Rumpus Blog

Call for Submissions: November ’23 Themed Month

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We’re accepting essays (750-4,000 words) by adoptees from 11/1 through 12/31 via Submittable. Publication will be in November 2023. Rumpus Essays Editor (and Book Club coordinator extraordinaire) Lauren J. Sharkey will be curating this series, and she’s elaborated on the types of stories (and whom) she is hoping to feature below.
— Eds.

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When I was three-months-old, I was placed in the arms of an American soldier returning from the parallel that divides Korea. We boarded a plane bound for the United States and my new parents. Raised on Long Island by Irish Catholics, I grew up being reminded how blessed and how lucky I was to have been adopted. Relatives, friends, and strangers assured me the life I led in New York was better than anything my biological parents could have given me.

The dominant adoption narrative that my parents had spared me from a terrible fate, that my birth mother had relinquished me out of love, that I had been  saved . . . that narrative was a third parent—guiding me, shaping me, informing me.

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BONUS Member Giveaways, Join NOW!

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As I type this, we’re at 149 Rumpus Members, which puts us not-quite a third of the way (29%) toward our June goal of 500.

By now (a little more than halfway through June), we were hoping to be a bit past the mid-point of 250 members. Even though our 500 Member goal is way less than 1% of the people who read the magazine every day, there’s a lot of chaotic energy out there and maybe some of you are even on vacation (a future we’d like to imagine)?!

To encourage readers to join sooner than later (and to reduce our anxiety levels) we’ve adding some bonus incentives.

The earliest Members have the best chances of receiving a bonus gift this month as you’ll be entered into every raffle following signup. If you’ve already joined us as a Member, you’re automatically included in ALL the drawings!

Join by 3 pm ET on Friday, June 17 . .

Join by 5 pm Tuesday, June 21. . .


Join by 5 pm Thursday, June 23 . . . 

  • Three members will win a Coffee House Press tote containing a bundle of recent release faves: Borealis by Aisha Sabatini Sloan (which just won TWO Lammy awards); When Women Kill by Alia Trabucco Zerán, trans. Sophie Hughes; and Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda, trans. Sarah Booker.

Some fine-ish print:

  • We will email winners the day of each raffle to ask for preferred mailing address (unfortunately, we can only ship to the US). We’re happy to ship to a friend if you’d like to gift or share a prize.
  • No one will win more than once, to keep things fair and give everyone better odds. So the sooner you become a Member, the more chances you’ll have of winning something cool!
  • Stay tuned as we’ll have additional bonus literary gifts from friends-of-The-Rumpus come through this month.


JOIN NOW!

We appreciate all the indie bookstores, presses, and authors who are stepping up to show their support and help us get closer to our 500 Member goal. It’s good to be part of a literary community that understands that our survival is interconnected. Thank you, thank you!

From the Archive: Sketch Book Reviews: How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy

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This was originally published at The Rumpus on October 5, 2021.

During the month of June 2022, we’re highlighting some of our favorite work from The Rumpus archives to show readers how the magazine has provided a space for great writing throughout our 13 years. If you appreciate the work we do, please consider becoming a Rumpus Member during this month’s 1st ever Member Drive.

How I Became a Tree, written by Sumana Roy and released on August 31, 2021 from Yale University Press, is a beautiful collection of essays that looks at nature, belonging, and being. Throughout the collection, Roy weaves together science, nature, personal narrative, literature, sociology, and more to keep the reader turning pages—and to turn us all into tree-lovers.

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Did you enjoy this piece? The Rumpus is currently doing our 1st ever Member drive during the month of June. We need your support to keep going! Find out more and JOIN today.

Call for Submissions: September ’22 Themed Month

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Education is perhaps the most vulnerable and intimate experience people can have with each other that is not familial or romantic. It’s so easy for the classroom to be either harmful—consider the destruction of a person’s curiosity and confidence in learning is muddled by shame or helplessness— or transformative when done well—empowering a student to take charge of their experience of the world.

Open submissions: June 1 – June 30 via Submittable

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From the Archive: Sketch Book Reviews: Girlhood by Melissa Febos

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This essay was first published in The Rumpus on May 4, 2021.

Girlhood, written by Melissa Febos and released on March 30, 2021 from Bloomsbury, is a gripping set of essays about the forces that shape young girls and the adults they become. Throughout the collection, Febos examines the narratives women are told about what it means to be female—and what it takes to free oneself from these narratives.

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CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: FICTION

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Exciting news:

Here at The Rumpus we are again open for original fiction submissions through the end of February.

We are interested in stories that have layers, with elements of surprise and unexpected stakes and points of tension running beneath. Rumpus stories have an edge and a voice we haven’t heard before. They tackle emotional depth while not being at all sentimental. We love it when a story’s language, plot, and characters feel palpable and dynamic on the page, and a strong sense of place goes a long way. Show us something new, bold, brash, alive. Want some examples? Read through our previously published stories.

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Call for Submissions: ENOUGH

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This was first published on December 1, 2021.

***Edit** We have extended this submissions window through January 31

ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women, trans, and nonbinary people who engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We will open a reading period for new submissions from January 1 through January 31. We know a holiday season is coming up for many, and that this time of year can be especially difficult. We invite you to share your voice with us. Submissions will be received through Submittable. (Please note: the category will appear on Submittable, with complete guidelines, on January 1, 2022.) (more…)

Next Letter for Kids: Leslie Vedder

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Our next Letter for Kids comes from author Leslie Vedder! Leslie’s letter is all about the magic of walking in the woods and is full of fun and fantastical doodles!

To make sure this super special letter reaches your favorite young reader, subscribe by January 12! For more information on Letters for Kids, click here. Letters for Kids is now on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest, so visit us there, too. And remember, Letters for Kids helps us keep The Rumpus running—so, your children can correspond with their favorite writers and you’ll support the website in one fell swoop. (more…)

Next Letter in the Mail: Monica Prince

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Our next Letter in the Mail is from poet, teacher, and performer Monica Prince! Monica sends us an expansive letter contemplating love and relationships, written in the form of a choreopoem.

To make sure Monica’s beautiful, intimate letter finds its way to your mailbox, subscribe to Letters in the Mail by January 12! And remember, Letters in the Mail helps us keep The Rumpus running—so, you can correspond with your favorite writers and support the website in one fell swoop. (more…)

On Braided Timelines and Long Projects: A Members’-Only Interview w/ Katie Gutierrez

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[Rumpus Members ONLY content for Aug. 11, 2022. Ignore post date above. This is our temporary workaround for private content. We’ll likely have passwords protected posts in the future.]

 

Katie Gutierrez’s much-buzzed about, major book deal, widely acclaimed debut novel is quiet and subtle along with being propulsive and fast paced – a true feat. In MORE THAN YOU’LL EVER KNOW, we are pulled along by a desire to know “the truth” of a true crime pulled from the news – the story of a bigamist whose unconventional choice is tinged with tragedy. But we’re also captivated by the metaphor: the idea that our parents, in particular, hold worlds that contain “more than we’ll ever know”; that our spouses, however beloved, could remain mysteries to us throughout our lives. You’ll enjoy this lovely, intelligent thriller for its genre and commercial fiction merits even as you admire and appreciate the deft and compelling characterization, particularly of the two women characters from whose perspective the story is narrated using alternating time lines. Lore (pronounced Lo-rrey, r rolled please) and Cassie face each other in an unexpectedly honest and tender dialogue that is as much at the center of this book as the “how” of bigamy – its secrets, lies, evasions and ultimately, damage.

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The Rumpus: Tell us about your journey as a writer and in particular, the journey you took to publishing this exciting book.

Katie Gutierrez: I’m one of those people who’s “always written.” I would fill notebooks in class, or over the summer, with stories I’d invented. I was always writing stories, and always knew I wanted to be a writer.

Then in college, along with majoring in English and Philosophy, I landed an internship with People magazine that after graduation, blossomed into a full time job. Though the station folded about six months later, and somewhat abruptly, in that time I had my first in-depth exposure to nonfiction and journalism. At first I’d been nervous calling people or pitching, but then I worked my way into freelancing, then did proofreading, editorial, some ghostwriting. I got really busy with a lot of work!

I wrote a lot professionally but realized eventually that I wasn’t spending time on my own stories, my own writing. So then I did an MFA to create the time to write. There I really focused on writing, with occasional freelancing, but no time out, not even to teach. It was wonderful and now I realize how lucky I was to get into an MFA program near where I was already living. Also, in the first 18 or 20 years of my life, I’d read, like one book by a Latinx author. The MFA changed all that and for the first time, I started writing about the people and places I’d grown up with, in southwest Texas.

That was where I developed my own voice, and found myself writing Mexican characters for the first time. This made a huge impact on my writing.

Right after the MFA, I worked full time as an editor for a nonfiction publishing company; I’d freelanced for them and was offered the job after that, and felt proud that I created a real place for myself as the head of many editorial projects. I loved that job. But like intensive freelancing had, the job took all my time from my work, and I realized I wasn’t working on my own book. My father suggested stepping back from what I was doing, back in 2014, to finish that book. Luckily, my husband was also supportive.

I felt scared at first, but also felt aware of what it was like not to work on my own fiction for the 4 years of my editorial job. There was a sense of “if not now, then when?” which now seems silly given how young I was! (Ed. note: KG is now 37).

I wrote a book between 2015 and 2017 that attracted a lot of exciting attention from agents and chose among several to go with Hillary Jacobson. Although that book did not sell, it was great to start a new project, the novel that became MORE THAN YOU’LL EVER KNOW, while on submission. I’d had a seed of the story of a man who lived a double life for 20 years, using separate names to set up separate households where the 2 sets of children even attended the same exclusive private school! And never knew about each other until one of the 2 wives passed away and the man then legally married his “second” wife.

I was compelled by the idea of how someone could tempt fate in that way by leading a double life. I wondered: what would it take to compartmentalize to that extent? And then I was gripped by the question: Would a woman, a mother, ever possibly do that?

When I had this idea during my MFA program I put it aside, but once it was clear after a few months that my first book hadn’t found a publisher, my agent wanted to know what else I had, and the idea became a first draft.

Rumpus: Can you talk about how you developed the intricate structure of the two alternating time lines that keep us gripped by the story, and feel like they resonate but don’t repeat, or maybe – repeat but only small details, amplifying and casting different light on these story details?

KG: That’s a lovely way to put it.  I definitely had to revise to figure out exactly how the timelines would be braided. But I knew I liked having a reporter, a journalist, framing the story.

Rumpus: I loved the Cassie character, who actually reminds me of a friend I met at MacDowell—Rachel Munroe. Did you have some of her work in mind as you thought about Cassie’s motivations?

KG: It’s funny you mention that book because I love SAVAGE APPETITES and definitely was informed by the archetypes that Munroe describes there. Cassie for example being a female detective archetype as well as the journalist. I would say though that Cassie is at an earlier stage of career than Rachel Munroe! Her journey gave me a chance to give a lot of thought, and have the characters themselves explore and debate how true crime stories are constructed.

I have loved true crime fiction for years – starting with Nancy Drew mysteries and Patricia Cornwell’s fiction. Eventually I moved to nonfiction as well, along with reading more literary fiction during my 3-year MFA. I am interested in fiction that can use crime to explore other issues.  I also became obsessed with “Serial”, the podcast that brought true crime to us in a new way along with subsequent podcasts on these themes.

Once I got so into true crime stories, though, I had to examine the reasons “why”. I started interrogating some of the assumptions of “true crime” – including its focus on the murders of white women, even though that doesn’t match the reality of much higher numbers of violent crimes perpetrated against, for example, Native American, Black and trans women. I wanted to play with the tropes of true crime – and also look at its blindspots.

Rumpus: For readers of The Rumpus who are also writers working on long projects, can you give us a sense of how you moved from beginning to end?

KG: So, I started working on this book while the first sub was still out. It definitely eased the anxiety of waiting to hear back! I was pregnant with my first child when I was starting the first draft. I felt a real sense of urgency about finishing and admittedly, at the time, bought into the mythmaking and fear mongering that exists, about making art at all “after baby.” I did have to adjust my physical expectations about pregnancy as I went through it and returned to work on it about 4 months after giving birth. (Ed note: not a long time! Not at all!).

I sent what I had at that point to my agent, who encouraged me to keep going. She knew what I needed to hear and had useful feedback even then. I wrote during naptimes and having others care for my baby – my husband has been a really equal partner in all of this.

The main change was that unlike during my MFA, when I could just write all day, after my baby, I had to be open to however long I had.It could be twenty minutes or two hours—I sat at my table with the baby monitor to the side of me, ready to move.

In about six months I had the rest of the first draft—600 pp! My first revision was to just cut it down. This is what I sent to dear friends and mentors—like Amanda Eyre Ward (THE JETSETTERS) and May Cobb (THE HUNTING WIVES) for example. They and my agent felt I really had something strong. My agent wrote a long editorial email and did a call with me. I took another 2 months to revise, then we did the same for the next draft! We revised back and forth – I feel like my agent did that with me 12-15 times! My agent invested so much editorial time into this book.

We finished editing it mid pandemic, right before the delivery of my second baby! The delivery was on September 4th, we went out on submission on September 11, and days later we had our first responses, escalating to an offer from the UK followed by a pre-empt from my US editor at William Morrow. Then of course there were edits with them.

Rumpus: As you moved through this demanding and multi-step process, including keeping the confidence to write this current book after not selling the first one, what resources if any helped you? Was there a writers group that was helpful, or other support?

KG: I have connected with so many other writers through Twitter, especially connecting with other writers who are also parents. I really appreciate the examples provided by other writer-mothers who also talked about “writing during naptime” and other ways they just kept the writing going. I realized from that that I could do it. Whether they were writer friends who actually read drafts of MORE THAN YOU’LL EVER KNOW, or writers who just shared support and commiseration, it has been great being connected. I didn’t have a core group of writer friends during my MFA, I think because I was married then (to a different partner) and just participated less in that social group. But now it’s really great having that core group of writer friends!

Rumpus: Speaking of close friendships, the relationship between your two main characters, Cassie and Lore, is so rich and satisfying. It really deepens this book. Can you talk about how you developed these two characters and their dynamic?

KG: I started with readers having “lots of love” for Lore for sure, including my agent and friends. Throughout the process, everyone fell in love with her, and I did give her, at least superficially, some of the “con woman” characteristics associated with stories of bigamy – a sense of entitlement, a lot of charm.

In a lot of ways, the book is about Lore working her magic on Cassie, and even filling in Cassie’s maternal absence.

Cassie’s story on the other hand was more common, and more subtle. I.e. it wasn’t hard to be engrossed, moment by moment, in Lore’s story given everything she went through. But I didn’t want Cassie by comparison to just be a framing device either. I felt that the book had to represent choices having a rippling and devastating impact on the characters for both women, not just Lore.

I wanted depth and nuance, and for the reader to sympathize with each woman in moments of her decision making, even if overall, that same reader would have trouble accepting the consequence for Lore’s children of what she did.  I always conceived of the book as being between the two women, that it would center these two women, and while I was writing the back and forth timelines, 80s to the present day, I was so excited for them to meet in the present!

Rumpus: It is exciting! And one of the other features of this book I want to emphasize to readers – the very vivid cross cultural and border cultural aspects. Was this something you thought about as a writer intending to appeal to a diverse audience including readers really unfamiliar with southwest Texas and Latinx history (including a history of Latinx cultures preceding the United States, in that region)?

KG: I know I shouldn’t look at Goodreads…but I did!  And one of the things a reader complained about was “the Spanish.” And I just think – if you can’t tolerate or deal with a few words of Spanish here and there, in a story about a part of the country where that is absolutely the setting, then you weren’t the audience for this book anyway. ‘

I was interested in challenging the notion of “accessibility” as something that I feel writers of color should no longer be pressured to provide. There are no direct translations of these few Spanish words. But at the same time, it was important to me that Cassie be a proxy for an outsider’s perspective on an insider’s perspective (on Lore’s perspective).  But at the same time, to let Lore be, and not “translate” her.

Rumpus: It is important that you say this, I feel, especially to the many writers of color whom I know have had this pressure, of “accessibility” placed on them, when in fact I think it’s the vivid details and reality you create on the page, from that southwest Texas setting and what it’s like to live on the border and cross back and forth and fluidly inhabit two related worlds, that makes these characters so alive!

KG: Thank you!

Rumpus: So give us a sense of what’s next for you.

KG: I’m on book tour for MORE THAN YOU’LL EVER KNOW   I’ve also been writing and publishing many essays, including recently in TIME, and another on the city of Loredo, coming soon, and still another forthcoming in Town and Country on con artists and bigamists.

After all that, I am looking forward to sitting down to work on the second book in my two-book deal, which I can’t say too much about yet! Except that it’s on motherhood, southwest Texas, three women, and centers on a kidnapping!

 

Tomato Sandwiches

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This post was sent to Rumpus members in our biweekly newsletter. If you’re reading this, and are not a member, please consider signing up to become a member or making a tax-deductible donation to keep our magazine independent.

By Rumpus Assistant Features Editor and IG Savior Anna Held

A few months into the pandemic, my friend Claire brought over heirloom tomatoes from her partner’s mother’s garden north of the city. She also brought salad and chocolate chip cookies, and we shucked oysters on the roof. The tomatoes were for later. I ate one for breakfast thickly sliced on sourdough bread from the bakery in my San Francisco neighborhood with organic mayo from Whole Foods and a heavy hand of salt and pepper, and it was too close and too far from what I wanted it to be. The tomatoes themselves were beautiful, lumpy and irregular the way things are when you let them grow how they want to, marbled on the inside like expensive meat. The bread was excellent but not right for the sandwich, too chewy and assertive. Organic mayo is a scam.

It was 55 degrees during that late July, which was the right and the wrong time to eat a tomato sandwich. Late July is the beginning of tomato season, six weeks or so in late summer when the fruits are the quintessential representations of their form. When I was a kid, my dad grew them in the backyard. He would yell at my brothers and me who never helped in the garden except when it came time to pick. We had to wait until  the tomatoes were almost to the edge of rot, when they were so heavy and thin-skinned that they almost fell off the vine from their own weight. All of August, my dad would grill steak or fish and we would eat squash casserole with Ritz crackers on top and wedges of tomato swimming in their own juice, drink Publix lemonade by the gallon, iced tea for my parents. It was still hot at dinnertime, but we ate on the patio anyway. My mom lit citronella candles and put bug spray on the table that my brother would accidentally-on-purpose spray on my food. She made sandwiches on soft white bread with Blue Plate mayo, the tomato torn by our dull knives.

 

I am writing a book that’s set in the South. I was born and raised there. It’s where my family still lives. Both my brothers have bought houses there, something I still can’t quite wrap my head around. It is a place that I love but that I don’t feel is mine, a place that I am equal parts defensive and critical of. Mostly, I feel guilty about how badly I wanted to leave. I feel like I can write about what it feels like to be there, what it sounds like to sit on a roof that’s still warm from the sun and drink shitty beer as the cicadas wake or what the Chattahoochee smells like first thing in the morning when your body is the first thing to break the fog, but the specificity of those experiences is not a substitute for true engagement with a place or a history that goes beyond an individual life. The South is like New York City in that way; to call yourself a Southerner means something more than being born or living there. It is ownership and contribution and action. Appropriately, the only thing I’ve ever written about Georgia before this book was about the Atlanta airport.

San Francisco is in many ways an objectively good place to live and frankly I feel shitty for complaining about anything right now. I am an outsider whose critiques are fairly meaningless and resenting how expensive the city is is not a novel or interesting sentiment. Ultimately, my biggest gripe with San Francisco is that it does not feel like home to me.

 

My neighborhood here is in some ways similar to where I grew up, with magnolia trees lining the street and impossibly long hills. It is close enough to feeling like home that when I realize it isn’t, I feel betrayed. Getting close enough is my favorite way to let myself down. I’ve taken jobs that were close enough to what I wanted to do, accepted behavior that was close enough to how I should have been treated, agreed to living situations that were close enough to what I thought I could tolerate. The problem with “close enough” is it is permission to stop trying while still never getting what I want.
When I moved here, I told myself that planes had shrunk the world to the extent that I could live in California and still be present and useful for and to my family, that with modern technology, anywhere could be close enough. Now, it feels exactly as far away as it is, five days driving and four nights in hotels, which isn’t something that bothered me until my grandmother fell broke her arm. I did what I could from here, which meant ordering my grandmother autobiographies of men she finds handsome (Alex Trebek) and fighting with my brothers about who did what wrong thing. What became certain is that I am not close enough. I don’t know how I ever believed I was.

Two years later, I remain resentful. I resent thatI still am safer here than they are there and Brian Kemp, who is the reason I am safer, and that my grandmother didn’t get to vote because she’d been purged from the registrations. I resent the federal government and my friend who got on a plane to go to a party when my flying home to help my grandmother could have  killed her. Like many writers, I also resent myself, that I can’t eat one fucking tomato without going long on a family crisis or whether I can claim belonging to anywhere or the shallow well of regret I feel about so many of my choices. I resent my persistent inability to accept things as they are.

So much of being a writer is finding significance in the little pieces, mapping out how the big things manifest in the smaller ones and how the smaller ones illuminate the obscure. Every detail, sentence, and scene has to earn its purpose. The specific has to be stitched to the universal. The tomato has to mean something.

A few years ago, before all this started, I went to see Taffy Brodesser-Akner read. She was in conversation with Elizabeth Weil, and they said something to the effect of, in writing a story, you have to ask yourself three questions: What is it about? No, what is it really about? No, what is it really, really about?

My grandmother fell, and it feels like so much more than that. And in some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t, but either way, I am extraordinarily lucky that I can still call her whenever I want to. My apartment is cold and small, and it’s filled with family, too, and two animals who follow me through it all day. I made a sandwich that wasn’t like my mother’s, but to have a friend that brings me perfect tomatoes? Maybe those are the things that this is really, really about.

Garden Goth // The Psychedelic and the Gay

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This post was sent to Rumpus members in our biweekly newsletter. If you’re reading this, and are not a member, please consider signing up to become a member or making a tax-deductible donation to keep our magazine independent.

By Rumpus EiC and peony enthusiast Alysia Sawchyn

imogen xtian smith is a poet & performer living in Lenapehoking / Brooklyn, NY. Their work has appeared in Baest, B L U SH, Folder, The Rumpus, The Poetry Project Newsletter, & Tagvverk (among others), as well as in We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics. A 2021-22 Emerge Surface Be Fellow at The Poetry Project & MFA graduate from NYU, imogen’s debut collection, stemmy things, is out from Nightboat Books in fall, 2022. They will be giving readings from this collection in Asheville (and elsewhere!) in the coming months. Pre-order your copy!

The Rumpus: What are some of your early memories of book covers, either positive or negative, and how did those impact your ideas about the cover for stemmy things?

imogen xtian smith: My earliest memories of cover art are probably the Madeline books by Ludwig Bemelans. i must’ve been drawn to the vivaciousness of color, the starkness of the nuns in contrast to our girl M. i think about these books a lot as a major queer-of-gender root for little me.

i was lucky enough to have a lot of encouragement as far as reading was concerned, & remember being captivated by The Berenstain Bears (again, color, movement, a different obsession in each installment), Hardy Boys & Nancy Drew (with their ominous scenes—i always wanted the more gothic ones, the ones with night imagery), & other series, from the Boxcar Children to R.L. Stein.

Long before the words get us (or we get them), there’s the cover with its vibe cast before the pages. Setting this vibe early feels crucial, both in children’s literature as well as so-called adult.

i remember so vividly a sort of book that felt out of the 1940’s or 50’s in terms of design—usually a storybook involving knights or princesses or some such, where the colors were vibrant & the images a bit blocky, but i can’t think of an example, just impressions. Those sort of covers (which i can only be vague about here) definitely informed ideas concerning the mood i wanted stemmy things to portray—something darkly lush, a bit ethereal or other worldly.

Growing up in the 80’s & 90’s, there were also plenty of gaudy paperbacks around—think giant, gold & embossed font like on a Danielle Steele cover. Love those!

So while none of this (with the exception of the style that i seem incapable atm of fully articulating) felt at the forefront of my mind in thinking through my desires for stemmy things’ cover, there certainly has been a quality or through-line in tastes.

Rumpus: At what point of the manuscript submission/acceptance/publication process did you start discussing the cover?

ixs: At the very beginning! i’m a huge nerd about record covers, show posters, book covers, etc., & see the visual element as inseparable from considering the body or medium of the art-object. It’s really important for me to have a major say in all the elements of the book—from cover to layout to font. To be my bratty self about it, i wasn’t about to have an unsexy or boring book cover!

In my first conversation with Stephen (Motika, Nightboat Director & Publisher), i asked how much input i could have, & stressed how important that feels. He was so open, explaining that while Nightboat has a team of house-designers, i could get started early gathering images / obsessions / concepts to share with them.

Lol i made a pinterest account & began making albums of cover directions that interested me, ultimately sharing them with the designer (probably along with an excessive amount of explanatory notes but who remembers anything?).

Q: Who actually made the cover design? Were you familiar with their work beforehand?

ixs: stemmy things’ cover was designed by Somnath Bhatt, with art by Elias Chen. i was unfamiliar with either of their work but couldn’t be happier about the way it all turned out! i received something like 8-10 different options from Somnath, all of them brilliant, all of them taking on one of the various directions / inspirations i’d shared. So i felt really heard & engaged with, really from the start, & that allowed for a kind of total trust in whatever the end results would be. & so yes—i’m a big fan of & really grateful to both artists now!

 

Rumpus: Can you describe the cover design and how it relates to the manuscript?

ixs: A bit earthy, a lot flirty, playful, scandalous even—if you really look / read the book. i loved the black / purple / yellow color scheme from the start, but it wasn’t until i held the book (just the other day!) that i realized how much gothiness that added. stemmy things is very gothy—in what i call a garden-goth kinda way.

So yeah—it’s dirty & queer & moody & silly, much like the work therein.

Rumpus: Which doodle/symbol on the front is your favorite, if forced to choose?

ixs: Hmmmm . . . that’s really tough because they each bring their own hot / mischievous take on the orifice. But i think the finger definitely, & probably the “budding” to its left, which perhaps gets the point across most bluntly . . .

Rumpus: Some favorite book covers other than yours 🙂

ixs: Oh lord, this could easily turn into an essay, so i’m just going to keep it to books of poetry, but i so often love Nightboat’s covers, particularly Wo Chan’s Togetherness by Aldrin Valdez, as well as Chia-Lun Chang’s forthcoming (don’t know the designer unfortunately). Three all-time fav Nightboat covers of mine are Stacy Szymaszek’s a year from today, Etel Adnan’s SEA and FOG, & Asiya Wadud’s No Knowledge Is Complete Until It Passes Through My Body—they’re all incredibly gorgeous as art-objects, let alone as works. Futurepoem and Wendy’s Subway have flawless covers, without exception. i love the old United Artists covers (particularly Mayer’s Poetry, with art by Rosemary Mayer), as well Black Sparrow & New Directions (old & new editions). Song Cave covers, particularly since they’ve shifted to the black backdrop, really do it for me as well. Some Action Books covers too—they’re so color saturated! City Lights are obviously classics…i could go on & on. If i must choose a favorite though, it’s clearly the use of Lenora de Barros Poema as the cover of Women in Concrete Poetry: 1959-1979. & is any book as all-around gorgeous as s*an d. henry-smith’s WILD PEACH? i think not.

AND AND one fiction shoutout that was influential: Pola Oloizarac’s Mona.

Rumpus: Anything else you’d like to add?

ixs: Yes—a bit about my process. i had several ideas as to how the cover could go & presented image examples accordingly. Vibes were Tropicalia / Brazilian psychedelic rock posters from the late 60-early 70s, dramatic 70’s paperbacks (think a painting of a femme in a flowing dress running away from a mansion, lightning in the sky above), 50’s paperbacks (like old copies of Camus or something with geometric shapes / patterns), Virginia Woolf’s early printings (font & image kind of minimal & art nouveau), or older hardcovers with embossed florals. In the end, i think there’s a little of everything in stemmy things, perhaps leaning more towards the psychedelic. And the gay.

“He Needed to Be Tamed . . . She Needed to Be Embraced”

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By Rumpus EiC and peony enthusiast Alysia Sawchyn

K-Ming Chang’s second book, Gods of Want, was released this past July. The stories within are each small geodes—even though you go in expecting wonder, the jagged crystalline structures within still awe and amaze. I got to chat with Chang this past weekend on the phone, and we talked about maximalist aesthetics, wanting other people to be in charge, and book siblings. Her little conure provided an excellent backbeat.

The cover for Gods of Want was illustrated by Grace Han (who has also done the covers for books by Lauren Groff, Brandon Taylor, C Pam Zhang) and is based on a Qing-dynasty era image of the nine-headed bird from mythology. When I first saw the cover of this book in my email inbox, I literally gasped. There was something about the saturation and color palette that I found so arresting.

Chang describes herself as having no visual literacy and is very, very happy to have art departments putting together her covers. Once it’s time to start designing, she makes a Pinterest board and sends it along with a note like, If this is helpful great! But if not! It’s okay! I imagine that the design teams are immensely grateful for this equanimity.

If you’ve read anything by Chang (if you haven’t yet, let’s go; there is a quiz next newsletter), you will probably be unsurprised to hear that her taste in book covers sounds a lot like her writing style: illustrative over photographic, color and brightness over muted, a tendency toward beasts and meats and things slightly grotesque, a sense of “too muchness,” and dynamic movement. She mentions in particular the feathery-and-flamey vibes that carry from the bird itself into the font of Gods of Want.

For this book, she received a packet of 4-5 very different designs, and of those possibilities, everyone was drawn to those with a sense of movement. Michael Morris, the illustrator for Chang’s first book, Bestiary, provided the direction for Gods of Want, and his fingerprint has created a cohesiveness between the two covers in their dynamic compositions: there’s handwritten font, movement and off-centeredness of the illustrations themselves, and rich colors. Chang calls them siblings, sisters.

And while her US books inhabit the same cinematic universe, I was delighted to learn that the same illustrator has made both of her UK covers, which makes them appear like part of a series.

(We are all now breathlessly waiting for the K-Ming Chang Collector’s Edition Box Set to be released in 2055, yes?)

As we were talking about our favorite book covers, Chang mentioned the old Harlequin regency romance novels: foiled lettering, human figures stylized like oil paintings, a tagline on the front that reads something like, He needed to be tamed—dot, dot, dot—She needed to be embraced. And this is, I think, also speaks to one of the reasons I love Chang’s writing so much: However magical and strange, her characters and stories are always fully embodied, in the goofy, gross, awkward business of being a human—an oil painting with foiled letters, the juxtaposition taking on a life entirely of its own.

I hope you enjoy the turquoise and the flames and the feathers.

tomato2

It’s Heirloom Tomato Season, Motherfuckers

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By Rumpus EiC and peony enthusiast Alysia Sawchyn
(in homage to
McSweeney’s classic decorative gourd season piece)

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to get my hands on some ugly-ass tomatoes that look like the vegetal equivalent of a Muscovy duck bred during the Chernobyl fallout. It’s 6:30am and 95 degrees (real feel 135), and I am fucking stoked to slip on my Birkenstocks and sweat my ass off biking to the farmers’ market on my refurbished 1937 Schwinn. 

Look at these glorious stripy bastards! I feel like Belle twirling around the goddamn marketplace singing about a provincial life except I am fucking contented with my handwoven wicker baskets, courtesy of my polyamorous triad’s most recent date-night activity. Pile those shits on in there. I am going to eat these Black Beauties like I’m a 1960s housewife and they are actual fucking amphetamines.  

Please control your feral, organic child and vegan pom-chi-hus-shep-inu; I will clothesline a motherfucker. I am paying $28 per pound to virtue signal my support of local, organic farming; all I have consumed today are chia seeds, lemon water, and positive energy from my quartz point; and you do not want to fucking mess with me. My mantra during sunrise Kundalini yoga is, GO FUCK YOURSELF, MONSATO-LOVING WALMART SHOPPERS, directed at my shitbag neighbors’ kitchen window along with those Mortgage Lifters you are currently blocking with your murder-Birkin bag.  

People are going to be like, “What are you going to do with thirty-five pounds of tomatoes?” And I’m going to slowly unwrap my handwoven tote (love you, Willow, thanks again) without breaking their gaze like this is a pay-by-the-minute peep show and quietly reply, “They’re heirloom tomatoes. You are either committed to seed diversity or embracing nature’s puppy mill. You are clubbing baby seals.” Then I’m gonna peal outta there like David fucking Byrne. 

Do you like those Instagram posts where bitches have pothos vines growing around their sex swings? Then you’re going to fucking love my house—welcome to Tomato Town, assholes. Think Midsommar meets Victorian. You bet those zucchinis are phallic. This is a sex-positive intentional space, and I invite you to choose a SMEG appliance and velvet throw blanket to assist in your autofellatio simulation. Just watch out for the croquembouches. It’s like Miloš Forman’s Amadeus up in this bitch, but with nightshades. Consider yourself warned. 

For now, I’m going to swan over to my bar cart of essential oils and practice breathing through my curled-up tongue. Fuck it’s fucking hot in here. Good thing my linen culottes are breathable and each purchase provides three jade rollers to impoverished communities. Did you hear that Canada’s last intact Arctic shelf just fucking collapsed? We’re going to have tomatoes growing out our assholes soon. 

Welcome to eternal summer, fuckheads!

How to Watch While Being Watched: Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s Borealis

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During the height of the pandemic, I found myself daydreaming about night skies. I zeroed in on a spot in northern Pennsylvania officially designated as an “International Dark Sky Park” with its promise of a canvas of stars, its dazzle undimmed by electrical interference. While searching on Airbnb for nearby lodging, I came across a review by a woman who warned of seeing a number of Confederate flags and swastika signs in the area. It turns out the county where the park sits is a known bedrock of white supremacists.

I thought of this idyll and of how quickly I flipped the kill switch on my plans while reading Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s Borealis, a grounded yet allusive account of a trip she took to the seaside town of Homer, Alaska (population: 6,000). Sloan, a mixed-race writer visiting a very white place, aka the Great Outdoors, expertly captures the sensation of racial hostility as an ambient possibility that is always not not there. It is just one of many states she inhabits over the course of her travels and this book-length essay, which explores her estrangement from the task of “nature writing” itself while finding her way to a mercurial experience of the sublime.

Sloan has arrived in this corner of Alaska as “a loose body with no clear purpose,” unclaimed, she notes wryly, by anyone except her Airbnb host. But as the narrative progresses and Sloan makes occasional reference to correspondences with an unnamed editor, it’s revealed that she does have a purpose in Homer: She’s here, at least in part, to fulfill a commission, the first title in Spatial Species, a new literary series from Coffee House Press dedicated to exploring the “ways we activate space through language.”

But why Homer? We learn Sloan has a history with the place: beginning in her twenties, she has lived there on two separate occasions with two different (now) exes. She once worked in a local bookstore, lived in a cabin with no running water, and learned to drive stick in a local high school parking lot. She drank out of growlers, joined a community of lesbians, and saw, for the first time, how queerness had “a kind of architecture, a tallness.”

Now, years later, that community is gone, the town defamiliarized. This time, Sloan’s observations are attenuated by her status as a solo traveler. She makes note of every bald eagle she sees. She eavesdrops on conversations. She muses on Matthew Henson, the Black arctic explorer and first man to reach the North Pole. She listens to Björk and Paul Simon. At the beach, she tries not to read the bumper stickers in the parking lot. She finds herself avoiding narrower nature trails, anxious not to run into moose or men while hiking alone. She reflexively registers the race of everyone she observes and encounters, taking keen notice of the rare Black person she spots (an activity that will feel familiar to BIPOC travelers). She is perfecting how to “watch while being watched.”

The series’ editors cite George Perec’s definition of the “infra-ordinaire”—the excavation for meaning gleaned from close observation of the quotidian, the overlooked, the underneath—as a foundational concept for the series. Sloan takes up the prompt of reenacting Perec’s “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” in Alaska with dogged playfulness, not the least when she’s grappling with a seldom-discussed feature of travel, boredom, which, she realizes while in Homer, is starting to “feel like an aesthetic challenge.”

This challenge is met in part through Sloan’s coruscating meditations on life and art, provoked by the landscapes that surround her—the majestic, moody paintings of glaciers by Lorna Simpson; the poetry of Robin Coste Lewis; the films of Claire Denis and Bong Joon-ho; her light-filled correspondences with a nephew doing time in prison.

Midway through the book, Sloan unveils another of her goals for this trip: “To figure out why Jean Toomer marked each section of his 1923 novel Cane with an incomplete circle.” Toomer, himself a biracial writer, sets off each part of his stylistically experimental, hybrid book with a page, blank except for an elliptical drawing of a half circle. Sloan starts to make note of echoes and derivations of this symbol, from the strange alien script a linguist is enlisted to decipher in the sci-fi film Arrival to the crescent moons carved in the doors of all the outhouses in Alaska.

Do these clues add up to a satisfying conclusion? Does it matter? As with Toomer’s unclassifiable novel, the answer lies in the open borders and recursive nature of Borealis itself. Sloan’s roving consciousness are the rails on which we ride back and forth through time, through art and space. Here’s a typical quicksilver reflection on ICE 6, one of Simpson’s glacier paintings:

What is it about the intractability of the past? Why does the mere fact of having been younger once feel so excruciating? I can’t get back inside it. The rock face looks slick, like you’d slip, like it’s a screen. Like buildings. A city of glaciers. Is that like the future? … The feeling of falling is a thing I keep refusing as I look. There is a way that time and emergency take on a similar texture. The front end of emotion, before you know what it’s for.

Not that all the tendrils Sloan sends forth take flight. Her descriptions of the art collages she’s making to “signal to myself what I want this book to be” can be hermetic (“a rock like a meteorite, suspended over the curve of a pink jellyfish”) and probably more generative to the artist than illuminating for the reader. Yet the book as a whole teems with satisfying complexity. Sloan, the author of multiple essay collections and a searching, elegiac column for the Paris Review that traces her family history through iconic landmarks in Detroit, was an inspired choice to inaugurate a series on place and space. There’s a looseness to its narrative rhythm that gives it a freewheeling and unpredictable charge, a willingness to embrace different registers. Sloan has that rare ability to convey the astonishment of an insight at the instant of its arrival. At one point, she remembers an exchange with a student that takes an intense and vulnerable turn: “Now I think crying is like touching time. A half-hearted attempt to crash into now.”

She can also be disarmingly funny, sending up the death drive approach to tourism by researching bear tours and glacier hiking tours and abandoning the pretense in favor of taking a shower. Alone at the seashore, she notes:

The log I’m on is spongy. That’s, uh, white moss. Is that a thing? There are dandelions. I don’t mean to be an ass, but I feel again like I’m the most interesting thing on the beach. I mean: a lone Black woman walks out during low tide, begins to film a bald eagle, then runs away screaming.

Not much happens on this trip. And yet everything happens. The body travels while the mind wanders and the sensation is that of roaming freely—the valorization of landscape as an interior experience. Like a certain kind of traveler, the ideal reader for this book is copacetic with an element of drift, which accounts for both the appeal and risk of Sloan’s heavily associative mode, sometimes explosive, sometimes elusive. The experience, rather than linear, is borealian.

Down the Rabbit Hole: Eugene Lim’s Search History

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For an artificial intelligence program to write “even a below-average novel,” a character in Eugene Lim’s new novel, Search History, argues to his friends, would require “a design where many problems are being worked on simultaneously.” This would “allow analogous or parallel situations and solutions to be identified between extremely disparate issues.” Search History is far above average, but its project, too, is to appose disparate situations, ideas, and genres. The novel—which is metafictional and described within its own pages as “not really a novel but a cracked-mirror version of one”—is broken into distinct sections, some of which continue from previous ones to form loose storylines and some of which stand alone. The event that broadly connects these sections is the suicide of Frank Exit, and his friends’ grieving in its wake.

In the main storyline—a series of connected sections labeled “Shaggy Dog”—a friend chases after a dog that he thinks is the reincarnation of Frank, but which is actually a robot created by an AI scientist named Doctor Y who is working on a project to commune with the dead. The latest version of her project? The very book we’re reading. (The cyberdog technology is merely a “profitable side path.”) The friend’s adventurous search for the dog, assisted by Donna, the preteen daughter of Doctor Y, resembles something out of an Austin Powers movie—during a car chase, for instance, their tires are shot out by the dog itself, who has a gun and is leaning out of the car they’re pursuing; the narrator does “some fancy swerving” to no avail. The two characters rarely talk about the action sequences they are living out, preferring instead to discuss the loss of their parents, Frank’s friendship and death, and what even is “identity,” anyway? “You could ask yourself what we’re really chasing,” Donna says, thoughtfully and hilariously, during that same car chase—“the ‘solution’ to the code of your racially marked body?”

In other sections, friends mourn Frank while also discussing visual art and poetry, Asian American identity, power if not explicitly politics, and the plausibility of Doctor Y’s aforementioned fiction-generating AI. Despite the grief that permeates the book, Lim’s writing is playful—not light, exactly, but suave, full of plays on words and sly, satirical jabs, often about the literary world and the “so-called literature” that sells well and wins prizes. About Doctor Y’s AI technology, one character explains that “She thinks she just has to hit the right combination of fifty-cent vocabulary, purposeful obfuscation, euro-fetishizing wistfulness, and saccharine plot—and she may be able to secure a Man Booker.”

While the novel does touch on familial relationships, especially the loss of parents, friendship is the relationship that connects and concerns all the characters. It is also, perhaps even more than grief, what Lim seems most interested in capturing on the page. “[T]he sweet, tenuous link between people that we name so easily as friendship can barely be held in the mind,” Doctor Y says in her opening monologue. She continues:

I like to go to lunch one-on-one with a friend. That’s what this is all about, what we’re leading up to. That kind of lunch. That kind of lunch is the best… [W]e looked across battered and crumbled tables at each other, trying to name the things we could name—particularly the pretty nimbused phantoms we were in the middle of losing, but also the movie stars in something we saw last week as well as the gossip about the wrong turns of others.

The friends’ conversations are inconclusive and full of tangents; increasingly they talk past each other, about different topics. Sometimes the redundancy between these scenes and the “Shaggy Dog” ones is a little boring, as when one character gives a perfunctory defense of psychedelics that pales in comparison to the previous section’s lovely description of tripping and meditating. But it’s a pleasure to draw out the parallels this book sets up: Friendship (or, by another name, conversation), grieving, art-making (referred to as “a commitment… a relationship with the world”), and understanding one’s identity—all processes without end, but ones that, without vigilance, may fade in importance over time, until they are eventually forgotten.

 

Lim has written before about experimental fiction and the need to slough off such conventions of narrative as plot. In a 2016 talk he gave, later published by The Brooklyn Rail, he wrote, after quoting Robert Creeley, “the story has no time, and its old purpose… is being replaced by something else, no matter how random and broken, that has ‘the fact of reality and the pressure.’”

Search History certainly defies plot; even the sections that appear to fall into a recognizable action genre have no arc or traditional story structure—they’re literally labeled “Shaggy Dog.” What’s more, by my reading the novel seems to defy linear time. Like a temporal Mobius strip, some sections appear to rely on technology that, based on the timeline of other sections, hasn’t yet been invented—definitely one way to “break” a story.

It feels too obvious and underbaked to claim that the “point” of this broken form is, at least partly, to demonstrate the nonsensical and nonlinear nature of grief—but the fact is that Search History is a beautiful portrait of loss, and it is made all the more so, perhaps surprisingly, by its metafictional cleverness. Early on, Frank’s friend Muriel claims that for Doctor Y’s AI to write a novel, it would need a “spark” or “binding agent” of reality; fittingly, Lim includes two autobiographical interludes, titled “Dead Friend” and “Mother,” both of which are two of the most moving parts of the book.

Search History is not only about personal loss but also large-scale tragedy, which may or may not affect us on an individual level, and how we respond to both. The opening pages take us through different scenes of global inequality, injustice, and cruelty: racism at a New York art exhibit; labor conditions in a Chinese factory; ocean detritus as a symbol of climate change. There’s historical death—Japanese internment camps come up in both storylines, which characters admit they can rarely think about—as well as the dismal current state of affairs. As Frank puts it, in the beautiful soliloquy he gives in the moments before his suicide: “How many disastrously stupid people there are!? And how powerful the smart and evil?!”

In the face of such cruelty and despair, most of the characters—like most people—are groping along, motivated by love for their friends and family, saddened by loss but trying not to let it overtake them. They mourn, they make art, they create technology to talk to the dead, they do drugs, they go to clown school, they joke around over sushi, they pose existential questions about their identity and the future. This is a book of conversation, but it’s not dialectical: no one is really helping their interlocutors come to any universal conclusions. If someone does articulate some insight or epiphany—about life, or love, or selfhood—it is most often deflated by another. “It’s a beautiful idea,” someone at lunch says after one of their friends tells a long story about the nature of love. “Not sure I agree, but it’s beautiful, if maybe a bit simple.” And then the conversation shifts to another topic, down another rabbit hole, and everyone moves on.

The Rumpus Mini Interview Project: Carribean Fragoza

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A young narrator silently watches her mother chop up nearly everything around her. A recent college graduate returns to her working-class neighborhood, cares for her terminally ill mother, joins a local gang, and hosts Noz (nitrous oxide) parties. A young daughter eats her mother’s flesh to remember where she came from. An obscene mylar balloon gets stuck in a tree, starting a war between neighboring tribes. Carribean Fragoza’s recently released Eat the Mouth that Feeds You (City Lights Books, 2021) is a fantastically delicious collection of short stories, all of which nearly defy description. While the settings and plots are truly unique, their power to evoke emotions, in even the most seasoned reader, is remarkable. Using a fresh, gothic lens, Fragoza writes of the inescapably strange world of body and soul, never flinching once. Her characters, mostly women, find themselves in frightening places, with no way out, only to discover that mobility and empowerment lie within themselves. Fragoza touches eternal themes and uses such dexterous and hypnotic language, she is able to permeate the heart of any reader. (more…)

Next Letter for Kids: Jason Reeves

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Our next Letter For Kids comes from author-illustrator Jason Reeves! Jason sends us an illustrated letter and shares his top four tips for how to create your own stories.

To make sure this super special letter reaches your favorite young reader, subscribe by December 29! For more information on Letters for Kids, click here. Letters for Kids is now on Facebook and Twitter so visit us there, too. And remember, Letters for Kids helps us keep The Rumpus running—so, your children can correspond with their favorite writers and you’ll support the website in one fell swoop. (more…)

Metaphor by Any Means Necessary: Destiny O. Birdsong’s Negotiations

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Destiny O. Birdsong’s debut collection of poems, Negotiations, explores the constant adjustments that Black women make to survive. The negotiations in this collection are not compromises—they result from compromised situations. A “land of the free” is founded on slavery. Food is nourishment; food is a trigger for illness. A nurturer is a destroyer; a lover is a rapist. How do these impossible conditions, superimposed upon one another, coexist?

In Negotiations, Birdsong establishes metaphor as a negotiation between parties. As a body of work, the collection mediates between the quotes that form its epigraph:

What moves between us has always moved as metaphor.

– Terrance Hayes

The worst has already happened to us, she said.
What good is metaphor now?

– TJ Jarrett

Hayes’s quote is mysterious, and maybe that’s part of the point—language is a placeholder. “What moves between us” is unknown, abstract, best rendered via metaphor as it is inexpressible by direct speech. At the same time, Jarrett’s quote reminds us that metaphor is not neutral. What good is metaphor? As in, who is it good for? What good does it do us? Who is “us”? I read Jarrett’s “us” as Black women. I recognize that weariness.

The speakers of these poems are harmed by others, themselves; their bodies harmed by other bodies, by their own. Not only does each party in such situations coexist—the situations they find themselves in must coexist, rarely by choice. But Birdsong writes her poems’ speakers out of violence into joy and comfort, wit and love.

 

Metaphor can make life more bearable, meaningful, or simply comprehensible. But that transformation can also result in a refusal to accept reality. In such a case, metaphor can be used to ignore, obscure, or even erase violence by directing our attention elsewhere. Birdsong refuses metaphor such powers in the title poem, “Negotiations,” which, as the first poem, teaches us how to read the collection. In the opening stanza, Birdsong rejects metaphor outright:

My pussy is not made of microfiber.
I can’t put it on my head to conduct business,
or plan insurrections. It’s not big enough
to hide in, dear reader. It’s not bulletproof.
It can’t be offered to neo-Nazis as a lure
for conversion therapy. That didn’t work
for Sally Hemings. I know it can’t work for me.

Full stop. There is no metaphor here.

Instead of saying what the speaker’s pussy is, Birdsong defines what it is not. There is no Pussyhat™ in “Negotiations.” By avoiding metaphor, “my pussy” is literal; descended from and subject to literal violence.

If anything, this poem’s “pussy” is metonymical, a part standing in for a whole. In this case, metonymical parts of the body—private parts—stand in for the entire body as the speaker navigates public space. Later in the poem, “pussy” stands in for the speaker’s “unwhite body” as she faces the public, “takes a stage.” Birdsong’s attention turns in the next line to another metonymical body part, “my head,” to “conduct business” in public. And so the whole body is subjected to the violence that, at first, it seemed part of the body was subjected to. That violence includes being rendered a body in the language of the public rather than a person. By refusing to define the speaker’s “pussy” through metaphor, “pussy” remains private. “My pussy”—what it is—is never revealed in the poem.

What is in the poem, as revealed by metaphor, is “the history” of the speaker’s slavery:

The history of my slavery is a history of fabrics:
osnaburg, wool, denim, linsey, linen.
A few skeins of thread and a handful of blunted
needles. Later, sandwich boards, glitter paint,
a bit of chain draped fashionably across the shoulders.

Historically, the speaker and poet’s body as a Black woman has been the subject of a “puncture-resistant tongue.” The poem turns over its embodiment by vacillating between concrete parts of the body and related conditions of that body—emotions, history, health. In this way, the poem and its speaker teach us not who she is, but rather how she is read due to what she has.

 

When tracking the speaker’s possessive pronouns (my/mine), there’s a back-and-forth between parts of the body and qualities that lack form. The poem moves from “my pussy” and “my head” to the formless (“my anxiety,” “my slavery,”) back to the body, (“my hands,” “my unwhite body,”) and what else it holds: “my rage,” “my rage” again; “my illnesses,” “my brain.”

 

Some corresponding metaphors: the speaker’s rage is a ball-gag. The speaker’s rage is “sedated by the pre-filled syringe of history,” which implies that the speaker’s rage is a body unto itself. Every quality without form ultimately takes the shape of its container—the speaker’s body. But even as the speaker collapses history through metaphor, she cannot abide her body becoming metaphor—a vessel for others’ imaginations—in this poem. Likewise, Sally Hemmings’s body was and is not a symbol. Sally Hemings was a person.

Later in the collection, “Spilled Milk”—a poem dedicated to hoteps—critiques a lover’s misogyny and questionable pan-Africanism through wry symbolism. The conservative hotep belief system that the lover inherited from his father emotionally and physically harms the speaker, a Black woman with albinism. The lover attempts to erase the speaker’s Blackness within the first line of the poem: “He joked I was the whitest thing / He had ever put in his mouth…”  But Birdsong next redirects Afrocentric imagery toward her speaker, showing that, not despite, but because of her skin tone she, too, has a place within hotep mythology, albeit a marginalized one. This speaker is “the Bambara proverb for what could happen / to children conceived in daylight.” Her breasts are the “white elephants / in a room of African violets;” her skin color and sexualized body an unspoken embarrassment for those in the room who may or may not acknowledge the speaker as Black. Yet the speaker’s experience within the lover’s public and private spheres is one only a Black woman could have.

Part of this speaker’s negotiation with this lover (“[she’d] draw the drapes, / he’d drop his khakis; we made ourselves dark,”) is a negotiation between his desires and her own. The speaker desires to recreate herself through procreation, creating the possibility of a child with albinism (“the one I made up”) via morning sex, per the proverb. Yet the speaker suffers for her desire of such a future. While her ambitions for a child may be met, her physical and emotional needs are not. Her lover’s willingness to “drop his khakis” is eclipsed by his unwillingness to see the speaker as Black (“…You don’t know what it’s like / to fall in love with a woman who isn’t…He’d drift / without finishing, and I’d fade to black”). For the lover, the speaker’s complexion is an inconvenience. For the speaker, the lover’s belief system—which is tied to his projection of whiteness onto her body—physically damages her:

              The son and I, we fucked, and later, because

I stopped believing in his household gods,

             each of my stomach’s valves blistered shut.

Now, he tells me my diseases don’t really exist;

             they’re just European fetishes, like pasteurization.

Visually, we’re confronted with a back and forth between indented lines mediated by white space. They drift, alone, without stanzas—rooms—to build or hold them. Read between the lines the absence of language, single lines of silence.

 

If we return to “Negotiations,” the collection’s first poem, a man runs the speaker off the road while shouting n****r. That man still waits “somewhere in the trees” as we read “Spilled Milk.” And still “the pickets blister” the speaker’s hands, just as in this poem the speaker’s digestive system has “blistered shut.” he unspoken command behind the poem title “Spilled Milk” is “don’t cry over…”

Though the poems in Negotiations are not necessarily narratively linked, they are spiritually linked through repetition of words like “blistered” as the poems call back and forth to each other, “a splintered chorus.” In this way, the collection’s poems invoke one another to create a metaphysical space behind and between their narratives. Each poem happens and re-happens as the worst has already happened to us.

But as the worst has and continues to happen, so does everything else. Reading the collection, I find myself asking, what is non-negotiable? Where don’t Black women have to compromise? Almost nowhere, it might seem. But pleasure peeks through in private, intimate, solitary spaces as the collection continues.

In the prose-poem “hypervigilance” for example, the speaker is a soucouyant, a Caribbean folkloric vampire-like creature who sheds her skin each night to roam for blood—usually men’s. “hypervigilance” begins with a rare moment of the ease that comes with being unobserved enough to just be.

I like the feel of walking around without questions.
Sometimes I stand over the pots on the stove, let the heat
seep through my breastbone like a balm. Sometimes I sit
in front of the box fan and sing into the stream of air. My
voice splinters, comes back to me as chorus.

The speaker strips herself of visible identity, enjoys physical sensation, and takes pleasure in the inner self that turns up and does as she pleases. Yet this is all framed by the poem’s title—hypervigilance is a (chronic) response to (chronic) trauma. In this poem, the dark of night is freeing: that is when the soucouyant has power.

In the morning, I must return to my skin. Beneath it,
I will burn until it is night.

Though trauma in the collection occurs day and night, in public and private, the speaker must live in a skin that is gazed and acted upon by others in public. This moment of privacy echoes others. In the poem “My rapist explained even the water company gets a bill,”

Every night I turn onto my stomach in the bath,
      I think of it as a ritual of refusal.”

The poem is one of sequence: the title “My rapist…” eventually transforms in another poem to “My therapist…” As Negotiations concludes, the splintered chorus of the poems’ speakers heal themselves, feed themselves, love themselves; become their own lovers as they re-negotiate their relationships to self.  Birdsong writes her body and the bodies of Black women before and alongside her inside out—bones, viscera, blood at the back of the throat—to arrive at a transcendence of Black women’s bodies beyond sites of violence. Whether that violence is internal or external, physical, or sexual, systemic or self-inflicted, or any combination therein, all begins and ends in the body. This collection is “a ritual of refusal.” There may be negotiations, but no matter the compromising circumstances, there is no compromising between Black women’s survival and joy.