Deonte Osayande

“Eventually you reach a point where there are parts of you that want to come out in your writing.”


Cover the Sky With Crows (ELJ Publications, 2015)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

I can’t just name a couple. There’s a whole chunk of my personal library that is chapbooks. Two that I’m currently using in teaching other poets are Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire and The Life and Times of Susie Knuckles by  Safia Elhillo.

If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?

Quills of Fire was my first chapbook and it was just a self published collection of poems to share my work and make some money at readings. After that was Metamorphosis, which was my second self-published chapbook, but at that point I had started taking my poetry more seriously. Then there was Separation, which had a short run and was in conjunction with a publisher out of Saginaw Michigan for a reading I did there. Then there was Duality Unabridged, which was a collaborative project with Allison Bohn and I when we tied in a poetry contest at my Alma Mater 3 years earlier. I then didn’t release another chapbook for a couple of years until this one.

What’s your chapbook about?

There is a wide variety of experiences that go into this chapbook, but if I had to say one thing I suppose it would be love. Maybe that’s corny, I don’t know, but there are pieces dealing with self love and the fight against my depression, romantic love, familial love and black life in general. Looking back, I think love may have been one of the things behind my drive to complete many of these poems.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

“By the time this reaches you” (which was split into two parts for this chapbook) has got to be the oldest. I wrote it for another poet who I loved in 2011 who wasn’t from Detroit. It kind of became more than it’s intentions. I remember performing it at the National Poetry Slam in Boston that year more vividly than I do the writing process, because I broke down in the middle of reciting the poem. There were a lot of shootings happening at home around the time that I was reciting this poem about love, but also about the violence that riddles my hometown.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

The editors at ELJ Publications helped me with the arrangement. At the time of its acceptance I was still learning about looking at a collection as a whole body that worked together instead of viewing it like just a bunch of poems thrust together. The title comes from an image in one of the poems. I have depression, and it often comes and goes as it pleases. A lot of the topic matters within some of the poems permeate in my mind when the sky seems dark as if it’s covered with crows. The title kind of made sense.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

I can’t choose just one. It would be like picking the most meaningful scar. One may have a more juicy or meaningful backstory than the others but at the end of the day they are still these parts of you that show that you have survived. I’d say the fact that I’m surviving is most meaningful to me.

Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?

The politics, I don’t think as much. I think the form does force the poet to be more succinct and the collection has to work similar to the button combination used in fighting video games to pull off incredible combos. The writer’s politics are their own, whether chapbook or full collection they will find a way through, like preference in character in a fighting game. The chapbook just makes the writer tighter and more precise with the buttons they press. I hope that makes sense.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

Easy, it’s “Ode to the Cats” that’s the “misfit.” A best friend of mine and fellow poet passed away in 2015, months before the chapbook was put out. She was fighting cancer from the end of 2013 until the time of her passing, and during the time she was in the hospital I would go to her home and tend to her cats for her. There were times where I was consumed by my depression, like utterly unable to shake it’s grasp and in the privacy of her home I would just lay out and cry on her floor. The cats would come to me, and lay with me and purr until I fell asleep. They didn’t have to do that, and they weren’t even my cats. I felt like it was their way of showing that they appreciated me caring for them. It was this that made me realize how I’m not always appreciative of those who try to help me, including my friend/sister who the world lost too soon. That isn’t the reason it’s the “misfit” though. That’s because I don’t own pets, so I don’t often write about cats.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?

The final poem was “Days I Don’t Have.” I imagine that I’m a pain to work with. I don’t mean to be, I’m just hard on myself and I always want things to be better. We were working on the final order of the chapbook, past the stage of adding and removing poems. We had gotten it just about finished as far as layout goes and I wrote the poem and without edits thought it needed to be in there. I’m like “we have to add this poem” and the folks at ELJ said alright, no questions asked. For some reason I didn’t want to add anything after that, so it was kind of meant to be in there.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?

I write like I hoop…in spurts. Sometimes on fire, and sometimes absolutely trash. I mean I’m 5’7, despite my speed and vertical leap, basketball requires a lot of energy and I’m getting older. As a writer I’m a bottle, holding on to my emotions and experiences, and they come out when they’re meant to. I just start linking them together when I see different threads starting to form. Similar to a pickup game of basketball, even when you’re on the court with guys you’ve known for years you rarely have set plays. You link things together as you see the threads forming.

What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

The editorial and production process was fun to me. They paired me up with an editor and we would stay in touch on a weekly basis and make revisions on my poems, which I enjoyed doing and learned a lot from. I usually don’t let my friends see poems before they’re done because they care about my feelings. I need unbiased savagery when it comes to my poetry. As far as the cover image, they left it up to me. I like to support local artists. With each chapbook or instrumental album release I go to a local visual artist that I know. I hit up a friend of mine, a visual artist named Trae Issac, sent him the poems, and just told him to give me what comes to mind and what he drew up ended up being the cover.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?

Do you listen to music while writing and who? I’d answer James Blake. I might start listening to something else, but at some point in my writing or editing process, if I’m listening to music, he comes up in the playlist. I don’t know what is going on in Britain right now, but artistically they’re killing it and James Blake and this band called the XX come up in my playlist often when I’m writing.

What are you working on now?

My first full collection of poetry, Class, comes out with Urban Farmhouse Press next spring. I write in spurts, but when I do a lot comes out. I’m currently working on another chapbook that I might turn into a full manuscript, another full poetry manuscript and my first collection of nonfiction. So one, maybe two full poetry manuscripts and a nonfiction manuscript. Other than that I’m trying to learn how to cook (I know, late bloomer) and just becoming a better person altogether.

What is your favorite piece you’ve written? Why?

I don’t have a favorite piece, that’s kind of like having a favorite child…which I guess people do, so that wasn’t the greatest analogy but I don’t have one. A child, but I mean, I don’t have a favorite piece either.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

I guess painting and music. I see things in a very visual sense in my head, and I do wish I continued pursuing illustration when I was in high school but I felt like they didn’t care about the art department like that in my high school. Music, I felt forced into playing violin in high school, so I gave it up when I graduated and now I wish I hadn’t. I didn’t give singing a fair try then either, which is funny considering how often I sing horribly these days.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Start writing about what you know and about what you don’t want to or have to share with everyone. Everyone starts off with what they think poetry is, or what they think people want to hear. Eventually you reach a point where there are parts of you that want to come out in your writing and you have to choose between what’s easy and what’s difficult. What you know and what’s difficult is often where the strongest poems come from.

What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?

I wish someone told me they wanted to give me thousands or millions of dollars just to write. I’d still work my teaching job since I love teaching and I’m not even a fan of money as a thing, but I guess it’d be cool to get a lot of it for writing, and it would make living a lot easier. Wisdom comes with living. As far as writing goes, I’d say live more, it gives more depth to the pool writers can draw from when they’ve lived and experienced a lot.

What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?

Read a lot of chapbooks. We learn through imitation and then doing it on our own, our own way. I think of chapbooks like mixtapes to where the full collection is like an album. Two different kinds of great collections of an artists music. When it comes to music you won’t make a dope mixtape without having listened to mixtapes. Other than that, remember that it isn’t a competition. You are writing from your own experience, and worrying too much about what others are doing will only get in the way of great creation.

Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook? What inspires you? What gets you to the page?

Life inspires me. I text myself ideas when they come up and I’m not by my computer. Poetry comes out when it’s meant to and I just roll with it. I can’t say just one person. I read a lot, and I’m thankful to know a lot of people, phenomenal writers and just phenomenal people, so I’ll just say a lot of people.

What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?

Where can I find your chapbooks and do you want to exchange? I’m a big reader so the more the better.


Deonte Osayande is a former track and field sprinter turned writer from Detroit, Mi. He writes nonfiction essays and his poems have been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology, a Pushcart Prize and published in many online and print publications. He has represented Detroit at multiple National Poetry Slam competitions. He’s currently a professor of English at Wayne County Community College, and teaching youth through the Inside Out Detroit Literary Arts Program.


The Paranoia Says the Helicopter Searches For Me

As the announcement
of the training
exercise on campus
for the police force comes
into my classroom and I joke
about the threat, about
my blood pressure as if
there wasn’t a shooting
at a community college
weeks before, as if I weren’t
the same complexion as the targets
cops use at their shooting ranges.

This is a poem from the chapbook, although it’s renamed “Gentrification” in the book.

Ginny Wiehardt

“We hear a lot about finding your own path as an artist, but it’s important to honor yourself in the life you lead as well.”


Migration (Gold Line Press, 2016)

What’s your chapbook about?

The poems in Migration trace a rough narrative arc from a childhood in Texas to early motherhood in Brooklyn. Many of these poems deal with family and home, how we leave home and how we return, either mentally or physically.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

For this collection, Fossil Sky by David Hinton was influential—though it may not technically even be a chapbook. It’s a long poem printed on a piece of 54-square-inch paper folded up like a road map. The words of the poem on the page reconstruct the walks Hinton took in the countryside when he was living in Provence. For many years, I had the poem hanging on the wall in my apartment. During that time, I began to consider more deeply how poetry can embody a landscape. It’s safe to say that many of the poems in this chapbook, especially the ones set in Texas, reflect thinking that began with Hinton’s poem.

After my son was born, I also discovered Anne Waldman’s chapbook First Baby Poems. My library had one of the earlier editions, with a baby’s footprints on it. It felt very handmade. I was struck by the intimacy of the chapbook form and how perfect it was for the subject. About that same time, I was reading chapbooks made by Sarah Lariviere in her Color Treasury series. She doesn’t use a press at all: each individual chapbook is entirely handmade, a true work of art. All of these chapbooks spoke to my nostalgia for paper—for artifacts that show the mark of a human hand—and inspired me to think seriously about a chapbook of my own.

What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?

While I don’t have any talent for visual art, I am very influenced by it. My mother was an art teacher and a dedicated amateur artist, so I grew up going to art museums, watching art being made, and making art myself. Many of my good friends are artists or designers. I love that poetry is a more tactile form than fiction, that you do consider the shape of the words on the page—that you might think about the language of white space. I also appreciate that the chapbook, with its less expensive publishing model, creates an opportunity to think more creatively about design.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook?

“Migration” is one of the older pieces here, and is of course the title poem of the collection. It’s one of a number of poems I wrote in the wake of my mother’s death in 2007. In that time, I was thinking and writing a lot about my childhood and my family history.

How did you decide on the arrangement of your chapbook?

At first I resisted a chronological ordering of the poems—it seemed too obvious. But I became interested in how the poems might tell a story when assembled together. Even the poems that weren’t about me seemed to contribute to an underlying narrative. And there was no compelling reason not to order them chronologically. In some ways it would have seemed false not to go that route.

The Gold Line contest judge, Anna Journey, recommended a small reordering, to end with the poem “Fourth Trimester.” She pointed out that this would allow the book to conclude with a more cosmic, expansive gesture. I liked that, and also the idea of messing with the chronology when there was a good reason to do so.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

The poem “Not Done Yet” concerns my mother’s death and her funeral. Since her death was a catalyst for many of the poems in this collection, it was important to me that at least one elegiac poem appear here. I find the rituals around death in America to be mostly unsatisfying—there’s so much artificiality and often little beauty, with the tent and the Astroturf, the officiant, who may or may not know the bereaved. And yet this imperfect ritual is what brings us together to acknowledge the great void we all spend our lives circling, and all circle together. I took comfort in finding a way, through language, to acknowledge these things, along with all the other complicated feelings that can arise with the death of a parent. It still feels like magic to me that poetry can express so much complication in so few words.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

I love this question! Every time I’ve seen the poem “Salvage” during the publishing process, I think, “Oh, yeah, I forgot—you’re in here, too.” It’s an environmental poem, written in response to the BP oil spill. Though it’s not the only political poem in this collection, it’s the only one that doesn’t relate to my own personal experience in some way. It hasn’t been published in a journal, so I like that it’s getting some exposure here.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?

“Instead of Writing While the Child Sleeps” is one of the last poems I revised and the last chronologically. This poem takes place when my son was about a year old, when he’s becoming a boy and leaving babyhood behind. So it was a kind of threshold moment. I didn’t want the book to be primarily about motherhood: I liked the arc that I saw in the collection. So this seemed the appropriate place to stop and begin another project.

What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

Everyone at Gold Line has been so positive and supportive. Their publication model is fairly traditional, which means it’s great training for future books. That said, I had relatively little input on the visual side of things. They paired me with a wonderful designer, SoYun Cho, who did the cover as well as the book design. Her cover went in a direction I never would have considered, and I absolutely love it.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

For my entire life, all I ever wanted was to be some kind of artist. But these days, I find myself wondering what it would be like to be someone completely different. For instance, I had dinner recently with a poet friend and her sister, who is a theoretical physicist. While I was talking to the sister, I noticed that she talked about equations in the same way that I talk about poetry. She mentioned a time when she wasn’t studying this branch of physics and became depressed—she missed her equations the same way I miss writing when I’m not able to do it. Mathematics is her method of experiencing beauty, order, and wonder in the universe. And I suspect, her way of managing the world.

Since that conversation, I’ve tried to imagine what her experience of numbers must be. It’s so far from my reality, where I have to triple check that I’m leaving the correct tip at a restaurant. And while poems always have their own logic, there is something subjective about writing a poem and declaring it done. It would be a relief to find beauty in what is objectively true, rather than in my own subjective truth. To know that a problem is solved because the numbers add up in the most elegant way possible.

What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?

We hear a lot about finding your own path as an artist, but it’s important to honor yourself in the life you lead as well. There’s an idea in our culture that a writer or artist needs to lead a tortured, chaotic existence. This may work for some people, but, having watched a number of careers unfold, stability and discipline seem more important. Chaos is actually pretty exhausting, even if it looks a lot cooler than stability.

What gets you to the page?

I was so lucky that about the time my maternity leave was ending, my friend, the poet Marlys West, suggested that we commit to sending each other 100 words a day via email. I was concerned about getting back into a writing practice after taking some months off, especially after this huge change in my life, so I was glad to have some structure to come back to. For three months we wrote each other almost every day, and for a full year, we probably wrote each five times a week. I still get poetry in my inbox from her a few times a week, and vice versa.

So at this time, my process involves reading some new, interesting thing by Marlys and then some published poetry. By the time I’ve read and absorbed a few poems, I usually have some original verse unspooling in my mind. All of the poems in Migration about motherhood had their first life in an email to Marlys.


Ginny Wiehardt’s poetry has been published in a variety of literary journals including Bellingham Review, Southern Humanities Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Willow Springs. Her work also appears in the anthology Political Punch (Sundress Publications, 2016). She has an MFA in Poetry from the Michener Center for Writers and has been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook and Jentel. Originally from Texas, she now lives in New York, NY with her family.



Fourth Trimester

In the mornings we watched the neighbors
go off to work, coffee steaming in their hands.
Then we perambulated
past sleeping gardens:

fountains banked with snow,
hydrangeas shivering with dried-up petals.
Shopgirls gave me lollipops
as though I had become a child.

But I was carrying one, pressed to my chest,
my hairless joey.
My brain cells were dying in the usual way
but sleep wasn’t coming to sweep them out.

So when grandmothers
checked for his hat,
or spoke of his size, I had no defense.
The train roared on.

What was the name of the station?
And the saint who tore out her eyes?
The one we almost named him for.
All night we made floorboard music

in our three rooms.
The nurse said my uterus was descending,
but she meant deflating
like a wounded basketball.

Baby dreamt of milk,
practiced kicking.
The doctor said his irises would darken.
Of this planet

all he knew was black and white,
hairlines, eyes.
I thought often of Antarctica,
those blue layers

shielding mountains.
In that long present before the spell breaks,
we can’t know
what waits inside.

Jennifer Kwon Dobbs

“My poetry collection can’t begin to present a political solution, but it can imagine against death and create a language of dreaming.”


Notes from a Missing Person (Essay Press, 2015)

What’s your chapbook about?

While searching in the United States and South Korea for my Korean family, I wrote Notes from a Missing Person during 2008-14 in chunks never expecting them to cohere into a book of any sort. As I tracked down Korean-language documents that hopefully would provide more clues about my family’s whereabouts, I relied on translator-allies as well as my basic knowledge of Korean developed through self-study. I realized that the process of reading these documents (e.g. the adoption agency’s intake report) misused them because social workers designed the narratives to orphan a child in order to make her or him adoptable. So I looked for slippages, errors, silences, erasures—moments where the orphan fiction ruptured or seemed murky, signaling a potential site of investigation and speculation.

Reading my adoption documents for search clues required a radical act of imagination. My chapbook stages this process. But I didn’t know that that was what I was doing while writing it. The work terrified me because it was unlike anything I had written before, and the language was messy, tentative, and not identifiable as either poetry or creative nonfiction. But I continued, allowing the writing to pile up.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

“Fetish Mothers” is the chapbook’s center. I wrote it with the Korean language support of Mads Them Nielsen–a fine poet, excellent Danish translator of Korean contemporary poetry, and a Korean adoptee who has lived in Seoul since the late 80s. Along with a grant from the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network and the Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association’s assistance, I learned about the social and legal contexts of unwed mothers and their families. This research informed the craft and much of the content of “Fetish Mothers.”

I remember rewriting the English that I had inherited as an adopted person and mastered as a graduate student in order to translate what and whom I felt and imagined in my clumsy Korean. I remember surrendering to this messiness, this hot mess, this flawed and fragile language fraught with errors. If I hadn’t given myself permission to do that, I wouldn’t have been able to persist toward completing “Fetish Mothers” let alone a chapbook.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

I’m grateful to the Danish artist Jane Jin Kaisen for granting me permission to use “No. 31” and “No. 53” from her (Before and After Series) for the chapbook’s cover art and front matter. Residing in Copenhagen yet exhibiting worldwide in Asia, Europe, and North America, Jane and her partner Gus Sondin-Kung are producing visionary video art and documentary films about suppressed Korean histories, biopolitics, and U.S. militarism. Because Notes stages a subversive act of reading, it begins with disorienting how a reader sees an image on the page, and that’s what Jane’s art powerfully performs. How might negative space contain a name?

What are you working on now?

I’ve completed a full-length collection that expands the chapbook’s concerns with adoptee birth family search and reunion, translation, biopolitics, and militarism to include reconciliation and peace on the Korean peninsula as both a kinship matter inasmuch as a geopolitical one. The book opens with a letter that can’t be translated into Korean because it admits that the persona traveled to North Korea without her South Korean family’s knowledge. Travel to the north is prohibited and punishable by prison per the ROK’s National Security Act of 1948. Technically, the Korean War continues because the United States and the DPRK have yet to sign a peace treaty officially ending it. So as a consequence, reunification can only occur as a momentary and individual event between missing relatives from the north, south, or overseas diasporas. There is an urgent need to imagine what a peaceful reconciliation might look like. The oftentimes racist red scare imagery representing North Koreans in western media intended to topple the regime doesn’t allow the reader to access the complexities of Korean history and to feel empathy for Korean families forced to cast each other as monstrous enemies on both side of the DMZ. My poetry collection can’t begin to present a political solution, but it can imagine against death and create a language of dreaming.

Without stopping to think, who are poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least, your clothing, to take with you at all times?

I admire tattoos and think that they’re beautiful, but they’re not for me. I just couldn’t commit to one image for a lifetime without wanting to revise or erase it for something else or nothing at all! And I tend to wear all black all the time… So that being said, some poets–off the top of my head–who I return to again and again for nourishment are: Lisa Lewis, Lynn Emanuel, Tim Z Hernandez, Larry Levis, Adrienne Rich, Myung Mi Kim, and Kimiko Hahn. I revisit Toni Morrison’s novels whenever I feel tempted to explain rather than enact. Poets who I’m reading right now whose work I will continue to follow are Danez Smith, Ocean Vuong, Kristin Naca, Chris Santiago, Lee Herrick, Molly Gaudry, and Sagirah Shahid.


Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is the author of Paper Pavilion, recipient of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize and the New England Poetry Club’s Sheila Motton Book Award; Notes from a Missing Person (Essay Press 2015); and Song of a Mirror, finalist for the Tupelo Snowbound Chapbook Award. Her work has appeared recently in Blackbird, Columbia: A Journal of Art and Literature, Crazyhorse, Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, and Poetry International. She has received grants from the Daesan Foundation, Intermedia Arts, and Minnesota State Arts Board. Currently, Jennifer is associate professor of English and program director of Race and Ethnic Studies at St. Olaf College. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.



                I can see the conversations around this table, the frayed gray fabric, split orange foam, the cooler’s cloudy plastic, and water damage stains on the ceiling because the building was hastily constructed (as were all offices during the 70s). You would’ve been childbearing age—anywhere from 18 to 45—and capable of working in one of many light industrial factories constructed during Park Chung Hee’s regime when South Korea engineered its economic miracle on your back leaning over a steady conveyer belt of t-shirts, tennis shoes, toys, tooth brushes, combs, and plastic mirrors crated for export. Your hands rush to keep up with the manufacturing speedway toward South Korea’s revolution from an agriculture-based nation to an economic tiger. You’re a farmer’s daughter from Jeolla-do or Gangwon-do or maybe one of Seoul’s own simply wanting to earn some money for family back home still squatting in an unheated room to shower with a hose. So when the social worker asks if you would sign here, you watch your hand move knowing that you will say nothing to your father or mother who take the money to buy food and encourage you to eat well.

You eat in silence that night. You feed us both with your grief.

What am I saying? I can only describe a researched context, a slanted shadow. I can only speculate and dramatize because I can’t find you. Is this a fetish or a document of desire? This is not your body. This is not mine. This is my tongue—meat flapping inside my crushed mouth. The military meat that Korea imports from the U.S.—spam/variety meats/mad cow/neo-liberal trade—ends up in budae jigae, a stew of scraps.

____ 님이 가족찾기 하고 있는 중인데 혹시 (입양) 서류를 볼 수 있을까요?

____ 님이 가족찾기 하고 있는 중이라 자기 서류를 보고 싶은데 갖고 있나요?

Can we see ____ documents? Do you have ___ documents?

I don’t want constellations.

Which story is mine? Which story is yours?

Mapping and re-centering.

My documents are your documents, aren’t they? The words that took me from you had to admit first that I belonged to you—that you’re woman’s flesh, not a social artifact—even as they erased your name. I don’t know your name. I only know this body that came from yours. I only know this page. I try to rewrite this language that took my body away from your body knowing that I will only clear this page of fetishes you would never use for yourself—birth mother, gift giver, social artifact, dead memory, trace, smear, signature, ___, n/a, unknown, even mother. No, Omoni, you wouldn’t have been dressed like these, and if I push through your skirts, I find blankness, this smoothness that is not your face.


Matt Prater

“Write exactly what you want to write. Don’t follow fads.”


Mono No Aware (Finishing Line Press, 2016)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

This is probably a horrible thing to say for this site, but I don’t read a lot of chapbooks. Whenever I can, I try to get a poet’s collected works, if they’re dead, and if they’re not I’m going to go for the whole lot or the whole big book. Now I do like some shorter collections, and some new work by new writers who are just coming up. Obviously, as a mountain writer, Wendell Berry’s The Country of Marriage. Bianca Lynne Spriggs’ How Swallowtails Become Dragons is good, too. But the truth is most of the new writers I experience I meet or find at readings. In terms of new Appalachian writers, there are some new (and they’re probably going to throttle me for putting a label on them) ecofeminist poets from Kentucky that are great – and great readers: Melissa Helton and Shawna Kay Rodenberg come to mind first. Both have chapbooks coming out soon; Helton’s with the same press (Finishing Line) as mine, actually.

What’s your chapbook about?

At one point I was going to call the thing “More Hillbilly Poems About Flowers And Dead People,” which is probably too close for comfort; but if I had to give it a theme, I would say it’s about working people in the mountains thinking and living out things above the day to day. Some of the poems in the collection are lyric, but others are like little essays or short stories, and the subjects are varied: journalists, septic tank cleaners, musicians, housekeepers, wildflowers, etc.

Can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

The title poem is mostly based on a real story, and one where my friend, Derrick, told me “this is what you should write about”. It was about 2 AM in July in Grayson County, and I had locked us out of my car at a lake and we were out of phone service, so we had to walk about four miles down the road until we got picked up. The rest of what happens is in the poem, but the whole book I think is based around that idea: write about real things, write about real people—even if you have to make them up.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

There’s no formula. There’s no schedule. There’s no method. I write like everybody, I think, writes now, although not everybody wants to admit it: listening to music on the computer at 11:30 at night, trying and failing to fight the temptation to check in on your Facebook, and guiltily answering student emails about questions they could’ve got from the syllabus. I do have a revision strategy I stole from Darnell Arnoult, called “quilting,” where you build a piece from scraps and sections you don’t try or deliberately intend to compose in an order; instead, you just work where the ground gives most, until, eventually, you have the whole thing done. I also like, to keep on with the domestic metaphors, “grafting,” where you take two pieces that didn’t work and turn the best of each into one piece that does; and I also like what I could call “bread-making,” where you deliberately leave a draft just not quite finished, then start again, and do that over and over again until you have one final finished project (I find that’s a good way for me to balance the writer’s and editor’s tendencies in me.) That said, I don’t have a specific plan, except that I try to read and write often, if not quite every day.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

As far as arrangement, it was pretty utilitarian. The chapbook is bookended, thematically, by two long poems, so I made them first and last. Then I arranged the rest of the poems really just by how they looked on the page. I had a couple of narrative poems in a single block, so I put those together, and a few stanzaed lyric poems, so I put those together. There’s not some magic statement in the ordering (although, in the larger collection I intend these to eventually form part of, there will be).

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

I love the cover for my book. The people at Finishing Line make the covers of their books look so professional, which is not always the case with chapbook producers. And what I love about it is that it’s simple: I gave them a few photos I’d taken, they took the one they felt rendered best in black and white, then put just a few works on the cover in a simple – professional – serif font. Most of the work was their’s, but with what they did I’d pretty much trust them to do any cover for any book I made.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?

Q: I read your book and looked at the author photo and I have fallen in love with you; would you like to go out sometime?

A: Yes! Do you like Indian food?

What are you working on now?

My plan for the summer is try to finish a collection of short stories, a “calender book” of twelve stories about – you guessed it – working class life in Appalachia. I have drafts of most of the pieces finished, but I want to go back and rewrite, rework, and expand most of them—and finish the two or three that just aren’t done yet. I am also nascently beginning what I imagine will be my MFA thesis: a collection of historical poetry about the industrial history of my hometown. As for my finished poems, I have enough at this point for two full length collections and another chapbook, and so right now I’m sending out to magazines and publishers and trying to get as many – and as big – of bites as possible.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

There are two questions to answer here. If you’re a carpenter or engineering student who’s interested in creative writing as a hobby or outlet or serious side work, and you have your day job lined up, then this conversation is easy: read good books and have fun with it. Write exactly what you want to write. Don’t follow fads. Remember that so many of the best and most famous writers had day jobs before or other or above the writing that made them famous. Neruda was a diplomat, Morrison was an editor, Eliot was a bank clerk. Your life, the life of work and working people, is where the material for writing is located. No question, you will face challenges that those of us who are dedicated to teaching and the work of Creative Writing (read: academic Creative Writing) won’t, and you might get pish-poshed by asshats—of which there are many in this field—but history is on your side. To students who are interested in Creative Writing – by which we mean the academy / MFA / adjuncting / the careerist grind / all of that – I would say this: know what you’re getting into before you get in to it. Talk to people. Know that you must do this, that it is at the center of your life’s calling. If it’s not, run in the other direction FAST – you can always read and write, but you shouldn’t have to live with student debt for something that isn’t your truest, purest ambition. I know this all seems very far from creative writing, but there are other places to have the conversation about craft and dedication, interpretive reading and solid writing craft; the truth is, if you are having to have a conversation about writing and reading, if you are wavering or unsure about your commitment to writing and reading, run away. There’s not nearly enough money or security in this field, and too many people are already pursuing it, for you to do it just for the sake of doing it. Know that what you will become, most likely, is a teacher with a specific “research” zone, that essentially creative writing will take the place for you of other teachers’ literary research—and that you may well spend much time as a low-paid adjunct or composition teacher or person doing many or any things besides teaching creative writing. OR, that if you do get an MFA, that your work will very possibly be outside of the academy and outside of creative writing altogether. My program (Virginia Tech), for example, has a solid job placement history for its graduates—it is not, however, sending its writers into tenure-track creative writing teaching positions at other colleges. I think of myself as a teacher before I think of myself as a writer (at least in professional terms); if you’re going to go into the MFA world, what you need to ask yourself: can I see myself, in five years, helping 19 year olds with comma placement? If the answer is no, sit hard with your decision.

What music do you listen to as you work and write?

For this interview, I was switching back and forth between Guy Clark and Rihanna.

What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?

John McPhee’s Oranges, which I picked up on a whim from a giveaway pile and is now the go-to bathtub/toilet book in my apartment.

If you wrote about one year from your life as a chapbook subject, which year would you pick? Why?

Either a year of high school football, where we spent a week in the woods taming snakes with flashlights and having illegal scrimmages and 2 AM team meetings; or the year in college we spent protesting the administration; or the year when I was a semi-professional political operative and the world’s worst middle school football coach (simultaneously, and with simultaneous defeats).

We all have to make choices about who we read in our limited free time. Many of us have demanding jobs, a house to keep up, a family to keep happy, a dog to walk. How do you decide which poets (or other writers) you want to read or should read, and how do you begin to understand what your own work might offer to benefit the literary landscape in the context of what else has been done?

I read people whose work has soul, and consequence outside the academy. People who are smart and soulful:

Louise Erdrich, for example, is good beach reading and high-art Pulitzer Prize work. I appreciate writers who can straddle that divide, because it’s hard, and because that’s the kind of writer I want to become. So that’s what I give my attention to. If my work does, or at least will ever come to, have real merit, it will be because it contains that quality, that it can be read by both the recreational reader and the academic reader with equal interest.

Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?

Jim Wayne Miller, Robert Bly, Joy Harjo, Coleman Barks, Wang Wei, Sherman Alexie, Seamus Heaney, Nikki Giovanni, Derek Walcott, Lucille Clifton

Why the chapbook? What made it the right format for your work?

The publisher said yes.

How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?

I use more generative toys and games now that allow me to go into new areas, use new words, and write new things. The teachers I have at Virginia Tech, especially Erika Meitner and Matthew Vollmer, are key on using a number of generative exercises to try and get you out of your comfort zone as a writer, to try and write the things you wouldn’t necessarily write before. I just spent an entire semester, for example, writing microfiction that was directly imitating, or at least speaking back to, books we were reading for Vollmer’s class in fiction craft. I got a lot of material out of that—not all of it usuable, but some of it’s going to be work I continue to work on and add to.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

“Snow Job”. In a collection of poems that are either contained lyrics or narratives or narrative-meditations, it’s the single outlier: a confessional-meditative poem, not about others, and not about a specific moment. It starts with a meditation on an episode of King of the Hill and goes on to throw in St. Augustine and substitute teaching as themes. It questions the idea of “calling” in my life.

What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?

Foxfire Paperback Sunday

Did you read straight through your chapbook out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different? How were your ideas about their individual meanings changed?

I’m sometimes a better reader and performer of my work than I am a writer, so it’s often helpful for me not to read or perform my works out loud while I’m writing them – unless I’m trying to test their sound or performability – because often I can add in things or smooth over mistakes or gaps with the way I read. I can make sense of something, or add emotional resonance, where there’s really no sense or emotional resonance to be had.

Who do you most hope will read your chapbook (either an individual or a particular group of people)?

Non-academics, working people, and people who don’t consider themselves readers or “book-smart”.

What inspires you? What gets you to the page?

What inspires most writers, I think: sexual frustration, a longing for God, and political rage – in no particular order and often mixed up together.


Matt Prater is a poet and writer from Saltville, VA. Winner of the George Scarbrough Prize for Poetry and the James Still Prize for Short Story, his work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in The American Journal of Poetry, Appalachian Heritage, The Honest Ulsterman, and The Moth, among other publications. He is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech.



Here is a new one, unpublished.

Pepperoni Roll

Delicacy of West Virginia,
the white bread pepperoni roll,
is usually sold in the deli cooler
of small gas stations, usually eaten
unheated, seated in the driver seat,
coming to or from or during work,
as it was made as a daily ration
for the immigrant workers of Italy
in Fairmont for the Depression.
But I am not from Fairmont,
so I toast mine. My guess is
that’s completely wrong;
the way forking a pizza
in New York, or salmoning
fish tacos in Baja, is wrong.
It is diesel bread for diesel
folk (miners, soldiers, farmers),
almost healthy because the fat
will be used up by nightfall.
If one has had to move away
and they’ve come back home,
or if it’s made at home by Dad
or Granny, it’s good, I guess,
to eat one hot, with cold beer.
But Fairmont is not a tourists’ place,
and I eat mine as one,
so what can I really get right
about any edible anthropology
that would essentialize
Kanawha or Jane Lew?

Shayla Lawson

“Whatever you are meant to write will find you.”shayla

PANTONE (MIEL Books, 2016)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

Who are the Tribes by Terrance Hayes, The Only Dark Spot in the Sky by Rita Dove and Lace & Pyrite by Ross Gay and Aimee

What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?

I think I was definitely influenced by the combination of text in image in Hayes’ work, as well as the epistle format of Lace & Pyrite, but the references only show up as subtle nods in my work.

What’s your chapbook about?

What would happen if colors could speak to you.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

The oldest piece in the chapbook is the collection’s first poem: PANTONE 427 U.  I looked up at the sky one day in Indiana.  I noticed this gray with a little bit of yellow looming on its edges. I felt both heightened and eased by the danger present in the color.  I wrote the poems first line: Sometimes, I hope something terrible happens to me…

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

The title was a big part of the nature of the project. No two people perceive color the same way.  PANTONE is about taking the subjective experience of seeing and processing it through the universal ordering system inherent in the Pantone™ system for organizing color. The poems in PANTONE are arranged so as to weave between the stories collected within these poems to arrive at a sense of how a life in color feels.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

The incredible thing about having MIEL Books as a publishing house is that Éireann Lorsung is both a shrew editor and designer.  Lorsung understood how three-dimensional tactility played a factor in the sensory experience of the poems. We both agreed that we wanted the feel of the chapbook to be reminiscent of shuffling through a stack of Pantone™ color swatches.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on two collections right now. I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean, a collection of poems based on the music of songwriter Frank Ocean, which will be published by Saturnalia Books in 2018, and Ti Ador(n)o, a collection of largely graphic memoir poems based in Venice, Italy, that will premiere at Poetry Press Week in Portland this June.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Try everything else. Whatever you are meant to write will find you.

What music do you listen to as you work and write?

Frank Ocean

What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?

The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson

If you wrote about one year from your life as a chapbook subject, which year would you pick? Why?

2006. I lost my voice to an unusual medical condition. Poetry was all I had.

Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?

Richard Siken, Ilya Kaminsky, Carl Sandburg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Warsan Shire, May Swenson, Ai, Audre Lorde, James Baker Hall, Shayla Lawson (because I actually do make t-shirts out of my own poetry phrases).

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

I spend a lot of time taking dance breaks when I compose my poetry, often sing when I perform, and compose poems beside paintings.  I don’t think they’re separate paths.  We just choose to walk them differently.

Who do you most hope will read your chapbook (either an individual or a particular group of people)?

I want this chapbook to find people who would normally not be interested in poetry. I’ve collaborated with my editors and other artists to fill PANTONE with component parts: a playlist and a fragrance. I feel this chapbook is a lot like me going out into the world hoping that someone will buy me a drink just because I’m pretty. Come for the cute, stay for the heavily engaged discourse on social discourse and the phenomenology of perception.

What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?

Don’t worry.  You will find a place to write.

Don’t worry.  You will find a place to write.


Shayla Lawson is a recreational acrobat, former architect, & poet.   Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Witness, Hobart, The Offing, Guernica, Colorado Review, Barrelhouse and various other journals.  She is the former Nonfiction Editor of Indiana Review, the inaugural winner of Sou’Wester’s Robbins Award in Poetry, a member of the Affrilachian Poets, & author of three poetry collections: A Speed Education in Human Being (Sawyer House Press, 2013), the chapbook PANTONE (MIEL Books, 2016), & the forthcoming I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean (Saturnalia Books, 2018).  Author photo by Erica J. Mitchell.




Heidi Czerwiec

“I think it’s those weird and specific details that make abstract ideas like colonialism or gender politics or environmental impact into something human and moving.”

heidiSweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle (Gazing Grain Press, 2016)

Who are some of the women who influenced your writing or you personally?

Betty Adcock is my poetry mom, the first person to take my writing seriously and encourage me when I was a teenager. Jacqueline Osherow and Moira Egan, who taught me everything I know about sonnets. The generous Allison Joseph, poetry’s biggest cheerleader, who taught me how to be part of a literary community, and Sharon Carson, who taught me how to be part of an academic community and retain my sanity and sense of humor. Nicole Walker, Maggie Nelson, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Jehanne Dubrow, and Jane Satterfield, all of whom showed me a pathway from poetry into lyric nonfiction. My personal writing community – the people I trust with early drafts of my work – Debra Monroe, Chelsea Rathburn, Jen Fitzgerald, and Katrina Vandenberg.

What does feminism look like in the mostly social conservative Midwest? In what ways does the Great Plains area challenge feminist ideology?

I guess I’m not sure how to answer this question, because the Midwest is a huge region with varying political stances and versions of feminism. North Dakota is incredibly conservative, but it also has the only Planned Parenthood serving women for hundreds of miles in three states that has fiercely defended its right to provide services – this speaks to both what feminism looks like and how it’s challenged. South Dakota is also conservative, but recently appointed Lee Ann Roripaugh – a mixed-race bisexual poet – as its state laureate. Some of the fiercest feminists I’ve met are from this region – maybe because they have to be? – but I’m grateful to know people like writers and activists Heid Erdrich and Debra Marquart, North Dakota’s DNC chairperson Kylie Oversen, and Nikki Berg Burin who worked tirelessly to help stop sex trafficking in the Bakken.

Beyond the sound of trains and the traffic they cause, personally, how did the boom affect your life between the time before the boom and when you left North Dakota?

When I first moved to North Dakota, people constantly defaulted to thinking I was in South Dakota, because no one believes people actually live here. I used to go camping out in Roosevelt National Park, back when the area had few visitors. Once the boom started and it caught the media’s attention, people seemed somewhat more aware that North Dakota existed – those who knew I taught there assumed that its citizens were rolling in oil money and cheap gas, but we really didn’t see either. I lived on the opposite side of the state, so we didn’t see the main influx of people and money, and the legislature was giving the oil companies huge tax breaks and cutting fines, so there was less money coming in than you’d believe. What revenues they raised went mostly to trying to manage the overwhelmed infrastructures (physical and social) of western ND, into a frozen fund that couldn’t be spent for five years (I can’t decide if this was wise or limiting) and, sadly, to expensive state lawsuits to fight same-sex marriage and access to abortion. The money helped forestall the recession hitting state governments by a couple of years, but then oil prices dropped and many oil companies stopped drilling – you need a lot of personnel for drilling, but not to manage existing wells. In the last few years before I left, the boom was going bust, the legislature had instilled large cuts targeting especially the university, and although UND is the liberal arts flagship, it was selling that out for money from the oil companies to its Mines & Engineering school.

What caused you to move away from North Dakota?

My husband took a job with a law firm in Minneapolis, and it opened up a lot of opportunities for our family.

Now that you have had time away from North Dakota, albeit in a nearby state, how do you feel about it?

I have mixed feelings. I’m glad I don’t live there any longer – I didn’t realize how little North Dakota provided for its citizens, even during the flush of the boom, until I moved away. I’m worried about what’s next for North Dakota after the boom – there were so few services in place before and during the boom, and with a budget crisis the state itself created through lack of taxing and regulating, there’s no safety net. What happens to all the families who moved to western North Dakota for jobs that no longer exist, but who can’t afford to move away? What’s going to happen to the girls and women trapped in sex trafficking when they’re not bringing in money to their captors? With little regulation before and no money to fund it now, what’s going to happen to the wastewater sites? It’s also weird to be among people, even nearby, who have little idea of what’s happening, though I’m grateful for the attention being brought by the Standing Rock Reservation water protectors and the tribes who have joined them in protesting the Dakota Access pipeline. Watching events escalate at Standing Rock from afar, involving people I’ve met, is so bizarre, and yet so inspiring. While the initial Bakken boom may be over, it’s still affecting residents. Regardless of whether that oil is transported, piped, or if a refinery is built on-site, these operations are occurring near major rivers and directly above the Ogallala aquifer, one of the largest freshwater repositories.

I do think it’s important to note that, when I wrote Sweet/Crude, it was as an observer to interrelated events facing North Dakota that needed to be witnessed. But now that these events have evolved to focus on how the oil industry is affecting indigenous communities, I feel the need to reframe Sweet/Crude as a sort of prologue or context to the current protest, but then get out of the way and refer current discussions to indigenous voices themselves.

So while I’m glad I’m no longer in North Dakota, I still feel an obligation to continue to monitor developments in the Bakken region.

In your chapbook, you talk about North Dakota as foreign, but not foreign. Could you explain that tension?

North Dakota is part of this country – a lot of the country looks to it for agriculture and now oil – and yet it’s last in the country’s imagination. It might as well have “here be dragons” printed over it on a map. The new tourism campaign starring hometown hero Josh Duhamel is titled “Legendary,” which belies the perception of the Great Plains as a place that existed in the past, in Western legend, but not real today. And people seem willing to allow horrible things to happen in and to ND, so long as the commodities flow. As long as North Dakota remains this foreign place that doesn’t seem quite real, we don’t have to worry about what our reliance on fossil fuels and agribusiness is doing to the people and the land and the water.

How much did you rely on Bill Caraher and Bret Weber’s research? What did that relationship look like while you wrote Sweet/Crude?

Bill, in particular, was a huge influence – aside from the data he collected about the mancamps, he developed his descriptions of the Bakken region into a project titled A Tourist’s Guide to the Bakken that was helpful. He and Bret were invaluable in navigating the Bakken safely, especially for me as a woman. Bill was also the instigator and main cheerleader for me as I wrote Sweet/Crude because it was important to him to have a multidisciplinary response to what was taking place in the Bakken, and he wanted my creative writing included in an scholarly anthology alongside work by archaeologists, sociologists, historians, social workers, and photographers that he compiled titled The Bakken Goes Boom.

In your chapbook, there is a sense of inevitability to these towns that have sprung up because of the oil boom becoming ghost towns. You use the phrase “we don’t need more ghost towns.” You mentioned that there have been two previous oil booms in North Dakota. Are there particular images, places, or events that inspired you to focus on ghost towns?

There’s a whole project titled Ghosts of North Dakota. Its creators – Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp – have published a book, a website (, and a Facebook page that all photodocument a visual record of the various abandoned places of the state. While many are the picturesque deteriorating remains of pioneer communities – decaying homesteads, barns, and churches – they’ve also documented structures built and abandoned by more recent economic events: the previous oil drilling boom in the ‘80s, and the military instillations and nuclear missile silos of the Cold War. Their work is fascinating, and was very much on my mind as I imagined what the apartment complexes – incomplete due to the sudden lack of demand – might look like in a decade or two.

You suggest in your interview with Gazing Grain Press’s Kate Partridge that “what lies beneath” the “North Dakota Nice” is xenophobia, suppression of women, mistreatment of Native Americans, and poor law enforcement and also that climate change affects all of us. When you ask “What lies beneath you?” are you asking that of the land and the people of North Dakota, or is the question also addressed to the reader? You stated that climate change’s exacerbation lies beneath all of us, but is there more that you want the reader to find beneath them?

As I said in that previous interview, “what lies beneath you” is intended both literally (landscape, oil, aquifer) and figuratively (history, social and racial tensions in the region), as well as suggesting the “lies” that underlie this boom – that drilling is sustainable, fracking is safe, natural gas is “clean,” no one lives in North Dakota so it’s not hurting anyone, it’s good for the economy (only in the most immediate and short-sighted ways). And while this phrase mostly addressed the land and people of North Dakota, it also addresses the reader to imagine what systems they’re part of or complicit in that contribute to social and environmental damage. The question is also directed at myself – to be an honest witness, I needed to examine my own involvement.

In your chapbook, you are indicting oil companies and “what lies beneath” them. Is there a further indictment of late capitalism in your work?

While the instigating event of the chapbook is the Bakken oil boom, it throws into relief other problems. I think the chapbook makes it clear that I’m also holding accountable agribusiness (with its unsustainable farming practices that rely on toxic fertilizers ironically made from petrochemicals), commodification of women’s and children’s bodies –  anything for which we benefit at the expense of others’ suffering, especially when it occurs at a convenient remove.

Most of the transient workers in the Bakken are men. How did you approach writing about a very male dominated industry?

Mostly through research – I did travel to the region, but I didn’t feel very safe. I don’t know if that was due to reality, perception, or having all my research in the back of my mind. But being the only woman in spaces with hundreds of men is intimidating.

There is a sense of doom when talking about the problem with the area’s infrastructure, and how the State won’t invest in it. Are you critiquing the State’s reasoning, or revealing the ramifications of their decision?

It’s just a very bad situation with no good answer. If the State doesn’t invest in housing and human resources, the area becomes a very dangerous place without any safety nets, as we saw especially at the start of the boom: shantytowns that couldn’t withstand the winters, inadequate emergency services, traffic gridlocks, criminal opportunists. But if the State invests heavily in infrastructure, then those resources are ultimately wasted when there’s a bust or even when new drilling stops and companies require only a fraction of the staff for maintenance of existing wells. It’s difficult to find that balance. But North Dakota is a conservative state created with a “sodbuster” attitude, that only the tough survive, and the legislature rarely invests in social resources even when budgets are flush, so this boom did portend doom, in many ways.

Sweet/Crude is prose driven and lyrical, while also feeling academic. How important is it to balance abstract ideas with artistic excellence in writing? What do you want this balance to evoke in a reader?

Much of my work skirts the line between lyric and academic. I have an academic PhD, with a creative dissertation. I tend to write what I call documentary poetics – researched information on a nonfiction topic (Fifties pinup Bettie Page, a 19th-century Chinese youth with a parasitic twin, the origins of Chanel N° 5), but rendered lyrically, and often including the weird details considered irrelevant in scholarly research. I think it’s those weird and specific details that make abstract ideas like colonialism or gender politics or environmental impact into something human and moving – in this way, we return to Horace’s dictum that poetry should “instruct and delight.” I don’t necessarily agree that all poetry need do this, but when you are trying to teach or inform your reader, beautiful writing can make the lesson more palatable and memorable.

What projects are you working on now? How is your book, Real Mother, progressing?

At this point, the book manuscript for Real Mother is over halfway written, and I have several other parts of it sketched out. I’m also assembling another collection of essays called Fluid States that includes Sweet/Crude, among other pieces about perfume, canning tomatoes, being the subject of online outrage, and mushrooming.


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and of the forthcoming collection Maternal Imagination with ELJ Publications, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis.


Andrew Seguin

“I am also interested in exploring the way that two people can really volley words back and forth in a playful manner — I think of the rhythm of an intense ping pong match — and develop a certain suspense, because it is a lot like a game.”


NN (Tammy Journal, 2016)

Your chapbook is titled NN, and one character is named NN. What does NN mean?

Nicéphore Niépce, one of the inventors of photography, who is credited with taking the first photograph, which was a view out his window.

How did you develop your love of photography?

When I was about 12 years old, my father gave me a camera for my birthday. I immediately took to it, and wanted to learn everything I could about photography and black-and-white printing, so I took every photography class I could, and spent as much time in darkrooms as I could. And then, when darkroom photography began to be overtaken by digital photography, I kept going, and in particular became interested in combining digital technology with 19th-century techniques, such as the cyanotype.

The dialogue-conversation tone between characters appears several times in your chapbook. How have conversations with others inspired your poems?

Most often, I overhear a snippet of language, or a strange response to a question, that I find compelling, and want to include it in a poem. But I am also interested in exploring the way that two people can really volley words back and forth in a playful manner — I think of the rhythm of an intense ping pong match — and develop a certain suspense, because it is a lot like a game.

The second character, I, dialogues with NN about the light, world, and other personal matters. In your poem “Can we talk a little about your vocabulary,” NN’s somber philosophy appears to correct I’s literal explanations. Could you tell us how you created these characters?

NN is Nicéphore Niépce, who was a real figure, and I is the first person pronoun: it is me, or someone who knows a lot about me. When I was writing these poems, I was doing a lot of research on Niépce, and I had certain unanswered questions about his life, and the process he was working on in the 1820s, and I finally decided, why don’t I just ask him? And then those imaginary dialogues, which of course included real biographical information, grew and changed. I began to view them as another way to provide a range of voices in the book, or to complicate the notion of my voice and Niépce’s voice. Because, ultimately, in writing about a historical figure, I was not solely interested in the facts of his life, but in the way those facts have been represented, and how I was choosing to represent them, too.

Is the cousin in your poems based on a real family member?

It is, Alexandre Dubard de Curley, to whom Niépce wrote letters.

What do you like the most about working with biographies?

I like exploring someone else’s life and learning more about what drove them, what their motivation was to achieve what they achieved. But I am also fascinated by their quotidian routine, what they had for dinner, how they talk about the weather. All of that provides a tangible contact with the past in a way that little else can, save certain objects. I am also interested in the use of language over time, and discovering a person’s particular idiom. You can glean some insight into who they were by the words they used.

Have your poems based on biographical sources ever been criticized by historians?

Not that I am aware of, but that seems likely to happen.

Do you relate to NN or I more, or perhaps one of your historic figures?

As I mentioned earlier, I is me, so I have no choice there, but I do relate a lot to Niépce, too. I find his dedication to his work, and his unflinching belief in it despite his many setbacks, inspiring.


Andrew Seguin is a poet and photographer who was born in Pittsburgh in 1981. He is the author of the chapbooks Black Anecdote and NN, and the full-length collection, The Room In Which I Work, forthcoming from Omnidawn in 2017.