The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show #3: Katie Peterson

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Katie Peterson is the author of three books of poems: This One Tree, chosen for the New Issues Poetry Prize by William Olsen; Permission, also published by New Issues; and The Accounts, winner of the 2014 Rilke Prize from the University of North Texas. She is the middle child of a dry-witted Scandinavian father and a gregarious Irish-American mother, and she was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, back when Palo Alto had more drum circles than startups.

Katie’s turn-ons include intelligence, really good hair (how unfortunate for the host of this show), an overdeveloped sense of justice, kindness to strangers, and rolled-up shirt cuffs. Turn-offs: coolness (self-perceived, world-perceived, or actual), and any argument about artificial intelligence that ends with us getting eaten by computers or the Internet. She is here to talk about her latest book, The Accounts, which was published by the University of Chicago Press last year.

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The Rumpus: Katie Peterson! I’ve been dying to get you into this studio. Welcome to our humble show on The Rumpus.

Katie Peterson: Thanks for having me!

Rumpus: I see you’re limping around a bit. You need to prop up that foot of yours?

Peterson: I’ll just put it right here on top of your book. Or on top of Zapruder’s. Yeah, that feels good.

Rumpus: Yeah, well, my book makes a better footstool than it does literary tome.

Peterson: Fair enough.

Rumpus: How’d you hurt your foot?

Peterson: Well, I was swimming in Walden Pond with a few other poets right after we’d gone on a day trip to Emily Dickinson’s house. And on my way out, I kind of slipped, and I think that was enough to cause a fracture. The doc let me see the x-ray, so I know it’s true.

Rumpus: That’s pretty literary as far as accidents go. I thought you were going to say you’d stubbed it in the shower—something mundane like that.

Peterson: Or kicked another poet?

Rumpus: Even better. Anyone you’d like to kick, other than me?

Peterson: Yeats. That guy has it coming.

Rumpus: Oh, yeah. He’s the type to kick back though. Legend has it he kicked a few Abbey Theatre hooligans way back when. 

Peterson: Kick or be kicked, I guess.

Rumpus: We’re happy you’re here. We usually start the show by having our guest introduce a poem from the new book.

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Peterson: Okay. In my new book, The Accounts, there’s a poem called “Ars Poetica: Fuchsia.” An ars poetica is a poem about writing poetry. Since I am a girl, clearly pink is my favorite color. I’ve always thought the idea of having a favorite color was rather mysterious, and I guess the poem has something to do with that.

Rumpus: Fantastic. The audience can click here to read it. By the way, why do you think we poets carry on with this nonsense of not translating “Ars Poetica” from Latin? Why not just write “The Art of Poetry” instead?

Peterson: Because a lot of the time it feels like what we’re doing is odd and arcane, and one way to reflect that is to talk like Ye Olden Times.

Rumpus: Mmm, I suspect you’re right. This poem is so beautiful and mysterious. It opens with a striking and sort of risky rhetoric. Could you comment on it?

Peterson: Wow, I actually kind of feel like the first lines of this poem are more like how I actually talk than a lot of the book. Maybe I am more striking and risky than I realized. But I think I was having some fight with myself, which is how a lot of poems begin.

Rumpus: Risky is good, right? That’s part of the poem’s intrigue, unpacking its opening gambit.

Peterson: Risky is great. But often in a poem you don’t know you’re being risky. You think you’re being totally reasonable.

Rumpus: That’s the best kind of risky there is.

Peterson: Like the wacky question you’re asking is the only question to ask. Dickinson has a poem where she says: “We do not play on graves / because there isn’t room,” and I’m like, “Emily, look, that’s not why we don’t play on graves.” So I had been thinking to myself, Why didn’t you write any sonnets about your mother? The occasion of The Accounts was my mother’s death in 2008. My mother was more fun than a bottle of champagne. I wanted to write a poem to praise her, but I found it impossible. What I could do was write a poem to explain the difficulty. In my head, every line in that poem is totally reasonable, like explaining to someone how to change a tire. Also, there’s this idea of “avoiding” the sonnet, like it’s a lady with a baby crossing the street or something. What a weird idea.

Rumpus: It’s an interesting poem. One thing I really like about it is how deftly you swerve the narrative to different points of time, different contexts. Between the first and second stanzas, for instance. And between the third and fourth.

Peterson: I often find myself telling a story and then beginning again with another story. And that’s what the poem does—it says it’s going to be about one thing and it keeps trying to be about something different.

Rumpus: Maybe it’s hard to write a sonnet that’s also an elegy. We usually think of the conventions of romance or philosophy when we encounter sonnets.

Peterson: I wanted to write a love poem, I guess. Or a praise poem—something immortalizing.

Rumpus: How do you develop that effect…of saying one thing that becomes another… and then another? Do those moves happen early in the writing process for you? Or later, during revision?

Peterson: It happens immediately in the mind, and then in the first draft.

Rumpus: Beautiful. I wish I could do that.

Peterson: Something I love about the classic English ballads like “Sir Patrick Spens” and “Barbara Allen” is that the narrative collapses into lyric—the story becomes refrain. For me, I often notice a detail or a mood or a line or voice and then I can’t help falling into another story. The stories that come together for a poem seem Cubist, like different perspectives. Like they’re just jutting out in all directions. So in this poem, there’s this desire to talk about the writing of the poem, and then to talk about language, and then to talk about the wedding picture. And there’s a fear of talking about the wedding picture directly. Just because these parts happen in sequence in the poem doesn’t mean there’s in a line in the mind—they’re like all these different stories about judgment, sticking out at odd angles. I think I write a lot of poems about judgment, about being judged and judging. My grandfather was a judge.

Rumpus: Your confident voice and the pacing of the stanzas also help you make the leaps. The ending of the poem is perfect and also funny. It’s actually one of the clearest self-portraits we get in the book.

Peterson: That’s great. My friend Sonia, when I read her this poem, said, “It doesn’t make sense.” I get why she said that. In a sense it’s also a poem about what women inherit from other women—what I inherit from my mother, what I inherited from her, which is as abstract as a color, as odd as that. There’s a desire to arrive at some certainty, but the certainty isn’t an explanation. All the explanations just lead to more explanations.

The AccountsRumpus: This poem comes from the third and final section of the book, titled “I Am the Middle.” We learn from the cover one way to read that middle-ness. You’re the middle child of three. In the photograph you’re in the center but slightly more distant, almost in the background. Foregrounded on the right is your older sister. On the left is your younger brother, Michael, who is also a fine poet.

Peterson: I wanted the poem to close “open.” Being in the middle is to me what consciousness feels like. Waking up and being disoriented. Never getting to be in some perfect narrative with a clear beginning or end. Having to share your narrative with others. Having other people constantly interrupting your story. Everyone in my family interrupts. But we are all also interruptions in someone else’s story that they think they’re the center of, right?

Rumpus: Yes, you talk about that elsewhere, I think, how being in the middle somehow yields the speaker more distance, as it also does in the photograph. We have so many stereotypes of middle children, but you shed new light on that family role.

Peterson: You mean the stereotype that middle children are perfect? Like the porridge that is just right? Or the stereotype that their brilliance never gets the attention it deserves?

Rumpus: Ha. Yes.

Peterson: Or the stereotype that middle children are justice-preserving compromisers adept at minimizing conflict and restoring order? I’m down with that. Are you a middle child?

Rumpus: I’m the oldest. In fact, I wanted to talk to you about this…

Peterson: Oh, now I’m in trouble.

Rumpus: The poet Bruce Snider has a theory that most poets are the oldest children because when younger siblings are born, the oldest child is shooed off to some room with a lot of books. I’ve done many rough tallies and found his theory to be pretty sound. I’m guessing about sixty to seventy percent are oldest or only children.

Peterson: Of course my reaction is to immediately want to question your research. Which is a telling reaction. Not that I am competitive.

Rumpus: Typical middle child…

Peterson: My sister was a tomboy and liked sports. I had to like everything that stands against sports, which to my mind must have equaled poetry.

Rumpus: That makes sense to me. Younger siblings often have to take an oppositional stance in order to get attention. So the second and third children in your family became poets, which totally blows Bruce’s theory to smithereens.

Peterson: I know not everyone in the audience will agree with that sports versus poetry thing, but I was just a kid, and I thought soccer was about kicking people. This is interesting.

Rumpus: You’re into the kicking…

Peterson: I think in my mom’s dream of who we might become we were supposed to be Kennedys. Or something like it—we were supposed to be political. And my sister loved politics. She’s a reporter.

Rumpus: I heart the Kennedys. They’re one of my worst vices.

Peterson: Who’s your favorite Kennedy?

Rumpus: Bobby, hands down. But I love all of them. I’m an Irish-Catholic Masshole. Got no choice.

Peterson: Good point. My mom’s maiden name was Sullivan. It was not okay for anyone to leave Cali but it was okay for me to live in Boston because of the high density of Kennedys.

Rumpus: Was there a lot of competition among you and your siblings? Did you play a lot of cool games, poetic or otherwise?

Peterson: Tons. But we also read a lot. My sister reads at the speed of light.

Rumpus: Your favorites games growing up were…

Peterson: You Have It. A game that involved pushing the tire swing towards the other person as hard as you can and screaming, “You have it!”

Rumpus: Sounds dangerous.

Peterson: And Gooberry. A game that involved running around in a circle on the lawn in front of our maternal grandparents’ house and screaming “Gooberry.”

Rumpus: I love the names of these invented games! I thought you were going to say Gnip Gnop or Hungry Hungry Hippos.

Peterson: Gooberry was a good game. Molly invented that one. Molly was very good at You Have It. As I recall, Mike was not. 

Rumpus: I bet you, Molly, and Mike never played Bishop or Bukowski?, right?

Peterson: No. We never played that one.

Rumpus: Good, it would’ve totally freaked me out if you had since the Late Nite staff just made it up.

Peterson: Is it popular with kids in Europe or something? Sounds European.

Rumpus: It’s as American as the Hummer, Peterson. Here’s how it works. Simple rules. I’m going to ask you a series of questions, and you answer each question with either Bishop—as in Elizabeth, or Bukowski—as in Charles. We want rapid-fire answers to the first few questions. Don’t think too hard. Are you ready?

Peterson: Yes. Let me put my other foot up.

Bishop or BukowskiRumpus: Okay, here’s a warm-up. Who would make a better Boston cab driver, Bishop or Bukowski?

Peterson: Bukowski.

Rumpus: Probably right. I doubt Bishop even had a license. Next one: who would make a better inspirational speaker?

Peterson: Bukowski. Meaner. People need that.

Rumpus: Dental hygienist?

Peterson: Ditto.

Rumpus: Chimney sweep?

Peterson: Bishop. Cleaner.

Rumpus: Finally, Bishop gets on the board.

Peterson: Lots of her poems have something to do with skies and ceilings, too.

Rumpus: Wait a minute, then why wouldn’t Bishop make a better dental hygienist? It’s almost impossible to fit “Bukowski” and “good hygiene” into the same sentence.

Peterson: Come on, it’s like being a janitor for teeth! 

Rumpus: All right, all right. Next one: judge on America’s Next Top Model.

Peterson: Bishop.

Rumpus: Why’s that?

Peterson: No question. Judgy-wudgy. Loved girls.

Rumpus: Mmm. I wonder how Bukowski would’ve behaved on that show.

Peterson: He liked to be seen looking rather than touching. He would have been super-obvious and his taste would have been boring. Bishop would have chosen the secretly sexy ones, she would have been totally into anything gender-queer or odd, and she would have cared who could wear the clothes, not just who had a good body. Bukowski would have thrown up on Tyra and made the show his own that way, or something, and I guess that’s cool, but I actually like the way the show is run, like a tight ship. Bishop was a tight ship on the page and a loose cannon off the page. Perfect for America’s Next Top Model.

Rumpus: You’re passionate about this topic! But would Bishop have loved the camera enough? My sense is that Bukowski might enjoy that part more. He probably would’ve been the first guy to pick his nose on live television or something. But Bishop and a tight ship, yeah. That makes sense.

Peterson: I think she would have loved being judged being a judge.

Rumpus: Probably. Let’s keep going. Who would make the best U.S. Senator?

Peterson: Bishop, but she probably wouldn’t have gotten anything done. Bukowski would be the best candidate for Senate.

Rumpus: Because…

Peterson: The election process would have been fun. It’s the new American tradition—twenty percent of the population votes for someone ridiculous just to prove they can.

Rumpus: Good point. I hadn’t even thought of that. Bukowski would probably fall off a stage almost every night, a la Bob Dole.

Peterson: Instead of a “Joe the Plumber” story it would be a “Carmine the Bookie” story.

Rumpus: Here’s another one. Who would make the best volleyball coach?

Peterson: Look, I can’t help but point out that I think both of them were famous day drinkers, which might get in the way of team sports ethics. But Bishop would be mean, tough, precise, elegant in her plays, competitive, ruthless. Bukowski would be fun and weird and would probably let people do whatever they wanted. Bishop wouldn’t tolerate sore losers. Bukowski would take the team out for drinks after. He would be a good coach for sore losers.

Rumpus: So Bishop would inspire you to great athletic heights? Like this?

Peterson: I thought I’d paid someone hundreds of dollars to keep this video off the Internet forever. Bishop would want people to play the game right. Bukowski would encourage doping.

Rumpus: You didn’t pay enough, apparently. You’re fierce out there on the court, Peterson!

Peterson: I could have been on the Olympic team, but then I found this book by someone named Emily Dickinson and the rest is history.

Rumpus: Nice. Okay, let’s try this scenario. You’re hosting a late night poetry show on The Rumpus and you have a chance to interview Bishop or Bukowski as your very first guest, the guest for your pilot. Your show’s future depends on the success of the pilot. Whom do you choose as your guest?

Peterson: Bukowski. Bishop would have needed a whole team of fluffers. And I’d get him a few girls to sit on the couch with, just to make him happy.

Rumpus: It wouldn’t take much to placate him. Girls and maybe some Schlitz. Here’s another scenario: You, Bishop, and Bukowski are contestants on Survivor. With whom would you make an alliance?

Peterson: Bishop would be better in the tropics, don’t you think?

Rumpus: I bet you’re right. With all the drinking, it would be easy to get dehydrated out there. Imagine Bukowski bitching about the bugs, and tending fire, and the stupid competitive games? I picture him in one of those famous green night-vision shots, pissing on his fellow contestants asleep under a bamboo hovel.

Peterson: Bukowski was to L.A. the way New Yorkers are to New York: impossible elsewhere.

Rumpus: Here’s a Survivor follow-up. You, Bishop, and Bukowski wake up as the captives of a cannibalistic tribe. The queen of the tribe explains—miraculously, in English— that her people will filet and eat you unless one of you placates them with a fire-dance. Vigorous drumming begins. Whom do you choose to dance for your three lives?

Peterson: Wow, for a second I thought you were going to turn this into the show Naked and Alone but instead you have invented a show called Crazy Intense Dance Party—or Else.

Rumpus: Sounds naughty.

Peterson: I meant Naked and Afraid, which actually exists.

Rumpus: Holy crap. I’m going to have to binge-stream that show as soon as this interview is over. And your answer is? The whole country awaits your answer. Who will dance for your lives?

Peterson: Look, I would clearly choose me, and so would they, not because I’m good, but because I would have a Jesus complex about saving two great poets from death, because Bishop would never do it, and because Bukowski’s beer belly would doom us. 

Rumpus: I was actually going to let you choose yourself in this scenario, if you wanted to. I think you’re the right answer to the question.

Peterson: You are almost the only person who has ever said that to me. Thank you, Dave.

Life-Yahtzee

Rumpus: Thanks for playing Bishop or Bukowski? with us. Do you think we can sell this to Parker Brothers and make some dough? We’ll give you a cut because you’ve been such a good sport.

Peterson: You can use my face on the box if you want. Wow, do games still have boxes? I was thinking one of those images of me “having fun,” like the Yahtzee picture.

Rumpus: With bright eyes and a big smile. No airbrushing necessary, probably. I couldn’t find a good “family fun” shot for Yahtzee, so here’s an antique Life box. And look at this old Yahtzee box with the image of a professor on it, as if rolling five dice will make you smarter!

I have no good segue back to your lovely book, The Accounts, so let’s just dive right in with another question about your poems.

Peterson: Okay!

Rumpus: What’s with all the arguing going on in some of these titles: “Argument about Heaven,” “Argument about Silence,” “Argument about Responsibility,” etc.?

Peterson: I’m actually a lover not a fighter. But I had some big questions. I’m not sure I wonder about things. Instead I argue with myself. I called the poems “Arguments” because they had two different sides, but they weren’t necessarily two sides of the same argument.

Rumpus: It seems like that’s what you’re doing…arguing with yourself. Which you actually do in most of the poems, but it’s more emphasized in these poems designated as such.

Peterson: One of the voices in these argument poems tends to be a voice of certainty, confidence, and conceptual clarity. And the other voice tends to be crazy. Often a bit irrational. In the argument with the self both sides tend to lose. In the sense that if you’re arguing with yourself in the first place it’s because you’re totally confused about things. No parent comes in to break up the argument with the self.

Rumpus: Well this is what poets do, right? Yeats talks about poetry being an argument with yourself. Frost has a “lover’s quarrel with the world.” I like how you confidently foreground this internal conflict in your titles.

Peterson: I tend to think two things at once. I tend not to agree with myself about things. I have often been known to say, “I think two things,” when someone asks me what I think. When I edited The Accounts I found a ton of spondees—compound words like “porch light” and “popcorn.” I think I like compound words because they won’t be two words, they insist on some false unity. 

Rumpus: That’s fascinating, the way this is working on an atomic level—at the level of syllables or stresses.

Peterson: Yeah, I love smashing two words together. In those argument poems I covered all the big topics: Heaven, Silence, Responsibility, the Beginning. What else is there?

Rumpus: Volleyball, of course.

Peterson: Good point. Kennedys.

Rumpus: For me the most terrifying line in The Accounts is, “Shouldn’t goodness be rewarded / with the absence of terror?” I quiver at the American idealism and naiveté of that thought, from “Argument about Heaven.”

Peterson: Yes, it thrills me you noticed that. At the same time, it’s something we think, reasonably, about Heaven—that if you’re good, death shouldn’t be terrifying. Very few people have ideas of the afterlife that don’t have to do with judgment.

Rumpus: I know. That idea has crept into every nook of the culture.

Peterson: Even that idea—that basically good people should not have to be scared when they die.

Rumpus: Maybe the answer to this next question is obvious. Has your writing helped you to make sense of life and death?

Peterson: Writing has helped me stay with confusion long enough to be honest about it. Writing has helped me see sadness as a state of mind, not the bedrock condition of my being.

Rumpus: This is why I asked the question. You strike me as being incredibly clear about this subject: the role of writing in your spiritual life. Its limitations and benefits. That kind of wisdom we see from a lot of older poets, but rarely among the poets of our generation. I admire that quality in your work. 

Peterson: That’s nice of you to say.

Rumpus: It’s unusual. Truly Dickinsonian.

Peterson: It’s a good question I’m not really answering right. You don’t have to get all fired up about human freedom to recognize that we live at the limits of our will and that we struggle most eloquently into intelligibility when we’re at the edge of those limits.

Rumpus: I know, I know. But that’s why we have your poems. Because they embody that inability, that lack of “answering right.”

Peterson: In poetry being eloquently wrong is more than okay. It’s mandatory.

Rumpus: What happened here? Weren’t we just talking about Hungry Hungry Hippos?

Peterson: You have it, Dave. We always lost the marbles on HHH.

Rumpus: We did too. Okay, Peterson, it’s about time for the Three Obstructions. Are you ready to be obstructed?

Peterson: Born ready.

Rumpus: You know the Lars von Trier film this is based on, right?

Peterson: No, but I do love me some Lars. Refresh my memory. Is it the one with singing Bjork or the one where the redhead talks to God? Or the other one?

Rumpus: It’s the other other one. Jeez…I can’t believe nobody has seen this film. Poet David Rivard recommended it to me. I figured I was the last poet to see it. Let’s post a link to The Five Obstructions. Anyway, it’s a documentary about the creative process. Great for poets and teachers of poetry.

Time to shine. Here are your three rules:

  1. Your poem must address this YouTube clip.
  2. It’s gotta be an acrostic.
  3. You must include Fuchsia the Fairy.

How’s that?

Peterson: This sounds wonderful!

Rumpus: Then get to it. As always we invite our audience to participate by posting their poems in the comment box below.

Peterson:

ARS POETICA: VERTIGO

You sneak something sentimental into it like a mini of whiskey
on a rainy night in Boston in your twenties, not even
under your jacket, if broad daylight had a dark side, you’d be drinking in it.

Mother gone, Father in California, now you are a grownup.
Under your movie seat, a used condom, spilled popcorn on a grease track,
stuck pieces of gum on the underneath of your hinge, and on the screen
the man in the wheelchair witnesses a murder from his apartment

because you watch a murder with your imagination and because
even a detective’s off day’s anxious and because the law
lives to seek out and expose and then relishes
its punishment and because you are now caught up as a girl
eyeing the deep drape of her cream silk blouse, a pressed green pencil skirt
vexed by his indifference, having brought her tiny sleepover case,
even Grace Kelly collapses into detective. In California,

in your childhood bedroom, Fuchsia the Fairy
never moved until you moved her,

stuck to the wall her sentence was the alphabet,
positioned in that order like height in Catholic school.
Ringing the room they almost made it round.
In some French field, a jazz quintet agrees with you:
navigating the future means navigating deception. They play, and the fat cattle
go towards them When The Saints Go Marching In.

Rumpus: Wow.

Peterson: The acrostic is the title of a song by Bill Evans. Here’s a version by Tony Bennett.

Rumpus: This is such an ambitious effort in such a short time frame. For most of the poem I was wondering where the hell you’d put the jazz band and cows. I thought you’d ignored that part of the assignment! But there they are at the end, a strange and seemingly perfect digression slash ending.

Peterson: I started with the acrostic and I just went with this phrase, this title of this Bill Evans song that goes through my head every spring. Spring is my least favorite season.

Rumpus: Why’s that?

Peterson: It’s just too full of emotion, too full of a sense of fulfilled expectation—and after this year’s long winter, this spring seems especially crazy in everyone’s heads. I wanted to call my first book You Must Believe in Spring but everyone basically said that would be like calling it I <3 My Boyfriend or something like that.

Rumpus: So you started with the acrostic…

Peterson: I started with the acrostic because it was more like an aspect of form than of content. The other two pieces—Fuchsia the Fairy and the cow serenade—I think of as pieces of content. I don’t really believe in content in poems. If there is content, the content is the reader. I kind of had faith I could work with any piece of content at any point in the poem, and so I must have felt free to put a lot of other content in. What does it matter if Fuchsia walks into the poem, or Grace Kelly, or Jimmy Stewart, or anyone else?

Rumpus: Yeah, I like that about your work in general. You allow so much into the poems.

Peterson: I’d like to be in the middle of writing a poem that anyone could walk into at any time. I like poems that connect disparate things—I like to see the mind reaching to connect disparate things. I love it when things feel a little random. By the way, I showed the video to a good friend and told her my assignment and when she saw the “Jazz for Cows” video she said, “That is PERFECT for you!” I agree!

Rumpus: Good. Because your poems have such a strong pastoral vision, I intended that part of the assignment to be a gift.

Peterson: Also, I think I made use of the “comments” part of the video, maybe unconsciously. I thought the video was vey dear, very sweet—what gentlemen! But in the comments people kept saying they were playing the cows to slaughter. It was like some aggressive takedown of the cuteness of the video, it seemed a bit pathological. They look like really happy dairy cows!

Rear Window - James Stewart and Grace KellyRumpus: How do you explain the title? You refer to Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the title, but the text of the poem references instead another Hitchcock classic, Rear Window. Explain.

Peterson: The poem’s about grabbing for one thing but getting another. Every time I thought I got a handle on the subject the syntax sent me into another spiral, and not just a new image but a new world of images opened up. I’m talking about poetry, then about a memory, then the memory seems to become, in the second stanza, its own freestanding metaphor for something. It’s dizzying. In a strange way the person sitting in the move seat parallels Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window but not exactly. The “vertigo” is this—this desire to stand higher and higher, more and more conceptual, farther away from the original question.

Rumpus: And I like how the poem ushers us into the theater, sits us down, and then puts on a show. You evoke that dizzying effect for the reader. Very cool.

Talking to you has been fun, Katie. I’ll get in touch again when our Bishop or Bukowski? board game hits shelves!

Peterson: Thanks for having me, Dave!

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Stay tuned for Episode #4 of The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show, with guest Rachel Zucker.


David Roderick’s latest book of poems is The Americans. He also has a website and can be followed on Twitter. More from this author →