2020 Under Pressure

Under Pressure: Jody Chan

Jody Chan is a writer, drummer, organizer, and politicized healer based in Toronto. They are the author of haunt (Damaged Goods Press), all our futures (PANK), and sick, winner of the 2018 St. Lawrence Book Award. They can be found online and offline in bookstores or dog parks.

Here, Gabriella Graceffo talks with Jody Chan on the push/pull of language, Taiko drumming, chosen communities, and the mentors behind her debut collection.


Gabriella Graceffo: How long did working on sick take, from conception to publication? Is there a reason you don’t capitalize your titles?

Jody Chan: The experiences I had that made it possible to write sick span from my birth until the point at which I finished drafting the manuscript itself, which took somewhere around a year and a half, between 2016 and 2017. I won Black Lawrence Press’ St. Lawrence Book Award in December 2018, and the book is coming out in August 2020 — so all in all, between four and 26 years, depending on how you look at it! I don’t capitalize titles because I like the ability to choose which conventions in English to adopt and which to reject; some of these conventions are arbitrary, just as the global domination of English over other languages is arbitrary. I tend to play with punctuation and sentence structure in my writing for this same reason.

GG: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

JC: Deadlines are a gift! Accountability to myself and to others — when it’s wanted, and chosen — gets my ideas in motion, and helps me break out of endless self-critique. 

GG: sick features a wide range of styles and forms. When you begin to write a poem, do you feel a particular form is right for it or does it take shape further into the writing process? 

JC: For me, form and content generally emerge in conversation with one another, but I do often find received forms really helpful as a starting place, especially when I’m trying to write something I’m afraid of. Structure gives me safety and freedom, rules to push up against and to fall back on, an inherent rhythm to draw out the specific music of the new poem. 

GG: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

JC: I cook (sometimes), I read, I turn my attention to the outside world, I move my body, I love my friends. I create in community. My chosen kin — the ones who check in on me, send me food and poems, help me hold myself accountable to the person I want to be — are what make everything possible in my life, and that includes my writing.

GG: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

JC: In January of last year, I took a poetry workshop with Erica Dawson; she also reviewed sick’s manuscript and gave me generous, incisive feedback. One thing she told me (I’m paraphrasing from memory) was to honour the growth and transformation in my life that makes growth in my craft possible, and vice versa. That means not pushing myself to write what I’m not ready to, if it will hurt me in the process, or if I’m not at the point yet where I can write it well; and at the same time, learning how to take risks and trust in what I do have to offer.

GG: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night? Do you find that it comes more in one language than another? Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

JC: I tend to do a lot of drafting in phone notes. Lines, words, phrases can arrive while I’m taking the subway, participating in a protest, making dinner with a friend — especially when there’s a poem I’m actively working on, it tends to take over all the background space in my head — and my phone is one thing I almost always keep nearby.

GG: What are some things you learned from creating this debut book? Did you approach making it differently to that of your earlier chapbook, all our futures? Do you have some advice for writers putting together a first collection?

JC: I wrote almost the entirety of all our futures over a span of two weeks, during an artist residency on the Toronto Islands, about two years after I finished the manuscript for sick. It’s kind of disorienting to have sick come out later, actually, when the poems themselves feel so much more distant from me in time and orientation. 

I don’t know if I’m in a position to pass on advice to other writers — I feel perpetually like a beginner, and I like it that way — but I did learn some things myself. When I first started writing the words that eventually ended up in sick, I felt like I had to lay my whole entire self out on the page. I was so terrified that a reader might find fault with me if my politics weren’t laid out enough — critically enough, radically enough, insightfully enough, movingly enough — in every single poem.

I had to learn to trust that I didn’t have to say everything I would ever want to say in my first collection, let alone in every poem. And I can’t write myself beyond critique, in some kind of radical perfectionism. I can’t edit my past self out of my poems, a self that I’m ashamed of because they weren’t far enough along on their political journey. It’s not possible. I keep learning (hopefully), I keep trying to stay grounded in the movements and communities I come from, and so I keep coming across new thoughts to explore, new feelings to feel.

In part, this is why the long poem appeals to me as a form, and why I wrote all our futures that way. It gave me more space in which to explore connections, contradictions, and questions clustered around a set of themes (in this case, disability, eugenics, climate change, and reproductive justice), without the pressure of needing to come to a quick and tidy conclusion — a pressure that shorter poems sometimes exert on me. 

GG: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer?

JC: With an audience? This is kind of a terrifying (but fun) question. The first thing that comes to mind is Taiko drumming, like a participatory piece where people are free to join for any amount of time, and to leave. Maybe this is my imagination’s way of reminding me that I’ve been really, really missing drumming with others during the pandemic. Typically, I drum with a group called Raging Asian Womxn Taiko Drummers twice a week; it’s the place I’ve learned the most about what joy and freedom truly feel like in my body. 

GG: If you could describe sick in three words, what would they be? Why?

JC: Longing, grief, obsession. I think these are basically the three drives of my life, so it’s fitting. I’ve been trying to notice their energy, the information they give me about what’s important to me and where I want to go, without letting them make my decisions for me.

Order sick here!

2020 Under Pressure

Protected: Under Pressure: Kelly Grace Thomas

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2020 Under Pressure

Under Pressure: Mike Soto

A Grave Is Given Supper, Mike Soto

Mike Soto is the author of the chapbooks, Beyond the Shadow’s Ink, and Dallas Spleen. He received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and was awarded the James Merrill Poetry Fellowship by Vermont Studio Center in 2019. His debut collection of poetry, A Grave Is Given Supper, has been adapted into an original literary-theatrical performance by Teatro Dallas directed by Claudia Acosta and starring Elena Hurst.


Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did working on A Grave is Given Supper take, from conception to publication?

Mike Soto: I started working on the manuscript with a decent idea of what I was doing in 2012. So, I would say about seven to eight hard fought years. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Where did you get the inspiration for your title?

Mike Soto: The title came from a line of a poem that I was once writing. It was the first title I gave the collection & it never seriously changed. In the end I think I wanted a title that captured the life/death cycle in a succinct metaphor, something that juxtaposed it with the same kind of simplicity expressed in Mesoamerican cultures. With those four words that was the aim. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure?

Mike Soto: Deadlines are part of the game, but the pressure they create seems to be on a pendulum of good or bad, depending on how you handle them. Since there is no such thing as perfection, I feel like deadlines force you to be at peace with the inevitable flaws that a work will have.

Deadlines can also be a test of how consistently you’ve been focused. No one wants to rush to finish something important. You want the rush to be about the details that can take the work to another level, I think. So ultimately, I feel like deadlines are devices for bringing the completion of a project into focus, & very necessary.  

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

Mike Soto: I usually have a few altar spaces that I maintain. I’ve had at least one space dedicated to Jesús Malverde, the folk-saint from Sinaloa who stole from the greedy & gave to the needy, for the duration of my time writing A Grave Is Given Supper. Developing a personal & creative relationship to Malverde, embedded in the maintenance of that space & also meditating in that space & from that space—drove me to write the poems that I did. I don’t think it could have happened another way. The practice of adding (& subtracting) objects from important trips & places, objects that people I’m close to give me, or that come into my possession through a deep coincidence, center my intentions & my writing. I’ll usually light the altar space when I’m working, & then come back to it when I need to take a break or refocus. This practice informs my writing and alters the altar space, & vice versa, all the time. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

Mike Soto: I’d like to share instead some advice that I went against: I was encouraged by a few mentors to play up my cultural identity as a Latinx writer, & also to give myself up in terms of writing about my personal experience. That advice didn’t ring true to the work that I wanted to do. So I’m happy that I went against this advice. Although AGIGS is not a book that I consider to be directly about my cultural identity, & not directly about my personal history, I think those elements are still present, but they exist in a submerged manner. My hope was that this allowed the book to be more of a communal object instead of the expression of an individual.   

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

Mike Soto: I usually keep a pocket journal, a notebook-sized journal, and craft paper taped to a wall. I tend to use a lot of tape when I’m deep into a writing project. I love the freedom of writing with a marker on a wall, it feels akin to graffiti. This is probably absurd to say but I think sitting for long periods of time is my least favorite things to do while writing. I try to balance that stillness with as much movement as possible.   

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Who are you crushing on art-wise?

Mike Soto: Stephanie Adams-Santos‘ poetry. The films of Bi Gan. The photos of Jim Goldberg. The photo-sculptural work of Dayanita Singh

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you choose?

Mike Soto: Probably plants, I would shape the experience of every room with plants. If there was no natural light (lame) in the museum, then I would use lenticulars as a medium and shape the experience of every room with lenticular prints of some sort. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Could you talk about the organization of the book? Parts of it are inspired by Jodorowsky’s El Topo, right?

Mike Soto: Yes, AGIGS borrows several narrative & metaphysical elements from El Topo, & I wrote the two protagonists as Topos in the making, in lineage with the black-clad protagonist of Jodorowsky’s film. Like El Topo, there are also four showdowns in AGIGS, poems where Topito, the protagonist, has a gunfight with an avatar of Death. But these poems are meant to stage phases of an inner transformation, as opposed to being duels with a master as in El Topo.  So, AGIGS is not a faithful retelling, but you could say it’s in lineage with El Topo, in terms of having similar metaphysical, aesthetic, & narrative ambitions. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: If you could describe A Grave Is Given Supper in three words, what would they be? Why?

Mike Soto: Despite, Death, Yes. I think the book’s energy draws on Topito’s and Consuelo’s journey to seek a kind of redemption, or enlightenment, despite the culture of violence around them. That word “despite” always seemed like the essential verb of the book. Finding, against all odds, that indelible Yes. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Finally, which character do you identify with the most in your book or in El Topo?

Mike Soto: In El Topo I identified not so much with the El Topo himself but with the series of transformations that he undergoes. I wanted Topito in AGIGS to go through a similar series of transformations. I guess I might be interested in going through some of those transformations myself. 

Order A Grave is Given Supper, here.

2020 Blog

Pushcart Prize nominations 2020

We’re excited to share our Pushcart Prize nominations!!


Sarah Bates, “Female #450” (Winter, 31)
Dorothy Chan, “Triple Sonnet for Charging Admission” (Summer, 32)


K-Ming Chang “Swallower” (Summer, 32)
L.M. Davenport, “Ballad II” (Summer, 32)


Miah Jeffra, “A Fiction More Real” Summer, 32)
Kat Moore, “Trees, Monsters, Witches: Fragments of Being a Girl” (Summer, 32)

2020 Under Pressure

Under Pressure: Roberto Carlos Garcia

[Elegies], Roberto Carlos Garcia

Poet, storyteller, and essayist Roberto Carlos Garcia is a self-described “sancocho […] of provisions from the Harlem Renaissance, the Spanish Poets of 1929, the Black Arts Movement, the Nuyorican School, and the Modernists.” Garcia is rigorously interrogative of himself and the world around him, conveying “nakedness of emotion, intent, and experience,” and he writes extensively about the Afro-Latinx and Afro-diasporic experience. His third poetry collection, [Elegies] is available from Flower Song Press, and his second collection, black / Maybe: An Afro Lyric, is available from Willow Books. Roberto’s first collection, Melancolía, is available from Červená Barva Press.

His poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY Magazine, The BreakBeat Poets Vol 4: LatiNEXT, Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3, The Root, Those People, Rigorous, Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Gawker, Barrelhouse, The Acentos Review, Lunch Ticket, and many others.

He is founder of the cooperative press Get Fresh Books Publishing, A NonProfit Corp.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: This book is titled [Elegies]. Could you talk about the genesis of this book and how it’s in conversation with your previous collection, Black/Maybe?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: There are definitely some intersections with black / Maybe: An Afro Lyric: family histories, formative childhood experiences, poems exploring the post-colonial third world nature of the hood. [Elegies] is also in conversation with my first book, Melancolía, which leans towards the metaphysical. The true genesis of the book was my grandmother’s death from complications due to Alzheimer’s. I wrote a series of elegies for her that became a chapbook. When I submitted it to Flower Song they asked for a manuscript and here we are. As I assembled the book it became evident that I wasn’t just eulogizing my grandmother but also other beloveds, past versions of myself, stereotypes and myths, other consciousness(es). But I’m also praising life lived, the book is as much ode as it is elegy.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Tell us about the mixtape poem and how forms like the elegy and essay inform your work.

Roberto Carlos Garcia: I basically wanted to break the constraints of the cento. It is already a great form but because I write essays and fiction, I had a host of lines from each genre floating around in my head that I wanted to put into a poem. And then the song lyrics! So, I decided to break the rules and come up with a new form, the mixtape. When I was a kid mixtapes were everything. I remember first hearing Nas’s classic, “Halftime,” on a mixtape.

There are some things that you can’t say in a poem, you need an essay or a short story, and vice versa. I am a poet and I consider myself a writer, as such I embrace the challenge of writing in any genre. I am inspired by so many wonderful writers and they move me to the page to use my art in multiple genres.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you? Maybe it’s a way of putting form on time and content.

Roberto Carlos Garcia: There’s a wonderful tweet out there that goes “If you give me a deadline on a writing project, I’ll give you a clean house and an eight-course meal.” Lol. There’s definitely an element of procrastination involved with deadlines but at the end of the day you’re either going to write it or you’re not. A part of me believes the writer makes their mind up about that well in advance. Then there’s the professional element of the whole thing that creates pressure. You don’t want to be known as that writer, unreliable and what not. The stigma associated with that creates even more anxiety and pressure. I guess I hate deadlines but they’re a necessary evil sometimes. I’m not answering this question very well.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: I read a lot. I need to hear other voices in my head. Perhaps that’s an old school approach but it is an essential part of our craft. I enjoy reading those “Art Of” interviews in the Paris Review. Sometimes the questions are just as good, if not better, than the responses. I meditate, that’s a must, and I work out. I believe it’s important to feel the body mind connection through physical work. And music, I have to have music.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: I’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of great advice. One bit of advice that stands out to me today is by the poet Anne Marie Macari, who as I was nearing graduation from my MFA told me that “writers write.” I’ve carried that with me ever since. You can take breaks and recharge, but eventually you have to get back to that blank page and write. Writing is a commitment, a practice, a Way. Recognizing and honoring “writers write” is respecting your gift. That stands out to me.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: I don’t journal, but I know I should. So many writers journal as a practice and swear by it. I’m not a creature of habit that way. I do keep a dream diary and I find that far more interesting. Looking back through a month’s worth of dreams is a wild ride. I can’t recommend it enough.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Who are you crushing on art-wise these days?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: John Murillo’s Kontemporary American Poetry. Great poetry by one of our best and brightest.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you choose?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: Painting. I love visual art in any medium, but painting is my favorite. I painted at least ten pieces, four of which are in my office on campus, and the rest are sitting in my basement.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: What does the 5-track mixtape for this book look like?

Roberto Carlos Garcia:

Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” by Gang Starr

Me Gritaron Negra” by Victoria Santa Cruz

La Zafra” Richie Ray & Bobby Cruz

Sometimes” by Raphael Saadiq

I Miss U” by N II U

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: If you could describe [Elegies] in three words, what would they be? Why?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: Love. Memory. Legacy.

This book really came out of love. My love for my grandmother and my sister, for the people in my life, for the people I’ve lost, even versions of myself, ghosts and shadows, that I’ve shed over many years and turning points in life. The book comes from loving myself too.

Memory plays an important role in this book and it permeates all the poems. Memory ties into legacy and legacy ties into the elegies which a dear friend told me read like odes at times.

Check out [Elegies] here.

2020 Under Pressure

Protected: Under Pressure: Naima Yael Tokunow

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2020 Under Pressure

Under Pressure: Sara Lupita Olivares

Migratory Sound, Sara Lupita Olivares

Sara Lupita Olivares is the author of Migratory Sound (The University of Arkansas Press), which was selected as winner of the 2020 CantoMundo Poetry Prize, and the chapbook Field Things (dancing girl press). Her poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, Salt Hill Journal, DIAGRAM, jubilat, and elsewhere. She currently lives in New Mexico where she works as an assistant professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University.  


Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did working on Migratory Sound take, from conception to publication?

Sara Lupita Olivares: I started the poems after moving from Michigan to Texas for my MFA where some were part of my thesis. I then moved to Brooklyn, NY for a few years and wrote some of the poems there, and then once I returned back to Michigan for my PhD I wrote the poems that finished the manuscript. It went through so much weeding out and adding in throughout this time and took many shapes. But for a short answer—I suppose about 9 years, which feels daunting to say!

SHP: Where did you get your title inspiration from?

SLO: Movement and migration became an important focus for me after leaving Michigan and later returning, as I started to see the ways my own movement felt paralleled to that of my family’s. Part of my family immigrated from Mexico to Texas initially, and during the summers they would come up to Michigan for seasonal work in the fields. Eventually my great-grandfather was offered work in the papermills and so they permanently relocated, and my mom and dad also supported my sisters and I in these factories. In returning to Michigan, I began questioning generational mobility and the ways that the traumas and dynamics within my family still felt audible in various ways. There is also a lot of secrecy within my family, so I think that adds to the narratives and stories being presented, yet partially intangible.

I have been interested in different points of access within these subjects and in looking more widely at movement and migration, specifically with animals and in the natural world. My writing process often involves looking to older texts, usually books with more technical language that give texture to my thought and ways of seeing. One of the books that I was exploring was called The Migrations of Birds (see, plain and technical title) and I was drawn to the logic behind the migration of birds, the shapes they took together in moving, and the invisible presence of wind. I wandered into the title Migratory Sound in trying to encapsulate the fogginess of movement and the ghosts and echoes connected to displacement.

SHP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

SLO: When I first see a deadline I think I worry a bit. But I do generally like them, and I am pretty quick about getting things done significantly before the deadline so I don’t lose sight of it. Workshop / submission deadlines give me a sense of accountability and I usually make necessary last minute edits before I know someone else is going to see the work. I think there is a shift in seeing that has to happen when you know something is going to be out of your hands in some way and this has become a large part of my process.

SHP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

SLO: I do believe in “a room of one’s own,” or at least a space of one’s own that invites and supports rituals. It is important for me to be in my office around my plants and stones / crystals, to stretch some, and to meditate in the morning. If I try to write before I have meditated then it often feels hard to access anything. Having a clear mental and physical space allows me to approach what I am writing about from a more distanced and observant place. All of this also always involves tea.

SHP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

SLO: I have received a lot of gold from my mentors, but something that I often think about is Kathleen Peirce telling me to “get into good trouble.” John Lewis says this too! I think this teaches me to measure risk, yet to maintain a sense of control—whatever amount of control that may be required in each poem. This advice also speaks to what may come to inform the poems and it shows a sense of compassionate risk, yet an inherent curiousity and joy that I wouldn’t want to ever lose sight of.

SHP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

SLO: Right now I don’t think I have a journal but in the past I have, so I should get one. I often write on notecards—my partner gifted me a green tin full of notecards from an estate sale somewhere and they are currently on my desk and easy to get ahold of. I will write on scraps if I’m driving or out somewhere, and I try to be intentional with notebooks (I have two that I’m going back and forth with lately), but I usually abandon the notebooks and go back to the notecards. More recently I have also been writing on lineless paper where I can sense white space and linebreaks a bit more. But in each case, I do think that the paper I use conditions the shapes of the poems.

SHP: Place seems to play a part in your manuscript. What is your favorite place to visit right now? Can you talk about your relationship to place a bit more?

SLO: I recently moved to northern New Mexico, so I have had a lot of new terrains to explore! I’ve never lived near mountains and it is pretty amazing having these quiet giants all around. My favorite place right now is the Wildlife Refuge near my house. There is a windy field you walk across and blue mountains further away but visible all around you. There are also signs to beware of wild creatures, and I like this sense of mystery in not knowing really what inhabits this space.

Place typically informs my poems, specifically natural spaces and the divisions and lines between the urban and rural. While writing Migratory Sound, I became interested in notions of the idyllic / pastoral and of what exists outside of these enclosed spaces. This contrast became important in looking at my family’s work in the factories and in the fields, and of how in returning to Michigan I began to notice both the prevalence of factories all around, and my family’s deep rooted connection to them—it felt like you couldn’t see one without thinking of the other. In going to nature there is a leaving and return and I am drawn to what becomes suspended outside of these spaces sort of haunting and shaping what occurs within them, and of the question of privilege and access to the idyllic. Natural spaces allow me to be lost for a minute and this is important to me for thinking and creating. I think, however, that this is more complex of a process for minority voices, or as Audre Lorde would say “disenfranchised” voices.

SHP: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer?

SLO: I would love to wander around a museum in all hours and nap under a Bonnard painting. If I could create something here, can it be a lot of ekphrastic poems? If poetry isn’t an option then I would paint. I love the sense of layering and overlapping of colors with painting but I’m not sure how to do it or if there is a right or wrong way. I think in my 24 hours I would hover around an Agnes Martin, Matisse, or Bonnard painting and see where that took me.

SHP: You also have a chapbook too. Is there a conversation between that book and this one?

SLO: I have a chapbook Field Things, and some of the poems here are included in Migratory Sound. I wrote this chapbook while living in Texas and I think it reflects that location. This was the first time I had moved away from home and it was also a time when I lost a few important family members. I think it was a moment where I was learning to look at different parts of my life from a distance and discovering new vantage points. I do believe we constantly return to the same subjects trying to get them right in some way, so I think Field Things feels like an introduction to some of the subjects that Migratory Sound goes further into.

SHP: If you could describe Migratory Sound in three words, what would they be? Why?

SLO: Quiet, Shadowed, Periphery. The poems often slip into and out of the physical within the space they occupy and in their way of seeing. I think there is care given to detail but also a love for what is nearly out of sight or sound, though close despite being outside of the frame.

Order Migratory Sound here!

2020 Under Pressure

Under Pressure: Malcolm Friend

Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple,
Malcolm Friend

Malcolm Friend is a poet originally from the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. He received his BA from Vanderbilt University, where he was the 2014 recipient of the Merrill Moore Prize for Poetry, and his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of the chapbook mxd kd mixtape (Glass Poetry, 2017) and the full length collection Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple (Inlandia Books, 2018), selected by Cynthia Arrieu-King as winner of the 2017 Hillary Gravendyk Prize. He has received awards and fellowships from organizations including CantoMundo, Backbone Press, the Center for African American Poetry & Poetics, The Frost Place, and the University of Memphis. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including La Respuesta magazine, the Fjords Review’s Black American Edition, Vinyl, Word Riot, The Acentos Review, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, and Pretty Owl Poetry. He is a Poetry Editor for FreezeRay Poetry, and together with JR Mahung is a member of Black Plantains, an Afrocaribbean poetry collective. He currently lives and teaches in Pittsburgh.

Here, Malcolm Friend talks curation, musical influences, and the story behind his debut collection.


Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple take to write from conception to publication?

Malcolm Friend: Our Bruises was born from my MFA thesis at the University of Pittsburgh. A few of the poems in there were first drafted the year before, during my senior year at Vanderbilt. During my second semester I took a manuscript workshop with Lynn Emanuel, and during the first month most of us in the class participated in a daily grind, writing a poem a day. Only some of those daily grind poems ended up in the chapbook I wrote for the course, but that’s when I first started writing around The Bomba Man and The Blues Man, and started to form the ideas of what I wanted the manuscript together. That manuscript ended up winning the Inlandia Institute’s 2017 Hillary Gravendyk National Poetry Prize and was published in 2018, so in all it was around a four-year process.

SHP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

MF: Deadlines are very helpful for me. My mind wanders a lot and, like so many other writers, my day job isn’t focused around my writing, so it’s easy to lose track of it and go spells without writing, editing, etc. If I have a deadline I have to meet, that helps me focus and bear down a little bit more.

SHP: Who are you crushing on arts-wise?

MF: Wow there are so many names I could put here, from Ricardo Alberto Maldonado and Ana Portnoy Brimmer, both with debut poetry collections coming out soon, to folks like Yesenia Montilla and Jasminne Mendez who lately have just been blowing me away with their poems. I also have to give a shoutout to the homie Cameron Barnett. He was a year ahead of me at Pitt and we still send each other work from time-to-time. Everytime he sends me something I just have to step away from the computer for a second. And, of course, I’m really excited for Yona Harvey’s new book coming out this fall..

Outside of poetry, Lianna La Havas just released a new project, so I’ve been listening to that on repeat for a second.

SHP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

MF: Honestly, for me, it’s all about remembering to nourish myself as a person, not just a writer. So I have to make sure to take time to do non-writing related things, like cook, spend time with my partner and our rabbits, watch sports–things like that to make sure I’m taking a breath every now and then.

SHP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

MF: So this is kind of combination of what two people have told me over the years. In 2016, Juan Felipe Herrera was one of the faculty members at the CantoMundo retreat, and his workshop was based around play in our writing. The next year, as I was working on my thesis, Yona Harvey noticed how I was working with epigraphs, and encouraged me to play around with them a little more—let their rhythm echo through the poems a little bit more. Both of these together remind me to have fun with my writing, and to remember to write around joy when I can.

SHP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

MF: When I was in high school and college I used to just write on looseleaf and keep it in a folder. Then for the last year or two in college and first year of grad school I used to have a journal. In the past few years I’ve more so been on the computer, just because of how often I have to be on it anyway and trying to scale down how much stray paper I have to keep track of. If there’s a line I need to remember or that’s just repeating in my head, I’ll take whatever I can find to write it down–a teaching notebook, an index card, a receipt. Otherwise, I just park myself in front of a computer until I feel I can’t do anything else with a poem for the time being.

SHP: When it comes to writing/editing, would you consider yourself an editor or more of a curator?

MF: I guess I’d have to say curator here. I think my work is always trying to see what voices and sounds are being pulled together, to find some sort of harmony out of that mix.

SHP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?

MF: It just comes when it does. Sometimes it’ll find me when I’m watching TV or listening to music, sometimes while I’m cooking, others when I’m on the bus on the way to work or the airport. I think that’s just a byproduct of the way my mind wanders. Those connections end up being made at any moment.

SHP: If you could curate the perfect reading experience for your book, name a meal, drink, and 3 song playlist that would describe the book.

MF: Meal- Pernil, tostones, and arroz con gandules

Drink- Palo Viejo gold rum mixed with pineapple juice and guava nectar

3 Song Playlist- “Las caras lindas” by Ismael Rivera, “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder, “Calabó y bambú” by La Sista

Now not really sure if those all go together, but that’s what I’m going with.

SHP: If you could describe Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple in three words, what would they be?

MF: A resounding echo.

Order Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple here!

2020 Under Pressure

Under Pressure: Alan Chazaro

Alan Chazaro is a half armadillo half chameleon Mexican American poet. His poetry collections, This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (2019) and Piñata Theory (2020), are available from Black Lawrence Press. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco and writing about the NBA for HeadFake.

Here, Garbriella Graceffo talks with Alan Chazaro about candy, social justice, Frank Ocean, graffiti, and the inspiration behind his debut collection.


Gabriella Graceffo: How long have you worked on Piñata Theory, from conception to the upcoming publication? 

Alan Chazaro: The oldest poem in the book was written about ten years ago, when I was an undergrad student in June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley. I was a community college transfer just barely figuring out that I had a voice. That poem (“Veracruz”) was the seed I needed to plant for the eventual book to grow from. 

GG: Your previous book, This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover, featured disparate topics and experiences like an eclectic mixtape. Does Piñata Theory do the same with many types of cultural candy all bound into one book-shaped piñata? 

AC: I like the way you put that, thank you! I think it has some of that fragmentation for sure, but I also think the body of Piñata Theory is more solidly held together. It’s like the album to the mixtape; there is still a good variety of soundscapes and frequencies of experience, but where Frank Ocean didn’t have the literal space as a chapbook to explore other topics more deeply, I wanted Piñata Theory to pick up where I left off and push further beyond the colorful surface exterior. Just as an example, I really didn’t look at anything regarding citizenship and dual-heritage with Frank Ocean, but Piñata largely lives in that broken in-between space of what it means to be a U.S. citizen who enjoys the sweet privileges of that, while living with many others who only held the struggles of exclusion and undocumentation. You’ll also notice a lot more of Mexico in this one, from my time living there as an adult, and from memories traveling there as a pocho boy and teenager. That’s the kind of stuff Frank Ocean just couldn’t fit. 

GG: Since we’re talking about piñatas, what is your favorite type of candy? 

AC: I like anything that’s the opposite of chocolate to be honest. So, like, anything chewy, and sticky, and hyper-sugary, and sour, and gummy. Usually when I’m at a party with a piñata I’ll only seek out the Laffy Taffys and stuff like that and just ruthlessly leave all that other junk on the floor. 

GG: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find? 

AC: I keep a journal but not for poetry. It’s literally to remind me to do basic things because I can be really spaced out, like: follow up on interview; call your pops; pay grandma’s bill; the kind of stuff that I will mindlessly forget or wait until the super last minute to do if I don’t physically see it written down in front of me. With poems, I’m definitely a take-notes-on-the-phone kind of person, then I’ll shift over to my laptop when I can. I like to start with whatever ideas hit me in the moment by just noting it on my phone and writing the first things that come to my mind, usually jotting down the idea of a concept or title if anything emerges, especially if I’m on the move and I know the momentum will be lost if I don’t capture it like a Pokemon in the wild. I’ll just stop walking and type. Before smartphones became universal though I would definitely be the type to write on loose scratch paper, receipts, even my hand if I had to, just because…. I WOULD FORGET. It drove/still drives my wife crazy.

GG: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing? 

AC: Bruce Snider was my first professor in my first class, first days at the University of San Francisco MFA. He told us that if the writer doesn’t have any moments of surprise themselves, then the reader probably won’t either. It sounds so simple, but it’s something I actually go back to constantly, because since then, I’ve become better about letting my conscious self slowly erode on the page while I’m writing and entering a more stream of consciousness state, and when I feel that moment of surprise, I know it’s something that will more likely resonate with readers because it resonated with me, and I felt it. Before that I think I would approach poems more literally, thinking I was in control and that I should steer the poem in the direction I wanted to by choosing certain words or aiming for a certain feel, but I realized with Bruce’s advice that I was more of a passenger who could arrive at an unexpected place, and it’s a feeling I’ve enjoyed arriving at ever since. 

GG: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing? 

AC: I’m the type to just get up and walk around the room when I’m writing to let my ideas breathe. Need to move, run, or play a sport if I can during the week, too. Anything physical. Being in tune with my body on a daily basis goes hand in hand with my writing for sure. 

GG: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night? Do you find it in different languages and if so, does translation take away or expand the inspiration? 

AC: I try to keep my senses open to everything, which can be a problem, so I could literally be having a Zoom conversation with a former student and he might say something that will hit me in a certain way and then I’ll suddenly wander off into thinking about writing a poem in my head, but I’ll reel myself back in because I want to be as present as possible in those situations. But to answer the question, it really happens anywhere at any time, it’s just a matter of how much attention I can give it in the moment to give it to let it grow into something more. Music, of course, is also a tremendous source of inspiration for me (shout out Frank Ocean). 

GG: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer? Or would you make a multimedia piece, something that evokes synesthesia like your poetry? 

AC: Definitely visual art. I grew up doing graffiti in California as a teenager, so I still have some muscle memory with aerosol. Graffiti is a cousin of poetry in my mind, and I miss doing it. Random story: the first time I ever met my father-in-law, he asked me to paint a mural in his family’s living room. It was bizarre, since I’d just stepped inside his house for the first time ever, and he’s a traditional Mexican man with rosaries and La Virgen all over the house, but he bought me all the paints the next day and asked me to depict a downtown skyline, so I spent a few afternoons on two ladders, covering the whole surface. I won him over by painting a dope, golden sunset row of silhouetted buildings in the front room above his TV. That was such a son-in-law test moment, but it’s still up in his house after 13 years so I think I won him over. 

GG: What are some things you learned from creating both your debut book and your second collection? Do you have some advice you could give to writers putting together a first collection? 

AC: Definitely don’t rush it. I feel like there is such pressure these days to have a collection and to feel validated by a published body of work, but I wanted my first collection(s) to be a reflection of where I was at that moment, however long that took me to express. Whatever that looks like for you, at whatever stage you’re at, in a way that honors you, your voice, your community, and your needs, I think you’ll know when you have something that you’re excited about and hella proud to share. It’s not a race to get to that point. It can be fun too, and if it ever becomes stale or feels flat, just give it some space and try something else you enjoy before coming back to get in your groove again–that’s where the patience, sports, and other stuff comes in for me. I’ll go days, even months without writing a poem, but whenever I get back to it, it just feels so unforced and necessary, and that’s my favorite place to be when I’m creating. 

GG: If you could describe Piñata Theory in three words, what would they be? Why? 

AC: Body. Break. Gather. Those are the three section titles for the book, but also, I think they reflect all of us, no matter who we are or where we come from. We all have to learn how to hold our space; we will all inevitably be shattered in small and large ways; and we will be tasked with picking it all up and seeing what’s inside. 

Also, on a separate but not-so-separate note, continue to fight for justice, not just by sending out Tweets but in real, meaningful ways in whatever capacity you are able to. Defunding the police means redistributing the exorbitant amounts of money unnecessarily funneled into the militarization of law enforcement, and I believe we must redirect those funds more equitably into other community needs, like education. Our public schools have been shit for so long, and only less than 3% of teachers are Black or Brown men of color–not because we are incapable, but because the conditions are so unlikely to attract and retain us in this field. We are severely overworked and underpaid more than most other comparable professions, and the few of us who exist in those spaces are pushed out. In Oakland, for example, “about 20% of the city’s entire budget — more than $318 million — goes to policing. That’s nearly double the amount of any other city department”, and barely a fraction of a fraction of this goes into our students. Think about that. Think about how much goes into creating fear and brutality through police officers when we could be creating empathy and understanding in our classrooms. I guarantee that more quality teachers would remain in the classroom–from all backgrounds–if the wages were respectable and districts had more money to allocate. Stay involved in your local community, especially after this moment passes, and keep applying pressure for institutional changes like this by making demands and using your political voice to support however/wherever you can. Much love and solidarity from the Bay.

Order Piñata Theory here!

2020 Under Pressure

Under Pressure: Tatiana Ryckman

Image of cover for The Ancestry of Objects along with author Tatiana Ryckman
The Ancestry of Objects by Tatiana Ryckman

The Ancestry of Objects, Tatiana Ryckman

Tatiana Ryckman was born in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of the novel, The Ancestry of Objects (Deep Vellum Books), as well as a novella, I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do), and two chapbooks of prose, Twenty-Something and VHS and Why it’s Hard to Live. Tatiana is the Editor of Awst Press and has attended residencies at Yaddo, Arthub, and 100W Corsicana. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Lithub, Paper Darts, Barrelhouse, and other publications.


Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did The Ancestry of Objects take to write, from conception to publication?

Tatiana Ryckman: Seven years? Oof, now that I say that, I’m not sure it’s good enough to have taken seven years, but there it is.

I wrote the first draft in two weeks in 2013. I was at Yaddo for a month with writers and artists much more established than I, and I felt an obligation to that space and the community of people there to produce as I never had before. That desire was facilitated by having someone else think about my meals and the fact that there was, essentially, nothing else to do. I spent six months or so on revisions and then started sending it out.

Nothing happened. I moved on. I put out a couple of chapbooks, I wrote another novella that came out in 2017, and upon returning home from the release party I fell into a deep depression and decided (in a very indulgent and unofficial way) never to write again. I threw away my writing desk. I gave up and it felt very grand.

About a year later Will Evans from Deep Vellum reached out and asked if I was working on anything. I wasn’t (see aforementioned petulance), but I said I had a manuscript I could dust off. A sent him a draft in February of 2019 and he generously offered to publish this weird, 17,000 word manuscript that I hadn’t worked on in five years. He suggested a light edit. You know, develop a few of the themes with a well-placed sentence or two. By the time I sent him the final revision in September it was 30,000 words. And that was more or less the end of it.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure?

Tatiana Ryckman: Deadlines are the best. I love a deadline. I wish I had deadlines for everything… reading books, responding to emails, finishing breakfast… How else can you be sure things will get done?

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

Tatiana Ryckman: Other than recording my dreams, writing is far from a daily ritual, and I’m not sure I actively do anything in service of writing for writing’s sake. I have a very strict morning routine that I would say is important to my continued existence, and is perhaps in that way important for writing. Before getting out of bed (often before I’m even actually awake) I write down my dreams. Then I do yoga while reciting the rosary. Since Covid I’ve added a very lenient version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pandemic at-home workout. Then the day devolves into a mixture of snacking and looking at the internet. I’ve also instituted a “3-mile something.” Walk, run, bike—it doesn’t matter, but I have to leave the house, and I have to do it for three miles. Walking is probably the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

Tatiana Ryckman: My first semester of grad school at Vermont College of Fine Arts I worked with Diane Lefer. I reported to her that I was sitting down every day and making myself write for hours, and I sent her many shitty stories. In one of her generous and thoughtful letters in response to my work she said (something like) “where does this macho idea of writing come from? Why force yourself to write when you don’t want to? Go ride your bike.” If she didn’t say it directly, it was strongly implied that in order to write about life, you have to have one. That advice, along with an amazing reading list, broke my idea of what a story had to be, and how stories came to be, and that was certainly a gift to my writing.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

Tatiana Ryckman: I try to keep little notebooks on hand, which means that my notes are never in one place, and usually forgotten at home, and then I end up writing on a gum wrapper or receipt (because gum doesn’t really come in sticks any more, have you noticed this?), and then I find these bits of trash months later, abused at the bottom of my purse, or tucked like a bookmark in the pages of an abandoned novel, or wadded at the bottom of the cupholder in my car. It’s a delicate system that I take great precautions against changing.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Who are you crushing on art-wise?

Tatiana Ryckman: Like… everyone? Beatriz González, Bob Thompson, Ebony Patterson, T Fleischmann, LK James, Claire Krueger, T Kira Madden, Patrick Madden, Prince, Oscar Wilde, and others.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you choose?

Tatiana Ryckman: Installation. I have many ideas and none of the tools.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Could you discuss the form of your book a bit more? (You use “We” and white-space a lot and I’d love to hear about this process.)

Tatiana Ryckman: The “we” happened on its own. Though I had to acknowledge at some point that writing in first person plural should serve some purpose. I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that the narrator struggles to find her own voice and identity, and the echoes of her grandparents scolding her “we don’t do that,” is also indication some internal conflict about to whom she belongs. There may have been a week where I re-wrote the ending switching from “we” to “I”, deleted it, re-wrote it, and deleted it again. Ultimately that indication that “now everything’s fine!” felt too heavy-handed, and fundamentally dishonest, so I didn’t. But I think that experience of going back and forth about who she is is fundamentally who she is. There is an additional implication in the “we” that I prefer to leave ambiguous.

As for white space… that may be an authorial tick of mine. I tend to write episodically, even in my longer writing, and white space helps demarcate shifts between those episodes, whether the episode is a scene, a revelation, or a mood.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: If you could describe The Ancestry of Objects in three words, what would they be? Why?

Tatiana Ryckman: Hm… all that comes to mind is “dour.”