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.


Issue #12 ~ Summer 2023 is Now Live!

Issue #12 ~ Summer 2023 is Now Live!

August 4, 2023

Put another dime in the jukebox, baby…”

It’s August. It’s hot. It’s muggy AF. But the trees are in full sway and today we are thrilled to announce the release of Issue #12 ~ The Honeybee Prize issue.

If you ever wondered what kind of village it takes to raise a little lit mag (or what’s up with that Joan Jett reference), the accompanying editor’s note for this issue does a pretty good job laying it all out. And if you’re curious just where to “dive in” to this latest issue, we’d definitely recommend checking out the artwork page first and then heading straight for Birds of Prey by Tiffany Promise. Her piece was selected as the winner of this year’s Honeybee Prize in Fiction by the one and only Roxane Gay!

After that, you can easily swim in any direction and find more fantastic stories and poems by other contributors to this delightful issue including two poems by Nebraska State Poet, Matt Mason PLUS writing from all the other winners and runners-up of this year’s contest. And be sure not to click away before you read the quirky-fun stage play, Purg City, by Milton Joseph or Ixim – a translation of Isabel Pascual Andrés’s poetry by Kiran Baht.

As we celebrate the “big reveal” of this issue, it’s also an opportune time to express how grateful we are to the writers and artists who trust us with their work as well as everyone who is tuned in to support our efforts here at TGLR.

On behalf of our entire team, we thank you for visiting, reading, and taking your time to dance with us!

~The Good Life Review Team

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.


The 2023 Honeybee Prize Winners!

2023 Honeybee Prize Winners

June 22, 2023

Hello friends and happy Thursday. We trust the summer solstice was a good one and now that we’re officially on the other side of it, we’re excited to announce the results of the 2023 Honeybee Literature prize! As previously mentioned, the competition was even more fierce than last year and we had to narrow the field to a short list of five to seven finalists in each of the three categoriespoetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction.

We’re extremely grateful to everyone who participated with special thanks going to this year’s judges Roxane Gay, Rodrigo Toscano, and Hugh Reilly who were wonderful to work with and generous with their time and expertise.

Without further ado, here are those results:

Fiction Winner:

Birds of Prey by Tiffany Promise

Here’s what Roxane Gay had to say about Birds of Prey:

Birds of Prey is a confluence of contradictions. There are events in a person’s life that are often joyful but as this economic story unravels, it is clear that there is no happy ending to be found here. Written with a bold and unique voice, this language-driven story about predator and prey is a masterful example of what flash fiction can be.


The Language of Family by Hemmy So and Pretty Women by Blake Kinnett

Poetry Winner:

“For Kenny” by Kelsey Smoot

Here’s what Rodrigo Toscano had to say about “For Kenny”:

Too often these days, poems either lack sufficient words or phrases that culturally locate a text, or worse, they are overstuffed with such cultural markers. “For Kenny”, strikes a compelling balance between the two extremes. While the poem is plainly sympathetic to the subject of its portraiture (“Kenny”), it doesn’t lapse into simplistic sentimentality. A stoic attitude pervades the whole piece. And it is by way of this moral-ethical distancing that the reader is given space to imagine scenarios in their own life that call out for poetic treatment. But not so fast! Despite the poem’s narrative drive, expressed by an ardent commitment to finely wrought detail, akin to the beginning of a great epic novel, the last line, “I’m not sure that I do”, separates this poem from the legions of wannabe novelettes that litter most poetry journals. The cathectic rupture caused by the line is instant and irreversible, and resets all that came before it as an unrecoverable alternate reality. That is, our grimy readerly hands are kept at bay, as the poetic subject, narrator, and reader are all tossed up into midair. And where we land is on a newfound desire to live a more observant, more judicious, and ultimately, more compassionate life. And of course, “For Kenny”, leaves us plenty hungry for more poetic works by Kelsey Smoot.


Ras Tafari Ghazal by Oak Morse

Creative Nonfiction Winner:

Selfishly, I Planted Flowers by Rachel Sussman

Here’s what Hugh Reilly had to say about “Selfishly, I Planted Flowers”:

“Selfishly I Planted Flowers,” is a lyrical exploration of lifelong friendship. Insightful commentary like, “You can share what you love with anyone, but for scorn you need a trusted friend,” stopped me in my tracks and made me read the line again and savor its power and truth. I thought of my own best friend and what it would be like to lose him. Authentic anecdotes like pulling weeds in your pajamas, help this story ring true. The careful word choice, the judicial use of repetition, and the consistent and memorable metaphor of a flower garden resonate and make this story unforgettable. The final paragraph reminds us that there is a finish, an end to all things, and an inevitable new beginning. Sorrow and hope intertwined.


Coyote by Nicki Orser

We also want to recognize two other poets who received honorable mentions for their work:
To Brother-Ghost on Halloween by Pell Williams
Amnesty Week by R.J. Lambert

Our congratulations goes out to all these fine folks for their amazing writing and to the winners for snagging those beautiful jars of honey!

We’re not done yet, though!! The best is yet to come as all of these award winning pieces will appear in our summer issue alongside two poems from Nebraska State Poet, Matt Mason, a stage play by playwright, Milton Joseph, and poetry by Isabel Andres with translation by Kiran Bhat. It’s gonna be so, so good and we can’t wait to share it with you.

~The Good Life Review Team


The 2023 Honeybee Prize Finalists!

2023 Honeybee Prize Finalists

June 1, 2023

Hello friends! Welcome to June and the start of summer. As everyone knows, summer is honey bee season and for all of us here at TGLR, that also means we’re gearing up to celebrate the highly anticipated results of our annual contest, the Honeybee Literature Prize.

This year we had 285 submissions across the three categories of poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction, and it was even tougher than last year to narrow down all the wonderful work we received to just a handful of finalists.

We’re grateful for everyone who sent us their stories, essays and poems and know that the contest judges Roxane Gay, Rodrigo Toscano, and Hugh Reilly have their work cut out for them in selecting the winners and runners up from this stellar lineup:

  • Contradictions of Being by Karan Kapoor
  • the come back by Simone Flynn
  • Ras Tafari Ghazal by Oak Morse
  • Amnesty Week by R.J. Lambert
  • “For Kenny” by Kelsey Smoot
  • Obit by Kait Quinn
  • To Brother-Ghost on Halloween by Pell Williams
  • The Riddle by Devon Parish
  • Selfishly, I Planted Flowers by Rachel Sussman
  • Coyote by Nicki Orser
  • First Wound by Natasha Chiam
  • Endangered by Margaret Lynch
  • Midway by Allie Dixon
  • The Year of the Self by Brittany Cortez
  • Pretty Women by Blake Kinnett
  • Birds of Prey by Tiffany Promise
  • Language of Family by Hemmy So
  • Allie by Addie Lovell

Congratulations to all the finalists for their fabulous poems, essays, and stories!! We will be announcing the winners and runners-up by the end of the month. Stay tuned…

~The Good Life Review Team

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.


Issue #11 ~ Spring 2023 is Now Live!

Issue #11 ~ Spring 2023 is Now Live!

April 12, 2023

Today, friends, we are thrilled to present Issue #11 ~ Spring 2023! We’re grateful for all the writers who sent us work and recognize that our organization could not exist without their dedication, passion for creating, and their courage to share. We’re eager to showcase and celebrate the poetry, creative nonfiction, translation, and fiction from fourteen writers that we’ve been fortunate enough to connect with these past few months, as well as artwork from a number of talented artists. More about celebration, connection, and the wonderful work ready and waiting in this issue can be found in the editor’s note.

This issue marks the start of our 4th year of operations and the note also briefly touches on how our organization could not exist as it is without the time and effort of our all-volunteer team which is now 24 strong with 17 editors, six readers, and one Spanish translation advisor. We have hundreds of submissions coming in for each quarterly issue, our annual contest, and for our weekly content offering, Micro Monday, and there is absolutely no way we could give adequate and careful consideration to each piece without these dedicated people.

With this issue we say farewell to one of our original GLR team members, Suzanne Guess, who has been with us as a Nonfiction Editor since our very first issue in 2020. It was wonderful working with Suzanne and we wish her well!

The editor’s note also shamelessly name drops our judges for this year’s Honeybee Literature Prize: Roxane Gay (fiction), Rodrigo Toscano (Poetry), and Hugh Reilly (Nonfiction). We’re over the moon about the opportunity to work with these people and are excited to see how the contest will unfold this year. If you are reading this and would like a chance to have one of those fine folks read your work AND have it published AND get paid for it… details are here.

In any case, we hope you will dive into all this spring issue has to offer and stay tuned because we are going to keep the party going all throughout the spring season with interviews with some of our contributing authors by the fabulous Christine Nessler!

On behalf of our entire team, we thank you for visiting, reading, and supporting the arts!

~The Good Life Review Team

announcements team member spotlight

Introducing Annie Barker

Introducing Annie Barker

March 18, 2023

2023 has been a fast moving train thus far. One minute I was celebrating the new year and then I blinked and somehow it’s mid-March. Part of the reason for that is the sheer number of exciting new endeavors we have going on at TGLR– the launch of Micro Monday, book reviews, a team reading, AWP, contributor interviews and promo, and of course our quarterly issues. With all this, my plan to introduce new and existing team members has waned a bit but I’m excited to pick up where I left off at the turn of the year and shine a spotlight on our editors, their writing lives, and their contributions to our efforts. And today I’m pleased to present highlights of my Q&A with Annie Barker who is not only an editor on our flash nonfiction team but also serves an associate editor.

Annie has been with TGLR since day one and has never wavered in her dedication to our mission and vision. Late in 2022, when I asked the team if anyone wanted to volunteer more time to fill gaps in our processes, Annie was among the first to jump in. She’s now doing all the copy editing for our quarterly issues as well as leading an email campaign to connect to other writing programs in the region. I’m grateful she’s been open to assisting as we learn and grow. 

I’m also grateful she took the time to answer some questions so I could share more about her life and her thoughts on writing. The first question, and one of my favorites, is about when she discovered her love of writing. 

Apparently (and this is so embarrassing) I learned this shortly before I wrote the words “As I must breathe, so must I write” in my childhood journal. I don’t know how old I was when I wrote this because after discovering this passage as an adult I immediately ripped out the page and shredded it.

I then asked what prompted her to get an MFA.

I actually never intended to enter the MFA program. I was just going to enroll in UNO for one MFA Enrichment semester (essentially the same as one semester of the program, but with no commitment to continue). I had it all figured out. I was working on a memoir about my search for my biological father and my plan was to attend one residency to learn some useful things, and then work with a mentor for a few months to whip that book into shape.

I clearly didn’t know what I was getting into. Shortly after arriving at the lodge for my Enrichment residency, I called my husband and told him, “Ah, sweetie, I have some bad news. I want to enter the program,” because at some point during those first two days, I realized that in this motley group of creative, hardworking, and courageous writers, I had found my people.

Even more miraculous, I had also rediscovered a forgotten part of myself, a creative, playful, risk-taking part I had last encountered around the age of – oh, I don’t know – twelve? I knew a good thing when I felt it, so I took the leap.

I also asked Annie some of the same questions we’ve asked our contributing authors over the past year including what the most difficult and satisfying parts of the artistic process are for her. 

Like many writers, I find the blank page a little terrifying. I’m getting better at just diving in wherever (which is the best advice I’ve received on this subject), but if I find myself reorganizing my sock drawer it’s probably because I’m starting something new.

As for something satisfying, I LOVE the revision process. I think this is because I generally, in a lot of areas of my life, like to improve things (my handwriting, my house, my husband).

Well played Mrs. Barker!! I then asked her if there ar any personal writing projects she’s actively working on.

I divide my time between writing CNF essays and poetry and shepherding my long-form memoir (working title is “Searching For Sea Glass,” and it’s about the search for my biological father) toward publication.

And of course I wrapped up the Q&A with our classic Nebraska TGLR question, which is what she thinks of when she hears the phrase “The Good Life.” 

I immediately think of something that’s been hard to for me to achieve–a balanced life. One that offers equal time for serious work, creative writing, rest, quality time with family and friends, and opportunities to play and be silly. This might ultimately be a quixotic goal, but I think Nebraska, with its wide open spaces and laid-back work culture, is a place that encourages a purposeful life, so I plan to stay here for a long time and try to get as close as I can to the ideal.

Annie… Thank you for taking that “leap” with us too and for your thoughtfulness and dedication. We are fortunate to have you on the team and I’m grateful for all the care and consideration you give to each and every piece of writing!!


PS. More about Annie and all of our TGLR editors is available on the Masthead.

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.