbook.  

DKK: Tell us about the Stars in the title of your book. I suspect there’s more to the title than the obvious connection to the yellow “Jude” stars of Nazi Germany.

LM: The title came from a poem that was originally published in Wilderness House Literary Review. This poem was included as an introductory poem in earlier drafts of They Become Stars, but I ended up taking it out, because its form did not fit with the rest of the chapbook.


cities’ stale facades crumble
like stacks of crackers
roaches, rats got into

on never-ending roads
made of death
cattle cars

each pebble forming roads
represents a lost man
woman child stars
become them
as they

I wanted readers to make connections to celebrity, since I am sure that a large part of why Chaim Rumkowski did what he did was to survive the war and be praised as a hero for saving so many lives due to the choices he made (or rather, the choices that Nazis encouraged him to make). He wanted the power and status that people associate with celebrity—this is why he rode through the ghetto in a horse-drawn carriage while other inhabitants were crawling and starving to death. Another reason for Stars was the obvious association with celestial bodies: 6,000,000 people who wore yellow stars died. That is such a large number that is like looking up at the sky in the desert and trying to count the stars.

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this interview. I am extremely grateful for you giving They Become Stars such a close read and coming up with such insightful questions.

Liz Marlow’s debut chapbook, They Become Stars, was the winner of the 2019 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition and was published in 2020. Additionally, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bitter Oleander, The Rumpus, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Yemassee, and elsewhere. She lives in Memphis, Tennessee with her husband and two children. Find more at

Title: They Become Stars
Author: Liz Marlow
Publisher: Slapering Hol Press, 2020
Price: $15

Deborah Kahan Kolb is the author of Escape of Light and Windows and a Looking Glass, a finalist for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Contest (Finishing Line Press). Much of her work is informed by the unique experiences and challenges of growing up in the insular world of Hasidic Judaism. Deborah is a two-time recipient, for poetry and fiction, of the Bronx Council on the Arts BRIO Award, and her work has been selected as a finalist for the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award and an Honorable Mention for the 2019 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. Deborah is the producer of the award-winning short film Write Me, adapted from her poems. Her writing is published in 3Elements Review, Lunch TicketMom Egg Review, PRISMRise Up Review, The New Verse NewsVerse Daily, and others. Deborah is currently at work on a novel of linked short stories. For more, please visit

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Diane Elayne Dees

. . . . in conversation with Randal Burd

Memoirs of a Witness Tree by Randal Burd was reviewed at The Poetry Cafe by Diane Elayne Dees, and, in turn, Dees’s chapbook, Coronary Truth, was reviewed by Burd. These two poets found that they had much in common, as you will see in this interview between them.

[M]y love of formal poetry—which I often write—is probably somewhat inspired by some of the poets, especially the Victorian poets, I studied in school.

Diane Elayne Dees

Randal Burd: I was recently privileged to have the opportunity to interview Diane Elayne Dees via email regarding her latest poetry collection, Coronary Truth (Kelsay Books, 2020). That conversation informed a review of her chapbook, but her answers to my questions are illuminating in their own right.

RB: What inspired you to become a poet; to decide to write poetry and have it published?

Diane Elayne Dees: I always enjoyed writing, but didn’t start doing it seriously until later in life. I did political and tennis writing, and I wrote and published a lot of creative nonfiction and short fiction. Then, suddenly, I went dry—I ran out of story ideas. I began to write poetry because I was frustrated and wanted to write something creative. To my surprise, I took to it almost immediately and have written little else, in terms of creative writing, for several years now. And since I was already a published nonfiction and fiction author, it didn’t even occur to me not to seek publication of my poetry.

RB: Who are some of your favorite poets? Which poets have inspired your writing?

DED: My very favorite poet is Edna St. Vincent Millay. I also like reading Rumi, Emily Dickinson, Matthew Arnold, and Mary Oliver. Two of my favorite contemporary poets are Jennifer Reeser and Allison Joseph. I’m not aware of my own poetry having been directly inspired by any poet in particular, but I think that my love of formal poetry—which I often write—is probably somewhat inspired by some of the poets, especially the Victorian poets, I studied in school.

RB: What is your process for writing poems? Is it deliberate and scheduled or as the inspiration comes?

DED: It’s generally as the inspiration comes. However, I recently participated in two projects which required the scheduled writing of poems, and I was amazed at what that bit of pressure produced. I’ve no doubt that scheduling writing time would be a good idea—I just need to find the discipline.   

RB: I notice you draw a lot of inspiration from nature. Do you spend a lot of time outdoors?

DED: I grew up near a lake, with woods right beyond my back yard, and I now live in a natural setting. Just about every day, I go outside to observe the birds and insects and other creatures, and to photograph them. I don’t garden as much as I used to, but I still tend to a number of plants. Also, my house is filled with images of the natural world.

RB: Is the reader wrong to assume many of these poems have an autobiographical element to them?

DED: Many of them are indeed autobiographical.

RB: Do you personally find writing poetry to be a cathartic process?

DED: I do! I find several different kinds of writing cathartic, but the poem—by virtue of its distillation of thought, melded with sound and rhythm—creates a total body experience of satisfaction/relief that is hard to explain to someone who has never created a poem. My hope is that the reader will also experience some of that.

RB: You have published a “progressive” blog, written for Mother Jones, and authored political essays, yet your poetry does not seem to be overtly political. What do you think of politics as poetic muse?

DED: I write and publish a lot of political poetry, but none of it appears in this chapbook. For me, social/political issues provide an endless supply of topics for poems, and writing about topics important to me is now my way of contributing to the conversation. However, those topics about which I’m the most passionate remain difficult poetic subjects for me to write about; my emotions get in the way. And—to return to the last question—writing poetry about social issues is quite cathartic.

Diane Elayne Dees’s poetry has been published in many journals and anthologies. Diane is the author of the chapbook, Coronary Truth (Kelsay Books) and the forthcoming chapbook, I Can’t Recall Exactly When I Died. Diane, who lives in Covington, Louisiana, also publishes Women Who Serve, a blog that delivers news and commentary on women’s professional tennis throughout the world. Her author blog is Diane Elayne Dees: Poet and Writer-at-Large.

Randal A. Burd, Jr. is an educator and the Editor-in-Chief of the online literary magazine, Sparks of Calliope. His poetry has received multiple awards and has been featured in numerous literary journals, both online and in print. Randal’s 2nd poetry book, Memoirs of a Witness Tree, is now available from Kelsay Books and on Amazon.

Risa Denenberg is the Curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Alexis Rhone Fancher & Arya F. Jenkins

America Has No Place for Grief: A Conversation with Alexis Rhone Fancher
by Arya F. Jenkins

Arya F. Jenkins: In State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies (KYSO Press, 2015) and The Dead Kid Poems (KYSO Press, 2019), you write unflinchingly about the loss of your son, an only child, who was only 26 when he died from cancer. Your other collections, Junkie Wife (Moon Tide Press, 2018) and How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen and other heart-stab poems (Sybaritic Press, 2014) are brash explorations of female sexuality and power. How, if at all, did writing about sex prepare you for writing about death and loss? And where does the theme of female empowerment, a constant in your work, fit into the process of grief? 

Alexis Rhone Fancher: I’m not sure writing about sex prepared me to write about grief and loss, so much as it emboldened me. I was raised to believe I could do anything, and that my opinion mattered. I have always owned my personhood and my sexuality. Sadly, in today’s increasingly puritanical America, I am still in the minority. I am often called “brazen” when to me, I’m just being honest.

Much like sex, America has no place for grief; we have a “sweep it under the rug” philosophy. Out of sight, out of mind. Thus all the platitudes, the “he’s in a better place” or “he is at peace.” Instead of embracing our loss and experiencing our grief, we ignore it and soldier on, leaving a hollow place inside that can’t be filled, and we don’t know why.  

AFJ: “Death Warrant” in State of Grace is about the callousness of others in the face of your loss. How did you deal with the dismissal of the life of your son by a judge in a court of law? And that of the friend who thought two weeks after the death of your son that you should be “over it,” mentioned in another poem? How does one respond to that? 

ARF: “Death Warrant” and “Over It” are two of my most commented upon poems. Readers are horrified by these two women’s thoughtlessness and cruelty. Both poems quote verbatim what was said to me. The judge’s words brought a gasp from the packed courtroom. I was too shocked to do anything except flee. As I left, a woman caught up with me and put her arms around me, sobbing. Her kindness made the moment bearable. But even now, over 13 years later, I can’t relive that day without tears. It’s the unthinking/unthinkable cruelty, tossed off like it’s nothing..

The judge looked over the warrant.
“He’s in the hospital, you say?”
“Yes, your honor.
Terminal cancer.”
“Good,” she said. She handed the
paperwork back to the bailiff.
“Then he won’t be driving
without a license,
out there endangering others.”

ARF: When P., the woman in “Over It” who, two weeks after my son’s death, asked me if I was “over it yet,” her sheer heartlessness astonished me. I really did want, for just one moment, to trade places, to pretend it was her only child who died, and ask her if she was “over it yet?” Instead, I wrote the poem. 

Two weeks after he died,
a friend asked if I was “over it.”
As if my son’s death was something to get
through, like the flu.

AFJ: In “When I Buried My Son I Became Someone Else” in The Dead Kid Poems, you talk about coming to terms with mortality. Can you speak more to the final line of a couplet in that poem, “I’ve dumbed down my dreams,” and how grief has dumbed down your dreams?

ARF: Like me, two of my closest friends have lost a child. We call ourselves members of a club that no one wants to belong to. We all agree, once you’ve lost a child, nothing really fazes you. You’ve nothing more to lose. No matter how bad the news, you’ve had worse. And dreams? What dreams? The natural order is forever disturbed. There is no putting it right. 

AFJ: One of the things that stands out for me in The Dead Kid Poems is how the death of a loved one, the lesson of mortality, does not appear to be something we can pass on to familiars, try though we may, so grieving has a double edge and the one grieving a double burden—to bear the first unimaginable loss, and along with that, to accept that others close to her cannot deal either with her pain or the awareness of what it means to lose someone you love. Has that realization become easier for you? 

ARF: When my son became ill, I noticed a curious thing. Friends and family divided into two camps, those who came closer, and those who pulled away. Some family members deserted me, while friends I barely knew showed up for every hospital stay, every set back. The aha! moment was when I realized that it was nothing personal. That people were reacting not to me and my son’s tragedy, but to Death itself. Some caress it, others can’t face it. Better to turn away, pretend it doesn’t exist. From those who stuck around, and shared the grief, I learned that I share best as a poet. And the more personal my poems became, the more readers “got” what I was saying, and often shared back. It’s almost like my openness gives people permission to share their own truths. And that makes my sadness easier to bear. 

AFJ: In “Cruel Choices” in The Dead Kid Poems, you talk about the need to create a make-believe world—one where your son is married to a “beautiful Iranian model with kind eyes and they live in London with their twin girls who visit every summer”—to coexist alongside the one of terrible realities that, for all the pain they cause, the one grieving must hold onto, as it makes up the true remnants of memory.

ARF: I wrote “Cruel Choices” during a moment of envy–my husband’s two daughters were both in town and he and they were out together every night. I have no relationship with my step-daughters. It’s a mutual decision. That particular night I created a world where life was fair, and each of us had one child. My husband’s “cruel” choice as to which one to keep. I imagined what life might have been like if my son hadn’t died, if his girlfriend had chosen to keep those babies, if they’d moved to London. . . . If if if. A person could drown in them. Writing my truth means to dive into those memories, and remain there as long as possible. I can’t stay down too long; it’s a bad neighborhood. The trick is to open the portal just enough, then remember to shoot back up.

AFJ: The terrible binds placed on you by grief—can you speak more to that? 

ARF: Terrible, yes, but necessary if I’m to get to what matters. Grief rips some people apart. I watched my maternal grandmother will herself to die when my mother was dying. “It is unnatural for a mother to outlive her children,” I remember her saying. I was 20, and didn’t understand until my own son was dying and her words came back to me. But unlike my grandmother, grief made me stronger. I chose life. I chose to honor my son and his memory by writing State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, and The Dead Kid Poems. I wanted to hold his place on the earth. 

Poet and photographer Alexis Rhone Fancher has work published in over 200 literary magazines, journals, and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, Rattle, Hobart, Verse Daily, The MacGuffin, Plume, Tinderbox, Diode, Nashville Review, Rust + Moth, Nasty Women Poets, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, among others. Her photographs have been published worldwide. Her books include: How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen & other heart stab poems, Enter Here, and the autobiographical, Junkie Wife. Her chapbook, State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies was released in 2015, and its companion, The Dead Kid Poems, published in May, 2019. EROTIC, a volume of her new and selected erotica, will be published in 2020 by New York Quarterly. A nominee of multiple Pushcart Prizes, Best Small Fictions, Best Micro-fiction, and Best of the Net awards, Alexis is poetry editor of Cultural Weekly.

The Dead Kid Poems was reviewed at The Poetry Cafe, by Sarah Stockton

Arya F. Jenkins is a Colombian-American poet and writer whose work has been published in numerous journals and zines, most recently, IO Literary Journal, Rag-Queen Periodical, and The Ekphrastic Review. Her poetry and fiction have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Poetry is forthcoming in Poetica Review. Her poetry chapbooks are: Jewel Fire (AllBook Books, 2011), Silence Has A Name (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and Love & Poison (Prolific Press, 2019). Her short story collection Blue Songs in an Open Key (Fomite Press, 2018) is available here:

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Burgi Zenhaeusern & Nancy Naomi Carlson

Hiding behind the Quotidian: a conversation with Burgi Zenhaeusern
by Nancy Naomi Carlson

Behind Normalcy (CityLit Press, 2020)–a smartly written exploration of what hides behind the quotidian–is Burgi Zenhaeusern’s debut chapbook, winner of the Harriss Poetry Prize. Ordinary animals and things become imbued with an undercurrent of violence, like the checkout plastic bag that longs “to choke something / along the creek” and the great blue heron with a “graceful dagger” beak. In Zenhaeusern’s universe, we learn to be wary, like the deer in Rock Creek Park with:

. . . a vague
sense of danger
that lets you hesitate
there on the side
of the road like
dusk gathering shape.

I was curious about the background of Behind Normalcy, so I reached out to the author to have a conversation through email.

Nancy Naomi Carlson: First of all, congratulations on the publication of Behind Normalcy! What does this publication mean to you vis-à-vis how you view yourself and your writing career?

Burgi Zenhaeusern: Thank you very much, Nancy Naomi! The gratification of being able to hold a book of my own is still sinking in, after many months. And I mean holding as in holding the object of my efforts, as if I had been kneading dough for a long time, and now my hands are tired, but satisfied—a sense of accomplishment and validation after all. Though I have been writing intermittently for very long, I didn’t come to poetry until about fifteen years ago, in my mid-forties. I had finally relearned to take my aspirations at least as seriously as I had been taking everybody else’s. In that sense, the chapbook is a culmination and an immense boost to continue no matter what. Especially as, with my late start, age has become a real factor, both in terms of working time left (I’m rather slow) and in how unfavorably age is perceived, even more so in the absence of a formal career (writing or otherwise). I was fortunate enough to have the choice not to pursue a salaried career. It is a whole other debate how good an idea that was, and one I periodically have to settle with myself. But it is without question what I wanted, even fought for.

NNC: Let’s talk about the title. How did this title come to you? Were there other titles you considered?

BZ: The title didn’t change from submission to publication. For a while, I thought I might reconsider. Then I forgot. By now, it has come to represent this book. I like the idea of taking a title from a fragment within the manuscript, sending the reader on a treasure hunt of sorts, which is what I did. The phrase “behind normalcy” appears in the poem “aubade/s,” which can be read in vertical columns as well as horizontally. It appears in the first such column: “behind normalcy a dark June day fattening.” Quite ominous. I felt ominous when I wrote that poem, still do for that matter. For the book I wanted a less definite phrase. And I’m happy with the choice, considering how nicely it corresponds with the cover, my photographer friend Alan Sirulnikoff’s image. Gregg Wilhelm at CityLit Press did a beautiful design job integrating it, heightening the suggestiveness of both title and image. And like so much of what has been written before the pandemic, “behind normalcy” has gotten an additional ring to it.

NNC: From what you’ve said, I know you didn’t write this book overnight. How long would you say this book was in the making?

BZ: In some aspects, it was written over the last decade, as the successor to abandoned manuscript attempts. It’s actually a much condensed version of The Pilferer, my latest full-length manuscript. In another aspect, all my life? I’ve been writing with breaks for very long. As a child I used to draw stories about elves and fairies, and the like—half drawn, half written. I wish I were as prolific and confident now as I was back then. By the time I came to the US from Switzerland, I had begun a novel, dropped it, began another, dropped that one too, and eventually stopped writing. It took realizing that I didn’t have to write in German and prose to find my way back to writing and a sense of vocation. Shifting from German to English shifted my writing from prose to poetry. My journey as a writer is very much a linguistic one as well. And then again, Behind Normalcy began with emigrating to join my husband over twenty-five years ago. Most of my poems echo my life since then, how I’ve come to call the US home. They explore becoming/being White (growing up in Switzerland I didn’t know I was White, everyone in my world was White at that time), unfettered self-identification, the privilege of being welcomed.

NNC: I’m struck with the richness of sound found in these poems, like this particular line about the great blue heron: “lunge after lunge against an ever urging need.” How does sound fit into your writing process?

BZ: Oh, I love sound. And rhythm and phrasing for that matter! Thank you for remarking on this line! It took years to write, the whole poem did. There was precision, absolute focus, and fluidity in the heron’s hunt. Any beauty originated in that alone, nothing else. Hunger is not a metaphor. I knew that from the start, but couldn’t convey it for the longest time. Usually, with sound I proceed intuitively, unless it’s jarring or draws too much attention to itself like an unintended rhyme for example. I don’t usually write in rhymes. I work with echoes. But I don’t plan them. I’m more attuned to rhythm and phrasing. As soon as a poem begins to take shape I read it out loud, make changes until I can read it without stumbling. And if I like it I might just go on reciting it for sheer joy. Until the next day happens, and the next. It all has to do with breathing. I used to play the recorder quite seriously, briefly considered becoming a musician even. A wind instrument teaches you to breathe and how to manipulate breathing for the sake of phrasing. That is how I revise and how I read, my own writing and others’.

NNC: Some would classify some of these poems as “experimental” in terms of form and syntax? Can you talk more about this experimental tendency?

BZ: I do enjoy playing with a text’s potential. Though form for me is rarely a poem’s original stimulus, nor a goal by itself. I just play around until I find a fit, and sometimes the answer is an object poem. It was the poet Molly Spencer who first noted this tendency and encouraged me to explore it. I’m very grateful to her for that! The other eye-opener was watching and hearing Tyehimba Jess read from his work, Olio, at the fantastic Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. What he does in Olio is simply amazing! I still remember how liberated I felt after his reading. I also like how the idea of play engages the reader differently. With explicitly interactive texts, the weight and importance of input from writer and reader is nearly the same. I mean it quite literally when I tell the reader “you are a poem’s lungs.”

NNC: Who are some of your literary influences? Any Swiss writers?

BZ: Since my focus had been on fiction for so long, ever since I’ve started writing poetry I’ve been trying to catch up with reading it, which includes the more traditional canon. But, my fascination is with what is being published now in the English speaking world. I’m pretty much out of touch with the Swiss and German literary scenes. As a writer I very much live and work where I am. Also, influence for me is usually temporary. It all flows into one big pool of wonders and possibilities. I’m inspired by so many writers. And the more I read the better my inner ear becomes. And my English language ear cannot get enough practice, believe me! I compare influence to dancing along others on the dance-floor. No matter the style, if they’re good, their dancing goes into my step.

NNC: Do you think your Swiss background has influenced your writing?

BZ: Difficult to say. I mean a lot of it has more to do with being a foreigner than with being Swiss per se. Cultural aspects come to mind, meaning that for a lot of things I lack contextual fluency: I came here with another country’s memory and consciousness. Google is my go-to place. A dictionary definition is a helpful crutch. But, so much of a word’s aliveness comes from its use, from growing up with it. And then there is the question of what sort of English is my English. Am I parroting, appropriating? Lots of pitfalls along the way. On many levels I felt I had to be reassembled when I started out in the US, similar to my pomegranate poem in Behind Normalcy. Ultimately, some part of me has never fully crossed. It hovers above the two worlds like a tree branching across the ocean. Foreignness—its outer manifestation in my accent—is a potential and a difficulty. I try to harness it. The question is finding my specific place in this web I now call home and speak from it.

NNC: You’re also a translator. How does the process of writing your own poems compare with the process of translating a poem?

BZ: Translation is a rare, always enriching foray from my usual practice of writing poems. When I translate, I’m in two languages at once, at least at first, something that doesn’t happen when I write my own poems. And I’m forced to step outside of myself, following another poet’s lead, like accompanying a soloist, if only in the sense of making a poem in another poet’s voice. I see translation as an ultimate act of reading. I don’t think my approach for translating a poem versus writing my own overlaps. The processes set out from opposing directions. It’s only during last revisions and fine-tuning that I use the same strategies for both, to improve flow for example: when the translated poem has been lifted into its target language completely, and I don’t have to constantly go back and forth to compare patterns, line-breaks, etc. I’ve never translated my poetry, nor written any in German, and the idea doesn’t appeal to me. And until it does, I won’t. But I love reading translated work of others, especially when I can follow the original.

NNC: What role does family play in your writing?

BZ: My writing has been largely autobiographical so far. In that sense family has provided important source material: the relationships, memories, and in my case motherhood. Family is stories, the ones I tell myself and how their telling changes over time. Family means rootedness for me, my origins, and what I make of them. Nothing is static, and hence everything is continually worth coming back to. Who knows where it goes. I suspect I’ll always write something or other about motherhood though. To watch my kid discover life and me learning alongside him is a never ending source of wonder.

NNC: What are some of your future writing projects?

BZ: While I hope to continue (after all, questions of place and Whiteness remain as relevant as ever) I’m no longer sure about how. Though I don’t have existential worries right now, I feel profoundly interrupted. The paradigm has shifted. Meanwhile, I’m still sending out The Pilferer, reading as much as I can, and writing the occasional review. My latest project began before the pandemic. It picks up threads from my previous work, including Behind Normalcy, and it implies some research. But for now, new poems are down to a trickle and the project lies dormant. I hope to pick it up soon.

BZ: Thank you again, Nancy Naomi, for your questions. I’ve greatly enjoyed trying to answer them.

Burgi Zenhaeusern is the author of Behind Normalcy (CityLit Press, 2020), winner of the 2019 Harriss Poetry Prize. Her work appears in various online and print journals. She volunteers for a local reading series and lives in Chevy Chase, MD. Find more at

Nancy Naomi Carlson

Nancy Naomi Carlson, poet, translator, essayist, and editor, has authored 10 titles (six translated). An Infusion of Violets (Seagull Books, 2019), her second full-length collection of poetry, was named “New & Noteworthy” by the New York Times. A recipient of two NEA literature translation fellowships, she was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award, and the CLMP Firecracker Poetry Award. An associate editor for Tupelo Press, her work has appeared in such journals as APR, The Georgia Review, The Paris Review, and Poetry.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Zeina Hashem Beck and Issam Zineh

In a Day and a Night: Review of 3arabi Song and a Conversation with Zeina Hashem Beck

Read Issam Zineh’s Review of 3arabi Song here:

“As I read and re-read 3arabi Song, I found it to be so many things simultaneously.  I wondered about the collection’s origin story, its idiosyncrasies, its original reception, and its relevance several years after publication.  I had a chance to sit down with Zeina Hashem Beck virtually to exchange on some of these questions.” —Issam Zineh


Issam Zineh: 3arabi Song is a work of deep relevance.  There is an authority that derives from lived experience.  Can you talk about your experience in originally putting this collection together? 

Zeina Hashem Beck: Most of these poems came to me after August 2013, when two mosques exploded in my hometown of Tripoli, Lebanon, and my cousin was shot on the street.  He didn’t survive.  I was also watching what was happening in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine.  So first came some poems of grief, but I didn’t want the collection to be just about that.  I find a lot of joy in Arabic music, and back then I listened to it as a kind of balm, and that’s how the music poems originated.

IZ: One of the noteworthy aspects of this collection is that there are multiple points of entry for the reader.  I feel like you might have very different relationships with these poems depending on, for example, whether or not you grew up with Arabic culture.  Can you comment on this generally – how you think the work might be deferentially experienced based on the presence or absence of cultural points of reference the reader brings to the poems?

ZHB: This wasn’t really something I thought about as I wrote 3arabi Song—I just followed the poems which came in waves, if I recall correctly.  I simply needed to write these poems, so I wrote.  Once I was closer to publication, I chose to include a “Notes” section in the end, to give a little bit of context to some of the pieces, as well as explain some words/expressions in Arabic for the reader who might not be familiar with the culture.  I assume this was helpful, but I wonder now whether this was necessary; I think readers should be able to experience the poems regardless, and that they should also be able to google to know more.  I’ve certainly done this for poems where the context or some references weren’t familiar to me.

Regarding reception, yes, I imagine the poems would resonate differently with different audiences.  An Arab audience at a poetry reading, for example, would smile and nod in recognition, though this doesn’t mean that an audience not familiar with Arab culture wouldn’t be able to tap into the language of the poems.

IZ: There are aspects of these poems that seem like they have to be experienced to be fully appreciated.  On the one hand, this book feels very local.  It seems very particular to the “Arab experience”, to maybe even the expatriate or immigrant experience.  On the other hand, it was selected from over 1700 manuscripts [editor’s note: 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner] , so it clearly has a universality to it.  Can you talk about this balance between the “local” and the “global”?  Did you have a sense that despite the specificity of the subject matter, the poems would appeal to a broad readership and resonance?

ZHB: As I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t thinking about all this at the time of writing.  I believe that when poems come from a true place, they resonate.  Also, I’m not a big fan of universality because it usually means white; do people consider Paris, for example, a more “universal” city than Tripoli?  And if so, then what assumptions lie under this?  The universal is in the local.

IZ: And even then, it strikes me we have a problem of translation.  I find Arabic figures of speech in particular nearly impossible to translate.  There is gravity, drama, soulfulness, multiplicity to the language that is challenging to precisely capture in another language.  And yet you do this in remarkable ways through context and poem notes.  Talk about this linguistic challenge.  Did you find it a challenge at all?

ZHB: A poem is always about some kind of translation for me, and I don’t see that as a problem, but rather a searching.  And I’ve always existed between languages, so I was writing was felt real to me.  

IZ: There is a video of you reading “Naming Things” during the Split This Rock Poetry Festival (2016), which completely opened this poem up for me, and by extension the entire collection.  Specifically, there’s a kind of sacredness and implicit spirituality even in the common dialogue of the people that I think in some ways I took for granted growing up in an Arabic-speaking household.  Then in hearing you perform, this really sort of unleashed the divine lexicon of Arabic expression.  Can you talk about the importance of the spoken word in these poems?  Do you think they gain something in particular from being read aloud?

ZHB: I don’t believe in divine languages.  If I were to think of Arabic as divine, I wouldn’t be able to work with it.  As for performing poetry, this is something I genuinely enjoy doing as a way of sharing and connecting.  I also start reading a poem out loud the minute I start writing it, because I like to fill the room around me with the sounds of it. Reading it out loud is writing it.  

IZ: I’m thinking of how even in conversational Arabic, there is common reference to the divine even in completely secular conversations.  For example, the customary response to “How are you?” being “Thank God”.  It strikes me that there is something built into the language that lends itself to certain explorations.  You mentioned you have “always existed between languages.”  Can you say more about how this has shaped your poetics?

ZHB: My mother language is Arabic, then comes French, then English at the age of 12.  And even within the Arabic, there’s the spoken Lebanese dialect and the official Modern Standard Arabic (which was what we learnt at school, what we read in books, and even what we heard on TV in Arabic cartoons at the time).  So to a certain extent, there’s always more than one language in my head and my sentences, and that’s not uncommon in Lebanon.  English definitely became the language that’s easiest for me in terms of writing, and that’s probably because my university education was in English, though I think the spirit of my poems lies in how I personally use English and at times 3arabize it.

I keep wavering between almost-regret and oh-well when I think that I don’t write in Arabic, and I’ve recently been thinking about audience. Perhaps what’s important is the language of poetry, no matter what tool you’re using to reach it.

IZ: Some of the greatest musical icons of the Arab world show up in this book (Umm Kulthuum, Fairuz, Samira Tawfiq).  These names are very familiar from my childhood and, I suspect, the childhoods of many but not all (perhaps not even most) of your readers.  Can you talk about this construct and what you were hoping to accomplish by coming at the themes of this work from the angle of Arabic music?

ZHB: Arabic music gave me joy in a difficult time, and I found myself writing these tributes to singers I love.  I don’t recall the first one I wrote, but it might have been the Umm Kulthum one. After that, I decided to continue with these tributes more deliberately, considering the singers’ lives, what their music invokes in me, and the current political moment.  There’s always been a close relationship between poetry and music as art forms for me: they both sing, and they both have the capacity to move us almost immediately.

IZ: I came to engage with this remarkable collection reluctantly.  I carried it with me throughout my house for days, assuring myself I would start reading it “today” – until today became a series of past events.  In hindsight, I was nervous about what I would be asked to contend with.  What would this work reveal about me – about my relationship to culture, to country, to family?  Can you talk a bit about these themes in your work?

ZHB: Grief and joy. Loss and music. Exile and home.

I appreciate you describing what you went through before you started reading, and struggling with these thoughts can be a good interrogation.

IZ: Earlier this year, I came across an article in which Aarushi Punia contemplates the role of memory in Palestinian literature.  Among its many functions, she writes of memory as “an act of protest and resistance.”  She asserts that literature, then, “extends the resistive act of remembering and creates a sense of community through the narration of memory.” “Remembering,” she writes, “is an ethical act.”  It is against this backdrop – memory (and by extension “song” as arguably the most poetic and defiant form of memory) as the difference between cultural (sometimes literal) life and death – that I entered 3arabi Song.  A lot has happened in the world since the 2016 debut of 3arabi Song.  Can you talk a bit about what you see as the role poetry has to play in this particular moment with respect to resistance, and even perhaps self-preservation?

ZHB: Memory is indeed important in 3arabi Song, but I would argue that in the case of Palestinian literature, it’s even more important.  As a Lebanese, when I write about Tripoli, my hometown, I’m writing to remember my childhood and perhaps to mourn and celebrate certain events.  But I can and I do go back to my Tripoli every year, whereas Palestinians are either incapable of going back to their stolen land or living under apartheid.  Here, writing/remembering becomes even more of an act of survival and resistance, as Punia mentions, because there are forces literally conspiring to erase you. Many of the poems in 3arabi Song go beyond Lebanon, of course, so I understand where your analysis comes from, and I was certainly writing for Syria, Palestine, and Iraq to remember and resist.

As for the role of poetry, yes, I believe, in my heart of hearts, that poetry is subversive just by asking you to slow down and reconsider, reimagine. However, I’m afraid you’re catching me at a time where I’m struggling to tap into poetry. This has to do with what’s been happening in Lebanon for the past few months (a revolution started in October 2019, a major economic crisis now, attempts to crack down on free speech); I found myself overwhelmed by the news and unable to process anything through poems. I feel a little bit estranged, though I know that I’d eventually return.

IZ: Shortly after we initially connected, controversy emerged around the publisher of 3arabi Song which raised, among many issues, questions about reconciling the art itself and the platform that makes that art accessible.  Would you care to comment?

ZHB: I thought a lot about whether or not to comment on this here.  Shortly after you’d asked me for an interview, I learnt things about Rattle that don’t align with my values.  I canceled a reading that was scheduled with the magazine and decided not to submit to it anymore.  I wondered whether I should refrain from talking about my own chapbook.  I wondered whether I should talk about it and not mention this at all: why shift the energy in this space that’s meant to celebrate my work, which shouldn’t be associated with Rattle’s moral failures?  Weren’t many literary institutions problematic?  I’m proud of my poems and shouldn’t be doing such mental labor (especially as an Arab woman living abroad) because of an editor’s decisions that I wasn’t aware of until recently.  I also struggled with the fact that 3arabi Song was well-supported by Rattle when it was released.  But what does it mean, when a magazine supports your work and the work of people you admire while at the same time gives space to pieces you find harmful?  When it praises a poem written “for” a gay man from the perspective of the Pulse shooter, for example?  I was angry I had to spend so much time troubled by this instead of writing poems or being with my kids or trying to process the goddamn collapse happening in my home country.  Sadly, it seems this is a luxury that writers from marginalized communities writing in this language (or perhaps any official language) do not have.  I’m not interested in idealizing or demonizing, but I ultimately decided to mention this so that other poets who don’t know, who perhaps like me come to poetry from outside the academia and the US, could consider, learn more, and decide.

Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her second full-length collection is Louder than Hearts (Bauhan Publishing, 2017).  She’s also the author of two chapbooks.  Her poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, The New York Times, The Academy of American Poets, Poetry, Southeast Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere.  She lives in Dubai.

Issam Zineh is a Los Angeles-born, Palestinian-American poet and scientist.  He is author of the forthcoming chapbook “The Moment of Greatest Alienation” (Ethel Press, Spring 2021).  His poems appear or are forthcoming in Clockhouse, Fjords Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry (Poets Resist), Nimrod, Poet Lore, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere.  He also reviews for The Poetry Café (  Find him on Twitter @izineh.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Queer Hagiographies

Queer Hagiographies by Audra Puchalski

Review and interview by Jen Rouse

I have always wanted to use the word visceral in a way that truly gets at its meaning in the way the word visceral would want itself to be meant. Audra Puchalski’s Queer Hagiographies is a visceral book. It is a book that is felt in all of one’s internal organs. As deeply as feeling goes. In organs. Think of that queer root within you. And know that all that comes from that root also lives in this book. Rooted. Because if that queer root is in you then you are rooted in the queered lives of this glorious book of hagiographied saints. You are intimately tied. You are aflame. You are desire. And you are ensnared, regurgitated, and remade in the mouths of all that is (un)holy.

Having drifted through the pews of Catholicism as a child, I have carried with me a love for all that is embedded in the mysticism and wildness of sainthood. And it is with much excitement that I began digging into this collection and all its beauties. Puchalski puts us straight into the mouth of a serpent when we meet our first brave saint of learning and culture, and some say, poetry—the very wise and highly sought out Saint Hilda. Hilda is no joke. Hilda will tell you it is easy to turn the pesky snakes plaguing the village to stone. She says,

My throat fills up
like a balloon, fills with venom
and the curse spills down my chin, dirty water
from a flooded gutter.  

But, even better, we find that Hilda is vanquishing snakes for another woman, a beloved who takes her to that place beyond, that place of magical everything she remembers from childhood: “an open door opening on openness, a sky with no top / no floor but a sheer scrim of shimmering vapor.” O this love. This love! And this poem is unapologetically Stein-like in the way its language rolls like fingers over a rosary, over a body.

Puchalski is deep. Into. Saints. Some of them bookish, writerly, out of canon, even, but revered and challenged, perhaps, more because they are the wild ones. In this collection, for example, we find Emily Dickinson as untouchable as ever and Puchalski herself slips into the tortured humor of Saint Lawrence—not necessarily the saints we are expecting but certainly so needed here.

Also. Puchalski is deep. Into. Craft. She layers voice into image into form in the way that the cream cheese frosting of sexuality holds together a cathedral made of cake. You just want to get that high on all that sensual suffering and the poetry of it. And it’s impossible not to. It’s impossible to ignore the sectioned hagiography of Saint Isidore. So don’t. Immerse yourself in the way an enjambed line declares belief and in the next section begs the question: “what if this bundle / unravels?” Follow the verb fire through the field of the third section. Hang on. It will unravel you. In the hagiography of Saint Jude, the same attention to voice, image, and form beg the binding connection of Jude to Jesus, Jude admitting to being the “Disciple to his desire / disciplined to his wishes / his breath.” It’s brutally beautiful.

Of course, Puchalski’s saints are also vainglorious vandals, virgins, and rock stars. In our truly exquisite moments, we are most vulnerable, most undone. And those who stand there with us in that embrace, we count on as our followers. As we stand with these saints, we find that things are sodden and blooming and juicy and licked. I, however, am a girl who loves to see what hands can do, and Puchalski’s saints do not disappoint in their reach.

I was compelled, in fact, to reach out by email to Puchalski to talk a bit more with her about her saints, craft, and the art of publishing. She generously obliged.

Jen Rouse:  What inspires your work when you think about form, imagery, voice?

Audra Puchalski: When I’m drafting a new poem and it’s working well for me, there’s a spirit of improvisation, experimentation, and play, a.k.a. fun. So I’m not really thinking about form, imagery, or voice at this point. I may be doing form, imagery, and/or voice but it’s probably mostly unintentional. It feels beyond my control—like whatever happens, happens.

Revision is where I think about things like form, imagery, and voice—but do I? Or am I still mostly feeling around form, imagery, and voice? I’m honestly not trying to be enigmatic, I legitimately don’t know what I think about or what I do. I’m sorry that this is such a ridiculous answer!

JR: Also, I see in your twitter info that you consider yourself a nature poet. Tell me a bit about that, if you don’t mind, and how it influenced your look into the worlds of these saints.

AP: I started calling myself a nature poet when I was on a long streak of writing nature poems. It’s a little ironic, because the idea of “nature” is so strange. Like, that thing over there, that thing we can point to, that’s Nature, and that thing over there is Not Nature. But on the other hand, it’s completely sincere, because nature is endlessly fascinating—there’s literally endless weirdness and beauty and horror and decay and fecundity. And facing climate catastrophe as we are now, there’s also a lot of dread, and I get the urge to poke at that.

As for how it relates to the saints, I think queerness is extremely natural, and I think for a human being, throwing every demand and expectation of your society in the trash while welcoming intense pain, suffering, and death is relatively unnatural, but that’s exactly what a lot of these saints did, according to the stories. It’s badass, as well as disgusting and full of magic. They say when Saint Eulalia was beheaded (after a lot of gruesome torture), a dove flew out of her severed neck. What the hell! So yeah, nature is like that.

JR: If you would like to give some real-life context to why these saints, I’m all ears. I feel like I read you went to a school where Hilda was the patron saint of the school, and then last night I was certain I’d dreamt that. 

AP: I wish! I was raised Catholic, and I’ll probably always have the impulse to venerate. Catholicism also taught me to love graven images and to be polytheistic. Then when I was in grad school at the University of Michigan, I was a grader for Gina Brandolino’s class about medieval women, and her unit on virgin-martyrs honestly snapped right into my brain-wiring and stayed there, lurking, secretly writing poems, probably.

In terms of why these saints, I actually didn’t usually start out with a particular saint in mind, although once I was deeper in the project, I occasionally did. A few times, I realized that a poem I had already written, before I started consciously working on this project, was a saint poem. For most of them, I wrote a first draft without thinking about saints at all, then researched saints associated with the imagery or concepts I was already working with. That research would then influence the next revision. I had to surrender to the slight chanciness of the process, and that was exciting and fun. 

JR: Why Headmistress Press for this book? How has it shaped your thinking about publication and future publication?

AP: I didn’t know anything about publication—I’ve had poems in journals and made zines for my friends, but I had never worked with a press before. It was a wonderful experience, and I’m so happy with the result!

Title: Queer Hagiographies
Author: Audra Puchalski
Publisher: Headmistress Press (January 10, 2020)
ISBN-10: 1733534555
ISBN-13: 978-1733534550

Audra Puchalski is from Michigan. She earned her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Poetry. Her work has appeared in Bat City Review, Juked, Salt Hill, The Rupture, Cutbank Online, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Oakland, California.


Jen Rouse is the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Cornell College. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Gulf Stream, Parentheses, Cleaver, Always Crashing, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. Rouse is a two-time finalist for the Charlotte Mew Prize. Headmistress Press has published her books Acid and TenderCAKE, and Riding with Anne Sexton. Find her at and on Twitter @jrouse.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.


Interview with Arya F. Jenkins

Francine Witte has published four poetry chapbooks, among many other accomplishments. The Poetry Cafe introduces Witte in conversation with poet and writer Arya F. Jenkins, who joins our guest reviewers with this interview.

I’ve always thought that it’s the small details that connect the writer to the reader. –Francine Witte

Arya F. Jenkins: You write poetry, flash and fiction. As a poet, you have authored several poetry chapbooks and a couple of full-length poetry collections. How did you come to be a poet?

Francine Witte: I started writing poetry in second grade. Rewriting song lyrics. And then when I was about 13, I started writing poetry for real. It was about playing with words and expressing ideas. I’ve always enjoyed language and writing.

AFJ: Your ability to write about lost love, grief, and aging with such particularity and universality is a rare gift. Are you sometimes surprised at the level of honesty and truth your poems are able to plumb?

FW: I’ve always thought that it’s the small details that connect the writer to the reader. Everyone has experienced love, grief, and on some level, the discomfort of getting older (I never have felt as old as the day I turned 20, by the way.) It’s the focus of a tiny detail that either makes the reader say, “yes, that happened to me,” or “oh yes, I can see what you mean.” Finding these small moments is actually one of the most fun parts of writing for me.

AFJ: Are your chapbooks held together by certain themes? If so, what are they?

FW: My chapbooks seem to be unintentionally themed as a result of what I was writing about at that particular time. For example, in First Rain, I have a good amount of the poems focusing on child/parent relationships, while Only, Not Only, deals more with a grown narrator who has been hurt by romantic love. And the theme of Not All Fires Burn the Same, is really more or less a collection of mother/daughter, love gone wrong and environment.

AFJ:  How has your relationship to the big themes of love and loss in your writing changed over the years? Have you abandoned any topics? If so, which? And why?

I’m still pretty focused on love and loss. I don’t see that changing.

FW: I’m still pretty focused on love and loss. I don’t see that changing. I am also fascinated by the theme of people and their history on this planet. I’ve always been interested in weather and the natural world. In Theory of Flesh, I find myself looking back to cave people and thinking that they were the same as us in terms of their basic emotional makeup.

AFJ: I am intrigued by your deconstruction of “self” in some of your poems. In your collection, The Theory of Flesh, the narrator asks who the poet is and how she can be distinguished from the other selves that inhabit her daily life? Does this focus have precedence in your chapbooks?

FW: I think you are referring to my poem “How Many Me’s are There?” which talks about the different people we are in different situations. It asks the question of the me’s occurring at the same time in a person’s life. But there are also different me’s that span time. There’s childhood me, grown-up me, married me, etc. I do think my chapbooks reflect these different times in the speaker’s life.

AFJ: Lately I’ve encountered artists and poets who revere animals, the dog especially, and have done beautiful justice to them in their work. Some of the poems in your full-length collection, The Theory of Flesh examine links between the animal and human kingdoms. What do animals have to teach humans? How do they “speak to” what is higher in us?

FW: Animals seem to live in the moment. They go on instinct and need. They don’t seem to have hidden agendas. They love the person who feeds them. They are grateful for that. Simple. That’s what we can learn from them.

They speak to the need in us to be needed, to care for someone else. That part, the part that cares beyond our own comfort, really is our higher self.

AFJ: Do you feel you have any obligations as a poet? If so, to what or whom?

FW: My obligation as a poet is to give the reader or listener a great experience for having taken the time to read or listen to my poem. I need to say something that the reader has never heard in a way they have never heard it. I have to create something, make them feel something, or at least make their few minutes of reading worthwhile. That’s my obligation.

AFJ:  What if anything would you like to impart to those poets new to poetry who would like to publish a chapbook?

When putting together a chapbook, or any book, make sure
every poem is a 10.

FW: I would tell all poets to become your own best editor and listen to that voice that tells you a line or a stanza isn’t as good as it could be, or to take it out, etc.

When putting together a chapbook, or any book, make sure every poem is a 10 (at least in your opinion.)  There is no room for filler even if it’s on theme. I think the quality of the poems is more important than any superimposed connective tissue.

Francine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections, Café Crazy and The Theory of Flesh from Kelsay Books. Her flash fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologized in the most recent New Micro (W.W. Norton) Her novella-in-flash, The Way of the Wind has just been published by Ad Hoc Fiction, and her full-length collection of flash fiction, Dressed All Wrong for This was recently published by Blue Light Press. She lives in New York City.

The Magic in the Streets (Owl Creek Press, 1994) first prize contest winner
First Rain (Pecan Grove Press, 2009) First prize contest winner
Only, Not Only (Finishing Line Press, 2012)
Not All Fires Burn the Same (Slipstream Press, 2016) first prize contest winner

Arya F. Jenkins is a Colombian-American poet and writer whose work has been published in numerous journals and zines, most recently, IO Literary Journal, Rag-Queen Periodical, and The Ekphrastic Review. Her poetry and fiction have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Poetry is forthcoming in Poetica Review. Her poetry chapbooks are: Jewel Fire (AllBook Books, 2011), Silence Has A Name (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and Love & Poison (Prolific Press, 2019). Her short story collection Blue Songs in an Open Key (Fomite Press, 2018) is available here:

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three
 full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).