March 25, 2015

An Interview with Krisela Karaja

By Lauren Silverio in Interviews, LRR

Photo credit: Arben Bici Photography

Photo credit: Arben Bici Photography

Krisela Karaja, the Editor-in-Chief of the 2014 Long River Review, is currently a Fulbright Student Research Fellow in Albania, where she is studying the concepts of memory and nationalism as seen in contemporary poetry during the 25-year post-communist, democratic transition. Though Krisela is focusing on five established Albanian poets for her formal research, she is simultaneously trying to encourage literature, poetry, and the arts in Albania in the following ways (in her own words):

  1. By promoting and contributing to discussions with a Poetry Club, which meets at the National Library on a weekly basis.
  2. By proposing that the Albanian literature department at the University of Tirana create a student-run online literary journal, so that tomorrow’s “established” poets can emerge organically—both for Albanian readers and for researchers interested in Albanian literature. The magazine is still being developed. That said, no website currently exists, but the Albanian literature department hopes to place it somewhere on the Faculty of History and Philology’s website ( Regarding a blog: the students are hoping to establish the journal this year. No blog will be established, but they are open to the idea of adding on a blog in future years, after getting things rolling. The tentative name for this journal is Amëz, which is a wordplay on an Albanian term that means “mother/source/fount of inspiration” while also meaning a “fragrance” (i.e. a breath of fresh air, a new fragrance in literature). Ideally, this journal will become a university-wide collaboration in later years.
  3. By establishing a student poetry recitation program in the English Department at the University of Tirana. Modelled after the Poetry Out Loud program in the U.S., this program, called Po-e-Zë, [zë meaning “voice” in Albanian, and “po e zë” meaning “I am starting something (new)” in Albanian], is meant to spread to the entire English Department and, ideally, become a university-wide competition in later years.
  4. By establishing my own online blog and emerging literary/art journal, ANTI/\OJOS ( The aim of ANTI/\OJOS is to generate dialogue about my intellectual cravings. Given that my current intellectual cravings focus on Albanian literature, Issue #1 of ANTI/\OJOS aims to place Albanian writers/artists in Albania as well as in the Diaspora in dialogue with international, non-Albanian writers/artists. Albania experienced a xenophobic form of communism for approximately 46 years, from 1944 until the early 1990s. That said, the country was literally closed off from the rest of the world (and the rest of the world was closed off from it) for nearly half a century. Literature and the arts have therefore developed in a peculiar form of isolation; it is time to juxtapose Albanian works against international pieces, so as to see the similarities and so as to note the striking differences. This will encourage the continued assimilation of Albanian literature and arts into the international artistic scene. Though in its humble beginnings, ANTI/\OJOS hopes to help with this. Both Albanian and non-Albanian submissions are currently being accepted. More information can be found online at (submissions highly encouraged).

antiojos insta twitter facebook cover

After corresponding with Krisela briefly at the beginning of the semester, I knew that I wanted LRR to provide a platform for her to discuss her exciting literary plans for Albania. In the following brief interview, Krisela discusses the current state of the student-run journal she hopes to bring to life, her own blog, and the future of collaboration between LRR and the Albanian journal.

The views expressed in the following interview are entirely those of the interviewee and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.

University of Tirana

University of Tirana

LS: Could you describe your interest in creating a literary journal at the University of Tirana?

KK: As mentioned above, I have encouraged the development of a student-run literary journal at the University of Tirana because I believe that one such online magazine would allow fresh, quality voices in the literary scene to emerge organically on a yearly basis. That is, instead of having an outside researcher like myself come in and, in a sense, “pick” new contemporary literary voices to showcase, a journal like this will allow Albanian students of literature, themselves, to determine and showcase what they consider quality literature, representative of their time and generation. Should this journal be successful, I hope to study it later on, so as to see if any notable similarities exist between the various authors published there, and so as to use it as a source which might aid me and others in better articulating the current / future state of Albanian literature (i.e. are there specific literary movements taking form?; does most of the notable emerging literature center on a particular theme?; etc.).

I wanted to establish this magazine because there is a lack of literary magazines in Albania, and I consider this unfortunate as literary magazines serve the purpose of allowing authors’ works to dialogue with each other, while simultaneously propelling new talent into the spotlight, for potential publishing/writing contracts & etc. This is especially necessary in Albania, as many publishing houses publish “friends” or people with whom the publishers have long-standing relationships, instead of necessarily seeking to publish “quality.”

Literary magazines have existed in Albania (Aleph, Mehr Licht, Poeteka) but most have usually published for several years and then have capitulated due to lack of funds. The only other literary magazine that currently exists in Albania, to the extent of my knowledge at least, is called Pa Fokus (“Without Focus”; Since 2013, Pa Fokus has been published online on a monthly basis, 10-11 times a year. It generates dialogue about important cultural issues in Albania; each monthly issue focuses on a different theme (e.g. education, “the other,” etc.). Its staff is entirely volunteer-based and its contents are free and open to the public. I was not aware of Pa Fokus’s existence when I suggested the establishment of the literary magazine at the University of Tirana. However, even after learning of Pa Fokus, I am certain that both magazines are necessary as they serve different roles in the Albanian literary/artistic scene. Pa Fokus seeks to publish young, emerging writers, columnists, and artists, though it admits to not being 100% “selective” in terms of the literature it publishes. While Pa Fokus’s editors do seek quality material, they do not necessarily critique writings, nor do they necessarily work with writers in order to edit/tweak their creative work prior to publishing them. Pa Fokus therefore serves as a forum of voices. Ideally, I am imagining that the University of Tirana’s magazine, Amëz, may serve as a forum as well, but a more refined forum, carefully curated by the university’s own students of literature, and purposefully showcasing what the students deem to be the “best of the best.” Thus, the two magazines coexist in harmony, as they serve the art world in different ways—Pa Fokus by allowing artists to experiment and come to the forefront on a regular, monthly basis and Amëz by carefully selecting what it considers “the best” for annual showcase.

I have also encouraged the development of this journal because I strongly believe that giving students a hands-on task like this—allowing them to be the judges of what is considered quality literature amongst the submissions of their peers—will help them grow as literary critics, as leaders, as team-players, and as future editors/publishers. I can say this with confidence because my three years on the Long River Review staff—first as a member of the Poetry Panel and Translations Editor, second as the Main Genre Editor for the Poetry Panel and the Foreign Literatures Editor, and third as Editor-in-Chief)—helped me do just that. I essentially wanted the students to have an experience similar to mine with LRR; I learned a lot about myself, about student writing, and about contemporary literature through the LRR. I figure that perhaps these students can learn more about their own literary landscape in a similar fashion.

LS: How is your progress going?

KK: The Literature Department Head at the University of Tirana was kind enough to offer her full support with this idea. In fact, she was able to introduce the concept of the magazine to the first-year students of “Shkrim Kritik” (“Critical Writing”/ “Literary Criticism”). The 40-odd students of this class were notified in December that they would be establishing an online literary journal, as part of a class project. They were individually told to research literary journals in general (be they US journals or otherwise). Each student then individually presented a project proposal for the ideal form of this journal: e.g. its theme, its title, its ideal contents, its categories for submission, its frequency of publication, etc. After presenting and handing in their projects in early-to-mid-January, a handful of students were selected as the main editors of the journal. These students would lead their fellow classmates in gathering materials throughout January and early February, while consulting two professors and myself for guidance. The students handed in a draft of the magazine, along with the preliminary submissions / choices for publication, in early February. Students were required to justify, in writing, their decision for choosing the pieces that they did; this was part of their grade. The Department Head is reviewing these materials to assure that effort has been put forth and to ensure that quality choices have been made. This semester, the student-editors will continue soliciting materials from student-writers enrolled in a creative writing course. At the moment, the new semester is just starting, so we are waiting for things to get rolling before moving forward. However, much of the heavy lifting has been done.

LS: What challenges have you faced in the process of bringing this journal to life?

KK: The journal has yet to emerge. However, the most challenging aspect of the process so far for me was serving as the main “advisor” to the Poetry and Translations panels. Time flows differently in Albania, and classes are structured differently. Students, though well-intentioned, would sometimes break appointments with me, without realizing that this was affecting the structure of my day, and without being fully cognizant that I was offering to help them with any questions regarding poetry and translations on a volunteer-basis. I would become frustrated when things didn’t go as “they should” (according to me). For instance, even if all of my panelists showed up, then perhaps the room we had planned to use was taken. My first meeting with them was conducted—I kid you not—on the sidewalk of a busy intersection near the National Library, as the American Corner (a room of the library) had been unexpectedly “booked” at the last minute by others. However, all cultural miscommunications aside, helping out was an honor and taught me the importance of flexibility and adaptability.

LS: You have mentioned that one of the goals of such a journal project is to inform the LRR editors of the challenges that people in less-developed countries face with regards to the dissemination of young voices in the arts. 

What are some of the challenges that you have noticed in Albania?

KK: Well, everything essentially comes down to economics, and then spreads out from there. Albanians are often living paycheck to paycheck, and their income is barely enough to pay their bills. That said, when the economy suffers, people have to focus on practicality first and foremost. This means that the arts—which are often mistakenly considered “impractical” are put on the backburner in most cases. While the US government and US universities are fortunate enough, economically speaking, to provide funding for projects such as literary journals, these funds are rarer here, and far more difficult to come by, as the competition is fierce. The LRR, for instance, is fortunate enough to have a yearly budget to “play” with in order to print its issues and continue functioning, while also maintaining online costs for the website/blog. I suggested an online magazine so that the university can keep operational costs at a minimum for this journal, and so as to avoid cost-based capitulation (as other Albanian literary journals in print have experienced). However, economics are still an issue. The University of Tirana is still developing as an institution; its classrooms do not offer Wi-Fi, projectors need to be sought out well in advance for use in the classroom, and there is generally a kind of chaos that pervades the daily shuffle-and-bustle here. There is no centralization; every department organizes itself and its classes individually; there is no central online listing of courses offered and their locations. A lack of such resources and information on hand, and a lack of centralization across faculties at the university means that something simple—like scheduling a meeting time with students outside of class, or showing students how to research literary journals—becomes harder to implement, sometimes to the point of frustration. As a US student, I have learned to appreciate the abundance offered by our education system; I am thinking that this year’s LRR editors might feel the same. I am also thinking that the LRR can, if possible, provide outreach to this emerging journal in Albania, in an effort to establish mutually beneficial ties between both universities.

LS: How does the literary/arts culture differ from that in the US?

KK: In Tirana, the capital of Albania, literature and the arts are promoted. (In the regional cities and villages, literature and the arts are not nearly as popular). Of course as I mentioned, formal, university-based funding for extracurricular activities (non-existent in the public university, as far I am aware) or extra projects is difficult to come by. However, Tirana’s notable “coffee culture” and abundance of bar-cafes lends itself to individually organized artistic events in specific places around the city. Most of the artsy crowd hangs out in one of four places: Tirana Ekspres (an alternative space for events, frequented by the student crowd), E Jona (a café in the trendy Bllok area, which hosts live music and established authors regularly), Tulla (a new place, which attracts young and old artists alike), and Hemingway (a bar owned by one of the editors of the former Poeteka literary magazine, where somewhat older artists/writers/journalists often go to kick back a few beers). Though less formally-backed with funding and by institutions, the arts nevertheless flourish here because the people—particularly the younger generations—are eager to include themselves in an international artistic dialogue.

LS: You are interested in initiating collaboration between the Long River Review and a literary magazine at your university in Albania.  Has the Embassy been receptive to the idea of collaboration between an Albanian literary magazine and LRR? What is your vision for this type of collaboration? What would it entail?

KK: Ok I am going to answer all of these questions together, in the following response:

Yes, I am interested in establishing ties between the University of Connecticut and the University of Tirana. More specifically, I am interested in establishing ties—informal at first, but ideally formal and institutional—between the Long River Review and Amëz (the University of Tirana’s emerging journal). These ties would at the very least include dialogue between the editors of each respective journal every year. For instance—LRR editors could Skype-in and answer questions that Amëz editors might have about the lit-mag editing process in the US. Similarly the Amëz staff could answer any questions that LRR might have regarding running a literary magazine on a low budget, regarding establishing a magazine in a country whose own literary canon is still “emerging,” etc. Additionally, I am thinking that LRR can publish English translations of select pieces from Amëz, and Amëz can publish Albanian translations of select pieces from LRR on a yearly basis (should both magazines be interested in doing this, of course).

In an ideal world. LRR editors would apply for UConn funding –perhaps a younger member this year could apply for a SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fund) or IDEA grant for next year?—in order to come to Albania and lead the Amëz student editors in setting goals and bettering the magazine on an annual basis. In an ideal world, perhaps Amëz editors could find funding from the local US Embassy (though this is just an idea) so as to sponsor an exchange between select LRR and Amëz editors. Such an exchange (perhaps between the translations editors of both journals) would encourage both editorial boards to work together in order to create a “special transnational issue” of both magazines. These ideas have come about with discussions with the Albanian Literature Department Head. I believe that they are very achievable in coming years. The main task at the moment is simply to establish a dialogue between both groups and to get Amëz up and running.

I have realized that my work in Albania will not conclude at the end of my Fulbright stay. I hope to come back to Albania, my country of birth, periodically and aid in developing further programs in the humanities and creative arts at the university level. These are long terms goals for which I am currently laying the foundation.


March 21, 2015

Artist in the Spotlight: Erika Back

By sofiafilan in Feature Story, Interviews, LRR

This week I’d like to put artist, Erika Back in the Long River Review spotlight. Erika is a senior Design major here at UConn, currently working on her senior project. I had the privilege of seeing her work a few weeks ago when the editors of the Long River Review met with art students from the senior year Design Course.

While studying art at UConn, Erika has taken a particular interest in conceptual art. She values an artist’s ability to create his or her own artistic interpretation of an abstract idea, and this fascination has influenced Erika’s senior project. Erika links conceptual art forms to education reform, and her artwork reflects the idea that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to education. She believes that our current education system denies students the opportunity to discover their innate gifts and perspectives on the world. Instead, students are taught one answer to problems and forget how to look for new solutions. Erika’s project finds a way to re-introduce creative and lateral thinking, and a real passion for learning.

Erika is originally from Toronto, Ontario in Canada, but has spent most of her life in North Haven, CT. She has gone through several types of education systems, both traditional and non-traditional. When Erika was enrolled in a non-traditional education program, she was given the opportunity to explore and research topics of her own choice. Erika studied at an art school in London last winter, and noticed that the way projects were presented in the classroom was similar to her non-traditional elementary school education. She started to think that if she had not switched to the traditional education system, she would have been much further in her own education. Non-traditional education systems allowed Erika to pursue her own interests, instead of being told what subjects to learn. Her senior project focuses on the experiences she has had in the classroom, and the need for students to play and explore in order to discover their full academic potential. The experiences Erika has had in multiple education systems, and her own interest in how people learn and think, has inspired her senior project.

Check out some work from her senior project!

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February 27, 2015

“I don’t want to miss out on living because I’m too busy writing” – Hanging Out With Kate Monica

By Nikki Barnhart in Interviews

The most surprising thing I learned about Kate Monica, UConn’s 2015 representative of the Connecticut Poetry Circuit, was that poetry was not a life-long pursuit for her. Rather, she used to hate it. Her work is so fluid and natural, informal but still balanced and graceful that I assumed she had been writing it her whole life.

She grew up loving prose and novels but it wasn’t until freshman year and English professor Bruce Cohen’s class that she became interested in poetry. In his class, Monica was exposed to “different, good writers” such as Sharon Olds and Philip Larkin. “It opened my eyes,” she says. The experience led her to try out for UConn’s slam team, becoming a teammate in her sophomore year.

Kate Monica is a 21 year old junior, and so far, her work has been published by the Long River Review, the Newer York, Electric Cereal, Orchid Children, Holey Scripture and Control Literary Magazine. In 2014, she won Collins Literary Prize for poetry.

Her work is decisively modern and strikingly poignant, even when focused on the commonplace. She explores “discomfort in different ways,” and features “characters that don’t quite belong. They desperately want to communicate but keep missing each other. I’m interested in those little moments of desperation that we all feel but we don’t know how to help each other.”

One such poem, titled “1 Nov 22:00,” published on Electric Cereal, is in the form of a Facebook chat between “a decorated general of Vietnam War” with anthropophobia so crippling he hasn’t left his house in 15 years, and a high school girl. In the chat, the girl gently tries to help him overcome his phobias (“you should try texting your grandkids”) but she will not do the connecting for him. (“If you see my granddaughter at school, will you tell her I said hello?” “that would be kind of weird i think. i don’t really talk to her. and she’d wonder why i knew you at all. it would just be rly weird.”

I ask her if she thinks she belongs to a particular school of poetry. I suggest “confessional” and she agrees. “Even when I’m not talking about myself, I’m talking about myself. Even if I don’t mean to, it’s confessional anyway,” she says.

Some of her inspirations include musician Laura Stevenson (“genius”) and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (“effortless”), a subject of one of her poems. Frank O’Hara is another “genius” in her eyes – “his work is effortless, like he just thought of it.” William Faulkner “has great characters, which I think is essential, so people can connect.” She also cites comedian Maria Bamford as an inspiration. “She has really well-written jokes. She’s simultaneously really dark and whimsical and hilarious at the same time. She balances depressing and funny so she doesn’t lose readers.”

As a writer, Kate Monica describes her style as “a sense of urgency.” As a performer, she says, “frantic and nervous – at least that’s what I’ve been told. That’s less intentional, and more just me being actually nervous.”

The Connecticut Poetry Circuit, an annual competition that selects 5 poets from all Connecticut universities public and private to perform a series of 15 readings, is the first time Monica’s been paid to do a reading, so “it feels more professional than doing it for free. It’s interesting to meet more people and see their different styles of reading,” she says.

I ask if she’s more comfortable writing or performing and she tells me that, “I’m more comfortable just writing. There’s much more to worry about when performing. When you write, you can just let the words do the talking, when you perform, you have to make it sound how you want. In performing, you lose opportunities to be ambiguous because the reader can’t go back. It’s harder because you do it in one take.”

I ask her what she thinks a poet should be, and she thinks for a moment. “There’s this one quote…,” she says, and pauses. “Let me look it up,” and she does on her iPhone. “Here it is. ‘Poets comfort the disturb and disturb the comfortable.’”

“Who said that?” I ask.

“It says Banksy,” she furrows her brow at the screen. “That can’t be right.”

Regardless of who actually spoke the words, they hold especially true, I think, in Monica’s own work.

“Someone who is a poet should be uncomfortable in the world,” she says. “Like they can’t handle how beautiful and awful the world is so they have to synthesize it in order to exist comfortably.”

I ask her my bombshell question – “who are you and what do you want?” – and she thinks for a minute. “I can answer the ‘what do you want,’” she offers. “I don’t want to miss out,” she says.

I reference that Oscar Wilde quote – “inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. They live the poetry they cannot write” – and we debate it. We both don’t quite agree. We think there has to be a balance.

“I want to prioritize living over thinking about living,” she says. “I don’t want to miss out on living because I’m too busy writing.”

Kate Monica’s poems have such a vivid heartbeat; they are very much alive, very much dependent on someone who has felt and lived and experienced. It seems to be a pretty symbiotic relationship. I think she’s safe from her fears.



February 24, 2015

“I am first a creature of the imagination” – an interview with poet Benjamin Grossberg

By Nikki Barnhart in Interviews

Benjamin Grossberg, Spring 2015 representative of the “Writers Who Edit, Editors Who Write” series, is passionate and personable. I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions, and the resulting conversation is a thoughtful reflection of all the different roles a writer can play. Supplement your experience of his reading with his answers, or read them on their own – either way, Ben’s answers were enlightening and thought-provoking. photo


A Polish filmmaker once made a film focused entirely upon one question: who are you and what do you want? I love this question and all of its deceptive simplicity and will be framing all of my interviews around it. So, who are you, and what do you want?

Is it a good thing to be able to answer this question, to know and be able to articulate the answer? Maybe it’s better if there’s a little more churning, or if the answer is too complicated to formulate.

I’m not sure who I am beyond a half-dozen social roles that you could find out from a cursory internet search, and I guess I want . . . what? . . . to know and be known, to surprise and engage myself writing poems, to be good to as many people as I can, to stay healthy. That’s not very exciting, is it?

Right now I’m sitting at my desk with a cat on my lap, and every few minutes she lifts a paw up to my keyboard, wanting to scoot herself onto it. What I want is for spring to come, or at least to stay home tonight. It’s going to get down to negative ten.


Editing questions:

 1) How has being a writer helped you as an editor? Do you find yourself more empathetic towards submissions, less so or neither?

Being a writer may well have made me more empathetic to submitters. But that kind of empathy doesn’t have much bearing on the work of winnowing poems for The Antioch Review. Reading for a journal is an intimate but merciless process. The poem either evokes, or it doesn’t; the language forks some energy, or not. That said, I am never, even in my head, even in the privacy of my own couch, flip about submissions. I do not mock or superciliously dismiss. And often I do feel touched by the gesture of reaching out on paper — paper! — with poems, the hopefulness of it, the sweetness. Every month, The Antioch Review gets work from people who clearly never read poetry and have no formal training, who approach and practice the art almost wholly on received notions. Yet there’s deep feeling there: they, too, “get the news from poems” in a way, as the process connects them to something inside themselves which is, I think, often important and beautiful. And I do feel moved by that, and probably some of this empathy comes from my experience as a writer, knowing what it feels like – to be opened up by the act of composition.

Of course, I also know that such opening doesn’t necessarily translate to the reader, or mean much to anyone else in the world.

If my work as a writer has helped my work as an editor, it is in this way: stumbling through three-and-a-half books now, I have long exhausted my original notions of what a poem is and does. As a matter of fact, I’ve exhausted my second and third notions, too – so I know first hand, in late-night work, that poems are various and variously glorious. Being a writer – and being a teacher — has made me aware of discovery in a host of modes. As an editor, I seek to find great poems, your proverbial needle-in-hay-stack search. So the wider my ability to understand what a poem can be, the more full and flexible my understanding of what that needle might be, the more likely I am to find it.


2) I’m sure you get a massive amount of submissions. How does your reading process work? How long do you think about each piece before making a decision?

I have a set process. I get a box of submissions every other month; the box contains between 100 and 150 envelops, most of three to five poems. There’s a second associate editor who gets a box on the months I don’t. My job is to mail Judith Hall, who makes the final decisions, ten percent of the envelops I see. From these, over a course of two or three months, Judith selects the ten or so poems that appear in the magazine.

I read ten envelops a night. Usually that takes between one and two hours. More than half the envelops can be disqualified quickly. The poems either aren’t well executed – as if the act of composition wasn’t hot enough to fire the clay – or the stakes aren’t high enough. Stakes should be understood widely here: sound, form, subject matter, voice. Some kind of artistic heft was missing.

And sometimes there is one envelop of the ten which distinguishes itself right away. When a submission is good, really good, the light in the room changes. The submission itself seem to change the context. I feel myself shift from editor to reader. I fall under the poems’ authority.

And then I’m left with the three or four envelops in between. Here is where the bulk of my time goes. These submissions I read again and again, and always out loud. Sometimes I put a few of the envelops aside, come back to them the next day. I’m looking for something, some quality that’s really remarkable—a very particular, beautifully executed aspect of the writer’s aesthetic. It makes sense, I think, for writers to send well-unified submissions: a group of poems that take up a single aesthetic project or theme, rather than trying to “show range.” At this stage, I’m trying to understand a project, to discern an aesthetic. I want to understand a new poetic, and then think about whether it might be a good fit with the magazine. The envelops that make it through this process go in their own pile.

So – ten envelops a night – I slowly move through the box.

I finish this process at the end of the month with three piles. The first, by far the largest, is submission we cannot use. The smallest pile — usually less than ten envelops — are those I will definitely send on to Judith Hall. And then I have a pile of about fifteen envelops which I must whittle down by half. This second round of whittling is similar to what I described above, except more clearly comparative. It is now a zero-sum game.

The process is labor-intensive. But it’s exciting to read poems – often by very accomplished poets – in manuscript form, before they acquire the gloss of publication. And it’s even more exciting to discover poems you love by writers whose names you hadn’t heard before. The reverse is true, too: even very good poets sometimes send work that is less dazzling. That’s a useful reminder. No one, it seems, is a “poem machine.”

But the real reason I do the work is because I take so much from this art — as I submit regularly to journals and contests, and as I look for readers. It seems only fair that I give something back, too. It’s for this reason I also review books, usually six a year. The poetry world can only function, I think, if we take on an ethos of service. Otherwise — with so many writers and so few readers — the whole enterprise can begin to seem a little solipsistic.


3) What grabs you in a piece? Do you find yourself gravitating towards similar styles as your own, even subconsciously? Or totally different?

I don’t think I’d be much good as an editor if my own style tightly defined what I could appreciate — but surely there must be some connection there.

I strive to find the best — work that is fresh, sharp, and involving — whatever the aesthetic. I do like poetry that integrates substantial thinking, and I do have a bias toward understanding what I read. I suppose in this I’m with Marianne Moore: “we do not admire what we cannot understand.”

But that said, I’ll forward on to Judith Hall even work I don’t particular love, or understand, if I think it is very good, or innovative, or uses language in a remarkable way. At Antioch Review, we are especially interested in innovative use of language — so for our particular venue, that can help tip the scales.


4) What was your experience with literary journals before working on one? Has it changed your overall feelings?

I worked on my first literary journal as an undergraduate, and I submitted my first poems then, too. I didn’t work on Gulf Coast at the University of Houston. I was intimidated by the editors, who were older and seemed glamorous. In retrospect, I wish I’d been more assertive about that. But, off and on since I was nineteen, I’ve both worked on and submitted to journals.

Being inside the process has shown me both how objective it is and how subjective. I say objective because in my experience submissions are an even playing field. At Antioch Review, envelops from new poets and those from well-published poets sit side by side; the quality of work is what matters. (Though if poets are of a certain stature — say, Pulitzer Prize winners — I will automatically send the work to Judith Hall, so that she can correspond with the writer in question.) But the process is also subjective because very few people – two, finally are involved in the decision. As an editor, I try to be careful, but I am sure I get things wrong sometimes. My feeling, then, is that no particular journal is the final arbiter of worthy work. I do think the process is fair, but I don’t think it’s definitive.

My bottom line? Send your work to lots of venues—and while you are waiting to hear back, send other work to other venues. Be confident that your work is being read, but take the weight off any particular submission by having many envelops out at once. Perhaps, as a final arbiter of value, the collective process of submitting is more useful than any particular journal.

What else have I learned? Oh, maybe to be gentle when things don’t go right, when submissions get lost or it takes a very long time – over a year – and all you get back is a photocopied rejection slip. (This has certainly happened to me on numerous occasions.) The work of reviewing submissions is slow and generally uncompensated, and most of those doing it are struggling to find time for their own writing, too.


Writing questions:

5) I heard once that “poets are forever trying to recreate the first poem they really loved.” What was the first poem that you remember really moving you?

The first poem I remember really moving me was Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.” The “moving” felt physical. “Lazarus” took me to an internal, visionary place. I fell out of the classroom in which a professor was reading the poem aloud, and I found myself in a black box theater with Plath’s images flashing before me. Pick the worms off me like sticky pearls . . . A cake of soap,/ A wedding ring,/ A gold filling. It must have been a combination of the music – literally hypnotic – and the power of those images. The final one I can still see clearly: Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air. I won’t describe what I saw; the words diminish it too much. But the image took me wholly, and when the professor stopped reading and there was suddenly silence, I sat stunned. I didn’t know where I was. It took me a minute to adjust to the light, to the fact of other students around me—that I was there, but had been somewhere else.

It hadn’t occurred to me before you asked this question, but maybe that experience is one of my goals for a poem. I am first a creature of the imagination, of wanting to see and be shown cool things. I think that’s why my first book is full of dramatic monologues from the age of discovery (Henry Hudson, Amerigo Vespucci) and classical mythology, and why my third book looks to outer space. Imagination is what engages me, still, in the way children are engaged: with wholeness and joy. But of course, there are ideas and emotions to contend with, too. I’m not sure I’ve ever quite figured out what to do with those.

6) I’ve read that your book, “Sweet Core Orchard” was inspired by an orchard you worked at in Ohio. What are some other important muses that drive your work? Any other strong places, people, feelings, moments?

Maybe it works the other way around: poets have concerns, and we’re always looking for vehicles to express them. (Is that the other way around?) So the apple orchard didn’t so much inspire me, as it allowed me to explore two of the concerns that open me up most fully to utterance. The first is mythology, stories that stir the imagination. (In this case, Old Testament apple tree mythology.) And the second, a feeling of being displaced, of homelessness. That farmhouse and orchard were home to me; when I planted those trees, I thought I’d stay there forever. Sweet Core has an ecstatic ending: the discovery of home, or, in mythical terms, the planting of a new “paradise.” Though it turned out I was forced to move just five years later.

Space Traveler channels my life-long love of science fiction. That book, started as I left my orchard and moved, alone, cross country, reflects the experience of rootlessness. But I’m not quite sure it’s accurate to say that science fiction inspired the book, so much as I groped for it, for science fiction, as the vehicle to express what I needed to think about—leaving the home I loved—and as a way to fire my imagination.

7) I’m always interested in the varying perspectives on the matter: what was your MFA experience like? Do you still draw on things you learned from it today? And how did it compare with your Ph.D experience?

I pursued my MFA and PhD at the same school, The University of Houston, so there was a lot of continuity in the experiences—though PhD study is by its nature more solitary, more about the grind of research and the impending reality of being a professor. (And the impending stress of the job market—the possibility that you won’t be a professor.)

When I think back to those days now, they are much as they were then: a blur. During that time, I hoped that in the years after I’d be able to sort out what I was learning, to be able to say with some precision, this I learned, and that. I’m still not sure I can.

But I can point to one thing. At The University of Houston, there was a definite respect for tradition, and for the scholarly poet. Graduate School is largely a socializing process, and in my case, the values of Houston – valorizing erudition, carefulness, and form – found fertile ground. I believe that scholarly work feeds poetry, and that poetry requires ardor, as well as a willingness to take on the arduous. My teachers there, including Richard Howard and Edward Hirsch, modeled the marriage of intellect and passion. How to be wildly learned and carefully enflamed. This combination stays with me – in my life as a reader and a teacher, and, I hope, as a writer.

Of course, there were other things, too. The workshops were terrific; my classmates were terrific. They examined poems carefully and with high standards. I internalized those standards. After a while, you want to have something lauded in workshop, so you strive toward its standards. And, of course, the friends I made there are irreplaceable.



8) And on top of all of that, you wear a third hat- teacher! How do all of these professions inform one another?

In a very mechanical way, my work at The Antioch Review and my work as a teacher are deeply connected. I discover poets and poems as a book reviewer and editor, so I am continually updating the material I bring to the classroom. The new material keeps me engaged, and it ensures that my students are actually reading contemporary poetry. I also teach a class on literary journals, so it is imperative that I know how these journals work—and know what the trends are, what going on in the culture of literary publishing. Additionally, I run a reading series at the University of Hartford, and my work with Antioch Review helps me choose who to invite — whose work I admire, who would be a good model for my students. My work with Antioch Review is like an extended course in contemporary poetry that I’ve been taking for the last decade, and the learning of that course constantly feeds my classroom.

The connection to my work as a poet is less direct, but no less important. I am constantly reading and thinking about poems, about the way poems work; I am never far from the logic of poetry. As a result, even when I am not actively composing my own poems, I am still immersed in the art — exploring what poems do, the new ways they can use the language.

In my experience, being a poet means that you need to reinvent the art for yourself with each new book. Perhaps that sounds extreme: “reinvent the art for yourself.” But in my practice, the fire of discovery must be part of the composition process for me to turn out my best work. So I can’t simply write the same poem again and again. Once I understand an approach or strategy too well, a dullness sets in. That doesn’t always happen quickly. I probably wrote over a hundred “Space Traveler” poems before I felt a little bored by the trope, before the poems began to feel formulaic to me. But it does happen eventually. So it’s imperative that I read constantly, imperative that I discuss poems constantly — especially with undergraduate writers, who force me to see things afresh, as they do. The day I stop exploring new ways to be a poet is probably the day I stop being any kind of poet at all.

As I formulate the art, complacency has no place in it. “Complacent poet”: an oxymoron.



9) What is your favorite line of poetry, ever?

Just one!?

When King Lear enters carrying the dead Cordelia, he says: “Thou’lt come no more,/ Never, never, never, never, never!” The finality and tumbling music of those five trochees breaks my heart. I know of no statement that better nails down the finality of death.

Or Prospero’s response to Miranda’s exclamation of joy at the end of The Tempest. She suddenly meets an array of different people, where before she’d known only Caliban, her father, and (briefly) Ferdinand. She says, “O brave new world,/ That has such people in’t!” Prospero’s reply is four monosyllables. It couldn’t be simpler in diction or articulation — or more devastating in content: “’Tis new to thee.” Ouch. I can’t say the line without hearing an aching thud of silence after it.

Whitman needs to be mentioned here, too: “Edging near, as privately for me, rustling at my feet,/ Creeping thence steadily up to my ears, and laving me softly all over,/ Death, Death, Death, Death, Death.”

And Tennyson, “The woods decay, the woods decay and fall.” What an amazing way to establish point of view in a dramatic monologue: immortal Tithonus, who wants to die.

And Keats, “To cease upon the midnight with no pain….”

And Milton, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” God do I want to believe that.

There are contemporary poets I might name here, too. CK Williams and Mark Doty, especially. I think of Doty’s definition of joy: “heaviness / 

which is no burden to itself.” Or the end of CK Williams’ “The Cup.”

 This is an impossible question, isn’t it? One favorite!? If you’re going to pin me down, I’ll stay with the Lear.


10) What is something you would recommend to anyone? Book, song, activity, advice, anything.

Chocolate . . . human touch, as often as possible . . . more sleep (again, as often as possible) . . . a dog or a cat, but only one (you don’t want them controlling your life) . . . rereading your favorite book (I’ve read Siddhartha, Pride and Prejudice, and King Lear no less than twenty times each) . . . acquiring those things that you love viscerally and immediately, and passing on all other stuff (again, whenever possible) . . . telling people how much you like them . . . giving up on family members who consistently hurt you. . . .

By “chocolate,” I mean dark chocolate—85% cocoa or better.

I have to say just one thing, right? Again, just one? Well, I recently saw the film Mr. Nobody – an ambitious, playful, beautiful mess. And Jared Leto has dreamy eyes. So, yeah, I’m going to recommend that.



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