Home Poetry


by Jen Knox

Every dream a slip of a thing,
a sojourn into the ordinary, coveted past
until a deep quarantine sleep
pulled Jupiter toward our small Midwestern town.
Every step heavy, I trudged toward it.
The planetary pull, cartoon-like.
Its gravitational force
targeting a particular part of me,
leaving the rest enchanted but confused.
I rolled over to check the news, the charts,
the trends, and I stared out of my window.
As so many of us have. At 5 a.m., I saw Jupiter,
a slip of a thing with Saturn in its gaze.
Surrounded by stars in a sharp, dark morning sky.
And I felt hope.


The line for irregular, black shirts takes ten minutes. Forty-plus adults take single steps as stomachs hum. Necklines hang like hula-hoops.

At lunch, there is only a half-hour. A half-dozen ham and cheese. Now there’s just cheese. Thirty-plus adults with lettuce and cheese. Blankets are fibrous and prick the skin.

Warm lettuce means peeling wilted green bits off the tongue or swallowing slimy leaves whole. The tinfoil makes a perfect, silver ball. Silver balls are thrown, kicked.

Orange cheese and loose-necked shirts with twelve minutes to spare. Silver balls between blankets are reminiscent of Christmas tree bulbs.

For bus tickets, hands remain in pockets, eyes toward the street. There’s something slippery about mobility, so many remain. Those who stand take single steps. Patient steps.

Twenty-plus remain. Activities remain. Dance last week, art next, poetry this. A young teacher looks as though she is speaking to blind kittens. She closes her eyes and recites poems. She opens them and offers a writing prompt as pens and paper are handed out.

There is nothing to put the paper on. The concrete works best. The pen navigates tiny hills on the page. First come colors: purple, green, silver, and orange. The pen suggests the salty taste of ham that almost graced the tongue that was too many feet from the front of a line.

The pen moves beyond this. The pen moves much faster than the feet.


Our shadows introduce themselves
& regulars grumble when a top set of teeth bared,
even though we all know to grab the back legs.

The dogs run in transient packs, as squirrels rustle tree leaves
& fall moves downward on a slow-moving swing.

We kiss the air when it’s time to go.

The world should know we were here, too, but our scents hug tight
& we are left to share words and walkways, to scratch the same furry heads.

The imprint of my shoe finds yours.


I was dulled longer than you, so when I lost my sight, I wasn’t shaken.
Glass seals well, blurs lines and clarifies sight, so I wore
a glass dress & glass shoes, until you arrived with science and a string.

I felt the etching of sharp lines and gentle curves, the quiet power
beneath the watery surface & had reason to shatter beneath you. You,
with your collage of circumstance. A papier-mâché from elementary foretold.
A careful collection of porcelain shattered & glued created a map.

You described it all. You told me how, but I still struggled until I realized
the texture had to be rough to be felt, to be interpreted as anything at all.
My fleshy thumbs drag against surfaces, forever searching for the right word.


Jen Knox is an Ohio-born writer, meditation instructor, and the founder of Unleash Creatives. She is the author of Resolutions: A Family in Stories (AUX Media), After the Gazebo (Rain Mountain Press), which was nominated for the Pen/Faulkner Award, and The Glass City (Prize Americana for Prose winner). Her short work recently won the Flash Fiction Magazine‘s Editor’s Choice Award for 2020 and other writing can be found in The Best Small Fictions (edited by Amy Hempel), The Adirondack Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Little Fictions, Literary Orphans, Lunch Ticket, Poor Claudia, Room Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. Jen is currently working on her first novel.

a homesick poem

by John Sweet

sunlight and crows

a sacrifice

a clenched fist
dripping blood

these are not options,
this is the
proper sequence

we are believers in
the wisdom of ghosts

of fairy tales

we are believers in
a void of
our own making

wealth and

power from the
end of a barrel

who are you to
until you’ve taken
your first life?

between defeat and despair

first week of april all brown lawns and
grey sky, threat of snow that
never quite arrives and
what i miss are
leonora’s pale breasts in the mexican sunlight

do you remember 1937?

are we still killing for the
same reasons we were then?

seems like it was all pretty funny until
we realized that everyone
who’d died was someone we’d known

let all sounds be the sound of freedom

these houses and
the spaces between them

these streets all heavy with silence
in the early afternoon

trees and the shadows of trees
and the ghost of de chirico

a kingdom of dust
for the lucky few

can’t be god these days unless you’re
willing to bleed and
maybe that’s how it always was

not every cripple is a prophet

not every prophet understands
the necessity of hope

picture yourself as the desert
and your life
finally starts to make sense

upstate; a surrender

in a fog of numbed-out pain and
                              creeping cold

in a collapsing city in
a dying kingdom

a future built on ruins,
and what is there to say about it?

you’ve wasted your whole life here

taste of guilt mixed with
the texture of ashes, right?

the dead among the living and
                          all of us blind

all of us halfway down the
road to being forgotten

anonymous houses & abandoned factories and
each day shaped by dull light without color

each moment meaningless on its own
and then when added to all the others,
                                     and so breathe

                                       don’t breathe

gotta make a choice
either way

gotta stand up and be counted or
lie down in whatever
shallow grave you’ve dug for yourself

there will always be a despair
greater than your own

this kingdom of rain, these corpses on fire

crows outside the suicide factory,
first light of a dull grey morning

screams and whispers


there is no future in being holy,
you understand

there is no future at all

the present is always with us, the
past never remembered clearly and when i
tell you i love you it
sounds like an admission of defeat

when i get out of my car, the parking lot
is littered with the bones of angels

the machinery has just begun
to grind into motion

each day starts at zero, and then they
all move backwards from there

everyone i hate, and the reasons why

man with the gun says
there need to be changes,
but he’s just as dead the rest of us

he’s high on the fumes
of burning children

he’s trapped in the shadows
of his father’s fists

a slave and a whore,
but fuck it

no one comes to this town to
live up to their fullest potential

no one talks about better days
until there’s no hope of
them ever arriving

you learn this early, and then
it just seems like something
you’ve always known

st. nicole, lost in the labyrinth

the suicide season again,
and all your fucked up lovers say
it’s the sunlight that ties this noose so tight

they say it’s the fading warmth of
a half-remembered past
that blurs the future to a dirty grey, and
what can you do but agree?

your father never liked you, sure

left nothing but the gift of self-hatred
when he walked away from the burning house

and how many years did you wait
before you went looking for him?

how easy do you think it was
for him to forget your name?

opened the door to his shithole apartment
with shaking hands, with a blank stare,
and told you he’d never had any kids

told you his wife disappeared
back before the war

made you start to doubt you’d
                                     ever been born


John Sweet sends greetings from the rural wastelands of upstate NY. He is a firm believer in writing as catharsis, and in the continuous search for an unattainable and constantly evolving absolute truth. His latest poetry collections include A DEAD MAN EITHER WAY (2020 Kung Fu Treachery) and No ONE STARVES IN A NATION OF CORPSES (2020 Analog Submission Press).

Do less

by Joy Williams

No one knows how
We got here.

Time lost focus –
A whole day’s worth.

Still, perhaps it’s okay
Sometimes. In fact,

Sometimes we must
Look to the ocean

Nestled comfortably,
Dwelling deep

Even under these constraints.

Poetry is not a luxury

            for Audre Lorde

The quality of light
Has direct bearing
Upon this form

This illumination
Nameless and formless
Births dark within

Hidden and growing
Your beautiful nightmare
Of places within

These places are dark
Are ancient
Have survived

Within each of us
It is dark
It is ancient

We come as
A desperate wish
We come cobbled

By daily lives
Not idle fantasy
The skeleton of lives

The foundation
Of what has been
Neither forever nor instant


Who cares if it isn’t
Real. You were born.
You took your first

Breath. No longer
Existing inside
The future, but

Distinct, astrologically
Speaking. The uses
Are vast and varied.

As a mirror offers
Reassurance and
Alchemy, serious

And vaguely silly,
The reality of the sky
Seems its own kind

Of magic. A chance
To see mirrors
Inextricably linked

To other mirrors,
All looking up. But
The sky isn’t enough

If you want to know,
Ultimately, why
Oceans rise, forests burn.


If you hate your job.
If you have a job you dislike.
If you have an unpleasant job.
Please consider building a ritual.
You are free to create one
Anywhere, any time.
There is no place and no time
Not possible.

Keep it simple at the start:
Go to the refrigerator.
The possibilities are endless.
Reach for the milk,
The leftovers,
The hovering moth.
Outrun patterns,
Inhale coffee beans.
If the coffee does not work,
Stare straight ahead.
This always works.

Note: It is essential to do this
Sitting. Feet flat, back straight.
Close your eyes fast as you can.
Repeat. When finished,
Repeat once more.


Since the pandemic struck, Joy Williams has been holed up in her apartment writing and wishing she had a dog.


by Gavriel Ross

The generative project forms
Rings, perfect inside
And out. This is where light
Becomes retrospective.
These days propose themselves; body,
Dust, breath. Blue body’s bridge and
The endless setting of things spoken or
Seen near the edge and not abstract
Enough couldn’t make me feel better.
Circle the best selection, omit nothing.

the little things

because little things are so

they wish what they wish

like a button, a grain of
sand, a needle’s eye. they
mention less than a
shadow or a speck of dust

i will wait until later. later

is what there is to do.

Run in Circles, Walk in Lines

Silently slipping from holding
The sun, you stay in river
Islands darker than the clear
Talk that opens mountains,
A string of lumbered ivy.
It’s been forever since I thought of startled light.
Through these thousand heavens, you let down long
Nights of jade wine, and I cannot contain
The concrete favor between our broken line.
September becomes an elegy, crow perched
In pine, on the staircase braids of lace.
The world becomes labored. I let myself out.

Delilah Against the World

More than enough for one
We are goldfish
                         She says a collection
With a strange distance and wants
A confession
                         A commission contained
In prize winning fabric
Her man           The first and only
In English         Is deliverance
And the first prodigal light
Of a son


Gavriel Ross is poet based in Michigan. He began studying poetry as a teenager and has contributed poems to Ditch Poetry. He was a paramedic for 10 years until he was injured while on duty. He finds that poetry is the most honest and creative way of expressing himself.

Winter fell like a hammer.
Days cut off at the knees.
Was this house always so dark?
Was that tree always so menacing?

The moon is swollen and seeps
into the clouds. A baby howls,
then a dog. Songbirds all gone silent.
What is that rustling in your chest?

It was Thursday when the doors closed
for good. I went home but couldn’t
sleep. Body accustomed to living
by starlight – rising at dusk, sleeping
at dawn. The cats and I keep
the same schedule. Nocturnal,
not lonely. I name the foxes
that shuffle through the garden.

I miss the sound of glasses clinking
in hands, dishwashers. Miss
the steamy windows. The jostling
for space. The smell of old beer
in hair, clothes. Miss
Friday nights and your hands
rolling cigarettes, waiting
for my break.

Now it’s always Monday, always
noon. Now my hands are
the only hands and
everything is already broken. No
cigarettes, just these few
empty rooms and a pair
of ceramic wrens silent
on the bookcase.


Kate Porter is a full-time bartender and part-time poet. She has been writing for years but has only recently begun submitting work for publication. This is her first publication outside her local paper.

My Red Horse Moves

by Ashley Inguanta

like a fire in the wind.
My hipbone presses to highway,
And I see her, my horse, running
like she’s got everything to lose.

Here, the desert is a pale
wish, as fragile as my horse’s shins, thin
and temporary and unsure of how long
it will last. I fell from a great place
in order to get here: a rooftop
covered in percussion, a stretch
of ragged silver and bone
in the dusk. I orchestrated tremendous
beats–shin to hoof to desert floor.
Our racket lasted for centuries.

It was no different from the way hands
clap or the way a lover may place her
lips to another’s neck. Hunger is hunger
is hunger. Rhythm is nothing but a meeting
and release. We open one door and close
the other. My red horse bolts, a fire
in the wind. Her hoofs beat sky,
then sand. I fall from a place not unlike grace,
but more like perfect joining. My hipbone
presses to highway. A truck drives by,

and I swear, there is a mirror tacked
to its door, and I see myself, and I am
screaming, and then I am laughing
with empty hands. The truck moves
into horizon, becomes a star. Instead of myself,
I see my red horse. We fell from a great place
in order to get here: a rooftop

protecting a home of glory. Not heaven,
but a lady’s house. She played records
and kissed the forever grey sky. She was
the first opening, the first feeling
without word. And no,
her house was no different than
a harvest of stones, hands trying
to make a place. Hunger is hunger
is hunger. We open one door
and close the other. My hipbone

presses to highway, and my red horse
is there, right there, and it happens
so quickly, her body touching the
pavement, like mine.

She stares at me. She’s got everything
to lose. When the land shakes, her shins
become paper. Now, she is a story
that the lady keeps with her, that I pen
one more time, my hipbone becoming
highway now.

I remember walking on a marsh bank

in the pouring rain

A friend walked with me

I was new to the everglades
then, not knowing the given name
of any bird or grass,

but I understood the language
of that rain, holding my body
underneath storm-clouds,

cooling me, cooling us all,

bringing relief


Ashley Inguanta is a writer, art photographer, installation artist, and holistic educator. In her newest work, The Island, The Mountain, & The Nightblooming Field, she gives readers a chapbook of poetry that thrives in its simplicity. You can take your copy home through ashleyinguanta.net

Photo by Tina Russell


by Diana Ha

When I was just myself, not latched onto and not
stalking my own breath, I was not aware of how
much I could unfold and conform the male race
to my recesses, and what little I gave to hunger –
six pounds to a hundred sixty of it – would meet
with simple ferocious love. I became food,
grass, playground, air, altar,
my men forgive me when life is joy and joy is skin & sweat
bloodhounds circling the promises of woman. The way
my son set upon his drumstick last night, he deboned it,
Genghis Khan on mission, worked
the cartilage between molars waiting for the jaw
lines of a young man, eyes closed to conserve energy, wrapping
his senses around the pleasure in his mouth,

I wish life were so accessible for me.

I studied his tender oval chin, turning
the poetry of it, his rapturous aggression. My husband, my boy swoop
into the moment’s ascendency while I take longer,
look out from the seconds that make up the minute.
My body has to practice and permit.
Happiness doesn’t come
bearing me up so readily; I wait and wait
at the threshold and it lingers on the other side. My men
eat, chase, swelter, sleep, their day’s laughter
lucent in the night
sky of my contemplations
like angels.


They met where the moon caught the sun’s
path, and in hope’s half-light, in his makeshift
tent, he now waits for twilight sun,

He – a soldier in love’s jungle; she – in the courtyard
of her days, terracotta, quotidian ceremonies, garden
stones at the feet of the persimmon tree.

Some dreams had a lifetime – brain, breath, and
rolled for room in the womb, but the day
comes, and air and joy are not hospitable
to them.

My Breasts

He was astonishing and fresh
out of my body, magical
out of the nothingness
that had been the world without him, just
six pounds ten ounces of will
and appetite,

I was awed – and quite gratified – when
some two months into the feeding he,
with his tongue, examined me against
the false teat of the bottle, and adjudged my breasts
more desirable. He sucked and turned
his cheek to press it upon my pillow, milk sticky
between us and suctioning his face slowly
into my skin before drying
on him like a watermark.

But my boy still loves my nipples and the round
rest of them. They form one vanishing
point into which all his mind pulls;
today, he laughed as his badminton
racquet slivered air, declaring:
staring at them will bring
me good luck.

I reached and missed the birdie.
See, Mommy? It worked!
Ten years old, he is funny, he is sick.

He runs between sea and sand, the song
and form of mermaids that await him
out deep, and the earthen floor where in younger
days he had sunk, milk-sopped and a little drunk
on his mother’s sweat. I watch the tide
sweep in, reaching to carry the M o M M y
inscribed in moist sand
out to sea.


But what has not been said of this, of
our voices meeting, our reflections hearing
each other in the river air
the nerves of our cerebellum alive
like wire, of this spiritual telepathy
like bared bodies agreeing,
of art.


A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Diana Ha publishes in a variety of genres. Her articles, narratives, and poetry feature in magazines and anthologies, among them The Banner, New York’s Emerging WritersCalifornia’s Best Emerging Poets, and with honorable mention in the Steve Kowit International Poetry Contest, The San Diego Poetry Annual. She teaches composition at California Baptist University and teaches writing at education conferences. Diana discusses culture, writing, and achievement with over 16,000 followers on her blog at holisticwayfarer.com. She details her professional development services at writexpressions.art.


by Steven M. Smith

Her shoulder-length hair gift wrapped
in a floral towel and the way she leaned
forward, her bath water breasts pressed
to her thigh, her leg up on the edge
of the tub and that arousing sound
of the razor scratching across the soapy
stubble on her shin while her left hand
cupped the hollow behind her knee.


often tell each other
they’re often concerned about
something that doesn’t concern
them such as the Sunday
afternoon they sat straight up
in the wicker chairs on their
open front porch using their
smartphones to film the elderly
woman who lives across the street
as a darkening sky brought
a threatening gust of wind
that raised and flapped her floral
cotton house dress up above
her waist as she struggled
with a mop handle near
the top rung of her rickety
16-foot ladder to dislodge a wasp
nest the size of a bugle’s bell
buzzing with a call to arms under
the second story eave of her
raised ranch in a neighborhood
where some are often concerned
about something that doesn’t concern

Names Will

But names will never
hurt us, so the saying goes.
So does that mean you can bash
the door in on our private
space with a battering
ram of name-calling?  Whack
us up aside the temple
with a rat-a-tat-tat of hate
words?  Go ahead and box
our ears with malice?  Your words
might make us wobble and well
up a bit.  Your words might even
feel like you swung a few sticks
and heaved a few stones.

But please think how lonely
and grueling and miserable
to relentlessly lug and shove
and drag from day to day
so little love all over this little
space . . . and to amass all
that unpredictable volatility
in the armory of your mouth.

November 1

Another October midnight is now
just a sigh and a shrug.  Halloween
left trash cans choking on candy wrappers.
Evil dentists counting on cavities.
Costumes shoved back into burial bins.
Cemeteries are nursing the annual hangovers
of the dead.  The burned-out jack-o’-lanterns
with their mushy flesh and brittle brain stems
know the trick is up.  Today they will treat
their maker in the compost pile.

But somewhere on a rutty path
of an urban legend and leafless trees
the ghost of a horse is still rearing
in the startled dawn, still stamping
and snorting.  Its restless horseman
still has a shadow for a head—no flaming
pumpkin to burn his way through the fog.
Only that same solitary candle continues
to flicker in the gaping hole in his chest
where his heart used to be.

Look What She Found

Look what she found
on a hook behind her late
husband’s garage workbench—
a fortification that he occupied
after his tours of duty
to minimize casualties
and endure the ongoing war:
She found his missing
dog tags folded in a farewell
note buried in a blank envelope
draped with a forever flag stamp.  She seldom
talks about the garage morning
he yanked the ring—a grenade pin—
from his finger and tossed it
into the recycling bin
as he stacked his moving boxes
like sandbags on the concrete floor
during that final battle—
before the inevitable retreat—
that would end the war.


Steven M. Smith’s poems have appeared in publications such as Rattle, Poem, Old Red Kimono, Plainsongs, Poetrybay, Ibbetson Street Press, Studio One, The River, Cabildo Quarterly, Better Than Starbucks, Hole in the Head Review, and Mudfish. He has poetry forthcoming in The Worcester Review. He is the Writing Center director at the State University of New York at Oswego. He lives in North Syracuse, New York.


by F.X. James

The day is crisp as an opened beer. Trees conjugate
with a sultry breeze. A silver plane comes in for a landing,
the bodies inside, overly complex and heavy with issues.
Not much is simple for our kind, though perhaps some
of it, a little of it, should be. Harley-Davidsons rumble by.
Denim clad dreams of teenage boys perch like raptors on the
backseats. Their admirable mores have almost faded. Life is
cruel that way. There is no wine here, only beer, and the cool
empty hours curling naked at my feet. But I cannot leave this
moment, the ideal air, the clouds thickening with life, recalcitrant
shadows undulating against city streets. Fruit flies hover with hope,
though I’ve not had fruit here for days. A slender woman carrying
a yoke of hard years, pushes a small child in a plastic wagon.
What will he recall of her in twenty years or more? A green car
runs a red light. Bellicose sirens swell. The air is cheap. The beer
is cheap. The minutes continue to unfurl themselves. Young
people stand on the corner, laughing beyond mirth, their hands
skating over unpracticed flesh. So many roles to be performed,
as trucks add oily darkness to the day, and a topless car pulls to the
curb, the clowns inside trapped within the painted vacuity of
tweets and YouTube fails. Nothing there is more than a shrill laugh,
an insecure desire to be momentarily liked. Sitting as this day rolls
on, shadows and sun, green trees, monolithic clouds, and the
ephemeral desires we hold, comprehensibly null.


The daylight lies clear and cool. Wind ruffles the feathers of
old trees. The land is flat and unequivocally unremarkable. The
denizens here act like it means something more. They carry pride
like a dog carries its collar. What would you do if you were new
here? The response is always the same: the falls, downtown,
a park or two, gutted bars, meat to be cooked outside, God,
in all his glorious indifference. Many here are fixing to make a
change, but nothing really happens. The river runs like it does.
Geese shit everywhere. Tattoo parlors fail like pacified boxers.
Books fall to the wayside. It’s all about the hunt, pale beer,
whomever laughs loudest, and what will happen when this no
longer happens. “We got it pretty good here,” a drunk dullard
exclaims, swinging his molded mug of thin beer. But he has been
nowhere yet, not even to a neighboring state. His girlfriend is blank
and overweight, and at nineteen, already much too pregnant.
Suddenly the daylight seems too harsh. Dreams lose their tenacity.
Ten years from now, it’ll be a small grey house with a dry yard, two
kids and a dead cat. It’ll be ballgames with flies, impassive love
on Wednesday nights, overtime on Saturdays, in-laws who break
the slow momentum. It’ll be this and a shallow brown river, pigs
pouring in by their thousands for slaughter.


At work the fools remain fully foolish. The lesser
one bleats of the inhumanity of it all. The weirdo
coats himself in the oily sheen of butcher/killer.
The third descends into unlit catacombs, touching
here and there a favored clutch of bygone bones.
When the air’s not moving, tempers rise like winter
waves. No one’s mother goes unscorned. When there
is no dust, there is still sweat. Without sweat, only
more boredom, more rage, more dry screws twisting
in the drums of troubled minds. Dumb men can be
so damn cruel when they’re empty. The hallways lie
thick with dirt and squalid heat. Restrooms reek of
dry piss. Flies live and die in lucid worlds overhead.
Machines stay fickle as online love. Nothing dispels
the ten hour day’s inextricable waste, and every word
not needed, or unheard, falls to the unwashed floor,
where it quickly dies under borrowed boots.


She pushes them on in a scoop of wheeled plastic.
They can’t be more than two or three, maybe less,
maybe more, who cares. Not her. Their faces blossom
bright with snot. Their small hands wriggle twenty
pink and tacky worms. Tiny naked feet are angered
by the cool empty air. A dog captures their sullen eyes.
Then a fire truck, with its blood red skin, large hands
waving from inside. She pushes them on. They are
keening loud, and the park is near. Turkey vultures
dip the ragged tips of their midnight sails. An hour
here, then home again. Nothing gained beyond
enduring. Their cries continue, though the streets
are childless, the skies thick with heavy clouds.


F. X. James is the pseudonym of an oddball British expat hiding out in Minnesota. When not dissolving in another savage summer or fattening up for the next brutal winter, he’s writing poems and stories on the backs of unpaid utility bills. His words have appeared in The Sierra Nevada Review, Prairie Winds, The Adirondack Review, Mystery Tribune, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Courtship of the Winds, and many other publications.


by Tim Suermondt

A word I like,
shine dripping from every letter.

Pugnacious is another,
though displaying it with gentleness

is not a contradiction and is superior.

How I’m looking forward
to standing on the deck of a frigate,

sailing to a metropolis I’ve always loved.


He’s smooth and beautiful,
An angel of words.
He always puts both feet forward,
Both of them being his best.

He chronicles the human heart
From past, to present and future,
Always seemingly at the right place
At the write time. Such ease

And wisdom pouring like honey
Over his myriad readers,
Who never fail to always follow
Wherever he takes them: a golden

Highrise, a blue mountain top,
A street too lonely to ever forget.
He’s smooth and beautiful,
You’d never doubt he had wings too.


for Agnes Varda

The night, dark as the Soviet, is here.
A cat gets lost right outside the apartment.

The world teeters on its axis—is this
when it finally falls off into oblivion?

An umbrella on a chair by the entrance
of a garage, vacations firmly put to bed.

A boy and girl looking outside the window
of a Place St. Michel high-rise, dreaming—

of red hearts painted on the street below,
the future brittle, but heroes fighting hard.


While I’m reading—and it’s kept its word
and the truce has held,
not that our arrangement is foolproof—
the world will still sting hard
and I will continue to disappoint it
and myself from time to time.
But we relish the respite together
and self-pity doesn’t stand a chance between
us—a little lamplight, the city coiled
all around behaving itself admirably, the cold
outside pressed against my windows,
waiting and watching me turn every page.


Tim Suermondt is the author of five full-length collections of poems; the latest is Josephine Baker Swimming Pool from MadHat Press, 2019. He has published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Stand Magazine, december magazine, On the Seawall, Poet Lore and Plume, among many others. He lives in Cambridge (MA) with his wife, the poet Pui Ying Wong.

inside the Forbidden City

by James Thurgood

         this Ming nightmare:  hordes
tromping imperial courtyards,
                             barbarians mugging
                   for posterity
                      from royal balconies

we squeeze, shove shoulders
                                              to metal rails
                  stretch, strain, crane
        raise cameras to faces, over heads
              for shadowed glimpses
of satin cushions long-faded under
   kowtowing courtiers and concubines
      – pushy crowds with earned entry
               to sheds of crumbling treasure
hope for a shimmer of silk
clack of fan
                    in regal hand
– we press the bars and gawk
           like peasants brought to witness
the jailed Last First Wife
         – who warned her Emperor
   the Japanese despise your Ching Dynasty
                                     demand towels, water
                             clean linen
             of ghost servants,
       her own body risen against her
                 for starving it of opium

                                                   back home
                 we will tell our neighbours
                    but bending to work
     wish, some of us
                           guards had
                                        barred the gates

letter from Donghai

  wake up, Father, till I tell you
             how you’d like it, this pier
     where beat-up wooden boats herd five-six deep
black and blue hulls splintered, faded
     red flag jolly aloft each main-mast
          decks grey with ground sea-grime
                white with tromped and broken shells
burly boys toting tubs abrim
       with rubber tentacles and finned legs
             shell and scale all iridescence
                    all purples, yellows, silvers, pinks
                 murk-greens – bristles, claws
       horns and webs – feelers, fangs
– where sun-browned girls in scarves
     squat back of sea-snail vats
          and starfish trays
wind-burned women kerchiefed
               grin at a lau-wei out-of-water
leathern fishermen bare-headed, all rubber boots
     all haggle and bark
       as tip-toeing townsfolk
                                skirt slime puddles
               start from horny vans –
     here fishwives by scores
                         secret in workcoats, gloves
             and peaked bonnets battened down with scarves
                   sort nets like other Fates
             untangling lives –
  briny breeze, seafolk
       wheeling-dealing, lusty youth
     plain work – just like the wharf in Arichat
                                               circa 1928

          then the market-proper:
               rows of stalls bright-caparisoned
  – each fresh live sea-beast of the pier
      dried, hung, drawn and quartered
             piled where those are pearls
that were eyes, are necklaces,
                            shells wind-chimes

      we could sit by Moon Bay, Father
in Bohai’s breeze
          savor some sea-dish
      watch livings earned – you foretelling
            gain or loss, might suggest
half in fun and all in earnest
                                     my next thousand-li step

                               I write, Father
     since you are so distant
          and I can’t wait to tell you
                                                    if only you’d wake
                     from that dreamless sleep

Notes: 1) lau-wei: foreigner (literally, ‘Mister Foreigner’); 2) Arichat: in Cape Breton; 3) Bohai: sea or gulf adjoining Yellow Sea; 4) li: measure of distance; figurative equivalent of a mile

er-hu player

              after the restaurant
     – upstairs room
                 a good twelve dishes,
toasts enough to health and long life
                   to reduce the chance of either –
          three couples arm in arm, we hear yearning
     through new concrete apartment blocks
               strains of er-hu
                                       – find on a bench
   an old man, smiling wife
                                 folded wheelchair

          may we listen
                this fresh evening

            he turns on a radio

       too shy I’m told
                 hasn’t played for so long
                                – he offers the instrument
                          to the lao-wei musician
                                                     in the old fiddlers’ way:
          do you know enough to appreciate
                but not to out-do

     bu, bu; sie-sie I decline

                  radio again

           soon on warmer nights
musicians gather
     come back he tells us

          but I’ll be gone
will only picture them summer evenings
     five or six old men
          another er-hu, a wooden flute
    lute, zither, gourd-pipe
               ancient music

     setting off, we hear once more,
          are followed by
his fading tones

     looking back, I make out
the wife turned to watch us
                    her face a waning moon

exotic travel

          the shower:
open corner
      in a small cell

       I turn the tap overhead
and chest-height valve
     – nothing from shower-head
 – turn more, a cold spray
                         around valve
     which with more turns
          targets bare flesh
as shower-head looks on, dry-eyed

                                         another turn –
                 valve shoots to palm
fire-hose torrent blasts chest,
             rebounds all directions

the valve – surprise –
      does not screw back –
   but a firm hand behind
              holds back the flood

                    what now

 extend right leg –
          Monkey Fist toes grab underwear –
     crook leg to Hissing Snake
          retrieve underwear with free hand
                    pass foot through hole

lower foot to floor
    holding valve in place,
             underwear half up

insert left leg in left-hole

with hula swivel
      hoist underwear to waist

assume Floating Crane –
          stretch left leg to door handle,
Monkey Fist toes turn handle

door is locked

gently kick

call hey ni-hao hey!
    kick till Elder Brother appears
               wavering through frosted glass

sliver by sliver door unlocked opens

             head peeks round
                                         – upstage
     a chorus of Chinese women
             tragic and comic

 Elder Brother shuts water
               – scuttle to bedroom

                              from the kitchen
                     women laughing

leaving Longkou

                      remember at Penglai
                                                    the fortress
              that warning-sign:  say no
                         to feudal superstitions

                    sea-fog sneaks
                              on dragon feet
               paved street
                                   under lights
                          where I stroll
           my last evening  –
                             from a clutch of teenaged ghosts
            a girl’s jade voice:
                   welcome to Longkou

yelling, clapping, pebble-tossing
                                              to the window
     – Elder Brother, drink in hand, looks
             and turns back inward

             the road to Yantai:

       old man in blue
            pushing a bicycle up a dirt hill
  pestered by six white goats

             among roadside vendors
     a farmer, arms outstretched
         hawks five-feet of writhing snake

                         lonely highway –
                                  on the median
                    a shrub in flames


James Thurgood was born in Nova Scotia, grew up in Windsor, Ontario, and now lives in Calgary, Alberta. He has been a general labourer, musician, and teacher – not necessarily in that order. His poems have appeared in various journals, anthologies, and in a collection (Icemen/Stoneghosts, Penumbra Press).


by Januário Esteves

So that life is not just heartbreak
And don’t give in to capricious arbitrariness
It is vital to raise the spirit to the limit of the symbol
Bringing from this strength the hidden deities
And the cruel stupor that brings the disease
Advance without fear the song of praise
For the charm of the dream of modesty
Settle doubts that clamor with clamor
Everywhere share the experience
That translates the transfigured life dream
In the most intimate and painful experience
In chaos do not fall or be vilified
Bringing customs and signs very close
Disguises of others not wanting
Sweet and warm memories of my parents
Juxtaposing correctly in crescendo.

urban calamum

He lived off the money his mother took out of the safe on
lies that were told with a start in the cinema when the
neighbor once died watching a pornographic film and a
newborn was found in the trash. And through flying cars,
satisfaction comes close to the accounting aspect of the
sum of hours spent in urban traffic that rewards the
recycling of consumption that is available in artificial
intelligence and in drones that spray the crowds in
disagreement with the governments with holy water.
passion being a sporting success plagiarizing the
personas who manifest themselves in the collective
spotlight with the avatar corrected by social acceptance
posthumously in which survival is thrown at the minimum
wage on the way to a secular spirituality in the
confrontation with the urban beast in orgasms of faith
public with the day full of affections in a traffic
enraptured by the paradoxical being perplexed.



The joke of the man from beyond the grave who laughs for the last time at his own funeral asking for a divine intervention to the saints that is canonized in the memory of those who stay here and to the delight of a capitalist who healed of problems in the vertical column was acknowledged on a holiday with Mass in which they celebrated it.


Play time
And there we were all
Flushed with enthusiasm
Running through the undergrowth
Discovering the hidden body
In the timeless innocence of childhood
We felt sweaty from the cold
We ate carcasses with sugar and butter
Barefoot between the gravel of the street
In the starry night the promised wishes
Noble intentions of a pressing wish
That impelled us to enjoy brotherhood
In the howling reeds that huddled us
The sheets of a dreamy night

And my mother calling;
  – Narinho, Oh Narinho.


Januário Esteves is a Portuguese poet.


By Abasiama Udom

Sun has been here
ever for so long
when will the rains come?
When will the pitter-patter
on our zinc roofs we hear?

Sun has been here,
we seek the coming of the rains
like unto the coming of angels
may it appear
suddenly in our moment of wait
but who can tell the way of the rains?

Our fathers lift the dust of the earth over fire
to call it forth, It will not listen.
Who can tell the way of the rains?
Our brothers lift their glasses,
looking in instruments pointed to the sky,
it will rain today they say with a smile.
The rain defies them
a mocking smirk on his face,
He laughs true thoughts to scorn.

For who can tell the way of the rains?
The earth cries out in thirst,
trees and leaves morn their fate
for who can tell,
man or angel, the way of the rains –
Today it will come or tomorrow,
never too soon but not too late.
Who can tell?


I come from the corner
birthed in darkness in the weary cold night.
I was conceived, in October, brought forth in July
my life will never see sunlight,
only the dark.
It rains tears and sorrow
and my father never had a face,
Mother always weary.
It is time to ask my creator what sin I sinned.
For there is a name I often bear
the beginning of a taunt
the muttering of a chant
It is the feeble cry of some or the roar of all.
It is the word of no man’s,
it is the call of a bastard –


All around you,
I am in your food, in your water
in the air that you breathe
close, right by your side.
I am your reality – Your future
your fini, your very end.
I be your all.

The growl of a Tigress,
the pant of a Leopard
I am – the very roar of the Lion
the howl of the drowning whirlwind
the swash of soul seas
the cry of the lone Wolf
I am,
the dark eyes of the hooting Owl,
the enchanted paws of an enraged Cat
I be your all.

Coming from the darkness
like the laugher of a closed heart
the wand that drips blood
the piercing scream of the eagle –
the vampire resident in tales and myths
I am here, beside,
the hate in your heart I am.
Your friend.
I think you see – I am you.


Abasiama Udom is a Poet and Writer with polymathic tendencies. She is currently pursuing a personal course on the meaning of life and has found a few joys during this study: food, music, books, family, sleep, and football.
Twitter: @AneuPoet

(it is spring), i miss
your damp forehead
         between my shoulder blades

(i can’t bear to look at the moon again); i miss
how you used to bite my earlobe
whenever i drifted away
[or whenever i picked up
books like

the hundred thousand songs of milarepa
poetry more beautiful than ours
           gave you a headache]

(my darling), i miss 
your firm grasp
          on my hips

(i’ve been sleeping on your side); i miss
how your eyes
used to                                           soften
when i sang
ballads to the                                 cosmos,
wearing your duvet as the high priestesses of athena
would have worn their robes

[and when you looked at me with adoration i felt like an enchantress    ,,,,,    dazzling, alive, fire in my belly, a daughter of the seas   ,,,,,,    and i conjured all the elements in the texture of our lips]

(i’m sorry i promised to visit but i didn’t) i miss
curling up to you
sweaty hearts pressed together,
your fingertips drawing
stars and suns on my back;;;
the night i left you
i laid awake
locking eyes with the night sky
through your half-opened window,
i was cold and
i wiped my tears on your pillow case.
at one-point i could have sworn
the sky slipped into your chamber
and laid in bed with us
and i thought

kiss me
i’m peaking

you murmur
lips pressed
i look up
to you
your eyeballs
are shaking
your hair
you look
i feel
my eyes
rolling to
the back
my head
as i crash
my mouth
to yours
my hands
on your
i feel
your warmth
my skin
my heart
your hands
rest on
my waist
your beard
my ear
and i feel
with you
my mouth
i bring

feel this

your voice
is hoarse
i nod

is it

to you

                    sonnet    sorrow
                                        brief           to             



Téa Nicolae is a Romanian poetess based in the UK. She writes confessional, Occult and devotional poetry. She was short-listed for the Literary Lancashire Award 2019 and her poems have been published in several print and online publications, including Cake Magazine, TAST Zine, Dissolved Magazine and SCAN. She is an editor at Flash Journal Lancaster and she studied Film and Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

Liberty Atoms 16

by Christopher Barnes

Uncoerced lion stirred the brink
Of his roundabout,
Dodging traffic’s eyes.
At the open-hamper belt
Maisie’s plastic fork cracked.
Lipstick deformed into a grudge.
Coordinates on our map highlighted words:
“Quick, quick, come and see,
Bettina is teasing a spider”.

Liberty Atoms 17

Nettle-plait bracelet
Fringed her snow-lace.
Quickstepping limped as the amp passed over.
Maisie jostled into our hawthorne,
Sizzling to ends of permanent wave.
Imprint on beetle unevenly read:
“‘I want so much to help you,’ said Edward,
‘To bring you anything you want’”.

Liberty Atoms 18

Toy pigskin angel
Sweats by cinders.
Vase sorrel decomposes, yawning.
Blubbing keeps Maisie from playing up.
Sequins on our drop-leaf neatened to:
“Oh let that not be so! thought Thomas”.

Liberty Atoms 19

A falcon and Maisie
Voodooed seven clocks.
Herky-jerky brick-stuffed pillow
Couldn’t intuit dim light.
No phantoms undertook to align.
Riven fingernails inscaped with:
“Edwards’ first searching look
Was for a male figure, waiting”.

Liberty Atoms 20

Gossamer ping-pong ball
Vaporized into lustre.
Maisie flounced, clacking stairs.
Postwoman disputes virtue
Of balanced economy.
Our ladybird’s spots can be networked to:
“We’re quite cut off now, it’s nice”.

Quotes: Iris Murdoch, The Nice And The Good


Christopher Barnes won a Northern Arts writers award. Christmas 2001 he debuted at Newcastle’s famous Morden Tower doing a reading of poems. Each year he read for Proudwords lesbian and gay writing festival and partook in workshops. 2005 saw the publication of his collection LOVEBITES published by Chanticleer Press, 6/1 Jamaica Mews, Edinburgh.

Chief pool boy & beach boy supervisor

By Keko Prijatelj

Parasol’s swaying
Costume’s bending
Parasol’s lifting
Costume’s tightened

A stone between two stone piers
Passes to everyone’s satisfaction
Murava flourishes
In green waves
Blazing attractions
A bumblebee lands on the waterpolo ball
Broom is yellowing
Out of it the yellow scent of the Sun
And lemon

The system of considerations

Perfected in that specific environment
In thousands of nights & darks
Crashing into that bulb
Light impacts of ferocious attacks
Congratulated admired
Each character with its own specialty
A monolith of single purpose
In thousands of nights & darks
The rise of expansionism
Of endless scrolling
You’re on the upper floor
Comfort lies in the littleness of things
You’re on the upper floor but why wait
You might as well jump in

The thousands of nights & darks

There’s one wing swing
One leg movement
One eye catch
The possibility of reaching the total
With no comparison
Just one bulb and thousands of bugs
Nights & darks


In the window
Crystal reflection
In the dawn I
Am attacked by panthers lions by wolves bears
In the window I
Crystal reflection of me
In the dawn
Will slaughter
A bear a lion a panther a wolf


Keko Prijatelj is a writer from Croatia. His work has appeared in several Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian magazines, and most recently in Maudlin House. He is currently working as a junior project manager for an IT company, while majoring in linguistics and phonetics. He has a bachelor’s degree in film & TV directing, and he occasionally directs plays.

Judith Skillman Interview by Janée J. Baugher

Janée J. Baugher: As an undergraduate in the 1970s, you had a rich introduction to poets and politics.

Judith Skillman: Yes, as a student at University of Maryland, I studied with Rod Jellema, Ann Darr, Reed Whittemore, and others. The visiting poets at that time included Galway Kinnell, Tess Gallagher, Stanley Kunitz, and others. Because UM didn’t yet have an MFA program, I studied English Literature with an emphasis on creative writing. Supportive criticism was not in vogue then. Peers in workshops would make statements like, “This poem is shit.” Whether or not someone’s poem is crap, it takes a thick skin to continue to write after feeling eviscerated by your peers.

Richard Brautigan came to Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) when I was an undergraduate. His anti-war poems were so resounding at that time. I was politically active when I was young, joining campaign groups, manning the phones, wearing buttons, and handing out fliers. Working at campaign headquarters in proximity to Washington DC was exciting. When my daughter Lisa was born and only a few months old my mom and I went, all dressed in white, to the Women’s Rights March at the Washington Monument. I was a feminist then, and a member of NOW, for which I did freelance work.

As a child who had to go down into the bomb shelter during the Cuban missile crisis, I have been aware that the world could go nuclear since I was nine. I won’t forget the trauma of walking down to the underground cafeteria carrying my blanket and lunch. One can barely watch three seconds of news before being reminded of the brutality of mankind.

Since moving to the Seattle-area, I’ve had the privilege of taking workshops from Beth Bentley, Patiann Rogers, William Stafford, Madeline DeFrees, David Wagoner, Jana Harris, Marvin Bell, David Wojahn, and Andrei Codrescu, to name a few. At Port Townsend Writer’s Conference in 1995 I met the illustrious Jack Gilbert. We kept up a modest correspondence for a few years. He taught me that when you revise your poems, it’s good to be aware of the difference between fancy and imagination, particularly with associative material. Fancy is contrived, whereas the imagination is defined as the “mind’s eye.” Fancy fits under imagination, and not vice versa. Although it’s employed under the verb, fancy is a “faculty of the imagination.” We want leaps that follow a subconscious thread. We don’t want to impress the reader (s/he doesn’t exist when we’re writing, anyway) with ostentation, showiness, or flamboyance. Keep it understated—that’s a good measuring stick with which to judge images that run rampant. Prune adjectives—another way to resist the ornate. Write from feeling, not from intellectualizing or over-thinking. Pay attention to your dreams and the songs that get stuck in your head.

JB: In our digital age, I wonder if “letter to a young poet” correspondence relationships are still happening. How much did you gain as a writer, for example, with your epistle relationship with Jack Gilbert?

JS: I learned so much from Jack. He was single-minded in his passion for writing, and lived a monkish life, rarely leaving the cottage at Centrum where I was his neighbor for a month. After I gathered up the courage, I showed him a poem, which was, I think, about deer—there were many deer in Port Townsend—he pointed to a few lines in the middle of the piece and asked me pointblank “Is this fancy or imagination?” I remember being both puzzled and fascinated by the question. So we talked about the quality of fancy and how it differs from the imagination. He took it upon himself to teach me this lesson, which has become extremely important as years go by. Fancy is contrived. Jack had an eye and an ear for whatever is fake, forced, strained, artificial, affected, or put on.

While I was under his informal mentorship, Jack spent not a small amount of time discouraging me from continuing to write poetry. He said that there was no point in it, as so few poets would get a job even at the community college level. Yet he continued to support me in my work, as we exchanged letters over the course of ten years or so. I have saved these for their truthfulness. I learned something of his “métier”—to write a poem a week while enjoying the “meanwhile.” For him, the idol of so many poets and non poets alike, the act of writing was one of communication with a wide audience while living a solitary, frugal life.

I recall, when I saw his kitchen table, that there was a letter from The New Yorker soliciting his work. I asked incredulously “Aren’t you going to send them something?” To my surprise, he replied with a shrug. This was not an act. It was the gift of a great poet bestowed upon someone struggling for recognition—a gesture that said everything I needed to know and to remember. The writing is what Gilbert was after. Sitting with his feelings and letting them percolate and finding out what was in there that had resonance; what could become a surprise or the hidden meaning in a broken relationship. It was not the acquisition of a reputation, fame, or fortune. This despite the Yale Younger Poets Award, and the fact that he told stories of walking around with Pound in Italy. He spoke much of his wife Michiko, whom he mourned with an altar on his dresser in each place he landed. This self-imposed reclusion despite having been nominated for the Pulitzer at the same time as William Carlos Williams made him truly unique.

JB: How does a person leap from being a student of poetry to having published eighteen poetry collections?

JS: When I had my first child, my mom was very supportive. She said, “Babies sleep a lot. Why don’t you enroll in law school?” So, after I attended one semester, I turned to poetry, which people are wont to do. Anyhow, shortly after I quit school and began writing, I made a decision. “I’m a poet,” I began telling people. I turned to magic realism, the fiction of Borges, and lapped-up the language of Mark Twain. I wrote poems and was, therefore, a poet. Simple as that.

JB: Is poem-making for you like creating sand mandalas? Normally, I wouldn’t mention obsession, but, given how prolific you’ve been throughout your life, what would you say about the compulsion to writing thousands of poems?

JS: Making is the thing. Poets write the same poem over and over, similar to mandalas. What lasts? Why do we do the things that we do? This isn’t something one needs to overthink, nor should one. The War of Art is a book that, for me, explains the necessity of overcoming one’s resistance to succumbing to one’s innate passions. Why do we have so much resistance? It seems that the “maker” in each writer does have a war to fight, against her/his own inner critic.

As humans we are especially self-critical. The internal voice demands to know why on earth the “I”—that is, the ego—would expend itself to serve the self. There has to be some gain, right? Some recognition for all the work that goes into creating a unique package of words—a poem, a novel, a memoir, or a screenplay. A piece of visual art, or sculpture—even an entrepreneurial endeavor. What is the pay off? I learned a lot when Tibetan monks visited my son’s college (Reed College, Portland, Oregon). They spent a number of days creating beautiful mandalas of sand. My son played pool with one of the monks each evening. Parents came on the day these works of art were to be thrown in the river that flows through the campus. There they would turn to milk, all color gone, nothing left to identify any one of the particular, unique pieces.

Poem-making is the same process. We bring the inner beauty and magnitude of our thoughts out on paper. The exquisite moments of that are personal to the extreme. Will anything come of this act? Will the endeavor last? This is not for the maker to decide, nor to concern him or herself with. It is an act of relinquishment.

Obsession plays a part, as in, possibly, OC syndrome—in that a writer may not feel grounded unless they are playing and replaying some incident in thought, and mimicking this by repetitive behavior. For me, the act of writing poems (and I have dabbled in fiction and essay writing, and written reviews as well) is a welcome respite from the daily grind. Simply sitting still within one’s writing place, whether it is a corner carved out of another room or a room of one’s own, stills habitual thought patterns. Reading and mulling over events become a kind of practice that yields, at times, unexpected results. Sometimes I find myself sitting very still and a strong feeling wells up. It may be uncomfortable. Life is full of grief, for instance, though we prefer to talk about the weather. There are the numerous transitions our children go through, aging parents, financial problems—you name it.

So the compulsion to write poems, while it resembles other repetitive acts, is completely different. In the act of feeling and subsequently writing down what comes to mind without censoring that material, some seed appears. Perhaps the would-be poem remains a fragment. That’s fine. Fragments can be pieced together or lead to sequences. If the internal censor can be vanquished from the room, the act of piecing words together based on either a form or free verse or associations (I prefer the latter) can lead in surprising directions. Connections may not be clear at the time. It’s a form of day dreaming, or, perhaps, in the best case, of dreaming awake.

JB: Some writers have spent a lifetime writing about the mundane, but you’ve found artistic fodder in the subject of trauma. Robert Frost reminds us, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Is it trauma’s dramatic occasion, its personal significance, or its intrinsic tension that interests you?

JS: My personal traumatic experiences go as far back as I can remember. My childhood tonsillectomy, for example. Instead of getting ice cream I vomited three bedpans of blood, and had to stay overnight in the hospital alone. Parents did not stay with children in the sixties! I had hallucinations of spiders; climbed out of my metal crib and wandered down the hallways only to be stiffly reprimanded by a nurse. As a writer writing of tragedies, it’s curious to me how and why I remember these sorts of details so vividly. I barely remember my graduations from high school and university, but those imagined spiders from my childhood still haunt me…

So your question is salient. I would say all three of these come into play—the dramatic occasion that lingers or malingers in the mind, the personal significance, and the tension and/or angst provided by the memory. It demands to be exorcised. I am not sure why my happier memories aren’t stronger. Somehow it’s the wounds that want to come out of the closet when I write. I have tried to change this. Public readings about unpleasant events—these poems are not leavened by humor in the slightest—leave me feeling the audience is not only getting depressed, but I am too. Of course there are exceptions. But by and large, perhaps because of expectations that may have set me up for an easier path through life, my attraction to the trauma has not diminished with the years.

JB: While writing-through-trauma isn’t new, the current zeitgeist is making the mode even more relevant and necessary. While we usually don’t think about the biographical elements of Robert Frost’s poetry, the fact remains that he was a man long traumatized by his loved ones’ diseases, mental illnesses, and sudden deaths. “Home Burial” is a remarkable illustration of that gulf that exists between people caught between the dead and the living. Do you feel as though you’re a poet who writes through tragedies and trauma?

JS: Yes, and there’s so much to unpack. I’ve tackled topics from childhood illnesses to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Rimbaud was right when he wrote, “Too bad for the wood that finds itself a violin.” I think artists of every discipline, compared to the average person, have more acute sensory awareness. Often this manifests in a heightened sensitivity of the body. For example, Wordsworth has a poem about chronic insomnia; it’s his third night without sleep and he invokes God. Sleeplessness erodes confidence. Insomnia is both humbling and insistent, as is chronic pain. One feels one can’t trust the body, its impulses when young, and its ongoing ever-increasing sensibilities and foibles as we age.

JB: Your treatment of writing-through-trauma is resolute and understated, and the mystery is palpable. You span subjects such as illnesses, disease, depression. W.H. Auden was precise when he wrote, “About suffering they were never wrong.” In your Journal of American Medical Association poems, there’s surprise in the juxtaposition of beauty and pain. There’s something ethereal beyond or somewhere within the imagery of tragedy, trauma, suffering.

JS: The fact that MFA writing programs may be offering a new track, writing-through-trauma, is interesting. One of the first “trauma” poems I wrote was “Written on Learning of Arrhythmia in the Unborn Child”. The title describes exactly when this was written—after an ultrasound late in the first trimester of pregnancy, when my then unborn third child had an arrhythmic heart beat. The uneven heartbeat became just the tip of the iceberg, as a subsequent ultrasound revealed that she only had one working kidney. The title “Written On Learning of….” might be an inherent preface for each poem written out of a traumatic experience.

I believe the authenticity of the work depends upon a sliver of disengagement from actual events—an ability to detach, even if just momentarily, from the object or subject of one’s shock. After shock comes fear, and that seems more ordinary. Perhaps by ordinary I mean that fear in the context of daily necessities can become uncomfortable, but subject to avoidance. Daily routine presses onward, and any space one might have for contemplation is lost. By its nature, shock includes a surreal element, but this can make it easier and, in fact, feel safer, to look away from the abnormality of the experience—to discount strong emotions and move on with problem solving. Of course, at the time, I was in a state of shock, as prior to this I had two healthy children by natural childbirth. That is not to say they didn’t have any problems, but the early illnesses they experienced were garden variety compared to this set of issues.

JB: So, while that poem, “Written On Learning of Arrhythmia,” published by Poetry over 30 years ago was your first trauma-related poem, it certainly wasn’t your last. Is it true that for the last 25 years you’ve had over 25 poems published in the Journal of American Medical Association?

JS: Yes. It was at the time of my third child’s major surgery, which required an eight-day stay at Children’s hospital in Seattle, and she came home with tubes in her kidneys and bladder, that I wrote “The Body Especial,”—my first poem published in JAMA’s Poetry and Medicine column. The subjects of my JAMA poems have included, diagnoses such as Hashimoto’s disease, Epstein-Barr, post vitreous detachment, tinnitus, spasmodic torticollis, traumatic brain injury, shingles, serum sickness, and diagnostic procedures such as mammograms, echocardiograms, and biopsies.

While I have had personal resonance with this list of subjects, my first concern is honoring the energy of the moment in which I write. When various maladies are diagnosed, words get involved and that becomes exciting. There is the challenge to discover not only what the word holds, but what the body is holding onto. Our bodies know more than we do about how events in our ever-changing environment influence our lives. I found the term “Spasmodic Torticollis” very funny even as I experienced the pain of a wrenched neck. It does sound like an Italian dish, so the poem’s first line was a found line.

JB: As a poet who battles chronic pain, you’ve mentioned to me the importance of having read Sarah Anne Shockley’s book, The Pain Companion. Will you discuss the correlation between intellectualizing and managing your pain with writing about it imaginatively?

JS: Well, there is a depth of fury and rage when one’s body doesn’t function normally. Often this anger turns inward, towards oneself. That is unproductive and exacerbates the condition. You have to choose how you want to relate to your pain. I can’t trust the body, and have rarely felt comfortable in my own skin.

Writing, however, helps establish a foundation for trust in reality. There is a tremendous amount of release available when one can take to a private place such as a poem with one’s feelings—the heartache engendered by trauma. It isn’t a panacea by any means, but writing holds the moment in place. By anchoring an event with words, the experience becomes externalized, and makes shock more bearable.

So while I feel rather like a magnet for trauma, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to express these events of varying kinds and proportions in the form of verse. While there is little to recommend about trauma, except perhaps the ability to empathize with others who experience it, we all live through deeply distressing experiences. Just being born is a critical condition for the human infant, who relies on his or her parents to meet each and every need for a full year, as compared to other mammals, who are born and learn to fend for themselves in a relatively short time.

JB: Writing-through-trauma seems like a method by which a writer can actually claim an event that she herself couldn’t control. By writing a script in which beauty collides with trauma, a writer can orchestrate a slowing down, a way of regaining command of a life that’s vast and unpredictable. In that spirit, talk to me about the poem, “You’ll Never Heal.”

JS: I have been inspired to write by new traumatic events that seem to spring up continually and leave scars. “You’ll Never Heal” was written after one of my children had a serious car accident. It speaks of the sensibility of a shock experience from mother to daughter. I know for myself healing doesn’t necessarily happen in the actual world. In the ideal, of course, we want and expect that restoration and exactitude: that our loved one will emerge unmarred, unscarred. The thing about poems is that verse, at least for me, can capture the moment better than autobiographical prose can.

Though they say it could have been worse,
give you ice and pills, nothing bandages
the millisecond you can’t remember

or the afterwards, a shock wave traveling
in slow motion through your knee,
your back, neck and stomach.

Though they say the limp will disappear,
you feel as if cottonwood fell to the curb
to be collected by the accident
and packed into the ball and socket.

This kind of snow never melts.
Through glass you watch the great hulk of mountain,
that part you can see, its summit clipped
by cloud, frame, pall.

(Preprinted with permission from Came Home to Winter, Deerbrook Editions 2019)

JB: My favorite Anne Sexton quote concerns her label as a confessional poet: “I often confess to things that never happened.” I wonder if “Writing through Trauma” is just the 21st century term for “Confessional” writing? What’s your take on the mode of writing-through-trauma? Do you consider your writing about trauma to be confessional? Is trauma a matter for art? While there’s an inherent autobiographical nature to writing-through-trauma, my question to you is how can writers ensure that their work doesn’t succumb to self-indulgence?

JS: I would say stick with the experience, stay true to the details, and keep yourself present to what happened. Also, follow the mood, if and when that develops. Think of a mood as a guide forward into the material that needs to be accessed and brought back into the light in order to be examined under a microscope. Use your senses, all five, and the sixth sense if it can be accessed, to avoid self-pity. Know that you are not alone—trauma is experienced every day by everyone, even if it is present as the affront of a wooden table to a toddler who is learning how to navigate a living room. When the pity and confession begin, allow yourself to feel that, but don’t engage overlong. The smallest child moves forward with mercurial changeability from crying to laughing, and in a split second is on to the next thing. That’s a good lesson.

JB: So, is that to say that your primary concern in poem-making is image development versus writing on the facts of a certain situation? Writing-through-trauma for you isn’t a means of catharsis?

JS: I think it goes both ways. The first impetus is “Let’s get this thing that feels like being slimed out of my body…let’s make it into words, because it is too awful to retain inside.” The facts are the facts and they are important. This experience happened. It was shocking and surprising. It made me feel angry, upset, hurt; it caused pain and suffering. I am still here, however, and looking out at a world that doesn’t seem to care that this happened. In fact, people can distance themselves from their loved ones who suffer—this occurs much more often than one might like to think. Pain and suffering are scary and uncomfortable. They remind others of their own pain. Clearly PTSD and its attendant emotions can become a toxic and isolating concoction.

So what in nature does this feeling-experience resemble? That’s where image development comes in. There’s an organic part to being human. We try to pretend that our animal qualities don’t exist. We have our cities, our high rises, concrete, pavement—we’ve covered civilization with a flat veneer of ‘enlightenment’. Despite this, if, when wounded by our own bodies, we turn back to the natural world, there are abundant examples of scarred trees, burnt vistas, branchings, tramplings, floods, and randomness. Many images are available to translate our feelings into words. The correspondence of image to situation may or may not ease the current situation. It is not something to be done for the purpose of catharsis. That may backfire, because any purpose can become pat, forced, studied, and artificial—again, can be fancy.

JB: Speaking of the autobiographical elements in your writing, you’ve had physical injuries, hereditary maladies, social trauma, and chronic pain, all of which have been given voice in your poetry. Will you discuss the struggles inherent to using personal pain as a subject for poetry?

JS: I’ve always had a sensitive constitution. Acute sensory awareness, sympathetic pains, feeling deeply about things, people. A propensity for worry. I’ve felt shame, guilt (some milieu-induced and some society-specific) about my chronic pain, but that never prevented me from writing about it. Trauma is omnipresent and omnipotent, which is to say that no one’s immune. I’ve done research on PTSD, and still I cannot figure out why some people are consumed by it and some people seen to be inoculated from it.

JB: In your poem, “Biopsy,” which ends with the words, “She couldn’t feel / more like a hostage / were she to don / the bee’s jacketed stripes, / the garb of the jail,” there’s a curious string of associations from needle to sting to bee to imprisonment. Do these associations come easily for you in the creative process, or do you made these conscious links during revision?

JS: They simply arrived, in this case. The associative process was working—all I had to do was get out of the way. Of course this doesn’t always happen. I think in this case the links were  internalized from having been stung by wasps, bees, and hornets some twenty times while growing up in Maryland. Physicians and/or nurses often use the phrase “This will feel like a bee sting”…again the process is dipping into what’s already there, waiting to be found.

JB: When I substitute taught your Richard Hugo House class, “Generating Associative Verse,” I puzzled over who were my favorite associative poets. In that class I realized that your poetic associative moves are the ones I most admire. One of my favorites is your punctuation-free poem, “Tiny Animals,” which has that bullet train feeling:

in blown glass on shelves
Wedgewood plates
stacked on the buffet
for company
quilted place mats
salt and pepper shaker
from Tahiti
horns of ivory
rhinoceros don’t you dare
touch else the host
will bellow
you’ll become the child
who ran into winter
jumped the fence
to fall on concrete
where a shard
entered your palm
look at the cicatrix
like a tattoo
a little leg
pulled from flesh

(Previously published in Hamilton Stone Review No. 35)

JS: It’s the subconscious that knows best, so the question then becomes how to access that part of our minds when we go to write. Sensation seems to be the driving force for a poem, especially one of an associative nature. “Tiny Animals” is one of my personal favorite associative poems also. It’s impossible to explicate why, except perhaps that when I look at it now there are concrete images and explicit warnings. The injury experienced by the ‘you’—“you’ll become the child” is a splinter from one of those “Tiny Animal(s)”—but how does the piece move from beginning to end without knowing consciously that there would be a convergence? Because it (the unconscious/subconscious part) is the best tool available to any writer.

JB: Will you talk about the image-and thread-driven nuances of associative writing?

JS: In writing associatively, it’s the subconscious that knows best what material is of the utmost importance for addressing—or for feeling our way—through a specific subject matter. So the question becomes how to access that part of our minds when we sit down to write. Dreams are poem-like; associative poems can be dream like, and are compared to Hieronymus Bosch by Richard Hugo: “When you see a painting by Hieronymus Bosch your immediate impression may be that he was a weirdo. A wise man once told me he thought Bosch had been a cynic, and the longer I thought about this the truer it seemed… Had Bosch concerned himself with the relative moral or aesthetic values of the various details, we would see more struggle and less composure in the paintings themselves. The details may clash with each other, but they do not clash with Bosch. Bosch concerned himself with executing the painting—he must have—and that freed his imagination, left him unguarded…One way of getting into the world of the imagination is to focus on the play rather than the value of words…” (from The Triggering Town)

JB: Besides the propulsion of associations through your poems, will you enlighten me about the irreducible relationship between your titles and your first lines. There’s so much happening in that white space! The poetic leaps don’t feel like leaps at all; they feel more like scaling a German wall. Here are some of my favorite title/first line combinations from your selected, The Phoenix, 2007-2013: Wind—Like pain it came and left by halves; House of Burnt Cherry—Here the martyr and the porcupine; Extinction’s Cousin—I came back for scraps; and November Moon, Past Full—Pours its dead, mimetic light.

JS: In that white space, the poems take-off, so to speak. I think that exists because of the need strongly felt in the body to write the poem. It’s more of a mood or a feeling than an idea. Ideas are the enemy of associative writing; the goal is to allow ourselves access to what’s frozen, or invisible, below the tip of the iceberg. The feeling that drives the poem’s initial impulse and its title come almost in tandem, then a huge feeling that must come out (William Stafford: “writing a poem is like getting traction on ice”). The first line may be the easiest part, because the rest of the poem is figuring out the relationship between the first line and the feeling. You have to wade through self-doubt and confusion. As David Wagoner has said, you have to become a mad person when you write, to see where the mood and the music leads you.

JB: Your poems are a rapid-fire in that I don’t ever know exactly how I got to the end of each poem and when I do get there I want to reread the thing immediately. In a 2008 interview in the Centrum Foundation newsletter (Port Townsend, Washington), you said, “The best poems are those that go through you like a bullet train.” Is that to say that good poetry reverberates? Good poetry is blurry? Will you explain what you mean?

JS: I learned this from Beth Bentley, when I studied from her at the UW. She wanted emotion in poems. She didn’t want philosophy, or even, necessarily, a lot of narrative, though she herself is a master of the narrative voice. Good poetry moves quickly. It contains images that build upon one another—the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Too many ideas spoil a poem—that’s what I came to see from bringing poems in to Bentley’s workshop. The idea contains seeds or germs; this is what needs to be developed. So yes, I would say that good poetry does reverberate in that it calls upon the senses. If there is any blurriness, that would arise from connotations that differ somewhat from person to person, but it’s a straight shot from start to finish, and when you are done reading a good poem, you feel electricity. There is then the aftermath of watching that current pass through you.

Perhaps the poems feel fast because they are not rational, and not puzzled out in logical imagery. I’m more comfortable when I’m in that trance zone—when an unusual or unique feeling leads me to where a poem is headed. These are poems that I don’t really revise. I’m comfortable with the unknown, a gut feeling that I’m an explorer, an adventurer—perhaps the luckiest gift of being raised as the child of two scientists. I love letting thought follow some half-wrought lines anywhere they wish to lead. While composing verse, I myself am suspending disbelief.


Janée J. Baugher is the author of the poetry collections Coördinates of Yes and The Body’s Physics, as well as the forthcoming academic book, The Ekphrastic Writer: Creating Art-Influenced Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction (McFarland, 2020). She teaches Creative Writing in Seattle.

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