book review

Striving for Better in Jared Harel’s Let Our Bodies Change the Subject, Review by Emily Hockaday

Striving for Better in Jared Harel’s Let Our Bodies Change the Subject

Review by Emily Hockaday

University of Nebraska Press
Publication: September 2023
80 pages
ISBN: 978-1496237293

The opening poem to Harél’s Let Our Bodies Change the Subject prepares the reader for what is to come—a meditation on mortality, the passing of the baton, generational knowledge, and existence itself. And somehow Harél faces these existential questions head-on, with care and grace. He casually introduces us to the “Sad Rollercoaster” the speaker’s daughter discovers—and which we all reckon with: 

That night and the one after,
my daughter dreams of bones—how they lift
out of her skin and try on her dresses. So silly! she laughs,

 until later, seeing the massive skeleton of a retired rollercoaster at Coney Island: 

she sees a giant wooden spine,
this brownish-red maze traced in decay. She calls it
Sad Rollercoaster, then begs to be taken home.

After my family’s corgi died when my daughter was four, she asked, “Is Cordie a pile of bones?” I didn’t know what to tell her about death or about what happens to a body once it is no longer useful to the life that inhabited it. She had seen piles of bones outside on lawns in our Queens neighborhood—decorations for Halloween. One plastic skull was left out in a flowerbed all four seasons. As a parent, and an atheist, I wanted to do as little harm as possible to this young psyche that was—somehow!—in my care. I don’t remember whether I skirted the issue or if I was gentle and direct. But I did crawl into her toddler bed, our skin touching, arms open. Any of us confronting these difficult subjects either internally or with a child or parent will feel communion with this beautiful book, with Harél’s yearning to Let Our Bodies Change the Subject.

It was the bones in “Sad Rollercoaster” that stirred up this memory of my daughter’s experience, but the collection as a whole examines what the questions of children—or our inner child—reveal within an adult. How we cobble together facts and comfort and whatever philosophy we have internalized, or wish to, to answer these quintessentially human mysteries. 

But it is not just the looming question of mortality that Let Our Bodies Change the Subject raises. That would be too neat for a poet like Harél, whose nuance and ability to weave the casual everyday details of life into larger more universal experiences is how he gets his hooks into the meat of us. This collection is as much about being parented as it is about parenting. The shockwaves and ripples that move through generations. This collection examines what it is to parent. How do we teach lessons we still haven’t learned? How do we learn them? How do we reconcile the choices that were made in our own rearing? Are we doing it right? And the few poems sprinkled throughout questioning religion and god reinforce these themes—another search for something elusive that doesn’t have exact answers.

One thread throughout this collection that really spoke to me was the sense of unease that lingers in difficult decisions. The speaker appears insecure in their happiness and good fortune—and in parenting. This is something we can all relate to. We first see this in “The Sweet Spot” on page five—a brief and lovely poem that gives voice to the universal insecurities that grow like weeds inside all of us. The speaker proclaims, “. . . we have hit/ our sweet spot, the best it’s gonna get . . .” But don’t believe it, reader. I refuse to. Later on in “Plastic Butterflies,” we are told:

. . .Nowadays
I can’t tell who I’m meant to help,
or how to help, or if anything really helps
anymore, although I guess that’s me

Set in contrast to his past, childless self, confident in youth, our speaker questions themself. This niggling insecurity weaves through the collection as a whole, making the speaker and their life relatable—and likable. In “Too Soon in San Antonio,” this echoing worry is stark: there are things the speaker should know, that maybe others do, but they do not. The vibrating insecurity behind the heart of this collection is brought to the fore: Are we doing this right? And miraculously, there is the acknowledgment that we can only do our best with the information we have. “The Other Side of Desire” gives us a slightly different take on this. The speaker is disenchanted and restless with the life he has found himself in. But even as he longs for a break in routine, we see the tenderness with which he loves his life. The care put into parenting and being a spouse. This poem is perhaps the one most full of love and contentment, despite the confession—that sliver of desire to escape that all of us feel and at times may even nurture. 

We get our most interesting insights when we see the speaker through his children—their voices, their questions, the way he second-guesses himself, like all parents do. How daunting to find oneself a fallible parent with people who need you to be invincible and all-knowing. In “The Perimeter,” we hear our own inner thoughts in the voices of the speaker’s children—Harél skillfully draws parallels between generations:

My excitement hurts, my daughter sulks
at Columcille Megalith Park, where stones stack
on stones upon a great big stone circling
the sun. It’s mid-July, muggy, and my excitement 
hurts too, though somewhere along the line
I lost the right to say so. Or the nerve. . . .

It is exactly when the speaker has the nerve to be his most frank that we see his thoughtfulness, his tender application of parenthood and even personhood. And this poem is a shining example of just that. In “A Moving Grove,” Harél writes: 

. . .  All year
I’ve been tring to say something
real, or at least really clever, which
might be my undoing. The kids
want answers about death and God
and if the Muppets are alive and why
is it sunny and when can they stop
hiding in closets at school? . . .

We know that the speaker, too, wants answers. About death and God and the relentless queries and how to know that our choices matter. I know how it feels for time to stop while formulating the answers to the unknowable. The weight of the words as they are parsed. And the poet gives us both the frozen moments of indecision and also the rushing of time, as the rug is pulled out from under us. In another poem, the speaker watches his child moving away from him. In “Overnight” we see a daughter racing “unencumbered/ toward her friends”,  while the speaker reminisces:

Just yesterday she clung
to the nape of your t-shirt,
begging to stay.
Just yesterday
she was yours, and you,
you gave her away. 

Harél excels at depicting this motion—the inexorable movement of generations spinning forward as they only can.

In Harél’s examination of parenting and replacement, another refrain rises to the surface in this collection. The speaker considers his own childhood, acknowledging the replacement of one generation with the next, tying poems together, as parent and child, thematically. In “Beer Run,” the speaker is a child and is pulled from an unsafe vehicle at the last minute. The fear and anxiety of parenting—that has been so precisely described from the speaker’s perspective as a parent—now from his own parent’s perspective, is only something of which he is aware in hindsight:

“. . . How could I have guessed
why my father was sprinting, screaming after us
down the middle of the street, or why he wouldn’t stop
shaking as he ripped me from the truck?”

All of us who make it to adulthood have had to face our parents’ humanity. The full depth of it. Harél is generous in his poems—all of these parents are doing their best. Even when they aren’t perfect. We see the reckoning of the passing torch of parenthood in “Kin” and “Behind the Painted Guardrail,” but in other poems the poet goes even further, considering what is passed down through multiple generations. Jared and his speaker recognize that no one parents alone—behind all of us are our ancestors and their lessons, those we are trying to unlearn, mitigate, or continue. In “Cordoba,” we learn about the speaker’s grandfather, and the poem allows that we may all end up like the titular Cordoba— 

. . . moved 
to my parents yard
where it sat rotting
on deflated tires: a relic.
An eyesore. A pit of wasps
writhed under its hood.

The speaker doesn’t preclude himself as the possible someone who hands down what ought not be handed down. In perhaps the most musical poem in the book, “Ruins,” Harél deftly delivers a rhythmic poem in short-lined tercets about trying to teach a son about safety. He concludes:

—if I confess
terror casts me as a father
to son, like a shadow
that outruns me,
am I well overrun?

Ultimately Let Our Bodies Change the Subject teaches us that parenting is not done alone—even when it is full of what feels like recklessly choosing, in the moment, what we believe to be correct. In these choices are the experiences of parents, grandparents, and echoes of ancestors, just as the speaker tells their daughter in “Birthday” of aging and the self when “she didn’t want . . .  to leave herself behind”:

[I] said, You take it
all with you, you bring all
your selves with you
into the future. I don’t know
what I believe, but I think
she believed me.  

Looking back at the second poem in the collection (“All I’ve Ever Wanted”) we read: “what humbling work/it is to haul kids toward thoughtful—the kind/ in humankind.” And later in this poem the speaker says: 

. . . My point about discovery
has escaped me by now, though I know
the old chorus for thwarted desire. My cereal
will be dry. Coffee taken black. I will try
against hope to be better than myself, which is all
I’ve ever wanted and everything I need.

By the end of this collection, the point has not escaped us, the reader. And it is clear that the speaker is striving for “better,” and from this reader’s perspective, succeeding. These poems speak to the connections between family members and generations, the powerful and versatile force that is love, and being exactly where you are, even as the ground shifts beneath you.

Let our Bodies Change the Subject, available September 2023 from University of Nebraska Press.

About the reviewer:

Emily Hockaday’s second collection, In a Body, is forthcoming with Harbor Editions October 2023. Her first full-length, Naming the Ghost, debuted with Cornerstone Press in September 2022. She is the author of six poetry chapbooks, most recently Beach Vocabulary out from Red Bird Chaps & Name this Body from Thrash Press. Emily writes about ecology, parenthood, chronic illness, grief, and the urban environment. You can find Emily on the web at or @E_Hockaday.

book review

In Everything I See Your Hand by Naira Kuzmich Review by Carrel Barber

In Everything I See Your Hand

Review by Carrel Barber

University of New Orleans Press
Publication: June 2022
192 pages
ISBN: 1608012379

The Predestined Fiction of Naira Kuzmich 

There is an Armenian belief known as jagadakir which translates literally to “the writing on the forehead” and it is the idea that one’s destiny is predetermined and therefore for the world to see. This superstition lives in the protagonists of Naira Kuzmich’s short story collection titled In Everything I See Your Hand. They are Armenian-Americans who struggle with dispossession, domesticity, and generational differences. They wonder about exile and the difference between leaving the motherland vs. leaving one’s mother while chasing grander things in far away places. 

A better life in America, education at faraway universities, and even love in marriages to foreigners. These are people who struggle with the belief that the story of their lives have already been written and the only possible escape from that destiny is through death or departure. Kuzmich writes with power and precision that influences both her characters and her readers to see the beauty of this fleeting life’s pain and forces one to reckon that they must go on despite the hurt. 

All ten of the stories in this beautiful, haunting collection take place in the “Little Armenia” neighborhood in East Hollywood, California. These are immigrants and the children of those immigrants who fled to the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s. The stories are all influenced by Kuzmich’s own experiences and she uses this honesty to portray deep truths about Armenia, America, and what it means to be an Armenian-American. 

Several stories live along the blended borders of the motherland and the new land of America. One in particular, “Woman Amid Ruins” leaves a deep impression on the reader. It tells the story of Zara, the lone child survivor of the 1988 Armenian earthquake in the town that was its epicenter, Spitak. While the story is literally taking place in the bedroom of Zara and her new husband, it bounces between time and place with fluidity. She is processing her trauma and her life and how her destiny has led her to America. Having been the lone child survivor in town left Zara with a feeling of both that she was special, and that she had somehow cheated her destiny. This leaves her searching for answers that led her across Armenia, in the arms of different men, and finally to America. Zara’s desire for answers for her self-fulfillment culminates in an interaction with a former lover of hers, a painter. Zara asks, “Can you paint my face,” because “what she wanted to see was her forehead, just to see what was written there, once and for all” (Kuzmich 35). This is a woman who lost her connection to her family and her ancestry and is yearning for cultural identity and assurance. 

While some characters are searching for the culture and heritage, others are tired of the constant reminders of the tragedies that have followed their people. The Soviets. The earthquakes. The genocide. It never seems to end and the protagonist of the final story,  “Transculturation, or: An Address to My American Lover”, is tired of it. While her lover is trying to learn as much about her culture as possible, from learning facts such as the number of people who died in the Spitak Earthquake (over 60,000) to how to say “I love you”. This desire that he has wears on the protagonist despite the good natured intention behind it. Ultimately though, she doesn’t appreciate it. She knows 

“that there is nothing more to my people than tragedy. That this is what you see every time you look at me. That this is what is written clearly on my forehead. Don’t you dare go giving me another reminder, lover. I have enough.”

(Kuzmich 176) 

The deep truths that this story and it’s protagonist talk about range from cultural touchstones such as the duduk or famous Armenians. She treats everything as it is, most powerfully the blank page that represents her thoughts on the Genocide. The white space a gut punch that Armenians must feel whenever it becomes the topic of conversation. This protagonist and her forehead represent more than just her personal destiny, but rather the history of her people. While it is bold for an author to speak for an entire culture, Kuzmich brings us outsiders into the fold of the Armenian-American world in which she was raised. 

Jagadakir plays a large role in this collection, as the word forehead is found 14 times across the ten stories. One story in which it is not mentioned, is perhaps the most eerie and predestined of the bunch. This story in the opener, titled “Beginning Armenian”, follows a young woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer in her twenties. Kuzmich herself was diagnosed with lung cancer in her twenties and lost her battle at 29. Heavy is the head that wears the crown bearing representation of their culture, and Kuzmich wore that crown above her destined forehead with pride and a sharp eye. 

Kuzmich was searching for more meaning in her work and felt it is what counted above all else according to her mentor and friend Josie Sibara, who wrote the introduction to the collection. This meaning centered on the idea of continuing on the beautiful tragic journey that is life despite all of the roadblocks and signs telling you to give up. A lesson that we all need to be reminded of. Kuzmich made sure her characters never lost hope and through the page it is palpable that she never did either. 

In Everything I See Your Hand is available now from University of New Orleans Press.

About the reviewer:

Carrel Barber is an MFA student at Florida State University where his focus is in fiction. His work has appeared in Big Bend Literary Magazine and Poetica. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife and occasionally obedient dogs.

book review

Curing Season by Kristine Langley Mahler, Review by Ashley Espinoza

Curing Season: A Look at a Lyrical Memoir

Review by Ashley Espinoza

Curing Season
by Kristine Langley Mahler
West Virginia University Press
Publication: October 2022
Paperback, 192 pages
ISBN: 978-1-952271-65-6

Curing Season: A Look at a Lyrical Memoir

Curing Season is a lyrical essay, a segmented essay, and a hermit crab essay, all in one book. It is written in the container of a book but explores the various forms given to creative nonfiction. With essays like “Shadow Box which is written in squares and rectangles to be contained in a shadow box, “Mädchenfänger” a list essay, several segmented essays, and a photo essay, this collection is not a straightforward narrative.

The subtitle of Curing Season is “Artifacts” which accurately describes this essay collection. Kristine Langley Mahler has collected artifacts from her life and presented them in a way that reads like a collection of her life. Each essay is its own artifact as they reveal something about the author in a way she is trying to reveal her past self to her current self. The subtitle Artifacts refers to the essay and artifacts Langley writes about while the title Curing Season is a reference to the tobacco curing season in Pitt County. This book is a preservation of her time in Pitt County, just as curing tobacco is a preservation of the plant. 

I love creative nonfiction in hybrid and lyrical forms. Curing Season hits the right intersection of writing with brevity. I know what Langley Mahler’s life was like in these short experimental essays, without the need for long descriptive scenes. This book allows the reader to pause and reflect on their own lives. I found myself relating to my own adolescence and the challenges it brings. The short chapters pull the reader through this coming-of-age memoir.

Langley Mahler is obsessed with place. So much so that much of her book is exploring what a specific place means to her and to her adolescence. She opens up her segmented essay “Club Pines,” with a section titled ‘My House,” where she reveals her family had moved to an upper-middle-class suburban area in North Carolina from Oregon. Though her childhood was spent in Oregon she felt displaced as an adolescent in Club Pines.  The segmented essay moves on to discuss each one of her friend’s homes and what each one means to her. In visiting each home Mahler reveals her discomfort in being in a new town. In Michelle’s house, Mahler states that she is never invited back once Michelle realizes that Mahler is being bused to an urban school in an effort to desegregate. In other friend’s homes, she visits families that don’t eat dinner together, kids that don’t have rules, and homes that are filled with tobacco smoke. When faced with homes Mahler doesn’t feel comfortable in, she calls her mother to get her. On another occasion when her friend Heather curses in front of adults she leaves. Mahler has a specific idea in her mind of how her friends and their families should behave and if they don’t act according to her ideas about family she doesn’t stick around. Each section signifies how badly Mahler wants to fit in with the girls in her school, but she doesn’t know how, and her experiences don’t match up with her expectations.

Kristine Langley Mahler continues to explore her obsession with place and turns it into art on the page. Her essay, “A Pit is Removed, A Hollow Remains” is a clever title derived from the author living in Pitt County, North Carolina. Mahler, who is the pit in this essay, leaves Pitt County and as an adult obsesses over living there. It’s a place of her life that is hollow because she keeps coming back to those years to make sense of them. She also tries to make sense of a girl that was her friend but has since passed away. 

She writes “I have not physically been to Pitt County in fifteen years. It doesn’t matter. I have been there fifteen hundred times in my mind.”

She takes her own personal obsession of tracking Pitt County down to googling what people’s homes look like and she turns it into a personal narrative. The author is very self-aware that her obsessive behavior is the fuel behind her work. The four years of her youth living in Pitt County informed her whole life. It took over her adolescence in being displaced and it’s taking over her adulthood as she tries to unmask this location and tries to find the root of why she can’t let it go.

“I arrowed through Google Maps on Street View; I narrowed to my neighborhood on Airbnb and broke into houses, wandering through rooms I’d been in and houses I’d biked past.” 

It almost seems as if Langley Mahler has gone too far in her quest to search her past. That thought brings great tension and gives the reader a moment to consider their own past and how they handle researching who they used to be. Not everyone will go as far as tracking down specific homes and looking at photos on Airbnb. This adds to the level of obsession Langley Mahler has and it adds to her strong desire to make sense of a confusing time. It’s as if she has no choice to but go to extremes in order to find what she’s looking for. This plays into her as a writer and an artist. She will go to great lengths in her self-discovery. 

Curing Season pushes boundaries on what a memoir and an essay collection can look like. There is no one specific way to write an essay or an essay collection and Langley Mahler lets her exploration of form provide a new way to explore the self.

The Curing Season is available now from West Virginia University Press.

About the Reviewer:

Ashley is an MFA graduate of the University of Nebraska-Omaha with a focus on creative nonfiction. Her work has been published in The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey and in (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Coronavirus Pandemic, as well as in the Place Where You Live column for Orion Magazine. She is currently writing a memoir of the aftermath of her (step)father’s paralysis while her teenage mother tries to keep custody of her and graduate high school.


A Conversation With Rodrigo Toscano

Catching Up: A Conversation With Rodrigo Toscano

Interview by Cid Galicia

April 25, 2023

I began to understand poetry as a hyper-condensed way of thinking not only philosophically, but psychologically, and of course, musically.

Cid Galicia: Good morning, Rodrigo, and thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. We are very excited to have you as a judge for this year’s Honeybee Prize in poetry and would love to share more about you with our readers and contest hopefuls. It is clear from your bio and publishing credentials that your career as a poet and dialogist is extremely impressive. We know that with the release of your most recent book, The Cut Point, you now have eleven books, your work has won awards, and your poems have been translated into many languages. Given where you are today in your journey, what I am most curious about is the beginning of it all.

I’ve personally just finished a study on Rilke, the German Poet, and came to conclude that the three factors that led him to emergence were observation, empathy, and suffering. My first question for you is about your story of becoming. Looking back over the course of your life, could you identify key moments, actions, events, and thoughts that led to your “emergence” as a poet and dialogist?

Rodrigo Toscano: Greetings, Cid. I think by “emergence,” people usually mean when a poet comes into the consciousness of other poets or a public of some kind. But before that, there is, I suppose, another kind of emergence, and that is, when a person understands themselves as being a poet in the world. To that earlier, pre-public phase of my emergence, if I recall, I was around twenty-one years old when I took up poetry. But backing up a bit, I should say, that all the way back when I was in middle school, I had the habit of reading serious books. I would gorge on books of history, philosophy, science, music, and political theory. I was a terrible classroom student, but quite an omnivorous and passionate learner on my own. And yet, poetry hadn’t appeared on the horizon until my early twenties.

I was rooming with several people in San Diego (my hometown) whose sole purpose in life was to pursue art in general, whether it was music, film, writing, or critical discourse. But I wasn’t, at that time, “the poet” among them, I was the “philosophy” guy, that is, until I began to understand poetry as a hyper-condensed way of thinking not only philosophically, but psychologically, and of course, musically.

Having come from a long martial arts background, it never occurred to me to do anything but take poetry as a technique-based art form that had to be worked on daily, and rigorously. I set off to learn everything I could about it. I started with Greek and Latin poetry, then moved my way up to medieval and renaissance poetry (in many languages), then on to other periods. And of course, I intensely studied avant-garde movements, especially as to how they related to shifting political conditions. So, you might say, I didn’t really have a singular epiphany about poetry, but rather, I experienced a series of breakthroughs that allowed me to acquire the prowess to put pen to paper. And once I started, I looked at my work in the way an experimental musician might, always on the lookout for innovation. 

Alright, so, as to that other kind of emergence, the public one, I must admit that by today’s standards, things happened rather early for me. By the time I was twenty-four, I had a book contract for The Disparities with Green Integer, an international avant-garde press. And my first public reading was with Rae Armentrout, an early supporter of my work. Two years later, I had a second book lined up for publication, Partisans. Both those books took quite a while to come out, and in fact, the second book came out first. But I was pretty much on peoples’ radar already in my twenties.

The poetry world was much different than it is today. It was more of a culture of up-close belonging. You got to places and met different people based purely on your reputation as a writer and reader. Prizes didn’t count for anything, nor did degrees of any kind. The upside was you could establish yourself quickly among the best and most innovative writers of the time. The downside for many was that you were summarily discouraged to give up writing altogether if you weren’t considered to be genuinely exploring new ways of doing poetry.

In retrospect, I suppose, that was an upside, as you had to really fight at an artistic level. Those were the times before the internet. To know what was going on, you had to really do it all, in person. And so, I moved up to San Francisco to be part of the writing scene in the 90’s, and then later, I moved to New York City to be part of that whole deal, for sixteen years, no less. And honestly, the last few years there, I wasn’t feeling it anymore. So then I moved to New Orleans. And wow, has our writing community taken off here!     

CG: I agree with the duality of “emergence” that you spoke of. The first where the person comes to understand themselves as being a poet in the world, and the second where the world comes to see that person as being a poet. In my study of Rilke and his path to emergence, like you did, he needed to change locations to continue to learn and grow as a person and a poet. He also came to apprentice himself with other great artists, such as the sculptor Rodin and the writer Lou Andreas-Salomé.  You spoke of starting in San Diego, then going to San Francisco, and finally New York – and you also spoke of Rae Armentrout as being an early supporter of your work. Could you talk about how the act of traveling itself, or how being in those new locations themselves, led to your emergence as a poet, and if you have had any mentors that did the same.

RT: Well, first off, most of my mentors have been dead for 100 to 2,000 years. And they all speak out of turn, and most often than not, at the same time. Well, I didn’t go to college for writing, or for anything really. All my accreditations are from other kinds of institutions, like OSHA, or the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, EPA, AFL-CIO, etc. I’ve never sat in a single poetry workshop, except for the ones I’ve been asked to teach at places like Bard, Naropa, Upenn, The Evergreen University, and many other colleges. I think for some people workshops and seminars really work, and for others, most decidedly not. I’m sure that my own poetic practice would have been “shopped” out of existence. 

I’m glad you spent a lot of time with Rilke. I’d love to talk to you about it sometime in person. Though I am familiar with his writing, I was never drawn enough to make him one of my backpack poets in my formative years. You know, crinkled covers, dog-eared pages, pencil marks. From Rilke’s era, I was more drawn towards Brecht, Mayakovsky, and Pound. But as regards moving to different cities, and how that affected my writing. I’d say, what makes for “influence” on my writing is a combination — of yeah, different cities, coupled to different people (both intimate and collegiate), feeling fully ensconced in a particular political era and responding to it, and dealing with the material and psychic challenges facing me both personally and professionally.

Then there’s who I was reading at the time, and more so, what poets I was listening to, live, in the flesh. Very generally speaking, I’d say the west coast was more focused on text, and the east coast more on voice. My west coast (quiet, structurally nuanced) work didn’t quite make a splash on the east coast, and when I shifted to a chattier, more voice-warping style, the west coast folks were somewhat thrown off. The funny thing is, though, is that I believe I work well in both modalities – at the same time.

In my New Orleans work (In Range, The Charm & The Dread, The Cut Point ) I don’t concern myself with that distinction (text/voice), I’m more interested in the problem of communicability as such. Given that we’re ceaselessly distracted these days, I have to think about how I am going to poetically speak to a crowd in front of me. I don’t mean that I am shooting for “accessibility” per say, but I do think of stratagems that can address forms of attentiveness. I think attentiveness is something that is co-constructed between reader and listener, and that the poem is a sort of forcefield of meaning-making in which we both must navigate. The poetic act is always a proposition. Treating it as a given makes for boring normcore poetry.            

CG: It’s interesting how different cities and regions develop their own aesthetics. You spoke of West Coast and East Coast, how they differ in their approaches to text and voice. What drew you to New Orleans? Was there some passion project or obsession? What has changed over time or what currently provokes you to action, writing, and to continue to reside there?

RT:  I greatly enjoy poets who authentically and artfully write about intimate relations. From Sappho to Catullus to Donne to Neidecker, poets like these have energized me over the years. Contemporaries, Shaindel Beers, who lives in Pendleton, Oregon, and Brad Richard from New Orleans, are two poets who are highly skilled at threading intimacies by way of a public lens. With great detail, their poetry tracks minute shifts in consciousness with grace and panache. Now, as to my own personal “obsessions”, for sure, my relationships (or collisions, as it were), have driven me to great heights of poetic inspiration. Poets are dangerous folks! Equal devotees of Bacchus and Apollo, with Mercury tossed in for sheer kicks. 

As to what drove me to NOLA, I should say, straight up, a lady did, my partner, Stanlyn Brevé. She’s the national programs director for the National Performance Network, which is based here in New Orleans. We were long distance dating while in the throes of our divorces, and since I can work from anywhere (I’m a national projects director for the Labor Institute based in NYC), I committed to moving. I haven’t looked back since. It’s been transformative, really. The culture of Laissez les Bontemps Rouler (“let the good times roll”), is serious stuff. It’s not just about partying, it’s about flourishing interpersonally with oodles of people. It demands spontaneity. It festoons the city with runaway amiability from dawn to dusk. 

Meanwhile, the poetry scene in New Orleans keeps peaking. Just when we think we’ve reached an apex, we push past it. There’s a palpable hunger for aesthetic expression that’s fueling this town. People strut their best, we celebrate it, then break it down, that night, and check in again the very next day, comparing feelings and thoughts. Those cycles of energy, propel me.

But what rockets me into the stratosphere of poetic readiness are my 6 a.m. baths in utter quiet and darkness, except for a soft lamp overhead. Pencil in hand. What is – all this – all about, is usually my first visitant, and when that meditation peters out, then, the the what’s-to-do-when-and-how, arises. I don’t know if all that can properly be called a passion, but at least, it’s a devotion, to say something, anything, but always through an attention to form.  

CG: Intimacy is certainly a fire we as humans are drawn towards, crossing time and space to connect with each other, like how it drew you to New Orleans and its amazing growth and evolution as a poetry scene. I also find fascinating the healing and creative processes artists develop to keep their creative energy fresh and awake. Your 6am baths sound like a great daily ritual.

Before we close out, I want to thank you so much on behalf of The Good Life Review Team for being our poetry judge and want to ask you about your newest poetry collection The Cut Point (Counterpath, 2023) and what brought you to its creation.  

RT:  Thank you, Cid. I’m happy to be working with The Good Life Review. I’m looking forward to carefully reading the manuscripts that land on my desk.

Alright, so, The Cut Point, is a book that was written just under a year after The Charm & The Dread (Fence, 2022). You might think of the two as companion books in that they’re both buzzing off the zeitgeist of 2020-2023. Look, there’s tectonic, epic changes happening to this country’s position not only in the world (i.e., the devolution of empire) but also internal political division and strife, and it’s all resonating down to the most seemingly personal “crises” and its poetics. I strive to maintain a posture of public address, even though it’s hard to see even an inch ahead of us, historically speaking, and there’s dread too, yeah, but also, we’re charmed by strange energies we don’t yet comprehend. And so, The Cut Point, is a second shot at striving to maintain my (and by suggestion, “our”) critical faculties, temperance, humor, conviction, and most of all curiosity for what’s just around the corner.

I really do hope people scoop up both books, as they’re written not to impart wisdom (let alone redemption), but rather to be in dialogue with my contemporaries. Surely, y’all have pieces of the puzzle too. Let’s see them!  

Rodrigo Toscano is a poet and dialogist based in New Orleans. He is the author of eleven books of poetry. His most recent books are The Cut Point (Counterpath, 2023), and The Charm & The Dread (Fence Books, 2022). His previous books include In Range,Explosion Rocks Springfield, Deck of Deeds, Collapsible Poetics Theater (a National Poetry Series selection), To Leveling Swerve, Platform, Partisans, and The Disparities. His poetry has appeared in over 20 anthologies, including Best American Poetry, Best American Experimental Poetry (BAX)Voices Without Borders, Diasporic Avant Gardes, Imagined Theatres, In the Criminal’s Cabinet, Earth Bound. Toscano has received a New York State Fellowship in Poetry. He won the Edwin Markham 2019 prize for poetry. His works have been translated into French, Dutch, Italian, German, Portuguese, Norwegian and Catalan. He works for the Labor Institute in conjunction with the United Steelworkers, the National Institute for Environmental Health Science, Communication Workers of America, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and northwest tribes (Umatilla, Cayuse, Yakima, Nez Perce) working on educational training projects that involve environmental and labor justice, health & safety culture transformation.   @Toscano200

Info about the 2023 Honeybee Literature Prize and all of this year’s judges can be found here.

book review

Woman with a Fan: On Maria Blanchard by Diane Kendig Review by Anne Whitehouse

Woman with a Fan: On María Blanchard
Poems and Essays by Diane Kendig

Review by Anne Whitehouse

Shanti Arts
Publication: June 2021
6o Pages
ISBN: 978-1-951651-85-5

Woman with a Fan is poet Diane Kendig’s historical inquiry and personal journey into the life and career of turn-of-the-century Spanish painter María Blanchard. Although Blanchard worked in Paris among the modernists, she was little celebrated in her lifetime, nearly forgotten after her death, and only recently rediscovered. Her quintessential Cubist painting,

Woman with a Fan, is now prominently displayed in Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum, “a floor above Picasso, next to Rivera,/ where we see her work large as theirs for the first time.”

In the sixteen poems and three essays that comprise Woman with a Fan: On María Blanchard, Kendig meditates on Blanchard’s art, life, and character and explores other points of connection between herself and her subject. In Blanchard’s short lifetime (1881-1932), marked by poverty and ill health, she produced representational and abstract works of great poignancy. She was born in Santander, Spain, in the same year as Picasso, and she suffered from a congenital birth deformity: “a kyphosis, which is to say, a double deviation of the vertebral column with posterior and lateral curvature…with a prominent humpback.” Like her New England contemporary, the great neglected writer Katharine Butler Hathaway, who had a similar deformity, she developed a hypersensitive awareness of others. Like Hathaway, too, she was rejected romantically because of her appearance, and, like her, she channeled her unfulfilled yearnings into her powerful art. Blanchard’s painting, “The Ice Cream Cart,” features a debonair young man, walking away from the gaily decorated cart with his ice cream prize, while a tiny girl, appearing almost as a baby, strains in vain on tiptoe to reach the cart, her dress billowing over her back and her cane discarded on the ground, forever condemned to frustration.

In Kendig’s poem commemorating the painting, “The Ice Cream Cart,” she relates how, at first glance, she missed the figure of the straining girl, focusing instead on the satisfied boy. Not until her “friend, a nurse, said, ‘Look at the girl behind the cart,’” did she notice Blanchard’s depiction of herself as a child, “barely able to stretch/to hold the ledge of the cart.” Short in stature herself, Kendig identified with Blanchard’s physical frustrations:

                      …I remember that reach
                      to the shelf that held suckers at the bank,
                      to the bookshelf where the librarian waved for me
                      to get books for myself though I was not tall enough to.

Kendig also identifies with Blanchard’s attachment to her only sister. “In the depths of her penury, she bought back her painting Two Sister from a collector because she felt the collector could not appreciate what it meant to her, sister of two sisters as she was.”

There are poems about Blanchard’s individual paintings and her complicated connections to Picasso and Diego Rivera. Both notorious womanizers, Picasso and Rivera rejected Blanchard as a sexual partner because of her hunchback, yet Picasso admired her enough to attend her funeral, and Rivera, though he shared a studio in Paris with her, was unable to pressure her to wait on him, like Lupe, Frida, and the other women in his life.

In her poem, “The Communicant,” Kendig places Blanchard’s self-portrait as an adult wearing a girl’s first communion dress within the genre of First Communion portraits and the historical context of Spanish art, comparing it to Velázquez’s seminal painting Las Meninas.Blanchard painted

The Communicant, Kendig tells us, after her grant money ran out, and she “had to leave Paris/and settle with her mother on Goya Street in Madrid.”

Blanchard’s relationship with her mother was troubled. Now we know that “fetal injuries are rare in cases of falls…[and] her deformity appears to be more suggestive of osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease.” Yet Blanchard’s mother was blamed for her daughter’s congenital deformity: “María’s disability came from her mother’s fall from a horse.” As a result, her mother was “cold and distant…María’s mother felt the shame and guilt of creating an imperfect child…caus[ing] an insurmountable rift.” It must have been unpleasant for both women when Blanchard was forced by poverty to return to her mother’s house, yet in “The Communicant,” the subject’s expression is enigmatic.

In “Lorca’s Elegy,” Part One of her multi-section poem, “Speaking of María Blanchard,” Kendig offers a new translation of Lorca’s elegy of Blanchard. In her essay, “Afterword: Speaking of María Blanchard,” she relates how Lorca’s elegy introduced her to Blanchard and explains some of the creative decisions she made in her translation. For Kendig, Blanchard’s life offers an inspiring example of perseverance despite difficulty: “Perhaps just by being María Blanchard, she is giving…a lesson in getting the work done, despite disability and pain, despite poverty, despite gender and the lack of critical acclaim. Despite all that, an artist finally is not necessarily the one with wealth or health or fame: she is the one who creates art.”

Insights like these might seem self-evident, yet we constantly need to be reminded of them. Kendig’s Woman with a Fan: On María Blanchard is a poignant introduction to the artist and her life, as well as a living testimonial to the influence that one artist can exert on another, despite living in different eras, speaking different languages, and working in different genres.

Lady with a Fan is available now from Shanit Arts.

About the reviewer:

Anne Whitehouse’s most recent poetry collection is OUTSIDE FROM THE INSIDE (Dos Madres Press, 2020), and her most recent chapbook is ESCAPING LEE MILLER (Ethel Zine and Micro Press, 2021). She is also the author of a novel, FALL LOVE. Her chapbook, FRIDA, about Frida Kahlo, is forthcoming from Ethel Zine and Micro Press.

book review

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart Review by Ally Muterspaw

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Review by Ally Muterspaw

Grove Press
Publication: April 2022
400 Pages
ISBN: 978-0-8021-5955-7

When Trauma Plotlines Feel Inevitable: A review of Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

If you have read or ever heard of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, the recipient of the 2020 Booker Prize, or are familiar with the Scottish-American writer, then you might expect a specific set of social circumstances. Like Shuggie Bain, Stuart’s sophomore novel, Young Mungo, tells a story of systemic poverty, toxic masculinity, and gay/queer sexuality. In 1980s Glasgow, male-led Catholic and Protestant gangs run the city, teen pregnancy is rampant, and youth are granted little aspirations outside of romance and sex. The novel’s protagonist, Mungo Hamilton, doesn’t fit into this environment; he is a sensitive 15-year-old boy, aptly named after the city’s benevolent Saint. When Protestant Mungo begins to fall in love with the Catholic James, the only emotional outlet the boys have places their lives at risk. The novel is told in two separate storylines; one in the present, where Mungo is on a fishing trip with two men, while the primary narrative relays Mungo’s burgeoning relationship with James, along with the social pressure to join the gang led by his brother, Hamish. The timelines begin to converge in a devastating turn of events for the teen boys.

Economic suffering in Young Mungo reflects the everyday sufferings of global capitalism; emotional apathy is central to the social dynamics of Glasgow. The novel is set in the first few years of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure, whose defunding of manual labor projects in Scotland is still felt in the present day. Labor jobs steadily disappear, living tenements are barely habitable, and many young people like Hamish are granted no hope for a safe and stable life. The women in Mungo’s life, his mother (called Mo-Maw) and sister Jodie, recognize his fragile, but unique qualities. Incapable of fulfilling the expectations of violent masculinity and compulsory heterosexuality, Mungo feels that his only chance of happiness is outside of Glasgow. Under the conditions of being outed, Mungo can never return home if he leaves with James. The burden of this choice pressures the protagonist throughout the novel.

Stuart’s environment is remarkable to read, particularly with the balance of nuance and empathy he creates through the characters’ questionably ethical behavior. In the throes of surviving everyday life, aspirations diminish. The author presents this nuance through Jodie’s obligated role as Mungo’s obligated caregiver. When her life is complicated by an unexpected pregnancy through the consequences of a financially enticing affair, she decides to get an abortion. In perhaps one of the first times in her life, Jodie prioritizes her happiness and understands the burden of young women’s opportunities that are placed aside to prioritize the men in their lives. Jodie’s decision is a radical one, especially in an environment where abortion was rare, and difficult for minors to access. Jodie’s radical choices solidify the dangers of surviving Glasgow.

The past tense narrative sets the provenance of the novel’s socioeconomic turmoil. At the same time, the other storyline takes place in “The May After” the expected outcome of James and Mungo being outed. Mungo is sent by his mother to “man up” on a fishing trip in Northern Scotland with two strange men named Gallowgate and St. Christopher. Mungo ends up being molested by both men on the trip, a traumatic plotline presented as an inevitability. During the weekend, Mungo murders the two men and returns to Glasgow alone. At the end of the novel, police find Gallowgate’s body, and want to question Mungo, since his mother notified the police that he could be in danger. Hamish pretends to be Mungo and goes in for questioning, while Mungo sees James at a nearby bus stop. He is left with a choice: to stay in Glasgow, or to go into the unknown with someone he loves. 

A feeling that is difficult to shake throughout the novel is the feeling of dread; the threat of sexual violence toward Mungo feels inescapable. In plenty of LGBTQ+ stories, real and fictional, we know the constant threat of violence that is present in private spaces. Isolated spaces have historically been a safe haven for our community, like the secluded spaces where the boys spend their time, or dangerous, like the fishing trip. While it’s in Mo-Maw’s character to send her son off with strange men, I still question the motives of Stuart’s device with this plot. Does the reader need to see that an abusive form of masculinity is more socially acceptable than the intimate, gay love between Mungo and James? Or is more acceptable than Chickie, Mungo’s neighbor, who remains unmarried? Possibly, but I imagine that most readers probably enter the novel with this mindset. At the apex of the love story, Mungo was ready to leave Glasgow; the arrest, murders, and outing of Mungo and James’s relationship don’t cause the love between the two boys to falter; on the contrary, these events emotionally devastate Mungo into emotional apathy, until the final chapter.

Perhaps Hamish’s potential arrest is a practical plot device Mungo needs to leave Glasgow. Hamish, essentially the “father” of the house, continuously risks his life for his siblings, girlfriend, and child. Pretending to be Mungo is a fulfillment of this responsibility, granted that he knows how to call off the police. This responsibility does not feel just or satisfying, since Hamish must reckon with the effects of traumatizing Mungo through a violent public entity that criminalizes poverty. What kind of accountability can be accomplished when Hamish fears for his and Mungo’s lives? The family’s trauma is underlined with gang activity as a continuation of the centuries-long sectarian violence that plays in Scotland’s history. Gang life is just another trait of generational trauma young men inherit in Glasgow.

Despite the plot devices, Stuart’s well-researched and emotional nuance makes the novel worth its suppressive atmosphere. Mungo’s conflicted feelings about upholding his familial responsibilities, and living an authentic life, are at the core of this novel. Many in our community reckon with the concept that familial love comes with conditions, but the chance to explore sexuality can be a sacred one. There is a certain power at the end of the novel when Mungo feels the glimmer of redemption in his relationship with James. How often do LGBTQ+ characters experience an upswing of hope at the end of their story, especially in the 1980s? I imagine Young Mungo will be just as successful as Shuggie Bain, and rightfully so. However, the question remains for our communities’ stories on what doses of trauma are critical in storytelling, and what are repetitive to the same bouts of trauma that feel overwrought.

Young Mungo is available now from Grove Atlantic.

About the reviewer:

Ally Muterspaw is a librarian based in Indianapolis, IN. She is an active member of her union, and lives with her partner and their cats. While Ally is newer to publishing her writing, her work has been published in Bi Women Quarterly, and has written blogs for her local bookstore. She focuses her writing on LGBTQIA+ book reviews and pop culture.

book review

The Ways We Get By by Joe Dornich Review by Edward Jackson

The Ways We Get By by Joe Dornich

Review by Edward Jackson

Black Lawrence Press
Publication: January 2021
190 Pages
ISBN: 978-1-62557-830-3

The Not So Absurd, in the Absurd Settings of Joe Dornich’s The Ways We Get By

Joe Dornich’s collection of stories find the right balance of new weird and traditional short story form to draw in a wide range of readers. The nine stories have interwoven characters that remind us, as they veer just enough off the track, that we are indeed in a very strange world. Dornich’s characters find themselves in a variety of odd jobs such as cuddlers, fake criers at funerals, Jesus impersonators at Christian theme parks, and campers at a sleepaway where all are allergic to sunlight. While the settings are not that strange, a boat, a camp, even a brothel for cuddling, it is the circumstances within those just enough odd settings that make the stories resonate with readers. 

Dornich wisely starts the collection off with The Continuing Controversy of the Snuggle Shack. One part new age retreat center, one part non-sexual brothel, and two parts weird, readers are drawn in as the circumstances of those protesting the existence of this benign center of cuddling as much as they are drawn to the workers. The protestors seem eerily familiar to right to life protestors, and their tactics can be equally as frightening. 

While the settings of these workplaces draw readers in, it is the protagonists of each story that readers will linger the longest with. It is a genius battle that Dornich has achieved by not allowing these wonderful settings to overshadow his characters. 

The collection for the most part is wisely put together with a balance of odd settings that may not exist in our world but seem fully probable to settings that we see today.

The Reluctant Son of a Fake Hero sees the world of a Hollywood Boulevard costumed superhero worker from the eyes of its teen protagonist, whose father poses for tips with tourists as Superman. The setting, one that anyone whose been to Los Angeles knows all too well, is sadly coiled into a California roll. The young boy ends up joining his father as Aquaman on the boulevard, barely making a living. It is the underbelly of the workers in these jobs that gut punches the reader. 

The obvious parallels to sex workers are indeed one of the most resonating themes of the collection. Dornich’s settings like Hollywood Boulevard, the Snuggle Shack, and the insemination center at the endanger animal release center, all remind readers of places we often look down upon in our world. But Dornich forces the reader to reexamine their thoughts on the workers in today’s world at places like these. 

In addition to the world of sex workers that readers will find parallels too, Dornich readily taps into our daily relationships through family and coworkers that readers will gravitate to. More interesting, though, is the less visible parallels. Dornich taps into our fears as well. The idea that no one would cry at our funeral, makes the hiring of actors to be paid criers completely understandable as the American reader will always have fears about that. But Dornich also makes many parallels to religions and its hypocrisy. The actors at the Christian theme park, show the absurdity of American religion in all its glories. 

While the balance of relatable settings to the new weird workplace situations is a balance of achievement, the collection falls a bit flat in the placing of its last story. Boat Guy feels a bit out of place with the rest of the collection, and not the best ending note. It leaves the reader less enthused by the settings and characters that we started with that packed so much into them. While Boat Guy certainly fits well with the collection, it is not a great bookend to the The Continuing Controversy of the Snuggle Shack. Boat Guy, while funny and a bit odd, feels all too relatable of a note to end on. A boat with a broken toilet and an odd captain doesn’t match the power of the wonderful weirdness of the Snuggle Shack. Had the order of the stories been arranged in a more powerful manner with particular attention to the last one, readers would leave more satisfied. A better ending story that matches the opener would have been more impactful. 

Boat Guy would have been a better fit in the middle. This misstep is a key to the importance of arrangement regarding a collection of stories. Perhaps Understudy to Matinee Jesus, would have been a better closer to the collection. With it’s relatable setting, a theme park, and its oddness of the characters work, spoke better to the achievement of the balance that Dornich was so successful at. 

Arrangement aside, Dornich’s collection of stories, The Ways We Get By, is an achievement in the new weird reaching a wider audience. One ready for a world of new jobs that seem strange, yet totally relatable. Many of us may need paid criers at our funerals as the world gets more cynical and Dornich has wisely tapped into that. Dornich has created several characters and settings I quite enjoyed spending my time with.

The Ways We Get By is available now from Black Lawrence Press.

Edward Jackson is a creative writer who has published prose in a variety of publications including The Louisville Review, The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Blotter, and The Gay & Lesbian Review along with book reviews in Entropy and School Library Journal. He holds degrees in Education, English, and Library Science from Western Michigan University, Aquinas College, University of Georgia, and Youngstown State University. He lives in Greenville, PA with his husband and their menagerie of pets named after Mad Men characters.

book review

Hush by Nikki Ummel Review by Cid Galicia

Hush by Nikki Ummel

Review by Cid Galicia

Belle Point Press
Publication: October 2022
28 pages
ISBN: 979-8-9858965-2-7

In the chapbook Hush, Nikki Ummel guides readers through the neighborhoods, bars, and backyards of New Orleans–while simultaneously the streets, alleyways, and rooms of her own life as a partner, mother, sister, and queer woman. Readers travel the lived realities of medical recovery and support for her sister, hurricanes, and the ever-stretching diversity of today’s family dynamics. There is joy, but that joy is not a shield of denial to hide behind from real-world experience. Through these poems, she offers us truths of living with struggle and love in the heart of The Big Easy.

Many writers use their first pages to coax the reader’s attention and adoration–offers of pleasures, happiness, or wealth of life that can be lived vicariously. Truth is never avoided in New Orleans, and truth is never avoided in Nikki’s writing. Her opening poem, My Sister’s Double Mastectomy, adheres to this. The reader follows Nikki’s observations of her sister’s recovery as she struggles to identify with her new body that looks and feels now so distant and strange.

                      She is relearning comfort…
                      This is not her body, or wasn’t,

                      but now is…

                     She pulls his four year old body
                     to her recessed chest but us unable to staunch his giggles.

To the many readers who have experienced the same personally, or have  had friends/siblings that have, in which they also had to painfully observe–Nikki’s poems offer a sanctuary of empathy.

At the same time, Nikki is also a laughter igniter. One of my favorite poems is Eleven. In this poem, Nikki writes through the narrative lens of a young adolescent girl nearing one of the physical thresholds of womanhood, her first period and also through a mother with concern for this coming too soon for her daughter. What I love about this poem is the simultaneous dialogue of prayers to the Virgin Mother.  Spoken as a reflection of the two, one of high anxiety and the other of youthful female ferocity!

               Hail Mary / full of grace / am I blessed
               amongst women too? / And my fruit / 
               Buds / Holy Mother / but it’s too soon.

               Hail Mary / full of grace / bless me
              Mother of mothers / make me a woman too.

The narrative poetic craft of setting, characters, symbols, and humor are so strongly etched within this poem. We are pulled into the duality of the two characters so deeply, we cannot help but leave this poem with hope and a bit of laughter.  

Throughout this book Nikki artfully covers the full canvas of poetic expression as she guides the reader through her words and stories down the pages and into the hearts, hopes, worries, and fears of each poem.

Nikki Ummel is an active advocate of poetry in her New Orleans community. She is a writer, editor, educator, and laughter-igniter to those who find themselves in her creative wake. Assistant Editor for Bayou Magazine, UNO & Xavier University Instructor, and most recently co-founder of the reading series lmnl lit. Nikki has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and twice awarded the Academy of American Poets’ Andrea Saunders Gereighty Poetry Award. She is the 2022 winner of the Leslie McGrath Poetry Prize. Nikki has been published, or will soon be, in Painted Bride Quarterly, The Adroit Journal, The Georgia Review, and more. Her second chapbook Bayou Sonata, NOLA DNA, is forthcoming Spring 2023.

Hush is available now from Belle Point Press.