September Spotlight: Letters in the Mail


Twice a month, The Rumpus brings your favorite writers directly to your IRL mailbox via our Letters in the Mail program.



September 1 LITM Mario Chard

Our next Letter in the Mail comes from Mario Chard, author of Land of Fire (Tupelo Press, 2018), winner of the Dorset Prize and the Georgia Author of the Year Award in Poetry. His work has appeared widely in journals and magazines, including The Nation, The New Yorker, Poetry, among others, and his honors include the “Discovery” Poetry Prize and fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University and an inaugural fellow for the U.S. Ledbury Poetry Critics, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia.


The Rumpus: What’s a piece of good advice or insight you received in a letter or note?

Mario Chard: Not too long ago, a friend was diagnosed with cancer. We met each other a few years before we later married our respective spouses, became fathers (though both of us also chose those roles young). He was the father of five. We had lost touch for years but I wrote him a letter after hearing the news. A couple months later, he wrote back and in the end asked—almost demanded—that I write to him again. I tried but failed: kept an unfinished draft in my notebook, thinking maybe there was time. He died the next year. He was 33. In his letter to me, which I still keep with bright shame beside my unfinished response, he asked me, suspecting he had only months to live, a question I had heard a thousand times before from other sources. But seeing those words written by his hand, I finally faced it: How would you spend your time? 

Rumpus: What is your best/worst/most interesting story that involves the mail/post office/mailbox? 

Chard: Not one story but maybe just nostalgia for a formerly common one: I miss the SASE–I’m serious! Sending out work to almost any magazine used to require the “self-addressed stamped envelope.” (And to be fair, venues still do.) But what a gaslighting delight to see your own handwriting rejecting you! A perfect system: editors could print and/or chop a thousand pre-written slips on their copy room guillotine, tuck one in the envelope addressed back to the writer by the writer and thereby extend the distance between themselves and their No. (I would do the same years later as an editor of Sycamore Review.) Sometimes, gratefully, that envelope offered an acceptance, but there was something about playing a role in my own rejection that, honestly, strengthened me against the many Nos to come. When I started out I knew I needed rejections like someone learning a second language needs mistakes. And there it was: my own handwriting in the painted mailbox every week, smeared by heat or winter snow. Today I would take that envelope and any unevenly-cut slip over an email every time, regardless of the news.

Rumpus: Is there a favorite Rumpus piece you’d like to recommend?

Chard: I love “Stabilimentum” by Samiya Bashir. I found it while writing an essay that touches on the stabilimenta of spiders: that elaborate zig-zag or spiral decoration found in the web of some species that experts still debate the purpose of. Do the spiders make them only to stabilize their webs? Or can they also be a warning? Perhaps they make them just for the sake of beauty or seduction. Bashir’s poem offers an answer.




September 15 LITM Quinn Carver Johnson

Our second September letter comes from Quinn Carver Johnson (they/them), who was the editor-in-chief of the Aonian, Hendrix College’s literary magazine. Their work has appeared in Rappahannock Review, Right Hand Pointing, Cimarron Review, Red Earth Review, and elsewhere. Carver Johnson currently lives in Tulsa and hosts the People’s Poetry reading series.


The Rumpus: Tell us about your most recent book. How do you hope it resonates with readers?

Quinn Carver Johnson: The Perfect Bastard is a novel-in-verse set in the world of professional wrestling, following the life and career of the titular Perfect Bastard, a queer and non-binary wrestlers, as they work their way across a regional indie circuit in Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri. In the ring and on the road, the Perfect Bastard confronts homophobic stereotypes, callous crowds, union struggles, backstage romance, and more, often drawing from the true history of professional wrestling. 

The Perfect Bastard challenges several historical moments of homophobia, transphobia, and class struggle from pro wrestling’s spotted past by recasting the eponymous Perfect Bastard in these situations and contorting their outcomes. It breaks and already jagged history and attempts repair. Professional wrestling is built on revisionism and half-truths and I attempt to use that form to address this past. 

Through all of that, however, many of these poems, boiled down to the essential, are about the anxieties and struggles of being queer and trans in the workplace. Professional success and personal authenticity and integrity are weighed like two conflicting ends of a scale. These poems are about this tension. These poems are about being asked to fit into harmful, stereotypical boxes, about the fear of punishment or termination if you don’t. These poems are about unjustified, toxic hierarchies of power, how the managerial class wields its power against poor queer folks, and how vulnerable queer people, especially trans people, are to this form of economic threat. Conform or starve. Betray yourself or starve. Do it all and starve anyway.

Rumpus: How did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Carver Johnson: I was raised on folk music and raised around singer-songwriters, but I was born without an ear for rhythm or tempo and born with a grating singing voice. Even now I’m lousy at rhyme. So I cut our all the rhyming bits, stripped the songs of any melodies, and what was left was the start of poetry for me.

I still learned a lot from the historic and contemporary folk scenes. I learned a sense of place, especially the rural working-class Great Plains where I was born and raised. I learned class consciousness and righteous anger. I learned personal and folk mythology. 

I also grew up with my eyes glued to the screen every Monday and Friday night to catch the pro wrestling matches. I grew up with a bedroom full of action figures and a plastic ring. Beside it sat a 3-ring binder full of notebook paper where I kept meticulous records of which actions figures fought each other, what stipulations they fought under, what championship titles were on the line, and who walked away victorious. After simulating these battles by mashing and meld plastic flesh against plastic bone in the miniature plastic ring, I would turn to the notebook, recording the results before sketching out the next match on the show. 

I also grew up during the era of Shonen battle anime like Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Pokémon on weekly cable. At the same time, YouTube offered a space for smaller creators and fans to parody, spoof, and sometimes entirely rewrite these stories, which opened the door for fresh versions of classic anime staples that simultaneously offered beautifully crafted love-letters to the original while also layering in fourth-wall breaking, multimedia humor and intelligent media criticism. Following this blueprint, these same characters populated volumes and volumes of hand-drawn and hand-stapled comic books I made in my bedroom. 

I don’t know that there was necessarily a single moment where I learned or decided that I wanted to be a writer, but rather a gradual realization that it was all I really knew how to do. I’ve always been pulled by the creative impulse and I’ve been writing all along. 

Rumpus: What is your best/worst/most interesting story that involves the mail/post office/mailbox?

Carver Johnson: We always had a P.O. box growing up, but mail would still occasionally find its way into the box out front of the house. When I was a kid  some of the neighborhood teenagers had taken to walking up and down the street and stealing mail. 

My mom has never been one to tolerate even a whiff of bullshit off in the distance, so she grabbed a shovel, marched out into the yard, and dug up the mailbox by the roots. Mailboxes aren’t like other weeds, their roots are big basketball-sized chunks of cement buried feet into the earth and caked in decades of dirt and mud, but she still yanked the whole thing out of the ground and tossed it on the curb for the trash truck to deal with. 

My mom was, is, will always be tough as nails and stubborn to no end. She’s my hero.