2020 Under Pressure

Under Pressure: Jenny Molberg

Refusal, Jenny Molberg

Jenny Molberg is the author of two poetry collections: Marvels of the Invisible (winner of the Berkshire Prize, Tupelo Press) and Refusal (LSU Press). She has received fellowships and scholarships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sewanee Writers Conference, Vermont Studio Center, and the Longleaf Writers Conference. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, Tupelo Quarterly, Boulevard, The Missouri Review, West Branch, and other publications. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Central Missouri, where she directs Pleiades Press and co-edits Pleiades magazine. Find her online at


Bina Ruchi Perino: How long did Refusal take to write from conception to publication?

Jenny Molberg: About five years ago, I started writing the epistolary poems that would inform the heart of the collection—a kind of book-length love letter to my friends. Over the next few years, as I dealt with a divorce and a subsequent abusive relationship (both included dealing with our often-broken legal system that continues to favor white male-dominated power structures), the book began to take a clearer shape. I wrote the final series of poems, the battle between Ophelia and the Demogorgon, during my time at Vermont Studio Center in 2018.

BRP: Where do you get your title inspiration from?

JM: When I was putting the book together, I had the sense that I wanted a one-word title—a word that resonated with more than one meaning. “Refusal” is a word that I often encounter in the work of writers I admire, like Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Anne Carson, and in formative books like Jane Eyre. The word confronts female anger, and the canon’s eschewal of female anger, in its many definitions: a denial or rejection of a demand, a horse stopping short of a jump, an opportunity to accept or reject something before it is offered to others, something that has been rejected—I was thinking in terms of Rich’s concept of refusing patriarchal constructs, in art and in life. I had landed on the word “refusal” in the first Ophelia poem of the collection: the refusal of a character to play one’s role; the refusal to view a work of art through the male gaze; in many ways, the refusal of the muse.

BRP: When working on a project, do you give yourself deadlines? What does that time management/organization look like?

JM: In the past few years, as I have become a wearer of many hats—professor, editor, administrator, budget coordinator, mentor, press director, etc.—I have tried to be kinder to myself about productivity and deadlines. I demand a lot from myself, and it often times becomes too much. The current quarantine due to COVID-19 has forced me to reevaluate that self-pressure and to think about both my privilege and obsession with time—to try to manage time when one needs to worry about finances, health, family, parenting, etc. is an impossible task, and we just have to do the best we can. I look to poets I love, like Brigit Pegeen Kelly, or Ilya Kaminsky, or Carolyn Forché, who take their time between collections, several of whom embarked on important projects of translation or memoir or editing that were equally important passion projects in the spaces between publishing collections of poems. It takes time to live and learn, and it takes living and learning to write good poetry. Living and learning are inherently disorganized and resist timelines, so I often remind myself to slow down. This is a luxury I am not often afforded—it is a luxury in and of itself to be able to discuss it here—but because of reasons of gender and workplace competence and money, time is a concrete thing with which I’m constantly sparring. 

BRP: Who/what is currently inspiring you, art-wise?

JM: In terms of reading, I’m currently inspired by the work of Carolyn Forché, Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, E. J. Koh, Philip Metres, Leila Chatti, and Donika Kelly, among many others. I’ve also been mining the photographs of Corinne May Botz, who captures the work of female forensic scientist Frances Glessner Lee in Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death—this work confronts violence enacted upon the female body and our society’s obsessive focus on the male perpetrator rather than the female victim. I’m also consistently inspired by Jenny Holzer’s projection art and Kara Walker’s cut-paper silhouettes. Refusal takes a lot of its inspiration from art I encountered when I was living and working in Spain—I found myself revisiting canonical artwork and texts and revising their narrative through the lens of the damage inflicted by patriarchal gaslighting, silencing, and violence. Finally, I’ve been reading a lot on the work of female forensic scientists (which is an art!), as well as exploring the true crime genre; I just finished I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, and I’m currently reading Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, recommended to me by poet and fellow true crime enthusiast Ruth Williams. 

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

JM: Bruce Bond once described a poem as a “gift,” and that idea has long resonated. It helps me to see that the poets I love present offerings in their crafting of language and experience, and it helps me to think more about the kind of communion that occurs between a poem and its reader—to focus less on any outside validation and more on the ways in which a poem can start a conversation. My mentor David Keplinger once encouraged me to get in the practice of writing every day, even if what I write down hasn’t found its own meaning or form. The practice of poetry can become a daily exercise, and though the cultivation of that habit can be frustrating or difficult to keep, it develops muscle memory for experimentation with language. He describes the poems that emerge out of that kind of practice as “poems from the future,” and I’ve experienced that a few times when I’ve kept up with the practice—after weeks of writing to no avail, a poem will sort of fall from the sky fully formed, like a weird little Icarus. I have to admit, though, I am not always able to keep up with the daily poetic workouts.

BRP: Besides writing, what else would you say you do you have a passion for making? What parallels do you see between it and writing?

JM: This is a great question. Most of my adolescence and early adulthood was spent in frustration that I wasn’t a more talented visual artist or musician, but my failure in those crafts led me to see that poetry was my art form. I consider the work I do for Pleiades magazine and Pleiades Press to be a kind of making that informs and inspires my writing. The editing, design consultation, selection of work to publish, and overseeing the curation of special features introduces me to the work of new writers, and I find the process of ushering a new book into the world to be so rewarding. I consider myself to be very fortunate to be able to contribute to the literary dialogue. This work doesn’t leave me much time for hobbies, though I love to travel and am often looking for ways to travel to share the work of our press or to find some time and space for writing. I also love to cook—I’m an adventurous eater and enjoy learning new recipes—there’s something about the timing of making a meal that I find akin to the musical tempo of poem making. Cooking is daily practice, one that creates sustenance, and I think of poetry as a thing I can cultivate and consume, a thing that nourishes me.

BRP: What is your process when drafting? Do you use a journal or draft in other ways?

JM: When I draft, I always hand write. I keep a dream journal and try to write down something every day, even if it’s just an idea or lines I love from other poets. I like to write in the afternoon or late at night, and I find it difficult to draft when I’m not alone, sitting in silence. It is important for me to have the books I’m reading and old favorites that inspire me close at hand as I draft a new poem. I’ll often pick up a book, read a poem, and start drafting. It’s a kind of call-and-response practice—it’s almost impossible for me to sit down and start writing on a blank computer screen. 

BRP: How did writing Refusal compare to writing your first book, Marvels of the Invisible? What are some lessons you learned from your first book that helped you through the second?

JM: It’s interesting—I found the experience between writing the two books to be wildly different. First, Marvels of the Invisible, I think, was the product of writing two other collections that failed as books—it is the culmination of at least ten years of practice with poetry, and in some poems, the beginning stages of my learning. I also wrote Marvels of the Invisible as part of my dissertation for my PhD, so I had a lot of guidance and mentorship from my peers and the faculty at the University of North Texas, most significantly Bruce Bond and B.H. Fairchild. Most of the poems in that collection took a lot of time to whittle and craft. Refusal, on the other hand, though not necessarily written quickly, came out of more immediate feeling, anger, obsession, and fantasy. While Marvels responds to scientific texts and memory, Refusal is in many ways the product of imagining spaces where I could deal with my trauma that don’t exist in the real world. I experiment with persona and form more in this collection, and it helped me write my way out of some really difficult psychological spaces. I do think I learned a lot about ordering and shaping a manuscript from my first book that were useful to Refusal—it took me a lot less time to see the collection as a whole, to organize and fill gaps in the book.

BRP: If you had to describe Refusal in only three words, which would they be and why?

JM: Testimony: Many of the poems in the collection rise out of witnessing my own experience with trauma, abuse, addiction, and gaslighting, as well as larger, more societal dealings with those issues. As I have forced myself to confront the fear of testifying through poetry, and dealt with our culture and legal system’s victim blaming and failures in addressing power structures, I have heard many other people’s testimonies in response, and this inspires me to speak out in the interest of changing our systems. 

Friendship: Publishing one of these poems allowed me to reach out, through poetry, to someone who would become one of the most important friends of my life. As I invented “hospitals” for the kind of trauma I was dealing with—gaslighting and abuse—that doesn’t always have a clear treatment path or cure, I decided to dedicate those poems as epistles to my friends. My friends pulled me from the depths of the underworld during the time I was writing these poems, and I am interested in the idea of rethinking the beloved as a friend. Adrienne Rich explores communities of women as a form of resistance or refusal of male-dominated society (most specifically in her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”), and it is my hope that these poems embody that concept. 

Resilience: Refusal deals with difficult issues, trauma, and cultural toxicity, and as I was writing these poems, I found myself longing for hope. I think that in this collection, hope is embodied in community—an unburdening that comes from shared experience. I reimagine the Ophelia figure in the book as a character who is unfettered by a patriarchal dictation of her own narrative, and I hope that these poems reach even one person who is struggling with similar experiences—it is my ardent desire that the poems issue forth a sense of strength in healing. 

Order Refusal here!

2020 Under Pressure

Under Pressure: Kayleb Rae Candrilli

2019 Whiting Awards winner Kayleb Rae Candrilli by Beowulf Sheehan

All The Gay Saints, Kayleb Rae Candrilli

Kayleb Rae Candrilli is a 2019 Whiting Award Winner in Poetry and the author of Water I Won’t Touch, Copper Canyon Press 2021, All the Gay Saints, Saturnalia 2020, and What Runs Over, YesYes Books 2017. You can read more of Candrilli’s work here.


Bina Ruchi Perino: Where do you get your title inspiration from?

Kayleb Rae Candrilli: With particular regards to All the Gay Saints, I took an immense amount of inspiration from Hernan Bas’ painting titles, especially in the moments of the alternative title or the OR maneuver. I loved how much context he could build with one title, let alone with the utilization of two titles. A title, ultimately, is too important a rhetorical opportunity to miss. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about search engine optimization, too, and how that consideration effects contemporary poets. Ideally, I’d like my poem titles to help me be found in the mountains of data we’ve created and are creating. It takes a ton of moxie to go for that one-word title, moxie I often don’t have lol 

And too, with the continual reappearance of the Future Husband-Wife in the titles of All the Gay Saints, I credit Michelle Tea and her partnership with Dashiell Lippman, as it gave me a language for where my love is headed, and how to name it. 

BRP: When working on a project, do you give yourself deadlines? What does that time management/organization look like?

KRC: I would say I’m a pretty vigilant manager of myself. I never miss a deadline I want to hit. I always do what I say I will do. I make a point to say it out loud, though, if only to myself. 

Nobody tells you when you first start, that writing is 90% business management, and 10% actual writing (if you’re lucky). So now I try to shout it from the rooftops and let folx know that so much of poetry (if you choose to try and monetize/make a career of it) is efficient project management. You do your own writing, editing, submissions, grant applications, promotion materials, contract negotiations, manage bookings. You save your own receipts(!), do your probably complicated taxes, find reviewers, make certain reviewers get copies, make list of post publication awards and make certain you are submitted for consideration, etc, etc. 

But re: actual writing, I have always found self-imposed constraints productive, whether it’s Ekphrasis, an erasure of Creed’s “Human Clay”, somatic practices, still lives, a crown of sonnets, a sprawling sestina, a form I create, a pile of poetry magnets, I employ it all. I think I learned something valuable when my mother kept every single piece of ~kid art~ I ever made. Everything can be salvaged, retooled, reimagined. No idea is too small to find a home somewhere. 

BRP: Who/what is currently inspiring you, art-wise?

KRC: I recently discovered Brian Ino and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemas. I’ve been loving those!

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

KRC: Michael Martone told me his goal for all of his students was to foster a sustainability, the sustainability to write forever. I think about that all the time. And forever doesn’t mean every day, it means your whole life, which is so different, and much easier to manage somehow. 

BRP: What is your favorite literary city and what makes that community special?  (Have you read there? Highlight bookstores/eateries.) 

KRC: I think Philly is a really wonderful literary city. I’m lucky to live in it. I probably make it out to readings less often than I should! 

But Berry Grass’ “Tragic: The Gathering” is an incredible reading series for Trans Writers, typically held at The Wooden Shoe (Philly’s anarchist bookstore). Boston Gordon’s “You Can’t Kill a Poet” is also a stellar series. & Manny Brown’s is my favorite dive—best bar food, in my opinion!

BRP: Besides writing, what else would you say you do you have a passion for making? What parallels do you see between it and writing?

KRC: I really enjoy found photos, sifting through thrifted slides, finding these incredible, indelible photos. I’d like to find more time to figure out a way to present them, curate them into something beautiful. I think there are so many parallels between that love and writing, but I try to actively resist that line of thinking. Sometimes it’s just nice to have a hobby, for hobby sake. 

I also really wish I could produce EDM, which is very unabashedly my favorite thing. But have you ever opened Ableton!? So complicated. 

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

KRC: I listen to a ton of electronic music, and drink a lot of iced coffee, even in winter! Those are my morning rituals, and if I skip them, the day is typically a wash.

BRP: What is your process when drafting? Do you use a journal or draft in other ways?

KRC: I mainly draft in the “notepad” function on my computer. Though, I definitely handwrite when my computer isn’t available. But the notepad is generally my jam. You should have seen my desktop when Macs still had “Stickies.” What a terrible mess. 

When the poem is ready to become a poem, I transfer it to a proper word document. That’s that “now you’re a real thing” moment. 

BRP: Would you consider yourself an editor or more of a curator?

KRC: I like the idea of curation! The way I draft is such a modge podge of lines, that curation feels like the right word. I will have all these disparate images that I’ve collected in my notepad, and the work of the poem is to build strong connective tissue between them all—to use everything I’ve got. 

BRP: What advice would you offer to young writers on the topic of inspiration?

KRC: I think generative exercises are imperative—self-imposed restraints, assignments. Do whatever you can to foster a deep love and unending fascination with both words and your own ability to grow. I can point to so much of my human growth in my poems. We all have different vehicles for growth, but this is certainly mine. 

I don’t know that I love “inspiration” as a term, really. But I think that’s my, very particular (and often shifting), angle on writing. For me, it’s silly to call what is truly my “production,” inspiration. Living inside capitalism is a tremendous burden. There is a direct tie between my poetic production and my ability to buy the best dog food I can buy. I don’t think it’s useful for me to hide that truth. 

That said, I often still feel that “runner’s high” when I write. But much like running, you’ve got to get into the poem long before you feel that feeling. 

Order All the Gay Saints here!

2020 Under Pressure

Under Pressure: Esteban Rodríguez

In Bloom, Esteban Rodríguez

Esteban Rodríguez is the author of the poetry collections Dusk & Dust, Crash Course, In Bloom, (Dis)placement, and The Valley. His work has appeared in Boulevard, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He is the Interviews Editor for the EcoTheo Review, an Assistant Poetry Editor for AGNI, and a regular reviews contributor for [PANK] and Heavy Feather Review. He lives with his family in Austin, Texas. 


Bina Ruchi Perino: Where do you get your title inspiration from?

Esteban Rodríguez: I like titles that don’t distract from the poem itself, at least in the poems that I write. I wholeheartedly admire the way some poets utilize long titles and how those titles sometimes lead into the poems themselves. I, however, have never felt comfortable relying on such a technique, hence the one- or two-word titles that appear in my work (“Quicksand,” “Lotería,” “Ballad,” “Golgotha,” etc.). I’m hoping that my titles say something about the poem without revealing everything about it, and more importantly, I’m hoping that readers are invited to enter the poem without feeling as though—right from the onset—they will be burdened with what it’s attempting to convey. 

BRP: When working on a project, do you give yourself deadlines? What does that time management/organization look like?

ER: Deadlines are key for me getting work done. I’ve known poets—and have read about writers— who write when inspiration hits them. I like the idea of writing being organic in that manner (for some it works amazingly well) but perhaps because I’m a bit impatient at times I impose deadlines on myself. Generally, my goal is to write a poem every week, and I try to have the framework of a manuscript done in about eight to ten months. The project might change over the course of those months. I might go a different direction or add poems that I’m trying to salvage from a past project, so I always try the remain flexible. Nevertheless, I try to treat my writing as a job, and the more disciplined I am, the more I’m able to produce. It sounds highly impersonal (and oddly capitalistic), but it’s the route I fell into and the one I feel works best for me, at least for the moment. 

BRP: Who/what is currently inspiring you, art-wise?

ER: W.S. Merwin has been occupying most of my reading this year. I read his collection The Vixen last spring, and to say that it had a profound impact on me would be an understatement. I bought his Collected Works in January and have been devouring it ever since. There is a timelessness to his work, and I’m glad my enthusiasm for his poetry has not waned over the past few months. I’m also reading Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s last two collections, Song and The Orchard, which have served as inspiration when trying to write about and depict landscapes in my own work.

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

ER: The best advice I’ve received was not from a mentor, but from my wife. About five years ago, I became a high school English teacher and I was finding it difficult to adjust to the workload and the schedule (the hours were long to say the least). I was not writing, and the moments when I was were less productive that I had hoped for. At the time, I was seriously considering applying to a PhD program in Creative Writing, but not because of the passion that drives most writers to apply to such a program, but rather to escape the onslaught of work I was faced with. My wife, quite bluntly, said that was a stupid reason to apply, and that ultimately if I wanted to write, if I wanted to see myself as a writer, I needed to find a way to do so, regardless of what my job was. Though this doesn’t sound profound enough to warrant being put on a motivational poster, the discipline I have toward writing and poetry spurred from this conversation.  

BRP: What is your favorite literary city and what makes that community special?  (Have you read there? Highlight bookstores/eateries.)

ER: I wouldn’t say that I have a favorite literary city. I live in Austin, which has a great literary scene (Malvern Books, Texas Book Festival, Michener Center for Writers), and it’s undoubtedly great to be surrounded by it. Inspiration, however, comes from the books I read, and I think Austin, or any city for that matter, merely provides encouragement to write. The Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes said in an interview once that his country was the country of artists and painters that he admired, and I too echo those sentiments.

BRP: Besides writing, what else would you say you do you have a passion for making? What parallels do you see between it and writing?

ER: I’m really drawn to art, and my intention after graduating high school was study to become an artist. That path, for various reasons, didn’t pan out, but I’ve always been fascinated with creating artwork, and I deeply admire the innovative ways in which something can be expressed on a canvas (my art days, sadly, are behind me). Nevertheless, I see a lot of parallels between the two, and perhaps that’s where my needs to paint an image on page comes from. If I can get readers to see an image and examine it in a way that they would a piece of art, then I think I’ve stirred something in them that makes them seek a deeper interpretation and meaning.

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

ER: Reading. I read every day, even if my schedule makes it difficult for me to do so. If I can spare even ten minutes to read a few pages of poetry, then I make sure I spend those ten minutes wisely. Also, exercise is not a bad way to keep the mind focused.

BRP: What is your process when drafting? Do you use a journal or draft in other ways?

ER: I used to write in a journal in my early twenties. I would spend a few hours writing down notes and sketching an outline for a poem. Eventually, this became unsustainable, particularly because as I changed jobs, the hours I worked increased significantly. I had to adapt, and nowadays I write poems on the Notes app on my phone. This has allowed me to work on my poems wherever I’m at—no need to find a space, open my notebook, and hope that the ink in my pen hasn’t run out. It also allows me to immerse myself in the poem more. Since it is quite literally on me, I feel a closer connection to it, and I feel that I can write it in a more intimate manner.

BRP: Would you consider yourself an editor or more of a curator?

ER: Both. I feel I’m an editor of individual poems but a curator when I’m trying to arrange my poems into a collection.

BRP: What advice would you offer to young writers on the topic of inspiration?

ER: This advice has probably been given a million times, but if you’re looking for a source of inspiration, then look no further than books. Read. Read a lot. And when you feel that you have read enough to put pen to paper, finish that last line and read some more. 

BRP: If you had to describe In Bloom in only three words, which would they be and why?

ER: I would say the following three: Home. Family. Celebration. 

Order In Bloom here!

2019 Under Pressure

Under Pressure: Dana Alsamsam

(in)habit, Dana Alsamsam

Dana Alsamsam is a first generation Syrian-American from Chicago and is currently based in Boston where she works in arts development. A Lambda Literary fellow, she received her MFA in Poetry from Emerson College where she was the Editor-in-Chief of Redivider and Senior Editorial Assistant at Ploughshares. She is the author of a chapbook, (in)habit (tenderness lit, 2018), and her poems are published or forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, North American Review, The Shallow Ends, The Offing, Tinderbox, Salamander, BOOTH, The Common and others. 


Bina Ruchi Perino: How long did (in)habit take to write from conception to publication?

Dana Alsamsam: This may be a political answer but (in)habit took my entire life to write. It’s a chapbook, not a full-length, but it still very much has the feeling of a first collection because I am working through a lot of childhood traumas and coming-of-age narratives. Technically, I would say, the collection is a summation of everything I wrote during undergrad that I was proud of, and was published about a year after I graduated. So, for a real answer, let’s say five years.

BRP: How do you feel about deadlines? Do you give them to yourself?

DA: I’m very type A and don’t have an issue with deadlines. I love a spreadsheet. 

BRP: Who are you currently crushing on arts-wise?

DA: I love this question! There are two poets who I’m seriously rooting for and following closely right now. Both of these poets not only write breathtaking, experimental, compassionate poetry, but they are also organizers, activists, and community builders that I stand behind. I’m grateful for their work in many ways. 

One of these poets is Porsha Olayiwola, poet laureate of Boston, who I had the great opportunity to be in workshop alongside while at Emerson.

The other is Kay Ulanday Barrett who I had the absolute pleasure of meeting at the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices in 2018.

Book them. Pay them. 

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

DA: I’m a very physical person and writing through and back into my body has always been generative, and essential, to my work. As a queer, Arab-American woman I often think about how the bodies of my people are codified and, if not deemed generally acceptable, marginalized. I also want to get rid of this idea that it’s cute to be purposely unhealthy, or to sacrifice your physical and mental well being to be a prolific artist. This is all to say, my daily rituals involve movement in many forms. I am a dancer and choreographer for a few dance companies in Boston, I walk everywhere, and I also train at the gym for strength and athleticism. My movement and writing practices are wonderfully intertwined. When we are able to gather physically again, collaborations along these lines will be in the front of my mind.

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

DA: The day I met Ryka Aoki, the cohort leader at summer 2018’s Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices, she said something very close to this: “I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve spent a lot of time with your work. You have incredible discipline and musicality. In fact, you’re disciplined enough to be so much braver.” I’ll never forget that. 

Book her. Pay her.

BRP: What was the biggest struggle you endured while writing (in)habit?  

DA: (in)habit, similarly to most things I write, heavily features my family members. I constantly grappled with the conflict of being able to tell my story, express my hurt and pain, sort through intimate personal tragedies that built who I am, but that portray my family in a negative light. I had to get to a point of accepting that speaking my struggle, my emotional breakthroughs, my damage is not an attack on them. I have a right to this story. I write about it because it’s important. 

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

DA: I try to always have a journal with me. 

BRP: Would you consider yourself an editor or more of a curator?

DA: I am no longer in any editorial roles except for freelance poetry consulting (email me if you’re interested, When I was Editor-in-Chief of Redivider, I thought of myself more so as a community leader, a thought leader, an energy leader. I did a lot of difficult work behind the scenes planning, fundraising, creating institutional materials, etc. but what my community saw is what I gave to them, and that was the most important part of the work for me. This super difficult “labor of love” industry needs compassion and authenticity, but that’s a thought for another day…or a very long essay…I work in arts fundraising now and often feel inspired or pushed forward by the imbalances I felt working in editorial.

BRP: 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?

DA: I haven’t written much at all since the global pandemic began. When I have the energy, I try to read and take inspiration from others while my own creative heart is tired. Typically, however, inspiration comes while walking. I don’t really have time in my days to sit down and write. I walk and take transit everywhere, so I try to use that built-in, rhythmic time for my body and mind to recalibrate with the present. I try not to distract myself with content during this time, instead taking the opportunity to be mindful of my physical and mental state. This simple, mindful curiosity is often followed by inspiration. Walking while digitally scribbling in my phone notes is a regular practice.

BRP: If you had to describe (in)habit in only three words, which would they be and why?

DA: Suburban. Grotesque. Intimate.

Order (in)habit here!

2020 Poetry

Alli Cruz


I pour black beans
onto rice until my plate
is bathed in a black
lake. The first I swam by myself
was in the Philippines — a place called
Hidden Valley Springs. As we got into the car,
I asked my Tita Lisa
If it’s hidden, how will we know
when we get there?
How will we

a body?

Land linked only
to itself. I recognize myself—
body whole & connected—
in the nights Ma calls me from home;
her voice, a lullaby. Reconciling
disparate parts.

Alli Cruz is a Filipina-Cuban American poet. She is a Levinthal scholar, currently studying English & Creative Writing at Stanford University. Her work has appeared in Hobart Pulp and The Louisville Review.

2020 Poetry

Melanie Kristeen

associative thinking

both of my parents have been struck by lightning
Sean says this makes me incredibly lucky
or cursed—either way he’s in the kitchen doorway
blue jeans brown belt no shirt
& I’m clutching an heirloom for cutting—when
I think of lightning I think of my mother’s hands
thick fingernails unpainted—swollen at the knuckles
deep in dingy sink water under an open window
a bolt snaked through—up to the elbows
in cold electricity her arms wilted
starting at the fingers—my father played a game of
trust when we were young—would hold our hands
palm down against a table—spread fingers wide & stab
in between with a pocket knife—faster & faster—don’t move
Sean says—he hugs me from behind—I’ve got a blade in hand
& the tomato bleeds out—
I think of my body as the people who’ve been inside it—Edwin
thinks of me every time he brushes his teeth—I know for certain
he could not love me despite years of trying
to talk himself into it—I’ve got a tattoo in his handwriting
just above the knee on my right thigh—how I dream
of pulling sandpaper across that fucking ink
till blood swarms over—our first time Sean said he didn’t mind blood
so we threw a towel down & went at it—there was something
about his breathing—familiar & warm—a bayou with solace in it
& I should have said I love you
the moment I meant it—he’s leaning cross-armed like Byron
against the door frame—a repurposed sapling—when
I think of lightning I think of my father—
scrappy kid crashing dirt bikes in the orange groves
near his white trash trailer park home when
bright white clouds pooled around—a crack & a flash—it hits him
on his right thigh—leg goes numb & he comes crashing—through
the kitchen window I can see live oaks & South Austin—longing
or something like it—I’ve been quiet—
Sean kisses my forehead
with a mouth full of potato & bacon

Melanie Kristeen is filled with generalized anxiety. She tentatively thinks of herself as a radical feminist, poet and educator who hails from San Antonio, Texas. She just graduated with an MFA in poetry at Texas State University and is currently the 2019-2020 poet in resident at the Clark house in Smithville, Texas. She has been the recipient of a Damsite residency in New Mexico and has been published by University of Hell Press and Black Bough Poetry. She was also a commissioned, featured artist for Luminaria: San Antonio Arts Festival in 2017.

2020 Poetry

Liam October O’Brien


Come down to the river, come, where a boy up the mudbank canters:
find cover.
Crouched drinkers in the grassy water: sinkers. Armored.
A white skirt fills
and billows. Boy hard up in the shadows: the banked fir.

Come down here, conjurer—come eager watcher—filleter
the dusty minnows,
muscling fish, shelled copper fly on his funeral downriver, come
the gone caresser—

Liam October O’Brien grew up on a small island. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in the HIV Here & Now Project, New South, The Iowa Review, the Lambda Literary Spotlight, Electric Literature, and the Denver Quarterly. He completed his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow. He is one of the founding editors of Vetch: AMagazine of Trans Poetry & Poetics.

2020 Poetry

Kathryn Merwin


I have thrown stones into the river

        just to watch them sink without struggle. I have

made a sea of knives around my house. I can see you,

       uncolored, spying through the black trees.

You don’t know it, but my arrow is aimed

         at your heart. I imagine letting the wind undress it,

coaxing the night between us apart with one bend

          of my finger. Because the oceans cannot mix,

I watch you from the sand. Your foam slides

         through my fingers: you recoil at my feet.

This is the terrible truth. I only love you

when you are disappearing.

Kathryn Merwin’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Cutbank, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Rumpus, Sugar House Review, Prairie Schooner, and Blackbird. She has read or reviewed for the Bellingham Review and The Adroit Journal, and serves as co-editor-in-chief of Milk Journal. She holds an MFA in poetry from Western Washington University and currently lives in the District of Columbia. Connect with her at

2020 Poetry

Emma Aylor


Where I live for now they
say the crows are smaller
overall; bill also small—
our mythmade familiars,
harbingers of
the devil’s own luck. I see
them and think
of mountains, younger
hikes in the shortest
days among brittle
limbs and lichened
slabs left like so
much midden: the Priest,
Devil’s Marbleyard, Harkening
Hill. The long grasses whose
color stole along
with the gone sun, leaving
a two-dimensioned
There the black
angles roosted stickily, calls
ragged as the dry grass
leaving burrs at our ankles.
I learned lately
that crows may not
exactly, but do
learn places associated
with conspecific
death, learn the people
they must associate with crisis, learn
the masks volunteers
had to wear,
as controls, as charms
against being too
poorly remembered.
On my last
trip home from back
home one eyed me from slack
wire beside the gas
station, seeing my wild
face more closely
than I may
myself, wary of
risk; planning
to remember a version
of being I’ve made
plans plain to waive.

Emma Aylor’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in PleiadesPoet LoreSixth FinchBarrow StreetSalt Hill, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Washington. Raised in Bedford County, Virginia, she currently lives in Seattle.

2020 Poetry

Maeve Holler


to be seen & not heard

When I was knee-bruised and exploding like yellow from my mouth. When my body was all punches and stiff kisses. When my belly started to feel like a hill to climb. When I wasn’t ready for the rain to come. I was at arms, living for combat, and he taught me the alphabet of silence. At first, I thought it was a game, a hide-and-seek—I spit my words out backwards, my throat spellbound & tangled. I stopped asking questions. Instead, my fingers grew toward a creation of answers: the sky wasn’t blue, the walls all had headaches, there weren’t any trees. Colors existed only on paper, only to be whispered between me & whatever figure of God I was taught to love. That world was like underwater, like a chamber of safety, free of gravity, of noise. I swam alone. I washed my face in that type of wilt—all my new scars were absorbed into that chamber. The game became an exercise in consumption. I ate my words. But I wish I could tell him now: If you cut out my tongue, I will write you a letter.* I wish I could tell him: an animal’s thoughts don’t spill like logic, the magic of coral can’t be undone. I am not seasonal, I cannot drift out to sea like this.

Maeve Holler is a poet from Shelton, Connecticut. She is currently the Managing Editor for the literary magazine Sinking City and a third year MFA candidate at the University of Miami. She received her BA in English and Gender & Sexuality Studies from Tulane University in New Orleans. Maeve’s work, which focuses on depicting working-class experiences and retelling familial folklore, has appeared in LevelerScalawagThe Cardiff ReviewWildnessMantra ReviewLotus-Eater MagazineT.NY’s The EEELBroad! Magazine and elsewhere. Her in-progress manuscript won GASHER Journal’s First Book Scholarship in June 2019.

*line from Tory Dent’s poem “The Murder of Beauty / The Beauty of Murder”