Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Brittney Scott


What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about?

A.M. Brant is one of my favorite emerging female working-class writers. She teaches women’s studies and girl cultures, writes about online dating, cooking vegan popovers, and trying not to lose limbs at the window factory where she worked for several years before getting her MFA at the University of Pittsburgh. I also recently found spoken-word poet and Emcee G Yamazawa because of a video he created in response to Rich Chigga, another rap artist. So far, I’m in love with everything he does.

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

I have two contradictory experiences with this and both are true. On bad days I worry I’m incessantly breaking open old wounds and gnawing at them so they never heal, but for the most part, for me, the act of writing is the self-care. A lot of my work revolves around abuse, poverty, suicide, and violence. In particular, my poetic life culminates around my brother’s sudden and violent death, the “dark star moment” I always return to, as Leslie Ullman calls it in her iconic essay, “A Dark Star Passes Through It.” Some days my life feels impossible to deal with. When I was fifteen I watched my brother die. My father died exactly three months later from a rare form of spinal meningitis, his liver shutting down after years of alcohol abuse. My mother tried to kill herself over and over in the subsequent years while I attempted to drag myself to high school. How does anyone deal with their lives? The self-care was in deciding to witness, because I had no other power. But even as a say that, I see now the power of witnessing. 

Sometime after my brother died I discovered Li-Young Lee’s poems for the first time. I remember reading his book, Rose, in a dimly-lit aisle of a bookstore and openly weeping. His poems were a miracle in my life. His narratives about his family, his father and brother, whom he calls his “black petal,” was my voice. He restored me in a way that nothing else could. I realized that the work of self-care could go both ways. If his willingness to bare himself emotionally for other people healed me, then maybe I could someday do that for someone else.

Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption?

My writing is usually assumed to be autobiographical and the reader wouldn’t be wrong in that presumption. I am (cringe) a contemporary confessional poet. This was never intentional; it just was. A beautiful thing about poetry is its versatility; you can come to it, as reader or writer, for any reason. Although I admire and love cerebral poets, poets who celebrate meter or witty phrasing, I am not one of them. I am a careful writer. I pay close attention to sound and line, but at the end of the day I just tell stories about my life. All of these stories are true, and I need the reader to know that. Sometimes I wish I could do something more, something “bigger” or less narcissistic, but I can’t force myself to write what I’m not compelled to write. This also comes back to the power of witnessing, especially if that witnessing comes from marginalized voices.

I have a poem about growing up in my old neighborhood in Southern Indiana. We lived across the street from a waste-treatment plant. As you can guess, it was a neighborhood where most residents’ total income placed them below the poverty line. My dad worked construction, my friend’s parents worked in factories. When it rained too much, the plant backed up and flooded our street with sewage. Real legitimate sewage full of shit, used condoms and tampons. We could not leave the house unless we waded through it. My mother tried calling the city, but no one came. This happened over and over. No one cared. Finally my mother wrote the local paper. The local paper published the article and the city finally came and spread lime all over everything. Lime, which, when combined with water, becomes a terrible irritant to skin and can be damaging if inhaled. Everything turned chalky white and died.  

Maybe I have inflated ideas about the power of poetry and literature, but visibility is a crucial component of activism. Along those same lines, this is also why it’s so important to read other writers who witness. It’s not my place to write on issues that I don’t own, but it’s my duty as a responsible literary citizen to read them.

VIDA has recently expanded their annual count to include race, LGBTQ+ identity, and ability, using self-identification surveys to collect some of this data. What are your feelings toward self-identification in author bios? Do you feel editors and readers approach your work through a lens that you don’t control?

That’s a complicated question and I’m sure it’s different for everyone. I have mixed feelings about identity groupings.

I’m a queer writer, but what makes me a queer writer? Is it that I’m queer and writing words on a page? Or am I a queer writer because I address those issues in my work? Am I less of a queer writer because I don’t address those issues? Do I want to always be thought of as that? I write more about class than I do about queerness, so does that mean one identity is always in the forefront?

I identified as a lesbian for all of my adolescent life and well into adulthood. I remember coming out as bisexual (a pejorative word I hate because I personally find it limiting) and the gay community shunned me. This was my community. The community where I used to feel safe and accepted. Albeit, this was nearly ten years ago in Southern Indiana and you were either gay or you weren’t. I was already seriously writing by then, often writing about being with women, specifically about my partner of four years who lived with me all through high school. I can’t tell you how many of my friends quoted those diminishing lines from Chasing Amy: “Another one bites the dust,” or whatever it was. That experience left me with a fear of labels.

But overall I’m thrilled VIDA has expanded their count to include these other important identities. It draws attention to horrifying gaps in the publishing scene and assists readers, like myself, in finding these voices and reading them. And although I don’t self-identify as queer in my bio, I’m really glad other people do. Visibility and positive representation are a powerful thing.


BRITTNEY SCOTT‘s first poetry collection, The Derelict Daughter, won the 2015 New American Press Poetry Prize. She is also a recipient of the Joy Harjo Prize for Poetry, as well as the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2014Prairie SchoonerThe New RepublicNarrative MagazineAlaska Quarterly ReviewLinebreakIndiana Review,Poet Loreand elsewhere. She homesteads on seven acres in rural Virginia.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Eduardo Martinez-Leyva


What’s the earliest experience, or a stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you? 

For me there were several moments throughout my educational development that led to these experiences, but definitely moving from a border city to New York City for graduate school was a stand-out experience; it highlighted the way others perceive me and changed how I saw myself and how I viewed my writing. Initially I was reluctant to write “closer to the bones.” Yes, I wrote from a first person point of view, but there was still a distance I kept between my poems and me. There were also feelings of displacement, of not necessarily belonging to the new landscape.  Nevertheless, the actual—physical—distance I felt after moving eventually augmented this need to write candidly, to preserve past experiences that were a large part of my identity.  That’s exactly what I did. I began to write more about my personal experiences and was inspired by writers like Benjamin Alire Saenz and C. Dale Young. Their courage led me to take more chances with my writing, ultimately changing the direction of my themes. This, of course, was easier said than done, and it is still something I’m working on, but I feel that identifying my misgivings was important for my writing to grow.

Who would you have nominated for this anthology? Is there a poem you have in mind that you could link to?

Juan Luis Guzman, Joely Barrios, Lea AndersonLA JohnsonShana Bulhan HaydockChristina Olivares, Sarah Leslie, Benjamin Garcia.

What advice do you have toward readers who want to be allies?

Be courageous. Understand the full picture and show genuine commitment. It is more than just standing up for a cause, or about reading/analyzing a text and relating to it, but rather it starts with looking inward, reflecting and acknowledging one’s privilege, and one’s experience with oppression, and then taking action. An individual must first recognize this before anything else. Have conviction; especially if/when conversations get “uncomfortable.” In order to be an ally you must get past discomfort.

What needs to change in the educational/academic world, with regard to poetry and writing? What can literary educators do to affect this change? What can students do?

Content and conversation need to change. It is important to create an environment in academia, where students’ viewpoints can be shared and are welcomed, where they can take risks in their writing. I’m reminded of what educator Peter H. Johnston stated, “if [students] don’t take risks, they are not putting themselves in learning situations.” I feel this applies to teachers as well.  As educators, it is equally vital to take risks, to create a responsive educational environment, allowing students to question and generate discourse that may be challenging but necessary. These risks could be changing the material from the expected or canonical texts. It can happen by introducing new voices into the literary dialogue as a way of broadening perspectives. When I taught undergrad, I included a variety of poets from different backgrounds which was something noted by my students, they were truly engaged. I feel that continuing to get educated, whether it is through book clubs, affinity groups, professional development are crucial to continue learning and thus initiate change. More importantly, an educator should always be willing to listen to their students, to their peers. The only way to truly affect change is by listening.

Aziza Barnes asks in their poem, “How come black folks can’t just write about flowers?” Does this resonate with you? How would you answer that question?

I believe the ironic title plays on the misconception that poetry has “flowery” diction, and should therefore be doggerel and produce a happy response from the reader.  It also  hints at this idea that nature should be the poet’s muse, which is not always the case, especially when met with what is currently happening around the nation. How can a community, which has been largely oppressed and continues to endure marginalization, be inspired by nature or want to write about these exhausted analogies when there are larger issues to confront? To write about flowers would be to ignore reality, to live in denial, to be complicit. Now is not the time to stop and smell the roses, but to face the truth.


EDUARDO MARTINEZ-LEYVA‘s poems have appeared in AssaracusThe JournalNepantla: A Journal for Queer Poets of ColorBest New Poets 2015, and elsewhere. He received his MFA from Columbia University, where he was a teaching fellow. He grew up in El Paso, Texas, and currently lives in New York City. He is a CantoMundo Fellow.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Fatimah Asghar


What would you like to see change in the literary world, or how would you “better” American poetry? Can American poetry be “bettered?”

I think much like American culture, American poetry can be bettered by de-centering Whiteness, Christianity, patriarchy and heterosexuality as the normative framework of the society that we operate. We live in a really exciting age of writers of every generation, many of whom have been overlooked or tokenized because of their sexuality, race, gender, and religion. So many writers are just killing it, writing their asses off, and being ignored because what they represent is a threat to the canon. I think we have to write to get rid of the canon. There are people out there who are bettering American poetry already, we just have to listen.

What do you think is the most significant impact social media has had on the poetry world recently?

I don’t know about the most significant, but I think its pretty amazing to live in an age when a poem can go viral on social media. It’s really cool because writers have more options for getting their work out into the world than they did before social media existed. When you submit a poem for publication it can take months to be read, and many more months for the poem to be published if it accepted. Sometimes the timeline for publishing a poem can be a year, or two years. I think that can be super frustrating because it promotes a pretty archaic idea of the necessity of poetry. Poetry is urgent, therefore we must treat it as such. If the norm in our field is that poems can wait a year or two to be read by a general audience, that’s just strange. What does that say about what we think of the value or impact of poetry, of our own work? I love social media because the impact is immediate. You can post a poem about something that happened that day or a day before, and people can react to it in that same moment. There’s no waiting, there’s no bureaucracy.

VIDA has recently expanded their annual count to include race, LGBTQ+ identity, and ability, using self-identification surveys to collect some of this data. What are your feelings toward self-identification in author bios? Do you feel editors and readers approach your work through a lens that you don’t control?

Perhaps it’s because I came up in spoken word, where people could see my physical body every time I shared a poem, but I never want someone to read a poem of mine and not know who I am, how I identify. My identities are beautiful and complicated and important. They inform how I walk through the world, the way that I am treated, the way that I relate to history, a lot of my experiences. Why would I not want someone to know those things about me? It gets tricky when editors and readers start to use your identity traits against you, or to try and tokenize you. You know, the people who are like “Oh she’s not a scary Muslim so I like her.” Or, I had one interviewer try and get me to say that my identity traits were contradictory. That really pissed me off. Just because I don’t fit into your stereotype about what my race, gender, sexuality, religion or class is, doesn’t mean I’m not those things.


FATIMAH ASGHAR is a nationally touring poet, photographer, and performer. She created Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first Spoken Word Poetry group, REFLEKS, while on a Fulbright studying theater in post-violent contexts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in PoetryPEN Poetry SeriesThe Paris-AmericanThe Margins, and Gulf Coast. She is a Kundiman Fellow and a member of the Dark Noise Collective. Her chapbook After was released on YesYes Books fall of 2015.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Khadijah Queen


What advice do you have for young and emerging writers, particularly of marginalized identities? What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I received came from my mother, actually. I’ve always been conscientious to a fault and probably say yes to more than I can reasonably do, which leads to overload and, sometimes, to lateness. That’s no good. So, she said to do the best you can and leave the rest alone, which I’ve recently modified to include saying no to things I’d like to do, but simply haven’t the time for. I’ve had to let go of the stress and guilt around not doing all the things, and that feels like such a grand luxury, even though it’s really necessary.

What would you like to see change in the literary world, or how would you “Better” American poetry? Can American poetry be “bettered?”

I love seeing micro communities in poetry make their own alternative spaces for work that doesn’t fit the status quo, yet their excellence is undeniable—this anthology being an example. More of that, please.

What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about?

Philip Metres‘ Sand Opera is changing my life. And there are so many young writers whose work I love, whose work is changing poetry for the better, making it more alive and active and current and fly. It’s hard to choose one, and I still say to my students and try myself to be in the habit of reading everything. I will say that have been harassing Ashaki Jackson for a first book for many years now. She has two chapbooks out this year, though, so let’s hope she’s getting closer.


KHADIJAH QUEEN is the author of five books, including I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On, forthcoming in 2017 from YesYes Books. Her verse play Non-Sequitur won the Leslie Scalapino Award for Innovative Women Performance Writers and was staged in 2015 by The Relationship theater company in NYC. She is core faculty in poetry for the new low-residency Mile-High MFA program at Regis University.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Melissa Studdard


What’s the earliest experience, or a stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you? 

Telling my truth as a woman and a writer has not only been difficult; it’s one of the greatest, most ongoing battles of my life. I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that almost every day I write is a day I struggle to say what I really think and feel. As well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that what I really think and feel is at times so repressed by and so buried beneath everything I am supposed to be that I can hardly find it to write about it.

Realizing that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you is not the same as feeling empowered to do so. For me, it’s a process, and the biggest awakening has been reading Audre Lorde. I’m not all the way brave or all the way awake yet, but reading Lorde shook me up and startled me out of a sort of debilitating politeness. She made me realize that it’s not only my right—it’s my responsibility—to speak my truth. I came to her late, through my girlfriend, Amy King, and I wish I’d discovered her decades ago. My whole life would have been different. I keep Sister Outsider on my desk, and I keep quotes from “Poetry is Not a Luxury” and “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” on my hard drive. Lorde says:

We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.

What liberates me is not overcoming fear but taking fear for that wild ride from my gut out to the page.

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

Writing is my self-care. I’ve felt silenced by authority figures, partners, fear, manners, well-meaning family members, shame, doubt, insecurity, patriarchal hierarchies, religious judgmentalism, and on and on and on. Feeling silenced, it turns out, has been the single greatest detriment to my well-being—far greater than any of the things that have happened to me. To quote Lorde again, “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” To that, I add: I write; therefore I reclaim, I heal, I own my tongue and my life.

What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? 

Currently, I’m reading about ten books. I always read a lot of books at the same time because I leave them partially read all over the house and my office at work, and I carry them partially read in various purses and bags. Next to me right now is Leonora Carrington: What She Might Bea book put out by Salomon Grimberg for a 2008 Carrington exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art. I’m re-reading it. There’s an incredible essay in it by Carrington called “Female Human Animal” in which (synchronicity!) she also engages the Descartes

“I think; therefore I am” quote. She says, “But why? Is this some kind of pretense Mr. Descartes? If I am my thoughts, that means I could be my anything, from pasta soup, scissors, a crocodile, a cadaver, a leopard, or half liter of beer, etc.”

She, like Lorde, ends up shifting from examining thinking to examining feeling and goes on to say that “to be able to unchain the emotions, we must observe the elements that kept them in chains: all the false identities that we embrace through advertising, literature and the ultimate beliefs with which we feed ourselves from the time we are born.” To me, she is one of the most fascinating people who ever lived. For one thing, she was an artist whose main decorations were books. She didn’t have art hanging in her home, not much anyway. She was disagreeable with interviewers. She was mischievous and pulled outlandish pranks on people. She studied alchemy, wrote backwards, and was ambidextrous and could paint with both hands simultaneously. She was an incredibly devoted mother and friend, a major intellect, and her paintings made a mockery of the “tenuous line that exists between the real and the imaginary.” And she was a great, great feminist. You know that cheesy question people used to ask: “If you could have dinner with a historical person who is no longer alive, who would it be?” For me, it would be her.

Do you think literature can influence social change, or reflect it? Or both? Can poetry be activism?

Poetry sails in on the wind of breath and nests in the body. Unlike strictly functional communication, which often flies through and away, poetry arrives pregnant and remains to roost and hatch. Yes, it can hatch activism. Yes, it can hatch social change.

I almost wonder the opposite of the questions you asked: Can literature avoid influencing  social change? Is it possible to read, for instance, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and remain unmoved? Is it possible to have collective, poetically curated and rendered effects of racism hatch inside you and not grow more sensitive to the nuances of micro-aggression, more able to spot it, more desirous of calling it out when you see it, more desirous of eradicating it from yourself, less willing to tolerate it for yourself? I feel like it would take an intentional, ugly act of will to resist this natural extension of having read such a book.

Who would you have nominated for this anthology? Is there a poem you have in mind that you could link to? 

I see the problem. As soon as I read the question, I thought: The poets already included, plus about 30 more. But there is only so much room in an anthology. Here are just a few that come to mind quickly:

Eileen R. Tabios‘  “It’s Curtains” uses anaphora brilliantly, refusing forgetting even as it hammers “I forgot” onto the page.

Claudia Rankine, of course. She betters and betters and betters. From Citizen: “You are in the dark, in the car…

Kaveh Akbar for his brilliant, seamless fusion of the political and the spiritual. Here’s “Heritage.” He is a great humanitarian poet.

Lois P. Jones is writing some of the most sensitive and powerful poetry today. Here’s ‘Reading “Shadowlands” to a Friend At The Sepulveda Dam.’

Hafizah Geter is one of my new favorite poets. I could have chosen any number of her poems, but here is “How to Bring Your Children to America.”

Jennifer Givhan in an incredibly versatile and prolific poet. Her poems are gorgeous and important. Here is “Race in America.”

Pamela Uschuk is deeply in tune with spirit and the natural world. Her poetry is a way of caring deeply about everything. It’s like love in action. Here are a couple of her new poems at Connotation Press.

Kamilah Aisha Moon is a poet of great wisdom, grace, and power. Her new poem, “Shared Plight,” knocks the breath out of me.


MELISSA STUDDARD is the author of the poetry collection I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast and the novel Six Weeks to Yehidah. Her poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in a wide range of publications, including Poets & WritersTupelo QuarterlyPsychology TodayPleiadesand the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day. Of her debut poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for BreakfastRobert Pinsky writes, “This poet’s ardent, winning ebullience echoes that of God…” and Cate Marvin says her work “would have no doubt pleased Neruda’s taste for the alchemic impurity of poetry.”

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Hayan Charara


How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

When I’m writing about a rough experience, I try to get into it deeper than when I was actually in it. I stay in for as long as I can, I get out for as long as I need, and I keep going back until you get a poem. I’m not really sure there’s any self-care involved there. I suppose a person could do worse. But a person could do better, too. 

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?

I heard something on the radio this summer that I could barely understand: a news story touting the fact that a famous British person whose name I didn’t catch (I got the impression she was a celebrity) admitted that she liked to read poetry. First off, this suggests the bad place poetry is in when it becomes necessary to say, “Look! See! She reads poems!” The odd thing, though, was that this celebrity apparently liked to read poetry in order to relax. I doubt I’ve ever read a memorable poem that relaxed me. Elevator music relaxes me. Noise machines also do the job. The silence in my house when my 4 and 5-year olds finally fall asleep, that relaxes me. But a poem? No.

What I’m getting at is not that poetry should upset people. But poems that do not in some way agitate the reader, I’m not sure what they’re accomplishing. I want the poems I write, and those I read, to agitate something in me and in my reader: my mind, my body, my desire to do this, that, and the other. When people say, simply, that they want to be “moved” by a poem, that’s what happens—the poem agitates; it stirs; it does not relax.

I’m not interested in poems that are one step removed from putting me to sleep. Others can be interested in whatever they like. The truth is, I don’t care, ultimately. The fact is, the only time anyone would actually suggest to me that my poems are too intense or upsetting is if they’ve read them—that’s a good start—and if in reading them they find they can’t handle the poems, that’s okay. They should just stop reading, maybe come back to the book later, or give it away. I can appreciate that sort of response. What I don’t understand, even though it happens, is why anyone would actually write me or any other poet to say, “You’re too X, or Y, or Z.” You don’t like it—don’t read it. I’m not holding anyone hostage.

What poets do you identify with, or feel you are grouped with by editors, readers, conference organizers, or educators? What misconceptions do you see about these groupings of poets? Do you feel these groupings can be useful, can be potentially marginalizing or disenfranchising, or can be both?

I’m an Arab American, and for some time now, in America and the world, being Arab comes with a number of character traits a lot of people assume to be inescapable. Over the years, I’ve had to list those traits so many times that it’s worn me out to do so. For those who don’t know the traits, just watch the news or read the paper, and you’ll see (over and over and over) the kinds of Arabs that most Americans “know”—the terrorist, for example, or the misogynist, the anti-modernist, the anti-American, the can’t-be-trusted swarthy guy—a long list of shitheads and assholes who “deserve” to be wiped off the face of the earth.

Whether I like it or not, as an Arab, I’m up against that.

And there are the obvious ways I encounter such knowledge about “us,” everything from being “randomly selected” for security checks at airports (on one particular round-trip flight, TSA searched me six times) to having family and friends (because they are Arab and as such deemed worthy of being destroyed) who live under conditions in which they worry about such things as invading armies (my father, for instance, lives about a mile from the Israeli border, and his town, in his lifetime alone, has been destroyed by the Israelis several times).

But we’re talking poetry. So, let me tell you about something that happened with a poem of mine, “Usage,” the final poem in Something Sinister. It’s a long poem, eight pages, and, to use Marilyn Hacker’s description of it (because it’s precise and better than anything I can come up with), the poem is a “Whitmanian catalogue of what is done to us with daily language.”

I wrote the poem while working on a PhD at the University of Houston. I gave the poem to an older, respected, internationally admired poet who taught at the university. It was his last semester; he was heading to a big school in the Midwest. I won’t name him, even though I don’t think he would give a shit, really, but I’ll say he was not Tony Hoagland or Mark Doty or Nick Flynn. They were good teachers, good people, and took time and care with my poems.

In any case, I took a course with this other poet, a seminar on the work of a few European poets who also wrote about, in part, life during and after wartime. I’d just finished writing “Usage.” I gave it to the poet as my final project. Some time later, he returned it, with a three-word comment: “Why so angry?”

The comment was a waste of my time, especially as a poet hoping to learn something. It was also completely wrong. “Usage” contains 278 lines, less than a handful of which can be read as “angry.” The opposite is true. The poem may be intense, and sometimes upsetting, but it’s lyrical, and rhythmic, and, in some ways, it is ecstatic about life, especially in the face of so much opposition to life.

Besides, what in the world do you do with “Why so angry?” I didn’t know if he was commenting about the poem, or about me.

Other than a few friends, this is the first time I’m talking about the incident openly. I left the poet be, too. I never asked him what he meant; I never confronted him. I don’t know if it would have made a difference, really, but I do know that then and now, it’s hard for me not to wonder if his “angry” reading of the poem isn’t tied to the stereotypical image of the “angry Arab”—you know, the terrorist on the news; the flag-burning, dark-haired Arab in the mob; the villain in the movies; the guy we’re all supposed to fear.

If this had been an isolated incident, I would’ve second-guessed myself. But it wasn’t—not for me, not for others I know. People hear anger in the words of Arabs even when there is no evidence whatsoever, even when the voice is utterly compassionate or tender.

It’s possible he didn’t realize what he was saying. So many people don’t have a clue what they’re talking when they talk about Arabs. The things we usually say about Arabs, and Arab men in particular, are already in the air, almost everywhere we turn, so much so we take for granted what we think, say, and feel about them. And, yes, this is true of the way that people speak and think about other groups, but one of the differences, for now at least, is that with Arabs, such remarks barely register. It’s possible to say almost anything about Arabs—to question not only, say, the perceived source of a poem but also to assume that their “nature” renders them suspicious, whether as Americans (are they loyal? can they be trusted?), as fathers and husbands (do they oppress their wives and daughters?) or simply as human beings (do they have the capacity to be reasonable or peaceful?).

Really, it’s a miracle more Arabs aren’t writing angry poems.

What do you think is the most significant impact social media has had on the poetry world recently?

I’ve heard of “Twitter poets,” but I haven’t read any. And if people are writing poems influenced significantly by what they see and read on social media, that sort of thing has been going on for a long time: instead of a Facebook feed, people used to read the newspaper, or hear stories from other people. Hopefully, poets aren’t being heavily influenced by things like user comments or the number of “likes,” hits, friends or followers they have. Those are old problems, too, and social media just delivers them in a new format—a more powerful format, yes, but not entirely new, which is to say that poets can overcome these types of negative influences, if they want and choose to do so.

Social media isn’t entirely bad, obviously. What a poet does with it makes the difference. The most fascinating response I’ve seen so far is Fady Joudah’s Textu, a poetry collection which, for each poem, he imposes a 160-character limit. That’s a formal constraint straight out of social media, but never, not once, do you get the feeling that you are reading texts, or Tweets or Facebook posts. There’s no straining to be witty or overtly clever in the poems, which is a hallmark of social media. There’s no sense that the poems must be read immediately or else lose their impact (the way that so much “communication” functions on social media).

The poems in Textu are, in the strictest sense, formal. The textu is a new form, for sure, and relative to traditional forms, it may be more “loose” and “free” but Joudah works it the way a poet who is an aesthete does: with the aim of using the form to create something that others will judge to be beautiful, striking, eye-opening, and so on. In 160 characters or less, Textu’s best poems expand our understanding of their subjects. I think it’s a brilliant book. If we want to give it credit for inspiring this book, then thank goodness for social media.

On the other hand, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever else is around now, they will be all gone one day—maybe not soon, but eventually. Everything that’s come before us tells us that social media will eventually be a relic. These platforms—I think that’s the word—they’re not like the invention of writing, or the screw; they’re more like clay tablets, or paper. In other words, at some point the next best thing will replace social media.

Most poems written right now, they will also be gone. And, honestly, good riddance! Of course, some poems will survive. In 25 or 50 years, in a century or two, a poem here and there will still matter, but I doubt that social media will play a major role in terms of which poems will last the long journey. Maybe there are poems and poets today more “famous” because of social media, or who receive more traffic than not because of it; but these are not the ways we judge whether a poem will go on without us.


HAYAN CHARARA is a poet, children’s book author, essayist, and editor. His poetry books are Something Sinister (2016), The Sadness of Others (2006), and The Alchemist’s Diary (2001). His children’s book, The Three Lucys (2016), received the New Voices Award Honor, and he edited Inclined to Speak (2008), an anthology of contemporary Arab American poetry. With Fady Joudah, he is also a series editor of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize. Born in Detroit in 1972 to Arab immigrants, he spent a decade in New York City and in 2004 moved to Texas, where he now lives.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Lynn Melnick


What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about? 

This is hard because there are always so many, but last fall I read and fell in love with Yesenia Montilla’s The Pink Box and I think everyone should read it!

Also I highly recommend Sheila McMullin’s book, daughterrarium, forthcoming in spring of 2017.

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?

I would say: I understand that. I write a lot about violence and that can be too intense or upsetting. As much as I write about it, I cannot handle watching violent television or movies, so I understand what it feels like to have to avoid certain things because they might be triggering or upsetting. When I write, I’m in control of it (more or less) but when I’m consuming someone else’s stories, I don’t know what will come next and I feel out of control.

That said, if someone is avoiding subjects like violence against women just because they don’t care or don’t find it relevant to their lives or experiences or because it makes them a bit uncomfortable, well that’s no good. We can’t leave it to victims alone to tell and consume our stories, or nothing will change.

Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption?

Oh absolutely, if the q’s I get at q&a’s are any indication, or the notes I get from readers.

I have complex feelings about the assumption that my work is autobiographical because my work is autobiographical–but I’m not writing memoir when I’m writing poetry. I’m making something wholly new out of sound and rhythm and image and etc and I get to bring in to the story whatever I want. To discount the art that goes into my work–that hurts, actually. And I’ve been accused of exploiting my own life history for the sake of my poems, which is like, what the fuck does that even mean?

What needs to change in the educational/academic world, with regard to poetry and writing? What can literary educators do to affect this change? What can students do?

This is a large question which requires a big answer but I’m going to narrow this down a bit to what students can do. Students can ask for an inclusive reading list. I work with VIDA and we have teamed up with Girls Write Now for the past couple of years to have the girls “count” the syllabi in their New York City public high school English classes. I often joke that their assigned reading lists are all white men and Toni Morrison–but this is not too far from the truth! Many of the girls hadn’t thought to question what they were being taught and why–but once made aware were really very engaged with the problem. So I guess, to wrap up what could be a long and rambling answer–Hi, students! Question your assigned reading lists! Speak up if it feels safe enough to do that!

(And I think it should go without saying that educators need to provide an inclusive reading list to their students. But maybe it doesn’t go without saying so I’m saying it.)


LYNN MELNICK is author of Landscape with Sex and Violence (forthcoming, YesYesBooks, 2017) and If I Should Say I Have Hope (YesYes Books, 2012), and co-editor, with Brett Fletcher Lauer, of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation(Viking, 2015). She teaches poetry at 92Y in NYC and serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Joanna C Valente


What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?

Life is upsetting and intense, so why shouldn’t writing be? I write about what is unsettling and uncomfortable to me—as a way to understand trauma, to parse through the events of my life (and others’) in order to come out a better, more empathetic person. Yes, humans do actually need entertainment and relaxation, but for me, poetry is not about this. While poetry can bring joy and relaxation, it is also art, and the point of art is to ask the hard questions, to dig deep, to show the truths about the time in which we live. And often times, those truths are hard.

For me especially, I write about trauma relating to sex and gender, because that is what I’ve dealt with in my life. My writing would feel inauthentic otherwise—and while I do think there is a line between exploitation, especially when it comes to trauma narratives—I also think we live in a world that already wants the sugar-coated version. I’m tired of that version. I’m tired of being told to keep my “knees together” by judges, for instance.

I also firmly believe that it is largely through our traumas and pain that we truly learn who we are, form our identities, and have the strength to move forward with grace and love. It’s easy to love others when you are ignoring the hard and ugly parts of yourself and others—it’s easy to love when that love doesn’t go very deep. But real love, for yourself and others, takes courage and strength—because it means you know what’s at stake. And to know that, you have to go through hell.

This question reminds me, too, of when Toni Morrison told The Guardian: ” I want to feel what I feel. What’s mine. Even if it’s not happiness, whatever that means. Because you’re all you’ve got.” Real feelings are not always pretty, but at least they’re real.

What’s the earliest experience, or a stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you?

I would say my assault and subsequent abortion were my real earliest experiences of realizing that I need to own my experiences, to be OK with my identity, and just roll with it. I was 20 at the time—which is really young in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t an easy road for me, as I was raised in a conservative (and superstitious) religious household. My family often stuck by the belief “you hold yourself up with your bootstraps” type of New Yorker immigrant narrative, which is obviously just not true for a lot of people. I rebelled in a lot of ways—but even so, it was hard for me to accept myself, and my differences from my family.

For the longest time, I wanted to please my family, not get in arguments anymore. And honestly, sometimes I still do. Do we ever truly get away from our families? Maybe some do. I feel like for me, it’s been the eternal struggle of letting myself go free, while still loving them.

I did come out to my friends as queer by the time I was in college, but it wasn’t until the past few years that I really felt comfortable with myself as a whole being—one that identifies as queer, non-binary femme who writes about assault and abortion and all those feelings in between. I am still trying to define myself while also not defining myself. I really despise labels, but ironically, using language makes us label ourselves and identify what we “are” within words—which are only metaphors for what we actually feel. Isn’t that crazy to think that words are merely painting of our inner feelings, but not actually all that precise at all?

It also is ironic, but not surprising, that what has helped me own myself is that trauma I’ve experienced. This, I think, is true for mostly everyone. Pain is easier to remember than happiness.

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

I don’t force myself to write about trauma on “a deadline.” I write it when I write it. So many writers always say you need a schedule. While this is true in many ways, I also break that rule. I do think you should try to write something every day, but I don’t think you should push yourself to write about difficult subjects if your body isn’t ready. For me, I have to stew on something for awhile—both as a way to allow myself to reflect in a healthy, slow way, but to also prevent myself from exploiting my experiences—and thus, write about something before I’m ready.

Writing, in many ways for me, is a healing spell. It can’t be healing if I make it a job though. So I make it cathartic and pleasurable just simply for the fact that I do it on my own time. I also make sure to just have fun and find ways to relax at some point everyday. I let myself watch TV everyday, listen to music, get coffee/drinks/dinner with friends often. I don’t punish myself—or only let myself enjoy something once I’ve written enough or worked enough. It feels much more fluid this way.

I also just make sure to talk about what I’m feeling with my friends/confidants. I find that support endlessly helpful—having a community in any capacity is priceless. And it’s really the only way I feel sane after awhile. As much as I love being alone and burning incense and reading my Tarot (which is also helpful for clarity and meditative purposes), I need that human interaction and support, even if it’s just a Facebook message from someone.

We’re currently living in a police/surveillance state. How has this affected your approach toward poetry, art, persona, and personal presence?

It makes it feel much more urgent for me, which is why I look at poetry and art as necessary spaces—as part of who I am. It’s all the more reason to say our truths and not just bow down to what our jobs want us to say, for instance. In the past, I was often faced with this, as I used to be a high school English teacher—and for a time, I had to keep all my social media sites private. I had to censor myself, because of surveillance from my bosses, literally. Eventually, I made the choice not to teach anymore because of this. Because I don’t believe in censorship, in my personal life or my art.

For me personally, I try to be as present as possible offline. While I’m not always successful (it’s hard not to check FB on my phone), if I’m hanging out with someone, I’m fully present. I’m with you. I think that’s important to be aware of, because many of us aren’t. We’re too caught up in a weird machine world, which scares me.

It’s not that I think “the internet” isn’t real, but why should we constantly always perform ourselves on a medium that tracks our every movement? Why do we need to show all our friends we just ate sushi and went to a poetry reading with so-and-so? I want my private life to be my own, to be something that is mine and only mine. This is not to say I don’t share, but I don’t feel obligated to. I reject that need to have an online persona. My persona is just me. Sometimes different parts of it come out at different times, but I’m not trying to be someone else. It’s hard enough to be myself.

That being said, I do write in persona within my poetry, but even in that persona, I’m merely exploring different facets of people I know, of myself, that are not dominantly mine—as a way to learn about the universe around me.

Does gender or gender performance affect your writing?

So much. It’s actually harder for me to say how it doesn’t. Being born in this body has affected so much of my life—from being assaulted to having an abortion to being cat-called, etc. There’s no way I can separate myself from it. And the idea of having to perform it, which I felt all of my life—having to appear to be something that I’m not. All of my poetry deals with this, or with the fluidity of gender, and the desire for it to be fluid.

I often identify as a rebel—and have since I could remember. I think I’ve always been rebelling against gender and gender performance—and we especially live in a time where it’s finally at the forefront of people’s minds in the mainstream. This awareness, while of course positive in the long run, also means we’re in midst of trying to figure it all out.


JOANNA C VALENTE is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015) & Marys of the Sea (forthcoming 2016, ELJ Publications). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the chief editor for Luna Luna Magazine.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Sade Murphy


What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about?

I’m in an MFA program so I don’t actually read anything. Just this week I finally finished the most recent seasons of ScandalGrey’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away with Murder in preparation for a new season in Shondaland. I’ve been listening to two playlists on Tidal: Kanye West Deep Cuts and Produced by Kanye West. As problematic and complicated a celebrity as Kanye is, he was the first rapper I ever paid any attention to and his work as a producer is impeccable.

There are so many talented and breathtaking writers that I’ve had the pleasure to meet in the past two years, I just know I’m going to leave someone out, but here goes. First of all every writer in my cohort at Pratt is here to slay, but also Precious OkoyomonJasmine GibsonAdjua GreavesSean Henry-SmithGabriel Ojeda-SaguePaul CunninghamStephon Lawrence are some at the top of my mind.

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter? 

Self-care does not come naturally to me, I’m still trying to figure it out. I let myself feel. I let myself cry. I have a really amazing therapist and I see him as often as I need to. Since much of my work handles trauma I’ve experienced, I’m working really hard on not forcing myself to write or harming myself through writing. Sometimes I need to check for my own consent. Witchcraft, magic. My room is basically the shrine I live in and tend to. Maintaining altars, burning incense, sage and rosemary. Bathing in gem essences and epsom salt. Aromatherapy with essential oils, Sister Spinster tincturesBeyonce’s instagramMy own instagram. Laughing with Sasha. Kissing the flowers in my garden and tending to my houseplants. Hugging my roommates. Neko Atsume. Teaching myself a new skill or trying a new recipe.

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?

Shut the fuck up.

Who would you have nominated for this anthology? Is there a poem you have in mind that you could link to?

Sasha Banks. You can check out her new new at the Collagist and an earlier posting of her poem, God Bless america over at PBS News Hour.

What needs to change in the educational/academic world, with regard to poetry and writing? What can literary educators do to affect this change? What can students do?

Lol, tldr; #stopallwhitepeople which is kind of my go to first step to improving anything. And, more seriously, care. I’m lucky enough to be at the only (or maybe one of the few) MFA programs where more than half of my peers are women of color and the faculty are invested in a radical and restorative pedagogy. But none of that can matter or be the least bit edifying if the people educating us aren’t as attentive to our needs and vulnerabilities as they are our craft or professionalization as artists.


SADE MURPHY is a poet and artist from Houston, Texas. They are a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and current MFA candidate at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. They are the author of Dream Machine (co-im-press, 2014) and self portrait, a chapbook from Birds of Lace. Their work has been published in ActionYes!GlittermobLITSpoon River Poetry ReviewSink Review, and Dreginald.

Source: vidaweb.org