Read these! Our contributors’ (and then some) work from around the web

Regular contributor Gabrielle Brant Freeman has several poems published around the web:
“The Art of Deception” page 64 in the Minetta Review

“Guess My Name” and “Linen” at CSHS

A short story from Kyler Campbell. You can download a free issue and read his story “Caretta Caretta” & short interview from Driftwood Press. Story starts on page 13.

Travis Burnham is a fellow Converse alumi and his short story “The Bone Washer” is up at Bad Dream Entertainment.

Jeffrey Schrecongost, another Converse grad, whose post was highlighted a few weeks ago, has a short story–“Mouthwash” up at Gadfly.

Poet Melissa Dickson Jackson is the author of Sweet Aegis and Cameo. Another Converse alumni and she has a blog post up at North American Review titled A Poem in Flight: Memory and Truth.

Check out contributor Yolande Clark-Jackson’s children’s book Rocko RocketRocko also has a Twitter account. Lots of good stuff happening here!

Core faculty member and fiction member Leslie Pietrzyk, author of A Year and A Day: A Novel and Pears on A Willow Tree has an interview up at Reader’s Lane. Leslie also has a blog at Work In Progress and edits Redux: A Literary Journal


Poems of Witness: Kathleen Nalley’s Nesting Doll

As I was thinking about my blog post due today and which poet I should write about – yes, I have been and probably always will be a world-class procrastinator, no matter what I teach my students – it occurred to me, again, that I was avoiding the obvious. Kathleen Nalley’s chapbook Nesting Doll, winner of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative’s Chapbook Series chosen by Kwame Dawes and published in 2013, has been sitting on my side table since I got it back on September 13, 2013. Don’t get me wrong. I love this book. It hits hard and makes the reader keep her eyes open, both qualities that make poetry work. But I know the author. I know her well, and that has kept me from writing about this collection. Until today.

Nalley’s poems are hard to read. Not hard like inaccessible, but hard like, Damn. The reader is asked to be inside the heads of a male rapist and a mother who knifes her two children; to be inside the heads of a girl sold into the world of sex slaves and a woman who layers on weight in response to a world of sexual abuse. In “First-Round Draft Pick,” the speaker describes himself raping a drunk girl, “She woke up when I tightened my belt / around her wrists, whining something / about losing her virginity” (14). He states that he never takes no for an answer, and that he “learned it / from [his] dad” (14). The cycle of abuse is fully described in a very few lines, and the reader cannot look away.

In “Fat Lady Singing,” the speaker responds to years of pain including being violated by her father, by peeping Toms and depraved strangers, and by a “German transfer student, / five years her senior,” (18) by putting on weight. “[A]n extra helping of potatoes” becomes “the baggage. Her body became / its own armor and chink” (18). The reader understands this layering, the series of shells that protect the woman within. This echoes the title poem. In section two, “Becoming,” Nalley writes “Outside, you cary history, / weight in years and kids, / line from too much time / smoking or drinking or exposing / yourself to sun, a hated job, hours / upon hours of drying and folding // clothes, socks, your sex, guilt” (6). The final lines of this poem emphasize the power in the series of identities, the “dolls” that encase each other in ever-larger forms to shape the woman: “Seal the / queen last. She’s rough to the touch. / If there are splinters, pick them out” (8).

But it is hard to read these poems full of pain, full of anger, full of things that, as Kwame Dawes writes of the chapbook, “we prefer not to look at.” And yet we read them, and we are empowered by their rawness, their unflinching look at the oftentimes not-so-nice world of being a woman. I think I put off writing about this collection because I was worried about not having the words to show its true craftsmanship, and I can only hope that I have done my friend justice. I encourage you to read this beautiful chapbook with open eyes and a clenched fist. These are poems of witness, and they, in all their honesty, work.

Nalley, Kathleen. Nesting Doll. Columbia, SC: Stepping Stones Press, 2013.

Confession in Ai’s No Surrender

“A baby who would inherit the end of the world:”
Confession in Ai’s No Surrender

by Kathleen Nalley

In her posthumous work, No Surrender, the morally defunct characters typical of Ai’s previous poetry collections are nowhere to be found. While there are priests, they are not committing unforgiveable acts on children; while there are mothers, none of them are as cruel as the one who forces her daughter to wear a choke collar and get on all fours.  The personas of No Surrender are not the psychotic outliers no one wants to talk about. Instead, they are seemingly “normal” people, making decisions whose consequences are known and are not that bad (at least, in comparison to previous characters).

Despite the book’s lack of seismic shock value, its voice still belongs to Ai, if perhaps a calmer, less dramatic, in-your-face Ai. No Surrender was written as Ai was dying of breast cancer and published after her death. If No Surrender has any reoccurring theme, it is the triumph of living despite seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

Most of the poems in No Surrender hint at autobiography. “Baby Florence” appears throughout the book (Ai’s real name was Florence). Racial themes permeate its pages, from Irish to African to Indian to Asian — ironically, all the nationalities and cultures Ai claimed as her own. In “Motherhood, 1951,” the Baby Florence character witnesses her mother giving birth to another fatherless baby (Ai would have been four years old in 1951, which matches the timeline of the poem). In “Discipline,” the poem’s speaker is age seven, which is the age Ai would have been in 1954. The multiracial woman in “Fatherhood” muses “Who couldn’t have imagined/There’d be a place for someone like me in their history”, an idea that seems to have infiltrated Ai’s personal life.


“The Cancer Chronicles” follows a confessional bent. The poet Ai died suddenly from breast cancer — the speaker in the poem dies, also, of untreated breast cancer, knowing the disease is ravaging her body, but continuing in a state of denial: “And she knew she would die of it./But she would not give into it./She would”, and “She would remain among the living,/Giving no sign of her struggle”.

Perhaps No Surrender was Ai’s most confessional, most personal work and, ultimately, what she was leaving behind for the world. Instead of a focus on Dread, Vice, Greed, Fate, Sin or Cruelty (the names and themes of her previous works), this final book emphasizes the resilience of the human spirit — a denial of death and an acceptance of life, no matter the circumstances or fate. It is the culmination of a poet’s reconciliation of the self and the world.

Ai-No Surrender. W.W. Norton & Company
Ai-No Surrender. W.W. Norton & Company

Ai. No Surrender. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.



“making a scene”: Tony Hoagland’s Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty

by Kathleen Nalley

How ironic that the copyright page of Tony Hoagland’s fifth book, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, contains Wells Fargo and Target logos, iconic brands that represent consumerism in America. What follows is an immersion in this very culture, an exploration of the individual against the collective machine, an indictment of our society’s values, a finger (perhaps a middle finger) pointing directly at both consumers and executives of emerging superstores.

Hoagland finds relevance in everything from health insurance to Chicken Kiev. No subject is off limits — Hoagland practices equal opportunity, on one hand lamenting a bygone era and in another provoking modern capitalism, always charging the reader to be unincorporated. Hoagland’s America, with its “horrible juggernaut of progress” and its “mainstream dream machine”, is nothing more and nothing less than a “late-twentieth-century glitterti party”, a veritable melting pot of “everything/all chopped up and stirred together/in the big steel pan” — a collective so dependent on consumerism that there’s “nothing we can’t turn into a soft-drink flavor or a t-shirt”.

Throughout the book, Hoagland implores readers to shift our collective focus away from the currency of the day, to scoff at the Kool-Aid offered, and to question and rejoice in our individuality as well as in our inter connectedness. With a premise this large, Hoagland asks “Oh life! Can you blame me/for making a scene?”.

In the poem “Big Grab”, which questions the meaning behind language, Hoagland explores the individual’s complacency in the collective system, where consumers are force-fed truth via the advertising and marketing juggernaut. In describing deceptive corn-chip packaging, Hoagland brings history and contemporary living into play:

Confucius said this would happen—
that language would be hijacked and twisted
by a couple of tricksters from the Business Department
and from then on words would get crookeder and crookeder
until no one would know how to build a staircase,
or to size up a horse by its teeth
or when it’s best to shut up.

By the end of the poem, Hoagland convinces the reader of the dumbing down of culture when he writes “No wonder I want something more or less large/and salty for lunch./No wonder I stare into space while eating it”.

Never is Hoagland’s attitude and insight more direct than in the poem “Hard Rain”, in which he uses a Dear Abby letter to personify the economic and political practices of an entire county:

Dear Abby,
My father is a businessman who travels.
Each time he returns from one of his trips,
his shoes and trousers
are covered in blood—
but he never forgets to bring me a nice present.
Should I say something?
Signed, America (15)

Although enduring and tender at times, Tony Hoagland’s Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty derives its strength from the poet’s humor, daring honesty and ability to dissect the economic engine that defines modern American culture. Hoagland’s spot-on observations, language and wit make the harsh realities of fast-paced living in a constantly changing, technologically dependent world a little less damaging to the human spirit. There’s truth when he writes, “mine/is the simple, unrated power/to keep both of us amused”.

Hoagland, Tony. Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2010.