Two Poems by Ellie Elrod

to myself, by well bucket. 

 

i want to be gentle right now,

coax the coal burning down your

throat out with sweet tasting bait,

words like “it’s okay that you didn’t

complete your assignment tonight,”

“it is fine to not have eaten today,”

“i don’t hold this against you,”

 

but please know, i do;

not like a knife to your neck,

but like my hand on your back,

because when hope seems out of

stock, locked tight behind the

confines of your body, 

i will build and be the factory, 

shipping straight to 

your fingertips’ home address, 

though i know they don’t hit like home right now, 

but trust me, they are, 

because they are my home 

too.

 

you are my blood, my best thing, 

i will stop what seeks to kill you, 

and that includes yourself.

 

so when every step towards the bathroom 

to shower feels like it’s ploughing 

through the thick mud of gutless life,

 

when the water in your eyes 

reflects off encouraging words like 

the ceiling of our atmosphere,

 

when you are too tired for poeticism, 

 

know that this is not the first time

you have met rock bottom, 

and that does not mean you are friends, 

but we both know the freeze of that floor

too well to sleep now.

 

i have been your mother and your father, 

tucked your body into the crook of my elbow, 

carried you out of caverns far sharper than this one,

and all you have to do for me, right now, 

is breathe.

 

fill both lungs with all you can take, 

and when it comes time to exhale, 

know it is only to make room for more.


portrait of a burning manufacturing plant, or a tribute to the trans women in my community

the woman swaying down the sidewalk

does not like to be stared at. she likes to be

known, and to be understood. in

the sunlight, you would know that eyeliner

is more golden than yellow and the tar

they tried to stick between her fingers

is thicker than any blood, but not thicker

than the skin she’s grown in the time since they left

her. they would say the womb has walls, not wings,

that the body has bounds it must fit in,

that she is anything but herself. yet there is

nothing permanent about the flesh, nothing

so lively about it but the sweat, the words.

the salt on body that comes from belief in action.

the syllables screamed over crowds of unbelievers until

someone heard. heard sylvia. heard danica.

heard a breath louder than the insults.

she stands out, her style a crown, a shield,

and a sword all in one. her flair, unlearned, is born

of things that predate and outsmart the old world

schema. she is the new world in a hot pink dress

and blue pumps, built from by-law breakers, makers

of space, long nights that seemed endless for people

with the wrong clothes and the wrong heart,

covenants of culture, painting the colors

flying above our heads, and when i look

between her smile and the flag,

i can see the resemblance.

 

Ellie Elrod is a Charleston-born poet and movie aficionado who’s currently attending Berkeley Center for the Arts as an 11th grade Creative Writing major. Their works have been published in The Post and Courier, The Maze 2020, and Desk Gum (Goose Creek High School’s Arts Magazine), as well as being awarded by Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and MUSC. A lot of their time is spent attempting to learn French, Korean, and Guitar.

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The Symbolism behind Driving into an Underpass on the Garden State Parkway

One time, while driving home from a Tuesday grocery trip at the Little India produce market, you wiped the last fragment of boiled spaghetti away from your lips with a Chipotle napkin and said that only things that bluntly resemble the form of humans can have symbolism. Take the trees, you said, and see how their branches jut out like frozen twizzlers from the lean figure-eight waist — it all looks distinctly like the silhouette of a human body. This is why there are so many poems littered with metaphors about trees. And look ahead at the chipped brick underpass, you said, there is no symbolism in this thing, no blunt resemblance to humankind, just a loaf of carved brick designed to spare our Chevy truck from the humming Jersey rain for a few seconds. Pay no heed to the underpass, pay heed to the trees, you said. 

Now I don’t understand what this Garden State underpass has done to you to be named the most un-symbolic thing on the planet, but, then again, I don’t get a lot of things. For example, how did we two people, one a believer and the other an atheist, find ourselves together in the midst of a wedding. We announced our commitment to each other somewhere in the local mango fields, property of a fruit farmer who was not invited to our ceremony. I did not fancy stealing another man’s oxygen and trespassing like this, but you said that it did no harm, and so we exchanged rings on another man’s property unbeknownst to that man. 

The mangoes of the tree we stood under decorated the tufts of leaves like hairpins and your soft fingers did not hesitate to plunder a fruit from this tree for your lips to bite into, water syrup forming rivers through the lace of your gentle fingers like poetry. I was stunned when you did this. The fruit, mango, was nothing more than a complicated collection of particles to you, but I saw clearly that it was a child of the tree and the property of a man we both didn’t know. In the taxi your brother paid for, I pressed you for a reason as to why plundering the forbidden fruit was the arch for sharing my life with you and you said that it was just a mango, that it didn’t matter, that we shouldn’t fight on our wedding day. 

But our first night together, we fought anyway, this time with pieces of hips and elbows for the first right to the bathroom sink and, in the end, we had to share, like children. In between toothbrushes and shaving cream, with mouth foaming with listerine, dental floss, and toothpaste, I turned to you and said that I would love to be a liquefied mango, or any fruit for that matter, because it would be nice to be able to just disappear down the sink drain sometimes. Except, the part about being a liquefied mango is important because it would be quite horrid to flow down the drain like regular bathroom water. And you spat out a puddle of Colgate toothpaste into the sink and told me that you didn’t understand how mangos could possibly matter. I must have looked crazed to you, defending an eaten mango and then announcing that I want to be a liquified mango. But I didn’t want to tire you with my theory about the universe so what I said, instead, is that I guess what I mean is that I want an overripe mango for breakfast. 

Then dawned the days when you used to bike to Chinatown every morning, through dim sum palaces and dumpling dens, to buy a pound of fresh mangos for me, wearing nothing but husky trousers and that oversized gray Santa Cruz hoodie you once left on the couch and missed a flight to retrieve. And even though you never bothered to fix that brake lever, even New York City traffic didn’t keep you from your bike. Thinking of you one day as you had gone, I came to the conclusion that your Santa Cruz hoodie and your bike spend more time together than your lungs do with air. I wondered what a love letter from your Santa Cruz hoodie to your bicycle would sound like, maybe something like this: 

 

     Dear Bob the bicycle, 

I fell in love with the perfect curves of your tires that carry your full lust. I can fit into any space you allow me to. I wish for our dust to dance together like charcoal at the end of each day, when you’ve tired yourself and return from the dirt and grime of the winding streets.

Love, 

Your Santa Cruz hoodie 

 

I thought the love letter was quite clever, but when I gave it to you, you said that I have this unsettling tendency to pay attention to things that don’t matter, like bicycles, sweatshirts, and pigeons. Stealing a mango from a plastic grocery bag, you said that the rooster windbreaker with a missing “W” and the Chinese minimalists shopping for vegan tofu in China Town don’t matter in the grand scheme of life and the universe. So the next morning, I really tried to not think of the symbolism behind your tongue pushing water through the tube of your throat after 59 push-ups in the foyer, or the meaning behind a person who cuts an apple pie with the knife tilted up at 90, instead of a flat 180 degrees angle, or the symbolism behind the strange way in which you eat spaghetti and meatballs because you, My Lord, are the only living being who can get drunk off of dipping spaghetti, like nachos, into a tomato sauce with eggplant and zucchini. Now the truth of the matter is that I tried to pay no heed to the underlying symbolism of things for about two days, before rolling over and accepting defeat and the fact that cheesecake somehow represents the birth of a child. (A cheesecake is heavy and burdensome on the stomach, buttery, satisfying like the feeling one has after birthing a newborn, but touch the crust, and it crumbles to reveal a world of sin.) 

But you never got how these things could possibly matter because you never cared about the mango from the tree that did not belong to you, or the rooster windbreaker with the missing “W,” or the Chinese minimalists. You don’t remember the three people who always stood leaning on the tar hill cascading around the price pole for diesel in that gas station that bordered our flat. You don’t remember what the moon looked like, crescent or full, that night we built a cardboard airplane out of the cereal boxes in our pantry. That night, I told you that the reason our marriage collapsed was because of the mango and you laughed and asked again how mangos could possibly matter. The truth is that if you had cared about the mango, then the walls of the world would have leaned closer to you, given pieces of itself to you, and held you like honey with the gentlest of arms and lips. 

But the world and its things obviously never mattered to My Lord, you, who never hesitated to plunder and pluck the forbidden fruit and drink the soul of the mango leaves that were summoned to protect you and I, the paired pigeons, from the rest of the world. The people vomited sins and you spat back in the name of the holy Scripture. I am bitter. I wish that the fruit farmer had awoken our marriage night and thrown us both, like Adam and his beloved Eve, with the complementary threats and curses, to the cumbersome paved streets for drinking his property’s air. 

Now if we’re going back to the underpass, My Lord, there is lots of symbolism behind that Garden State underpass. The underpass broke the slaps of the rain as we drove underneath and somewhere in between, I grew up. That underpass is a symbol for our marriage, above all things. We drove Ferraris and Mercedes through each other as if we were somehow able to still stand even with an arching hole simmered through our pooling belly buttons. As we ate the fruits and beets, the things of this world fell from our throats through our bellies and out, though the difference is that I tasted it and you shoved it down your throat. You are like the underpass. You don’t stop to think about the cars and trunks that pass through you. You stand and assert your strength and courage by pushing something as gentle as rain away. The truth is that no one will care when that Garden State Parkway underpass is torn down one day and built into a better, stronger underpass, and the underpass knows that and maybe that’s why it’s so bitter. The underpass breathes, My Lord, just like the mangos breathe. The world beyond our bubble breathes, full inhales and exhales, drunk on the taste of air. It carries lessons and meaning and that’s why something as prosperous as mangos matter to the overarching scheme of the universe. 

 

Zoha Arif is a 16-year-old high school student studying computer science and programming at the Academy for Information Technology. She currently lives in New Jersey and enjoys spilling her strangest ideas into her works of fiction in her free time. She is also an editor for her school newspaper, Polyphony Lit, and E&GJ Press.

Visual arts by Ordy Chen

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Baptized in Fire

Prometheus shaped us from the Earth,
but I have one rib fewer than my mother. My hidden
self cuts me open to look for what is missing,
finds my energy too precious to sign away.
Still, I sign in spit. In spite is how I spread
my words: paranoia, betrayal and loss.
There is no difference in what I say, only
how I say it. I learned this from the burials
and burnings in my nightmares keeping
me from closing my lids. They say we all seep
back to clay one day, but I see Cudi in the flames.
His muscles hardened, his skin pink and luminescent.
Baptized in fire. He crashes from a high place,
splinters into a million particles, blessings
spilling from him, a now broken pot.
The fire that once contained him blesses
over my skin. Then, I shape myself.

 

 Cole is a student who learns as much from failing as he does from his teachers. His favorite poets include Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum and Reginald Dwayne Betts.
Visual art by “Yuga” Yujia Li.
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Rivers in Her Hands

My most vivid memories of my mother are the thick, blue veins in her hands. They lurk beneath the surface of her thin skin, distant reminders of decades of age. I like to run my fingers over them, imagining that each line is a river encased in the pores of her skin.

Every evening, she raises me up to her worn chair, sits me in her lap, and runs her fingers through my hair as I trace the rivers in her hands.

“You can be anything you want to be,” she tells me.

“Really?” I always ask, even if I already know the answer.

“Yes.” My mother smiles a worn, tired smile, and I watch the earth crumble and crack around her eyes and mouth, the wrinkles etching her skin like moving plates.

I didn’t realize what she meant until I entered primary school, when talk of immigration and foreign countries began. During those times, I thought about my mother, and began to understand why she sat me down in her leather armchair every night after dinner and held me in her lap, whispering words of encouragement into my ear.

My mother, who never got the chance to be whatever she wanted to be.

My mother, who came to America in hopes that an unborn me would have a better future.

My mother, who never got the chance to go to school the same way I do.

But my mother is brave, resilient. She tells me how hard it was to learn English, how she spent years poring over textbooks, memorizing when to use “-ed” for past tense and when to change the word altogether. She tells me how hard it was when she first came to America, the strange looks and mocking from strangers with perfectly-enunciated English.

I can’t imagine my mother, who has rivers in her hands and the earth in her smile and the sunlight in her eyes, ever struggling with anything. It makes me feel lucky to have been born here—to speak English fluently.

When I came home from school crying after my classmates mocked my strange-smelling lunch, the shape of my eyes, the color of my skin, she was there for me. She picked me up, placed me on her lap, and sunk into the leather chair, whispering words of her home. She described Chinese countrysides and the family I had in a country across the world, and suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad about my heritage.

As I grew up, I learned not to cry about the teasing and smiled instead. Now that I’m too old for her lap, I sit across from my mother in a chair of my very own. Of course, she keeps her old, leather one; even when it sheds black flakes onto the carpet, neither of us can bring ourselves to get rid of it. We still sit across from one another in the evenings, but I miss the days when I fit in her lap. She still tells me stories of her beginnings in America, detailing her struggles, and how, to this day, she still hasn’t mastered English.

I kiss her cheek. “Your English is perfect,” I say. She smiles and reaches forward for my hand. I place mine atop hers and see myself in her eyes, in the bridge of her nose, in her lips.

I am a spitting image of my mother, and I hope that, when I grow up, I’ll be as selfless and noble as she is, too. Because my mother has rivers in her hands, and the power to change the lives of people who come after her.

Even when these rivers dry up and the earth shatters, I’ll always be grateful for the chance my mother has given me.

 

 

Viviana Wei is a 16-year old girl living in Cooper City, Florida. She goes to American Heritage in Plantation and enjoys writing and drawing. As a first generation Chinese-American, she speaks both Mandarin Chinese and English; she is eager to share her Chinese roots through her writing.

Visual Art by Rudy Falagan

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Solitude

Waves strike against cement of solemn water.

One solitary seagull pierces through the clouds,

Slices sky from the sea without bound,

Watching it rise and rise out of sight

Like a balloon from a careless child’s hand.

Will the sky, too, pop,

If it climbs too high?

 

Sunlight crawls on snowflakes so purely warm.

One solitary nightingale sings among thorns of ice

And shatters the clear crystal with voice alone,

Its image flickering in ice shards,

As they dive into deep snow

Like dandelion seeds taking root.

Would the ice, too, grow,

Into a snow-draped forest?

 

Shadows retreat from the burning candle in haste.

One solitary raven trips over a bottle of ink,

Dips its wings in a pool of spreading black,

And drags the feathers across the parchment,

Composing poetry with such grace, an instinct –

How like a coffee mug rushes towards the ground.

Would the ink, too, drip so fiercely

That it wounds the floor?

 

Lu Yuan is a junior at Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the school’s literary magazine, Chimera. Her poem has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. 
Visual Art by Audrey Carver
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Natashia Deón Interview

Natashia Deón is an attorney and law professor based in Los Angeles. She runs the quarterly reading series, Dirty Laundry Lit, a non-profit that focuses on introducing people to literature. Her first novel, Grace (2016), has received awards from the American Library Association’s Black Caucus and the Kirkus Review, and was part of The New York Times’ Top Books of 2016.

 

Q: Your quarterly reading series, Dirty Laundry Lit, promotes readings for authors and has become well known among the Los Angeles literary world. What was your inspiration to create it? What pushes you to continue doing it, and what do you hope the audience gets from it when they leave?

A: I want them to see that we all have these different experiences, but there are things we all have in common. I have people of different political opinions get on my stage. I try to create as much diversity on stage as possible. The readings I’d gone to before were all the same, all white guys of a certain age group, all buddies, but there was never anybody who looked like me. So every time, I have eight readers who come from different backgrounds. Diversity is not prescribed, but it’s something else. I think it’s also a diversity of experience. We’re so limited in what diversity is, so I started Dirty Laundry because I wanted people to tell their stories, so we could connect in real ways.

 

Q: What was your thought process when writing Grace and how did you approach this topic? What kind of research did you do while working on it?

A: I did a lot of research just on the time period and what people were like. I wanted to know what people were thinking at that time. I thought once the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, all slaves were free.

The novel was rejected by a lot of places. The answers to my book were we already have that book, we already have two slave books coming out, so it kept getting passed. Then I talked to an editor who wanted a whole book to revolve around the Emancipation Proclamation, I said no, I don’t think [the slaves] were happy that day. It wasn’t until after the book was being shopped when I looked into the history, I found out slaves were free two years into the war, but they wouldn’t have walked across battlefields. I went to traditional public school and we weren’t taught that. I rewrote some sections because of it.

History informed a lot of what I wrote, and diary entries, too. I read a lot of diary entries at the time to know what the slaves were thinking about.

 

Q: Grace follows two characters—Naomi, a runaway slave, and Naomi’s daughter, Josie, who grows up during the American Civil War. When writing Grace, was it hard to separate your thought process when writing Naomi’s flashbacks of her past versus her view of Josey’s future?

A: Yeah, it was. Some days I would only write one storyline, I wouldn’t go back and forth. I would only focus on one story, because mother love is different from sexual love. I wanted to understand how she was seeing her daughter.

You don’t have to stay on one story all the time, you can move. When I feel like I use up all the creative energy in one place, I’ll move somewhere else. I wrote most of the novel on the notes in my phone, waiting for things.

 

Q: In class, you mentioned the beginning of Grace coming from a vision you had. How long after you had the vision did you finish the book?

A: Seven years. I wrote screenplays for MTV at the time on the side; I was still a lawyer.

It was daytime, around twelve. I was walking down the hallway, holding my son, and suddenly it was night. I was in the woods; I remember the moon was super bright. I heard a voice in my head and saw a girl running in a yellow dress covered with blood, and she’s pregnant. What happened in the book is what I saw. I thought I was still dreaming. The daytime bright was over, and I told my husband you have to hold him I need to write down what I just saw.

[After I had the vision] I put the novel in a drawer for six months. Driving down the five freeway, I knew what it was about. Okay, step one, take a writing class. As I was writing I was at UCLA extension, the teacher recommended PEN Writing Center. I got my MFA [from UC Riverside-Palm Desert]. I could be crazy or I could be right.

 

Q: Is there a particular reason why you made Naomi a ghost?

A: When I wrote Grace, I didn’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but I knew how to articulate experiences. I had no language for what happened, I just knew that this ghost would see, would behave like this.

 

Q: How was the writing process (in terms of the chapter structure)?

A: It was originally linear and then I just wasn’t interested in it. I wanted it to go faster. I thought wouldn’t it [the novel] be more interesting, because I knew I had a beginning. I wanted to find myself as a writer how she [Naomi] got to this moment, being chased in the woods. It was really me trying to figure, to unwind, how she got to this moment. It would be a better way, as a craft issue, to show the story.

 

Q: When writing Grace, how did you manage to write a book and hold a day job at the same time?

A: You think I’m sane, I’m faking it all so good! I don’t think about it. I just plan the next task and try to be present in everything. You have to be able to leave everything behind to be able to exist

I plan my breaks like holidays. I don’t say that I have to be at work from 9 to 5, I say that I have a break from 6 to 7. That way, you can keep moving knowing you have this break coming up. On break your mind can rest, you can listen to your music. I believe I have to refuel, physically and spiritually.

Writers’ brains are different than everyone else’s. They’re like video cameras in quiet moments, recording. We hold onto things that haunt us, that want to be told again.

 

Q: Were there any particular challenges in writing a book in dialect?

A: Not really, because the dialect that I chose was from my grandmother. It was largely from her; she lived in Tallassee, Alabama. I also combined it with ways we speak now, so it wouldn’t be super heavy and difficult to understand. For me, I made a conscious choice of do I want to help readers or do I want to keep it like how grandma talked? I softened the dialogue to help readers, because I wanted to tell a story with a lot going on and knew I wanted to keep readers. It was a choice to make it simple, but still be strong.

 

Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?

A: Live.

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Two Poems By Asha Marie

Dinner
is served on a picnic blanket
in the garden.
 
The wind comes
with some weary wobble,
caught in some savory sulk
and turns the air sour
and thick
             grandmother’s marmalade
sordidly unabashed
and I rush to take cover inside.
Sister sits through the slew
and pinches at honeysuckle
collected earlier.
She sips on its sweet slobber
and absentmindedly
swallows an ant.
 
She smiles
and I imagine
she feels the tickle
of its little ant feet
running along her taste buds,
toppling down her throat
trying to catch a grip
on her insides,
before boiling in the slop
of her stomach acid.
 
Sister is placid,
somewhat jaded,
              I suppose
through this tantrum
and eventually,
the wind gives in
and leaves
in a fit of pique.
 
In this moment,
I feel a knot of jealousy
jumbling in my belly.
             I long to sit as comfortably as her.
 
Blue
 
I rise with
the hum of car engines
outside my window
and wood creaking
beneath heavy footsteps
in the hall.
 
Did you know
the crickets
chirp and groan
in the morning
the way they do
when the sun sets
and streetlights flicker on
as fireflies flitter
tracing glowing
breadcrumb trails
through the grass?
 
A cricket’s symphony,
(a child’s missing music box)
plays through the night
breaks at midnight
and resumes with dawn
and morning dew.
 
I cup my breasts
with my hands
when I am cold,
in bed,
bent slightly at the hip,
cast like a cicada shell,
molded from clay–
 
This morning is cold.
 
I tuck my arms,
folded, into paper cranes
under my belly
& feel my nipples
cold, & hard
less like diamonds
less like glass.
 
Today,
when the car engines
turn over & hurry off
into the distance,
& the crickets
strike their final
hum, I do not
unfold myself–
not in the blue
of the morning,
not with sputtering
engines nor footsteps
groaning along
because today
I am cold,
saturated blue
and hollow inside.
 
Today, my nipples
cut along my palms,
diamonds cutting
against glass
& there is no
warming me.
 
Asha Marie is a senior at the Fine Arts Center, a competitive magnet arts high school in Greenville, South Carolina, where she studies Creative Writing and Digital Film. Her work has been published in the Chautauqua Literary Magazine and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. She is the Social Media Editor for Crashtest Magazine (crashtestmag.com).
 
Visual art by Rudy Falagan
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Allison Benis White Interview

Allison Benis-White is a renowned poet from Southern California. She has published three books: Self-Portrait with Crayon (2009), Small Porcelain Head (2013), and Please Bury Me in This (2017). She is currently a poetry professor at the University of California, Riverside.  

 

Q: Have you always written poetry and if so, when did you start writing it?

 

A: I first started writing when I was sixteen, and it was traditional high school poetry: angst, and, you know, a lot of violence. Then, I had a boyfriend who had an ex-girlfriend who was a writer, and he introduced me to her, and she took me to my first poetry reading in Venice, California, in a place called Beyond Baroque. It was this huge reading for a literary journal, maybe thirty people read, and my life was transformed by hearing that reading. I mean, before that, I had written in some casual way an adolescent writes, but after that reading I was bewitched. I was enamored with poetry, and not so much with the vision of, “I’m going to devote my life to this genre,” but there were much sharper desires to make something on the page that lasted. So, when I started going to college, I began taking literature classes and studying poetry. Poetry’s always been my genre. I wrote one short story in a creative writing class, and it was okay. The experience of writing in fiction—in prose, really, was tedious for me. There wasn’t a lot of pleasure in it. Whereas writing poetry there always was and still is this great energy and excitement and urgency, and a sense of invention. Somehow, for me, writing in prose— traditional prose, because I do write prose poetry— always felt constricting. I don’t know why, exactly, and I don’t know if that will last, but so far I’m a single genre person.

 

Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?

 

A: The only advice that I think is useful is to read widely, to be patient, and to try and find your own conviction. Those are the three things that kept me in a space where the work feels alive. Advice is a tricky thing, because everybody’s particular. I guess it’s less advice and more of the things that I hold dear and that have kept me in motion.

 

Q: What’s your process when writing ekphrastic poems? Have you written other ekphrastic poems [ekphrastic poetry is poetry written in response to other works of art (i.e., paintings, films, other poems, etc.)] inspired by other art?

 

A: I got this opportunity to go to London by myself, and I was visiting all of the museums I wanted to visit and in one of the gift shops I found this postcard of Degas’ painting, “Combing the Hair.” It’s a young girl, maybe thirteen years old. She has long, red hair, and an au pair is combing her hair. She appears to be in pain–she has curled fists. The whole painting is in reds and oranges, and I was completely enamoured with it. So I bought it, and I brought it home and I set it on my desk a few weeks later. Then, just as a writing exercise I decided to respond to it. I was familiar with ekphrastic poetry, I certainly didn’t know that word, but I knew people wrote in response to paintings. It was a really sort of spontaneous writing exercise, and I found that when I wrote about that painting, I was able to write about my mom leaving when I was very young in a way that I had never been able to do before. I had tried to write about that experience before, but the poems would always end up feeling repetitive, hysterical, and unsatisfying, so I just shoved that topic aside. Somehow, writing in response to that painting facilitated this kind of speech for me. So I tried it again with another Degas painting, and it worked again; I was able to articulate in this really surprising way. I didn’t think this was going to be a book. I was just really happy to be making something that was surprising to me and where I could discover things, so I just kept writing in response to his paintings and it kept working. I was able to go deeper and deeper into stranger spaces and that continued on until I had a manuscript length amount of these poems.

 

Q: Why Degas for this collection specifically?

 

A: Why Degas? I didn’t really understand it, I just capitalized on it, and I didn’t study Degas while I was writing these poems. I was just viewing the painting as a common viewer of art. I didn’t want to be an academic that studied the nature of Degas. However, towards the end of this process I did do some research on him, casually, and I found that his mother had passed when he was very young. There were also rumors that he was impotent. Both of those things are interesting to me because he paints so many dancers, that’s his main gig. So, I thought maybe the loss of his mother and the desire and the inner way to talk about stillness… it’s something I’ve relied upon and it continues to be fruitful.

 

Q: Throughout Self-Portrait with Crayon, you make use of large motifs like abandonment, as well as many smaller motifs. Did these small motifs show up on their own or did you weave them into the pieces purposefully?

 

A: There was no conscious weaving of themes. The way I wrote the poems was sentence by sentence in this state of meditating on each painting. I tried to allow the language to direct the poem. I was conscious of the themes that were emerging, but I never said, for example, “Oh, I need to braid in this theme.” The themes were so prevalent that, regardless of intention, they were going to reveal themselves. But I tried to be led by the painting and the language versus by the theme or a biographical incident.

 

Q: When you were writing this collection, were you focused more on the music or the narrative?

 

A: The music. Almost 100%. I mean I also think the music, the language, was inspired by the meditation on the paintings. And I wrote them sentence by sentence, via the ear. The first line or sentence would dictate, sonically, ultimately, the second line. And when I say sonically, I don’t think that it’s entirely accurate to say that was the driving force, because of course there’s image, and of course there’s pattern, and the narrative, etc. But I think the thing is, especially with prose poetry, is that the ear has to be at work, because you don’t have the luxury of breaking the line, so to keep it buoyant, the ear really has to be awake. As for the narrative, there are very few truly narrative moments in the book, maybe five or six. The narrative and the music and the imagery and the connection between the speaker’s mind and Degas’ mind, that is what I think is driving the book.

 

Q: How did you know you were done with the collection, and what was it like going through the contest system?

 

A: I knew it was finished because I continued writing these pieces and I started feeling like I was repeating myself, that I wasn’t discovering anything new, or whatever I had discovered I had said better somewhere else. That happened three or four times in a row, and I started to think, “Hmm, I think this is winding down, I think I have expressed myself as completely as I possibly can using this tactic.” And another practical signifier was that once I hit about 48 pages, which is usually the minimum page requirement for the contest system, I was like, well, if I start repeating myself or losing steam at this point, it’s okay to stop, because I have an entire manuscript. In other words, I would’ve been very sad if at the twenty-fifth poem, it had stopped working— which I would’ve accepted, but I was fortunate to have written enough to be manuscript length.  

And the contest system, it’s huge now. There are many reputable presses that have blind submissions, so one would submit their manuscript via Submittable, usually with a fee of $15-25, so it’s a little expensive, and the idea is that there’s a group of screeners who whittle the manuscripts down to 20-25 manuscripts which get sent to a final judge, usually somebody of note, and if your manuscript is selected you usually get a small monetary prize– something like $1000, and a publication contract. This is a really common way that poets get published nowadays, because poetry’s not a commodity, you don’t have an agent, no publisher is going to make a bunch of money off of your poetry collection. It’s a way for unknown writers to get published, to provide some income for the press, and to create a space for newer writers. Very rarely are poets discovered, or have the luxury of having an agent going around trying to get editors to notice your work. I published through the contest system for my first book, and for my second book, and now the press that published my second book has agreed to publish my third book. So, ostensibly, I have a press now, which is the dream of any writer, to have a press that supports you and wants to publish you. I think my beginning is a very common beginning for modern poets.

 

Q: Do you find yourself editing as you go or writing and then revising?

 

A: I’ve done both. With Self Portrait, I actually edited as I went along; I wanted each line to have a sense of completion before the next line, and so on. It was a tedious process. I remember on a good writing day, I would write three good sentences in a row. And that was very taxing. And then the next day, I would go back to the same piece and write three or four more sentences. Very rarely would it tumble down the page, would I complete a poem in one sitting. It was usually many, many sittings, one sentence at a time. But then, more recently, I’ve periodically written more quickly, understood that all of the raw material was there, and then went back and edited acutely. So I’ve done both, but with Self Portrait with Crayon, it was very tedious sentence by sentence, word by word process, and I just couldn’t write them any other way. But with more recent work, I could sort of streamline.

 

Q: Have other poets inspired your writing, and do they differ from the poets that you read?

 

A: I think the poets I read are the poets that inspire me. The initial poets that inspired me were Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I found them when I was very young, as many young people do, and they still continue to inspire me, specifically Plath; her work continues to burn through me. Later, when I was in college, I found Louise Glück, specifically the book The Wild Iris, and that book also is the gold standard for me, still. And then there’s another book that is less well known, by this woman named Killarney Clary, called Who Whispered Near Me. It’s a book of prose poems; I think I discovered it in graduate school. That book changed me and gave me a vision for something I wanted to do. I think Plath, Glück, and Clary are the three writers that continue to inspire me and give me the ambition to write something with that kind of heartbeat.

 

Q: Can you tell us about your mother and how she inspired this book?

 

A: Sure. So, my mom left me and my father sometime between when I was a year/year and a half old. Of course, I was very young, so I don’t remember any of this. As I was growing up, we never talked about her. I didn’t know where she was. There was no reason given, I just knew that she was gone. I knew she wasn’t dead, I knew she was alive, although nobody talked about it. I just grew up with my father. Then, just before I turned eight, she called, and a few weeks later, she showed up, and I met her. That’s the language I use, because I didn’t remember her. After that, my dad ended up having a nervous breakdown and going to a mental hospital so I ended up living with my mother for a few years. So I did get to know her in that way, but after that I ended up moving back in with my father, and she’s always lived up north, in Northern California, so… We’re not close. We have a relationship. We talk on the phone periodically. I think the question is always why? Why did she leave, why did she come back, what’s going on? I still don’t have answers to those questions. I still don’t fully understand.

 

Q: Has [your mother] read Self Portrait with Crayon?

 

A: She has! She wrote me a letter and said something to the effect of: Her approach to reading the book and her experience of reading the book allowed her to be proud (of me) rather than be ashamed (of herself). So, that was interesting, and I appreciated that. I did call her, when I found out the book was going to be published, and told her, “FYI, this is the anchoring subject matter of this book,” and that it wasn’t disparaging her. I didn’t write the book to disparage her, but rather I was writing from this enormous silence and mystery that has characterized my life. But, I did want to give her the dignity to know. And, I mean, it’s poetry, it’s not like we’re going on Oprah discussing this. So yeah, there is that connection. She has read what I have made. But there’s an endless mystery to my mother, and me writing that collection didn’t resolve it.

 

Q: When you finished  Self Portrait With Crayon, what was it like to start a new collection?

 

A: I don’t remember exactly. I remember being relieved when it was done. And I remember organizing it, which was an extraordinary task for me because I didn’t write them in a sort of sequence, so I had to truly think about how the poems were going to unfold, which was very challenging, so I remember a feeling of relief. My friend had committed suicide about six months before I finished Self Portrait with Crayon, so I already had this other terrible grief in my life, and I knew, because that’s how I process being alive, I knew I wanted to put pen to page in some way, responding to my friend’s death. So I didn’t really grieve Self Portrait, because I had this other grief. I think it took about a year to really find a way to write about my friend’s death, and that’s what became my second book. So that’s my memory of letting go of Self Portrait: I felt a sense of relief, and then tried to find a way back in.

 

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Akimbo

You onomatopoeic multisyllabic beat

I wax akimbo out of my bathroom door

Post shower, clogged with pores and hair and

Pledge! Glasses a top my face (and wait)

To see them clearinga test of endurance

Some dilapidated trust,

Waiting for an occurrence

A feat of seeing! or, unexpectedly,

Akimbo? When one day I finally trip

On my

Extraterrestrial bathroom tryst of

Akimbo, pesky

Innumerable, my limbs that flail interminable

 

Lily Sickles is a junior at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. She is an editor at her school’s literary magazine, Guildscript, and attended the Between the Lines writing program at the University of Iowa.

 

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Listen, when I say

Brush your fingers. Lie with squinted eyes.
Find a garden overflowing white flowers. Smell the bleach,
blink only twice. Knock over only two.
in threes. Tie knots. Propose on broken knees. Lock it
in a tree, molded branches. Stay delicately, charm thorny legs.
Tell your fingers secrets. Double check around the curved
corner. Be first to count. Don’t be afraid to find spades. Swing zippers.
Play gratis. Bake tiny cakes. Bring a small cloth, and one
for the cats. Allow cursive quick work. Be great
Crinkle string. Try to breath over mountains. Try sunsets beneath blankets.
Check the stars that sag. Write check, complete.
And make room for the footsteps that will join you tonight
on the eve of rebellion
 
Chester Wilson III is junior at Chicago High School For The Arts in Chicago, and a member of the school’s first conservatory class of creative writers. His favorite form of writing is prose, but he also loves writing plays and short stories. He also loves working in his schools literary magazine. When he’s not writing, he loves swaddling himself in a fluffy blanket and reading science fiction.
 
Visual art by Adrian Hernandez 
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