A picture of Benjamin Faro.

Benjamin Faro’s A Party of One and Many: An Interview

Benjamin Faro’s poem, “A Party of One and Many,” is forthcoming in Nimrod Journal. A brief but moving piece on grief and reminiscence, it was chosen by Amsterdam University College’s creative writing students to be the focus of an interview with Faro. They have also curated a variety of questions for Faro about “A Party of One and Many” and his writing process. We are pleased to include those questions and Benjamin Faro’s responses in an interview below. Due to the time difference, this interview was conducted by Brennie Shoup, Superstition Review’s blog editor. Read more about the collaboration between AUC’s creative writing students and Superstition Review here.

Benjamin Faro is a green-thumbed writer and educator living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on stolen Taíno lands. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Equatorial, an international curation of undergraduate poetry, and is also pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte, where he serves as Poetry Editor for Qu Literary Magazine. His poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of literary journals, including Atlanta Review, EcoTheo Review, Interim Poetics, JMWW, Portland Review, West Trade Review, and others. Learn more on his website.

Brennie Shoup: Hello! My name is Brennie Shoup. I’m Superstition Review’s blog editor, and today I will be interviewing Benjamin Faro on behalf of the Amsterdam University College Students, who have curated a variety of questions about his piece, “A Party of One and Many” (I believe [this] is the title of it). And they were super happy to read this poem, and they wanted to talk to him about the process and his work. So, would you like to introduce yourself?

Benjamin Faro: Yeah! Sure. So my name’s Benjamin Faro, and, you know, this is a piece I wrote over this past summer. And so it’s relatively recent, and I’m really grateful for the questions that the students sent and for this opportunity. 

BS: We are so happy to have you and so happy that you agreed to do this interview. We’re so excited to see what you say about your process and all that. I’m sure the students are really happy about that, too. So, getting into the first question: what inspired you to write this piece?

BF: Yeah, so, recently—within the last few years, I would say—a number of people in my life have passed away, unfortunately. And as people do, we sit with that, and we think about that. We think about those people. And even after the writing of this piece, another person close to me passed away, and one of the unique things about it—all of these people liked to cook. They’re people that I know from the kitchen, which, of course, is where the poem is set. 

Thinking about those things, and thinking about how—as you get older—the more people you know will pass away. That number accumulates, and then you find yourself thinking about, “Oh, it’s the anniversary of so-and-so’s death, and this person’s death.” And thinking about that in terms of a celebration. I realized I can bring these people together in one space, like as I was cooking and thinking about all of them. And, interestingly, in a way that probably would never have happened if they were alive because they lived in such different places… [I was] really just sitting with the idea of having all of these people with me in the post-life. 

BS: Yeah, I think the poem definitely has that sort of unity, and I think it really comes through. And the title of this piece specifically—and maybe your poetry in general—how do you decide on those titles or on a title for a work?

BF: I’ve been thinking about titles… It’s been a focus of mine in my work over, I’d say, the last year or two—and really trying to—you know, of course, maybe not all of my titles achieve this or reach this end… But I really try to make all of them do some kind of work, whether that’s contextualizing the space in which the poem is embedded or initiating a narrative or something like that. Or just stimulating some kind of contemplation. And I think that’s why this title went a little bit… hinting that there’s an ambiguous number of people here—or number of entities, at least. That hinting at that idea of celebration with “party” and playing on that word… Yeah, sometimes you just land on a—I don’t know—as with poetry… I know that I wanted it to do something there, and this is what I landed on. 

BS: Yeah! I will also say the title, at least for me, when I saw it was very intriguing—very like, “Oh, what does this mean?” Would you say that you also try to intrigue the reader a little bit with your title as well?

BF: For sure, yeah! You know, that’s what, I guess, what I meant by bringing them to a space of contemplation, of being—of wondering, of curiosity. Like “What’s behind this?”

BS: I would say you definitely did that with this poem. It’s very much like, “Oh, I wonder what that means,” like what the poem is going to be about. So, for our third question: what is the meaning behind the poem’s narrow form—to you?

BF: Yeah… I was thinking about this question, and, of course, I thought about all of them. But this one in particular I was thinking about as a question where thinking about it—after the fact—actually I think is more clear than how I was thinking about it in the moment of writing. And it kind of feels like it was a subconscious thing to make it this structure. I mean I did it on purpose, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking of the reasons that I’m thinking of now. 

And the reasons that I think of are that I think it mirrors the kitchen, the tight space that it’s talking about. I’m a young adult, but I have lived in nothing but houses with small kitchens or apartments with small kitchens, so that’s kind of the feeling of this setting. But also what it’s talking about in the sort of—the slippery slope between reminiscing and then dwelling, and the kind of tight space that dwelling on somebody who has passed can bring you in emotionally and mentally. It’s a very constricted mental/emotional state. And I think it reflects both of those things. 

BS: For sure. For me, I feel like the form works—I think you did a good job choosing that. And then, for our fourth question: do you think that art can or cannot be—or should or should not be—political?

BF: I have had mentors—people, poets—I’ve heard them say that all art is, in some way, inevitably political. And I don’t know that I think that that’s true. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure what I think about this. But I think that it can and cannot. And which is related to my answer to the should, which is that I don’t think it’s my place to judge whether or not someone should be political with their work. If they decide to… Because it’s your own creative space. And if in your own creativity, it manifests as political or as some people might call political—or the intention is political… Then more power to you.

If your creative space is something that, you know, isn’t—and that’s hard to define, but I do think that they exist—then also power to you. I think they can both happen.

BS: Yeah, and then just for you—would you say that the majority of your pieces are—I’m just curious, I guess—about how you would define most of your pieces or your work. 

BF: I mean, most of my work—I don’t know that most of my work falls into any certain category—but I definitely have two major things happening, one of which is definitely political. And it’s thinking about the socio-political state of the world, the United States—so it’s explicitly political. And then, another body of work that kind of explores the space of family and emotion and what’s there, which is hard for me to say is political. I don’t know if I would call it that. 

BS: I think that’s a great answer! So thank you. And then for our fifth question: how do you know when a poem is complete—or is it ever complete?

BF: This is something that I’ve thought about also. I can ask myself—or anyone—can ask themselves a couple of questions. Have I surprised myself? Have I said something that I have never experienced before? Either reading or in my own writing. Which, that alone doesn’t mean that you’re done. But if it’s not there, then maybe that’s a good indicator to keep digging. 

And then, I was thinking about this in terms of fullness and comfort. Of course, [I] read it over many times and give it space between readings, but… Upon repeated readings, does it feel full? Does it feel like it’s asking for more? There’s something, you know—there’s a vacant space. Or does it feel nice and bulbous and full? 

And then comfort—it may feel full, but the things within that fullness… Do they want to be in there? Are they comfortable there? Or does something not want to be there? And then, if you pull it out, that affects the fullness again. I think those are two criteria to think about. 

BS: That’s a great answer! Something really actionable—something people can look at… And I assume something you use sometimes for your own work. And then, for question six, we have—what is your process for discovering literary journals to submit to? Do you have a system for keeping track of your submissions or deciding where is best to put your piece?

BF: The simpler questions first: my system for keeping track is Submittable basically. I’m on there, and I can keep a handle on that. Deciding where to submit to is a matter of reading, which is a thread through the next couple of questions—is reading. But super crucial, and that’s also my process for discovering journals—is reading. Reading until I find someone—or a poem that I’m blown away by. And then I go down and read the bio—okay, where else are they published? And then go there and then read. And see who else is there, and do the same thing. It just becomes a rabbit hole of finding great writing. 

And I built a database—a whole excel database of hundreds of journals. It’s plotted out like—what do they accept? Is it flash, fiction, poetry? Their submission dates and all of that. It’s a work in progress, but it’s what I use. 

BS: Awesome! I feel like excel spreadsheets, you know? Gotta use them. And then for question seven—what do you wish you had known before starting out as a writer?

BF: This was an interesting question to me because of the wording—“started out” as a writer. Because it makes it feel intentional, which I don’t feel is true in my case. I feel like I had an affinity for it for a long time—like in college. And even before that, musically, creatively fiction—and then set it aside because of career and stuff like that. And then [I] came back to it. And then it really took off. So I didn’t really “start out” in the way I perceive this. 

But something that I learned early on that was helpful—and I think would be helpful to people who are thinking of spending their time being writers—again, comes back to reading. It’s profoundly helpful to just read and see, expose yourself to all of the different ways creative people out there are expressing themselves and doing it in ways that you never thought about. And then that is inspiration for you to do something in a way you’ve never thought about. So for me, and I know for many people, reading is a super inspirational tool. I think I’d say that. 

BS: Awesome! Would you say currently—and I know this isn’t part of the question—do you usually lean toward reading poetry or do you like to read all kinds of things? 

BF: I like to read all kinds of things—poetry, short stories, novels, non-fiction… I really enjoy all kinds of things. And you can get different kinds of inspiration from different kinds of things. But I think, related to the next question about writer’s block—is inspiration and stuff like that. When I’m in a space of writing, or when I’m looking for inspiration, then I will intentionally read poetry, because that’s what I’m looking for. 

BS: Awesome. Yeah—so going on to that next question. Do you believe in writer’s block? And if yes, how do you deal with it?

BF: Yeah. I feel like my creative space or productivity or whatever has been in a little bit of a slump over the past… Well, maybe for a few months, from maybe August, September, October, there was a lot going on, and that can affect things. Whatever the reason is that you get into creative slumps. And then you sit down, and it’s not as much as coming out as what you may be used to. So that definitely happens, because I’ve experienced it, you know?

I think, for me, what worked—reading, like I was saying. And that’s the big one—I’ve realized. I have not been reading, and I get so much… The “wow” factor that you get from poems—from reading—is a really powerful thing. And I think if you’re a creative, you—or, maybe I should say… Many creatives feed off of that “wow” energy and what to do that, then. And turn around and figure out a way to do that. And that can be a way to access that energy. 

Maybe switching up routine… Something I realized was—you know, simple—and maybe it’s simple things. Something I realized—because I’m a morning writer—is I was waking up and trying to write first thing and then walk the dog later. But I realized that if I wake up first and then go walk her, take her thirty minutes outside and wake up a little bit and come back, I’m in a better space. I have more energy. It’s important to also pay attention to yourself and how you’re working and how you’re feeling—your energy levels. And make little changes, if you can. 

BS: I think that’s super valuable advice—thank you for that. And then this is our final set of questions. Do you consider yourself an artist? And did you answer change overtime? 

BF: I think I do consider myself an artist. And I think my answer… Thinking back, I think I was an artist at different times in my life. There was a time when I was an artist doing this kind of thing, and there was a time when I wasn’t in a creative space. And maybe at that time I wasn’t an artist, and now I am. I think it can fluctuate—it’s a flexible, fluid state of being. 

BS: Alright! Well, thank you so much. If there’s anything else you think you would want anyone to know about this piece or about your pieces in general? 

BF: I don’t know that there’s anything else I would want people to know about it. Just—when it comes out, read it and experience it. Let it bring you to the space that it brings you to. And I’m grateful for that. 

BS: We are super grateful that you submitted to Superstition Review, and congratulations on getting it published in Nimrod Journal! That’s so exciting, and it definitely deserved it. I read it, and I was very much “wow”ed, I guess you could say. The “wow” factor—I very much liked it. And I know that the creative writing students in Amsterdam also really enjoyed it. And I’m sure they’re super appreciative of this interview and getting to know your process a little bit. So thank you so much!

BF: It’s been a pleasure! Thank you—to you and the students.

Headshot of Erica Goss.

Erica Goss’s Cubic Zirconia: An Interview

Cubic Zirconia,” a poem by Erica Goss, was published Dec. 5th in Moria.

Cubic Zirconia

I’m fake-sick, trying to fool
my body into declaring war,
a war I cannot see, only feel.
I think most wars are like this:
once unleashed, they have their
own ways of behaving that
have nothing to do with us.
We won’t know when the worst
is over, can’t move until the all-clear
shatters the air leaving us limp
with relief. Or maybe my body
is having a torrid affair with a
lover who doesn’t exist.
Wouldn’t be the first time.
The racing heart, the prickling
skin, the dazed feeling. It’s all
too real to be real, has that tang
of the huckster, the con,
the snake-oil salesman. I’m alive,
too alive, brain lit with a cheap glow,
like the cubic zirconia rings
at the jewelry counter,
shining from their little velvet boxes
with a ridiculous optimism you never see
in real diamonds. Today, my mouth tastes
like a metal spoon, and it all smells
slightly burnt. On little ghost feet,
tiny dead creatures scatter under my skin.
Everything sparkles.

Erica Goss is the author of Night Court, winner of the 2017 Lyrebird Award from Glass Lyre Press. Her flash essay, “Just a Big Cat,” was one of Creative Nonfiction’s top-read stories for 2021. Recent and upcoming publications include The Georgia Review, Oregon Humanities, Creative Nonfiction, North Dakota Quarterly, Spillway, A-Minor, Redactions, Consequence, The Sunlight Press, The Pedestal, San Pedro River Review, and Critical Read. Erica served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, California, from 2013-2016. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, where she teaches, writes and edits the newsletter Sticks & Stones. Learn more on her website.

Amsterdam University College’s creative writing students, in an on-going project with Superstition Review, have chosen Erica Goss’s “Cubic Zirconia” for a feature in our blog. They have also curated a variety of questions for Erica Goss about “Cubic Zirconia” and her writing process. We are pleased to include those questions and Erica Goss’s responses in an interview below. Due to the time difference, this interview was conducted by Brennie Shoup, Superstition Review’s blog editor. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.

Brennie Shoup: Hello! My name is Brennie, and I am Superstition Review’s blog editor. Today, I will be interviewing Erica Goss on behalf of the Amsterdam University College students, who have curated a variety of questions for her about the recent piece she submitted to Superstition Review. Alright, would you like to introduce yourself now, Erica?

Erica Goss: Hi, Brennie. Thank you so much for having me! It’s really an honor to be here, and thank you to the students at the Amsterdam University. I’m Erica Goss, and I’m a poet and nonfiction memoir writer. I live in Eugene, Oregon, and I’m very happy to be here.

BS: Alright, awesome. We’re so happy to have you! So why did you choose “Cubic Zirconia” to be the title of your piece?

EG: Well, I don’t know if you realize it or not, but it’s actually a pandemic poem. And I realized that the world is getting really tired of pandemic poems. Who wants to read another poem about loss and death and our government’s completely bumbling response to the whole thing? So I was trying to figure out—I guess, not consciously—a fresh way to tell this same story. And I had just had my second booster shot. So I don’t usually have any reactions to boosters. I don’t have reactions to flu shots—I just don’t. But I thought about what was going on in my body. The way to protect yourself was to fool yourself into thinking you were sick. And that’s where the fake flu came from.

So in May of this year, I was writing in my journal, sitting outside in my garden. That was right after I got the vaccine. And then the idea of the fake flue somehow popped in my mind with the idea of fake diamonds—which are “cubic zirconia.” They were a big deal for a while. Everybody had a cubic zirconia. Somehow, they just struck me as flashy and fake—and that that flashy and fake thing went with getting a vaccine to trick your body into thinking it was a real thing. Like you might trick someone into thinking a cubic zirconia was the real thing—a real diamond. Those two ideas combined in my head, and then the poem took off.

And, of course, cubic zirconia is a good title. It’s probably better than “I’m having the fake flu” or something like that. It was always the title, and then I just had to figure out how the poem fit in there.

BS: I have to agree. It’s an extremely good title—very eye-catching. You know, you see and you’re like “I want to know more.”

So your last line “everything sparkles,” the students really loved it. So why did you choose it as your last line?

EG: Well, thank you for the nice words on that last line. That last line was very deliberate. I picked that last line before the rest of the poem was done. I kind of knew that would be the last line. It refers to that false sparkle that the vaccine and the cubic zirconia share. And it’s also a reference to the Shakespeare quote, “All that glitters is not gold” from The Merchant of Venice. It’s kind of a round-about way of saying everything sparkles—everything can’t really sparkle. Something’s false in there if everything sparkles, right? But sometimes when you’re sick, I’m sure you’ve had that feeling of when your blood pressure drops when you stand up, and you almost feel like you’re going to black out. And everything is kind of fuzzy at the edges. That’s also sort of what went into that. It’s a physical and mental way of connecting those two ideas.

And then maybe it was an optimistic comment on the coming of summer. I wrote this poem in May and June, and hopefully a reduction in the pandemic—which I think did happen, at least during the summer. Our numbers are probably going up now because of the winter. I was kind of like, “Maybe we can have this—maybe this fall sparkle can actually be real.” That was why I put that at the end.

BS: Yeah, yeah. I would say—it’s interesting how it’s almost hopeful but also a warning at the same time. I think that’s very cleverly done.

EG: Yes, that’s true.

BS: And then, how long did the process of writing “Cubic Zirconia” take? Did you spread it out over a long time, or was it a poem that came together relatively fast?

EG: I guess it took a little while. The poem started on May 20th, which I know because I wrote it in my journal. Students, always have a journal and put the dates on. So there’s a note on May 20th titled, “Here I am gardening after the second vaccine booster. I’m outside putting mulch around my strawberry plants like a slightly deranged mother, wobbly from poison. I’m having a fake flu; I’m having the cubic zirconia version of the flu.” And then I just sort of made those notes, and I was like, “Hmm. I think there’s something here.” That was around almost the end of May, and I finished the poem early in June. So I think it was probably about three weeks from start to finish. And from my notes and stuff, I think it went through about ten drafts. It was kind of mushing around—although I always had “everything sparkles” at the end. I had to get the poem to dribble down into what that would actually mean. How I could end on that line. I think that’s what took longer than actually composing the poem, composing it so it would end there. Yeah, took about three weeks.

BS: I always find it interesting that sometimes those end lines come to you, but not necessarily the middle ones. A lot of people know endings for stories or poems at the beginning, right?

EG: Yes. That’s true. You have to write your way to that ending. And if you’re really kind of—if you’re really depending on that ending, then it really limits how you can write the poem. If you decided to chuck the ending, you could change it. But I really wanted that to be the ending.

BS: Yeah, I think it’s a good ending. Do you write your poems through personal experience? If so, do you find it hard to put your thoughts into words? You sort of already touched on this with the journal, but maybe if you want to expand.

EG: Yeah, all of my poems come from my life. All of my writing comes from my life in one way or another. For poems, I write many, many, many, many words, and the hard part is deciding which words to keep—because most of them are removed, right? In the process of writing a poem, I’ll probably get rid of—I don’t know—a thousand words, maybe at some point. If I really count up all the drafts, and all the times that I put the word in and took it out again; I go back and forth with that.

But it’s a really good question to ask about personal experience. I think some of us writers—especially young writers—have been told falsely that they should not rely on their own personal experience. So then you get these really confusing messages. I have some teachers say, “Write what you know,” and then some say, “No, no, don’t write what you know.” The thing is that if you want to write about what you don’t know, by the time you write about it, you now know it. It all becomes part of what you know.

I think it’s a really good place to start—in your personal life—and some writers never go farther than that. Some move into different topics, different subjects—some have them kind of thrust upon them. I was thinking of a lot of the poets who are in exile, who never wanted to be in exile, and suddenly they’re faced with political upheaval that they never asked for. But they’ve got great stuff to write about; they’re writing eloquently about that. Or disasters that happen, or things in your family that you didn’t foresee. These are not things you could possibly anticipate, because you wouldn’t want to have them happen. You wouldn’t necessarily ask for that stuff. I think it’s always a good idea to start with what you know very, very well, and then keep educating yourself. So that what you know grows, right? So that you keep adding to your wealth of experience that you can pull from. And keep notes! Write all that stuff down.

I think I read somewhere there was an auction with Joan Didion’s stuff, and people were looking at her notebooks. I guess they’re selling for millions of dollars, and she would keep notes all the time. There were even some notebooks that were blank that belonged to her—but still sold, just because they belonged to her. She didn’t get to fill in all the notebooks, but it’s a good practice. So then what you know grows, and you know more and more. You never run out of ideas.

BS: I think that’s a good way to never run out of ideas, yeah. It’s a good thought. And then, how does the process of writing nonfiction differ from your process for writing poetry?

EG: That is a really good story. I look at both of them as ways of telling a story. Sometimes I’ll look at a topic, and I’ll think, I don’t know if it’s going to be a poem or an essay or a piece of prose—or an article. I don’t know, often when I’m looking at topics. Sometimes I know right away this will be a poem. Most of my writing starts out as a poem. Even a review or an article—I think I’ve written almost a hundred reviews, up to this point. And they almost all start out with the question being, “How did it feel?” To me, poetry is about how did it feel, and prose is more like what happened. So if I want to tell a story about something that’s long and involved and has many chapters and requires research—I’m certainly not going to write that in a poetic form. I think really long poems lose their energy pretty quickly, and I think people really don’t want to have a poem that’s longer than—at the absolute most—500 words. To me, that’s a long poem.

I was looking at how long most of my poems are when you contacted me. They’re usually around 200 words. That’s about it—that’s where I run out of gas, too, as the writer. If, for example, I’m writing about something that has to do with politics or mental illness—you know, all the topics I tend to write about a lot—the environment… If I really want to write a poem, I’m going to look for those—not cubic zirconia moments—but those real diamonds in there that show how a particular event in history or something recently happened effected me or somebody I know. But I’m not going to use the same approach if I want to tell the story of that event—unless I wanted to write a whole cycle of poems. And that’s something I haven’t attempted yet, but that’s possible.

I mean, some people are great at writing political poems, and that is not one of my strengths. But writing about topical issues… Like weird things you see in the newspaper, or just an odd fragment that someone says in passing. Those can be really good triggers for poetry. They are not such good triggers for prose I think—for prose I want to tell you a lot more details. And I don’t want you the reader to figure things out, so much. But for poetry, I’m giving you, the reader, a lot more leeway, and I’m trusting you to make those connections because that’s what I think poetry does the best. It stimulates your brain into making connections that—I have no idea about, that you will make on your own.

That was a little bit long-winded, but I see them as two separate ways of telling a particular story. I could tell the same story in poetry or prose, but it would be a different experience for the reader—for sure.

BS: I think it’s very interesting to see someone who writes both of them, and how those processes differ, even for the same person. And then, do you ever follow prompts when you write? And how many hours a day would you say you write?

EG: I do often follow prompts when I write. I find them very helpful when I’m stuck for something to write about. Sometimes the urge to write will just hit, but I don’t have any particular topic in mind. And sometimes those can be the most fun because I’ll just do things… I have another poet friend, and we’ll switch off words. We’ll each come up with a few words, and we’ll just toss them around to see what happens because poems are—someone said—machines made of words. And they require words to exist, but the relationship can be fairly loose and open to interpretation. So when you have good words—or any words, really—you can find the story in those words. You don’t even really need to know what it is before. It’s like going somewhere without a map. It can be more fun because you can discover things on your own. And you might get lost, but you’ll find your way back hopefully.

So prompts are really useful—like I said—if I’m in the mood but I don’t really have a topic to write about. Or if I’m sort of stuck, it’s a way to stave off the writer’s block. If I’m feeling stuck or if I’m feeling like the poem is ending too soon—sometimes that happens, it’s like, “Oh, it wrapped up.” But I know it’s not really done. My brain jumped to the end, and now we’re done.

Then I’ll go through prompt books. I have a lot of them here. Some of them are my tried and true ones, and I’ll just read. I don’t even need to know what the prompt is, just reading it will get me going. But I would have to say: the most generative prompt for me is reading other people’s poetry. If I’m stuck on a poem, especially—this doesn’t work for prose, but this works for poetry. If I’m stuck on a poem, I’ll just sit down and start reading Shakespeare sonnets, or I’ll start reading some poetry by Mary Oliver. It almost doesn’t matter, as long as it’s good poetry. And I will slowly get over the anxiety that I’m stuck, and those ideas will flow.

And the stuff that I write isn’t going to sound like Shakespeare or Mary Oliver. It just opens some doors for me, neurologically.

How many hours a day do I write? I write anywhere from one to eight hours a day, depends on the day. The days where I get a lot of writing done are really good days; I always feel really great at the end of it. The day’s a blank canvas, and I have articles to write; I have reviews; I have an essay I’m working on. I’m starting to write a book. And I just kind of go, “Yay!” And I can just lose myself in my writing. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been in a dream all day, and I wake up and I’m like, “Oh, it’s five o’clock, and I’m awake finally.”

But most days are not like that. The days I have teaching to do, or I have other obligations. Sometimes I’m waiting at the doctor’s office, and I’m scribbling things… In fact, often I’ll be writing things in my book. It kind of depends on the day, but also… If you want to be a writer, it’s one of those things that you can really fit into all the little pieces of your day. It would be very hard to fit ice-skating or soccer into these little bits of time that you find that you have. But you can do something as innocuous as writing. You can do that. You can even write on your phone, if you want to do it that way. You can end up with a whole lot of ideas at the end of a busy day, if you just pay attention.

BS: Yeah, I have to say young me really took advantage of the Notes app on my phone. And then, for our next question, do you mind if readers don’t fully understand what you try to transmit in a poem?

EG: Well, I can’t really anticipate what readers will see in my work. But I think it’s really exciting and amazing that we all bring this wealth of experience and expectation to any work of art that we encounter. I was really lucky last summer that I went to New York City, and I went to a bunch of art museums. This was what popped into my mind when I read the question. I was just walking along, looking at photographs and sculptures and art and mixed media and videos and all the stuff that they have… I was thinking, everybody in this room is seeing something different from what I’m seeing. We’re all looking at the same thing, but we’re all bringing our own life experience and our own particular biases and lack of biases to these works of art.

And I think it’s the same with reading. With writing, with encountering any written work… I also think that readers create the poem when they’re reading it. They create that as they are reading. They’re finding things in the work that I didn’t even know existed. And sometimes people will tell me that: “You know, this poem reminded me so much of my mom!” And it’s like… It was about a tree in my backyard, so who knows, right? And that’s what’s so mysterious and wonderful about sharing your art, which is why I really encourage people to try and get their art out there in any way they can. Share it, publish it, find ways to further that conversation. Because you never know who you might touch with a poem you wrote or whose life might be influenced that way.

But the gift of connecting with readers is that you don’t know what they’re going to find in your poem, and that’s really exciting I think.

BS: I love that response. And, then, for our final question, or there’s two questions here, I guess: What prompted you to start writing poetry? And then was it always your genre of choice?

EG: I started writing poems when I was very young. I think I was eight when I wrote my first poem, and from then on, I would write these little poem-like things in little spiral-bound notebooks that my parents would buy for me. I was lucky my parents would always encourage me to write, and they always praised my writing—even when it probably didn’t deserve it. And they introduced me to their writer friends, and I grew up thinking a poet was a totally normal thing. You could be a poet; that would be a job you could have, a practice that you would have.

I saw how my words could move people, and that was kind of exciting and kind of startling. Once I scared my mom to death by writing a poem about death. And when I saw her react like that, I wrote a poem to counter that one, which was about being born. I was hoping to make up for the death poem. But I think the death poem was inspired by finding a dead bird that had hit the window outside, and I was just looking at it… And it was not moving. I didn’t feel sad; I just kind of felt curious, like, “What is this about?” The poem was curious. I still have it; it’s a very strange little block of words. I can’t believe I wrote that when I was eight.

But I think poets are a little odd that way. I’m not sure it’s a gift—or the other thing. Even really young poets look at things differently than other kids, other people. It teaches you not to talk about things that you know you’re going to get a weird look for, but it can put you in a strange corner, too.

I don’t know what prompted me, but I know it was a very strong urge. I loved words; I learned how to read when I was really young. And I taught my brother to read when he was really young. I just loved how words were so important and so amazing. I love fonts; I love big words; I love word stamps. Just the physicality of words. I always did, even as a kid.

So essays and memoirs—which is the prose that I write—those are both an extension of the poetry-writing urge, I guess. Even my reviews—as I mentioned before—all start out in a form that I would call a prose-poem. I do certainly write notes that look like prose. But they feel more to me like “How did it feel?” impulse that you have in poetry. I’ll ask myself: How did it feel to read this book? How do I feel at the end of it? Do I feel confused? Do I feel anxious? Do I feel like maybe the author has taught me some new thing that I didn’t know before, that I didn’t know existed? Those are usually the good ones. Do I want to read more by this writer? That’s another signal that this was a really good book. And if I don’t feel those things, how can I present my experience reading that book in a way that is most open to the reader, who might read this book and not… Like I said, we don’t know what a reader is going to see in a piece of written work, so they may read my review and go, “I really want to read that book!” Whereas I was a little confused.

With essays, I guess I’m looking for that deeper meaning. I’m looking for the motivations in the story, whether it’s about me or someone else. But with poetry, it’s very clear to me that that is an emotional thing. That is about the emotions of that moment. And with “Cubic Zirconia,” I guess I was feeling a little bit sarcastic at the same time as I was feeling kind of terrified. Because this pandemic has been going on so long… And it’s like, “What can you do?” The only thing you can do is get your shot and then wait, and hope you stay well. Poetry’s always been my number one genre, and I think from that point, from that practice, all of the other wants have evolved. They revolve around that style of writing, that type of writing.

BS: Well, that’s so interesting! I loved hearing all of your responses to all of the questions. They were so well thought-out, and I know that the students will also really appreciate them. We really thank you for taking the time to submit to Superstition Review and then agreeing to do this interview. It really means a lot, and we really loved your work and all of that.

EG: Well, thank you, Brennie, for asking me. And I’m so happy to be able to share some thoughts about poetry and writing with more people. I’m very happy that you asked me.

Uchimura Kaho’s bright and clean in Tokyo: an Interview

“bright and clean in Tokyo,” a poem by Uchimura Kaho (内村佳保), was originally submitted for Issue 30 of Superstition Review.

bright and clean in Tokyo

My uncle is dead. He was wrapped in dry ice, wearing a white kimono on the tatami. My mother’s brother. He was often angry. Few things did we ever talk about. The doctor told me he was dying. A car from the Funeral Home carried him away. We were as black as ravens. It takes a long time to burn a person. Uncle takes two hours. Imagine the bones at the excavation site. Not all the bones will fit in the urn. I order an egg sandwich at the crematorium coffee shop. The sound of the teacups. The salad arrives quietly. No one smiles widely. No one is crying, either. The sweep window leads to the garden. Death is right next door. People are
burning, but the crematorium coffee shop is very bright and clean.

Uchimura Kaho (内 村 佳 保 ) is a Japanese writer. Her work won the grand prize at the Reconstruction Agency Slogan Competition 2017, Shimazaki Toson Poetry Competition 2021, Minokamo city Poetry Competition 2021, and Tajimi city Poetry Competition 2021. She is the author of three novels, Jyuusan-sai-no-taidou, Inishie-gatari vol.1, and 7-second unison which won the grand prize at Funahashi Seiichi Under 30’s Literary Prize 2021. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in North Dakota Quarterly, Mantis (Stanford University), The Ekphrastic Review, New World Writing, Cordite Poetry Review, Eunoia Review, Sazeracs, Smoky Ink, Seashores, and Déraciné. Learn more on her website.

Amsterdam University College’s creative writing students, in an on-going project with Superstition Review, have chosen Uchimura Kaho’s “bright and clean in Tokyo” for a feature in our blog. They have also curated a variety of questions for Uchimura Kaho about “bright and clean in Tokyo” and her writing process. We are pleased to include those questions and Uchimura Kaho’s responses in an interview below. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.

Uchimura Kaho: Hi! I’m Uchimura Kaho. I’m a Japanese writer. When I was a junior high school student, I published my first novel, Jyuusan sai no taidou (2008). When I was a university student, I published my second novel, Inishie gatari vol. 1 (2014). Until I was a university student, I mainly wrote novels. When I was about to graduate from university, I started writing poetry as well. At the university library, I picked out a few poetry magazines, and I felt as if someone was telling me to try writing poetry.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I also began to write in haiku, tanka, and senryu and submitting them for awards. Japanese people believe that spirits dwell in all things. What I feel when I compose poems, haiku, tanka, and senryu, is that they have the rhythm of Japanese spirits. The cherry blossoms, geckos, flies, rice balls, the full moon, the stars, and the gentle breeze and so on… They are all telling me to compose things as haiku, tanka, and senryu.

I compose their words into letters with them. Sometimes, they ask me to compose haiku, tanka, and senryu that I have never thought of. For example, one of my tankas is, “On the night of the day I dropped 500 yen, there was a full moon, and I found my lost item in the sky.” Believe it or not, the full moon gave me this tanka as a gift as I was walking down the street at night. I asked the full moon, as I walked, if I could change the tanka a bit—in my mind, of course—but the full moon told me this tanka was good—absolutely good, and that I should keep it as it was. As a result, this tanka won first prize in a newspaper tanka competition. So I guess, the full moon was right.

Tanka, haiku, and senryu are short, so I try to convey the hunch as directly as possible. Poems and novels are longer, so I try to mix in a little bit of my feelings with the hunch. It is like mixing a little bit of blue into red to make purple. When I can make a beautiful purple, I feel very happy. The process is the same whether I’m composing works in Japanese, English, or other languages.

Now, I’d like to talk about my poem “bright and clean in Tokyo.” When I was offered this interview, I was in Nagano prefecture, where I won the grand prize at the 196th anniversary of Kobayashi Issa’s passing haiku competition. And I thought the scenery of Nagano and the photos I took in Seattle seven years ago when I performed at the Seattle Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival were perfect for this poem. I hope you enjoy these photos, as well.

Since I experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve often thought about human death. Most Japanese people are cremated when they die, and I wanted to introduce Japanese cremation, so I wrote this poem. Death is rather sad and has a dark aspect. But the coffee shop next to the crematorium is quiet, well-cleaned, and filled with silent light, as if the fear of death is absorbed somewhere in the room. The people who are being burned are about to pass the point of no return while we are right there, eating sandwiches as if nothing happened. Opposite worlds are contained and coexist in the same space, and this is repeated day after day. This is an unexplainable, strange feeling that I want to share with you.

Thank you for listening!

¿Y Ahora Que? On Sales and Stories: A Guest Post by Oscar Mancinas

¿Y Ahora Que? On Sales and Stories: A Guest Post by Oscar Mancinas

BIFF: He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong.

HAPPY, almost ready to fight Biff: Don’t say that!

BIFF: He never knew who he was.

CHARLEY, stopping, Happy’s movement and reply. To Biff: Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

BIFF: Charley, the man didn’t know who he was.

-Arthur Miller, Death of Salesman

I remember reading Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in high school. I remember it becoming one of, like, six things I was assigned to read that I actually liked—and that I like still, mostly. And I remember how frustrating I found our class discussions of it.

Probably his most taught play, Miller’s Death of a Salesman inevitably gets packaged into a unit meant to inform students, however vaguely, about “America.” The other typical texts found alongside Miller’s work are: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” and, if you had, or have, an especially edgy high school English teacher, either something by Langston Hughes or Ralph Ellison. If a teacher were to genuflect towards discussions of “gender roles,”—in the most abstract, superficial way—they might also include writings by Dickinson or, and I’m sorry for those whose painful memories I’m about to trigger, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. (Apologies for reviving memories of painful boredom, but let’s continue).

Because of this framing, at the behest of policy makers or other administrative bodies, teachers contort texts to get students to answer or to complicate the question “What is America?”And, as far as I know, the answer to this question in these classrooms is never: America is a colonial name for many lands, waters, and skies encompassing much of the western hemisphere—and not, contrary to popular use, just the name of one nation in that hemisphere more commonly called the United States. Instead, this framing and subsequent classroom conversations reduce texts like Death of a Salesman to commentary about destiny and hope/lessness—failing to comment both on its literary merits and the basic human fear I believe to be at the heart of the play. Instead, in our class, we talked a lot about “the American Dream” and what role it had in Willy Loman’s death. Spoiler: it had a MAJOR role and maybe the “dream” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried not to begrudge high school English teachers for these things. Like many of us, high school teachers are pushed to meet certain expectations and objectives outside of their control, and so many of them do the best they can to turn dry-ass, standardized test questions into engaging activities. (While I know not all teachers do their best with what they have, and some blame students for shortcomings, but that’s a different essay for a different day.)

For the past decade, though, I’ve worked with enough students, who’re either in or just out of high school, to know these discussions do injustice to them, their curiosity, and to the authors they’re asked to engage. This on top of the disservice done, by way of omission, to authors of color, queer authors from all backgrounds, and more contemporary authors in general. You think anyone writing now might have something meaningful to say about what “America” is and is not? Personally, as a writer coming from a marginalized community, I can’t help but wonder what types of readings would be imposed upon my writing, should it ever find its way into U.S. high school curricula. Can you imagine?

Don’t get me wrong—lest you believe this is just another article in the genre of “everything is terrible now and will probably remain terrible for always”—I keep coming back to Death of Salesman because of how it haunted me as a kid, and how it haunts me still. As evident in the excerpt opening this essay—taken from the play’s “Requiem”—Willy Loman’s ultimate misstep as a tragic figure, and the fear at the center of Miller’s work, was not knowing who he was. Or, better said, he knew who he was and rejected that version of himself, leaving his self-destruction as the only remaining path.

How scary is that? To dedicate yourself to cultivating a specific purpose or self-understanding only to realize you’re wrong and can’t possibly go on for another day? Even as a teenager—maybe because I was a teenager—this type of revelation terrified me. As someone raised by Mexican immigrant parents in a working-class neighborhood, I’d been taught to always look forward, no matter what. Looking back was reserved for fleeting, drunken nights with like-wounded confidants. On these occasions, everyone would reflect on fleeing similar circumstances—surviving multiple border crossings or the loss of an Indigenous homeland—and they’d indulge escapist fantasies about “going back” as triumphant heroes. These fantasies were meant as relief to life at the moment, which felt especially oppressive and unrelenting.

As a kid, I’d listen to my parents, tíos, tías, and cousins reminisce about the paradise they’d left behind in México—“a kingdom where nobody dies” to borrow Edna St. Vincent Millay’s words on childhood. But in their more sober moments, the adults also acknowledged their México, through forces foreign and domestic, through obstacles inherited, imposed, or self-created, had made survival for them nearly impossible. So, they left. They left and probably realized quickly, there’d be no going back.

What if they’d made a mistake?

I left home at eighteen. I left partially because I thought I was fulfilling my end of a deal made by my parents; they left their homes to give us a chance to leave ours, essentially, and I was all too determined to make both of our decisions feel correct. In my time away, however, I struggled. Whether it was the world changing around me, or my own trepidation at making the wrong choice(s) and being unable to live with myself after, I struggled. And I struggled to admit I was struggling, and I struggled to figure out what to do about it.

Thankfully, I eventually realized I cared about few things more than: 1) communities like the ones I came from, and 2) writing. And, lucky for me, I found people who helped me turn the things I care about into opportunities to teach, to study, and to write. I try not to take this for granted, especially since I still remember a time not long ago where I thought I had chosen the wrong things to dedicate myself to, and all I had left was to reach the end of my life and sigh.

Still, even when I decided to come home a few years ago, I couldn’t help but wonder: had I made the wrong decision to leave in the first place? What if coming back turns out to be the same as giving up on a dream? What if I settled for less because my fear of more overtook me? These are all good and terrifying questions. Questions I suspect many people confront daily, and I’ll probably never be able to answer them—something that also scares me. Instead, for now, I’ll
try to retrace some of my steps, hoping to discern some pattern, something that’ll make me react the way my former professor, and author of Womanish, Kim McLarin says a reader ought to react at the end of a good book: *gasp* of course!

So, back to frustrated teenage me in my high school English class and another one of those six things I was assigned to read but still enjoyed. Even though I had already read The House on Mango Street[1], when my junior English class read Sandra Cisneros’s 1983 coming-of-age novel as part of our “What is America?” unit, I remember the story hitting me differently. Maybe it was because I already knew the text, so revisiting it was like seeing an old friend; maybe it was because, as the sole Mexican kid in my “advanced” English class, I was the only one who could reflect autobiographically on Cisneros’s words; or maybe it was because I was starting to look at colleges and colleges were looking back at me, so leaving home felt less abstract and more inevitable. Regardless, I came back, again and again, to the novel for guidance during my wandering. And, gratefully, the novel never failed to tell me something useful:

One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away. Friends and neighbors… will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.

No matter how hard they tried, teachers never convinced me The House on Mango Street was about “America” or its dream. It was about us, nosotros, the readers Cisneros knew were out here looking for guidance, navigating forces telling us how to be and where to go.

Originally, Cisneros published her breakthrough novel with the legendary Arte Público Press, one of the oldest and continuously running publishing houses for Latinx literature in the U.S. Although they later had their disagreements—another topic for another essay—the collaboration between Cisneros and APP, years before I was born, created a path for me to stumble onto and find my way. Their partnership helped me combat things this country tried to tell me: I wasn’t lost all along; I wasn’t alone; my uncertainty and fear wouldn’t always be in charge; it was possible to tell my stories without having them distorted; and, maybe most importantly, it was okay to come back home. It took a coalition of writers, publishers, teachers, artists, scholars, and activists to keep these lessons alive, and I hope my efforts vindicate their decisions to keep fighting.

If you’ve made it this far, I want to say thank you. I originally wrote this essay in August 2019[2] to announce that I had signed a contract to publish my debut collection of short fiction. Since that time, I wrote and published that collection, and To Live and Die in El Valle went on to win a 2021 Border Regional Library Association Southwest Book Award.

So, like I originally intended in 2019, this essay still serves as a reminder to me—and hopefully to you—of how we protect and promote our stories because we care about them and the people they impact. Ultimately, our stories and the sacrifices that go into writing, editing, publishing, and sharing them don’t amount to much without people receiving them and using them to survive. Even though I’ve been guilty of adding to the online chorus of writers who proclaim ourselves to be walking wounds, motivated by an inescapable obsession to write but who are also unable to find joy in what we do, I wanted to acknowledge the community of writers, readers, and teachers—both past and contemporary—without whom, I can’t imagine where I’d be. Three years and a lifetime later, I’m still writing, still reading, and still teaching. I feel more grateful than ever to be able to share.

[1] Sidenote: shoutout to Mrs. Valenzuela’s seventh grade English class, I was a shitty thirteen-year-old huerco to you, and I’ll
regret it ‘til the day I die.

[2] Originally published in Latinxsbelike.com

The Traditions and Innovations of Beautiful Books: Guest Post by Rhienna Renee Guedry

Currently, small presses and major houses alike have reflected upon the past to make certain decisions about the printed book’s future. With renewed interest in cover design, concept, and the “nuts and bolts” of a book’s production process such as intentional choices with ink and paper, many publishers are releasing books that are, in a word, beautiful. With revived interest in embellishment and ornamentation from book publishing’s past (details such as deckle edges, silk ribbons, colored endpapers), the industry will continue to pursue these features of the book in the future to stay competitive against (and distinct from) the growing world of e-books. Print editions will stay relevant to readers as cultural, collectible artifacts, thus persisting in the future of book publishing for as long as we have some form of the codex and some form of a marketplace in which to purchase them. While these editions will play a notable role in the future of publishing, there is a downside: they run the risk of widening the gap of “collectorship,” and that the category of privileged individuals who collect cultural artifacts will not be a signifier of those who most appreciate beautiful books.

Design Origins

Just a few hundred years ago, book buyers would purchase a title unbound, and binding was an additional step. Thankfully this process has long since been reconciled, and since, notable changes have been made in book design. Writing for the New York Literary World, Herman Melville wrote in 1875 that there was a “sad lack of invention in most of our bookbinders,” and complained, “books should be appropriately appareled. Their bindings should indicate and distinguish their various characters.” In his article “Judging Literary Books by Their Covers,” author Jeffrey D. Groves analyzes the trajectory of the book cover through book history—from a point in time where books were rarely even sold with permanent covers to points in time where a publisher sought to brand its identity by cover design choices. “A book bound for the customer might reveal a great deal about a bookbinder, a book buyer, or the prevailing tastes of a given period, but a binding commissioned and perhaps designed by a nineteenth-century publisher lays open an attempt to feel the pulse of hundreds or thousands of buyers at once, both to perceive and to shape their notion of what “literature” meant and looked like.”

With innovation in design and layout in current and future publishing, specific authors, publishers, and even designers receive acknowledgement and even praise. “When people do beautiful books, they’re noticed more,” said Robert S. Miller, the publisher of Workman Publishing. “It’s like sending a thank-you note written on nice paper when we’re in an era of e-mail correspondence.” By looking at the past, we see an evolution in how readers view a book (and it’s cover) and come to judge its contents by these elements of design. Yet cover design is not the only way in which art and design can impact a title. Current publishers are re-incorporating imagery in books that have not had illustrations for generations. This nod to books of the past revives the tradition of narrative imagery within the pages of a book, a motif that went through decades of obscure and infrequent use. This cyclical return of a notable book motif is now here to stay (e.g., Ask the Fellows Who Cut The Hay, a Full Circle release that includes watercolors and woodcuts) and trends in design will continue to veer towards the incorporation of visual elements in the future. A revived emphasis on cover and interior art and illustration is part of what makes a book a desirable collectable item to book enthusiasts today.

Designers Do It Better

The celebrated independent small press McSweeney’s began as a series of quarterly literary journals in 1998, and is one example of current emphasis on design that has been greeted widely with fanatical dedication and praise from industry insiders and readers alike. The San Francisco-based publisher is, to modern publishing, synonymous with experimental design and unique print editions. Indeed, McSweeney’s released a hardcover coffee table book entitled Art of McSweeney’s in 2010: a 264-page art book “all about the design of books-as-objects, objects to hold and to interact with,” whose introduction begins, “This book is dedicated to readers who love physical books as objects…and also to show young publishers-to-be how much fun can be had while making books, and how available the means of production is to them.”

McSweeney’s is certainly not the only small press doing interesting things in terms of design and production: there are hundreds of small presses tackling a niche market and focused on quality and aesthetics. Visual Editions is recognized for publishing Jonathan Safran Foer’s die-cut erasure work Tree of Codes, as well as re-releasing beautifully designed editions of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and Mark Saporta’s Composition No. 1.

Persephone Books, a publisher whose focus is reprints of classic works written by women, uses elegant endpapers, and lines their inside covers “with designs matched to each book’s publication date. So Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages comes wrapped in endpapers based on a dress fabric from 1930, while Maria Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery of 1816 is topped and tailed with a pattern drawn from a contemporary piece of block-printed cotton.”

Reviewing the books released by small or independent publishers such as McSweeney’s, Visual Editions, and Persephone Books speaks to a future of print editions that capitalize on aspects of art, design, and materiality as a quality that will come to be expected by book lovers.

Not Just For The Little Guys

Current large publishers are following suit with design and production-heavy print editions. In Kathryn Hughes article for The Guardian, she notes, “publishers have started building their marketing strategies around form rather than content. The Everyman Library for example makes much of its books’ elegant two-color case stamping, silk ribbon markers and “European-style” half-round spines. Faber republished a collection of its classic poetry hardbacks illustrated with exquisite wood and lino cuts by contemporary artists.” Penguin’s series, Penguin Threads does so as well. By dusting off classics from their backlist, the publisher re-issued titles such as Black Beauty, The Secret Garden, and Little Women as paperback editions. The series features a redesigned cover that has been made to look like an embroidery (threads), embossed and textured according to the patterns of the stitching. With a reverse image on the inside front and back cover (showing what you would see if you turned over one of your grandmother’s embroidered wall hangings), the editions also boast French folds and deckle edges. Penguin Threads’ platform is built on the hope that book collectors—who may already own some of these classic titles—will be excited and incited by the attention to design and detail of this series.

Like a Record, Baby

To take an example from recent cultural history—though not from the publishing industry—I want to delve into the parallel of cultural consumption that is often used to contrast the book world: the music industry. Well-designed, collectible, proud-to-sit-on-bookshelf-and-coffee-table-alike relics will both persist and be a fixture in a future publishing model comes in part by observations of music consumption of the past decade. Despite the rise of digital, music-lovers find themselves able to acquire music rapidly, and what is purchased as a “collectible” proves discerning as formats have continued to evolve. Musicians and labels have looked for ways to go to market with a tangible product that will make an impact on their audiences and prove collectable artifacts. In the TIME article by Kristina Dell “Vinyl Gets Its Groove Back,” Dell analyzes the resurgence in records having to do a desire for “vinyl’s different shapes (hearts, triangles) and eye-catching designs (bright colors, sparkles)” as well as desirable photography and album art inset. Most vinyl records come with a coupon for a free audio download, giving the consumer two ways of experiencing the album: digitally (portable, personal) and in analog (often cited as preferred for visceral reasons much like we hear in defense of the scent of a new paperback). Music executives continue to see a slight but steady increase in sales from vinyl year after year, while independent music retailers see an uptick in sales of larger proportion for both vinyl and, incredibly, even cassette tapes. Contrasting what is happening with music as another consumable cultural media, we have evidence that cultural artifacts and collectibles are, and will continue to be, a significant portion of any creative industry.

Versus “E-”

Looking at how the music industry is trying to survive the digital age is a natural transition into thinking about how art books may compare and contrast to the future of publishing that, at least according to many, seems to be ruled by talks of e-books and social reading apps. In “Six Ways to Think about an ‘infinite canvas’,” Peter Meyers talks about the sensation of delight, that “print book lovers wax on about their beloved format’s special talents: the smell, the feel, its nap-friendly weight. But touch screen fans can play that game, too. Recall, for starters, the first time you tapped an iphone or similarly modern touch screen. Admit it: the way it felt to pinch, swipe, flick and spread…those gestures introduce a whole new pleasure palette. Reading and books have heretofore primarily been a visual medium: you look and ponder what’s inside. Now, as we enter the age of touchscreen documents, content becomes a feast for our fingers as much as our eyes. Authors, publishers, and designers are just beginning to appreciate this opportunity, making good examples hard to point to.” While conversations about the future of the book seem to always hinge on technology as being a primary factor, we do best not to assume that new technologies guarantee the replacement of the old.

Considering environmental concerns indicates a tendency for book buyers to be more selective about purchases, giving art books an additional push for existing in the marketplace as a collectible, permanent cultural object, and evidence that e-books may never be able to compete.

By looking at the history of design and how book covers began to influence readerships and indicate content by its design elements, it’s no surprise that we have arrived in a world full of beautiful, unique print-editions of books. Numerous small-press and independent publishers are making waves by creating unique, beautiful, artisan books and able to make a living doing so; even larger publishers such as Penguin that are releasing stylized collectible series of their best love backlist titles. Watching the print marketplace populate with various editions of books sampling from book history techniques—from “fore-edge painting” (see The Cheese Monkeys by renowned book designer Chip Kidd) to hand-drawn typographic covers scattered on any New York Times’ bestseller list.

Where recent history may point us towards what feels like an inevitable trend towards these lovely, well-designed and slightly more expensive art books, looking further back into book history gives us two other noteworthy examples. The first example is the birth of the trade paperback, also referred to by Jason Epstein as the “quality paperback.” Watching this new “third category” of book (something between a drugstore paperback and a hardcover release) emerge and take hold of the publishing industry by offering something collectible, quality, and a notch above paperback books that speak to the desire to own something readers can lend, reread, and display on their shelves with pride. Kathryn Hughes’ insight on the renewed interest in bookmaking in the mid-19th century also gives us an apt perspective about the likelihood of well-designed, artisan books playing a significant role in publishing of the future, as well. Even the music industry’s resurgence in selling vinyl records to music collectors seems to speak to something about our culture, and how our cultural objects may function in the near future, if not already.

We are at a point in time where we have the ability to choose what we wish to invest in, and what we want to be disposable vs. collectible. In this way, vinyl record collections may be growing for a generation who never owned a record player in their youth just as book collectors may not be avid readers, but purveyors of cultural content, art, and design. These books will certainly exist in the future however widen the gap of “collectorship” and the type of people who want cultural artifacts. Art books, or any book wherein the publisher has made a considerable effort to create a collectable and desirable artifact will continue to be a thing of beauty and hold a portion of the book market.

As the publishing industry continues to evolve, those doing something different (whether it be the adoption of an old-fashioned book technique, such as hand-binding and printing on letterpress, or something radically new or revolutionary) will be supported by curious consumers, book lovers, and collectors alike.

Biggie’s Life After Death, a Guest Post by Brian Huba

I was a senior in high school when the Notorious BIG died. Back then, during the height of the East Coast vs. West Coast Rivalry, hip-hop figures felt more like professional wrestlers than young men. They had “stage” names. They had entourages. They operated in a constant state of conflict. Their whole scene was so over the top, it ceased to be real for me. Now it’s 25 years later. I’m 42 years old. I teach English at an inner-city high school in Upstate New York. And I’m still trying to process Biggie’s violent death, to properly lament all that was lost on that tragic night in 1997.

A few days ago, I saw a Facebook post from a woman I grew up with. It read, “SiriusXM channel 105 is now Notorious BIG radio!!!” Without delay, I punched it up, and suddenly I was 17 again. It was Memorial Day Weekend, which meant everyone was at Lake George, a resort town sixty miles north of Albany, and “Mo Money, Mo Problems” blared from tricked-out cars and Jeeps with no doors that crawled down the crowded strip, Federal agents mad ‘cause I’m flagrant/tap my cell and the phone in the basement… Biggie had been dead just two months, and his posthumously-released double-album Life After Death ruled the radio waves. We had no idea who’d shot Biggie. But we understood it was revenge for Tupac Shakur’s slaying the previous November. And now that both kingpins were gone, America’s Rap War could end.

It might seem strange for a white boy from Upstate New York to feel any kind of connection with Biggie Smalls, whose birthplace of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn is practically on another planet. But my life began much like his. I was born September 26th, 1979 at Albany Medical Center. My mother was just twenty years old when she had me. I never knew my real father. Me and mom started out with her parents in a part of North Albany that had once been dominated by an Irish-Catholic constituency. But, by the time I arrived, a racial shift was in full swing. I was the only white kid in my kindergarten class. Like Biggie, I suffered from strabismus, a medical condition in which the eyes don’t properly align. From this, I developed a crippling inferiority complex. I refused to have my picture taken. I wouldn’t make eye contact with people when they spoke to me, often giving the impression that I was hiding something, or lying about something. Then I heard Biggie say, Heartthrob–never/Black and ugly as ever, with all the confidence of a King. And that gave me confidence. That lyric became a mantra. It helped me stop hating myself. Instead of letting my unfortunate eye condition defeat me, I took steps to correct it.

As a teacher, my first classroom was a converted storage area in the school’s basement level. The walls were paint-peeled and pockmarked. There was no window. No bookshelves. No books. I was assigned five sections of remedial English, the ones nobody else wanted to work with. My students were mostly black or Hispanic. They had discipline problems. They came from unthinkable living situations. The average literacy was at a second or third grade level. Before I could actually teach them anything English-related, I had to establish some sort of connection. I tried icebreaker games like “This or That” and “Desert Island.” Nothing worked. They saw me as just another white-guy teacher in their endless line of white-guy teachers. Then everything changed. One day, in early October, two boys at the back table began to loudly argue, and I wasn’t sure what I’d do if they got physical. At some point, one boy said to the other, “You want beef, bring it.” Without thinking, I began to rap, What’s Beef?/Beef is when you need two Gats to go to sleep/Beef is when your moms ain’t safe up in the streets…

“Yo, Huba, you know Big!?”

“Yeah, I know Big.”

I still work at that same school. My current classroom is on the top floor. Its windows overlook a courtyard that doubles as the Senior Lounge in warm weather. I’ve been here for sixteen years. In that time, I’ve taught all the most-recognizable writers, everyone from William Shakespeare to Stephen King, Maya Angelou to Ernest Hemingway, John Grisham to John Steinbeck, Harper Lee to JD Salinger. And I can tell you with total certainty that the Notorious BIG is a finer wordsmith than all of them. Don’t believe me? Google the lyrics to “Everyday Struggle,” then ask yourself: who can write this? Who can so masterfully manipulate the English language? I’ve poured over Biggie’s catalog for two decades and it still scrambles my brain. Every line, every lyric: stratospherically brilliant. As an educator, and a published writer, I wouldn’t have the first clue how to teach someone to do what Biggie could do. All before the age of 24! I can only come up with two conclusions. 1) He read everything under the sun, fully absorbed every word on every page, then instantly understood how to weaponize it. Or, 2) Biggie Smalls was a God.

Sometimes when I start class by saying, “Okay, guys, here’s today’s agenda–” I’ll silently sing to myself, …Got the suitcase up in the Sentra/Go to Room 112/Tell them Blanco sent ya… 

The best hip-hop song of all time is Biggie’s aspirational anthem, “Juicy,” which begins with the line, Yeah, this album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin.’ This sentiment hits me hard. Presumably, if what Biggie says is true, there’s a teacher out there who once upon a time dismissed Christopher Wallace as a lost cause. I’ve made it my solemn vow to never be that teacher to any student. Public education isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation. Talent and potential come in countless forms, and it’s my job to detect it, then guide it, then help it grow. A teacher who couldn’t see that Christopher Wallace was the Notorious BIG…I cannot imagine a more-appalling indictment against our profession.

25 years later, and the murder of Biggie Smalls remains unsolved. Whoever fired that fatal bullet might still walk among us, knowing he got away with it. Biggie was just 24 when he passed. Today he’d be 50. In 2017, Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, said, “He was so young, so talented, and his life was taken far too soon.”

While Tupac seemed to thrive on the idea of a bicoastal rap war, I truly believe Biggie didn’t want it. When Shakur died, Biggie’s estranged wife, Faith Evans, said, “I remember Big calling me and crying. I think it’s fair to say he was probably afraid, given everything that was going on at that time and all the hype that was put on this so-called beef that he didn’t really have in his heart against anyone. I’m sure for all he thought, he could be next.”

Don’t get me wrong: Biggie was a rough-and-tough guy. Biggie was a criminal. And he didn’t write Walt-Disney songs. Not even close. Yet, when I listened to his lyrics, I always sensed a soul-deep desire for the good life…back of the club/Sippin Moet is where you’ll find me…

When Biggie died, the usual slew of conspiracy theories made the rounds. It was staged. He’s still out there. Him and Tupac played us all. This sort of thinking was certainly helped along by the fact that the album released shortly after his passing was eerily-titled Life After Death (which followed the also-eerily-titled Ready to Die). The album’s cover showed Biggie in a long black coat leaning against a hearse. He wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t mad. It was what it was. But what sticks with me most about that album is a line in the song “Kick in the Door,” Your reign on top was short like leprechauns.

Looking back, such conspiracy theories were a way for us to cope. I recognize that now. The world’s greatest rapper was cut down in the prime of his life, and we lacked the sophistication to properly process all that was lost. But he was so much more than just a rapper. He was a son. A husband. A father. Or, as he would put it, My daughter use a potty so she’s older now/Educated street knowledge I’ma mold her now. Biggie didn’t deserve to die the way he did, when he did.

But maybe, just maybe, this tragic tale has a happy ending. Maybe our crazy conspiracies are actually true, or sort of true. Maybe Biggie Smalls is still out there living his best life after death. Maybe he’s lounging on a private beach in a parallel universe. Maybe that fatal bullet missed its mark on March 9th, 1997. Maybe there never was an East Coast vs West Coast Rap War. Maybe It was all a dream.

In one of my English classes, there’s a kid named Angel. He’s not a traditionally-good student. He frequently blows off assignments. He gets in trouble…a lot. But Angel has a dream. Angel wants to be a world-famous rapper, and he works nonstop at it. He’s always busy thumbing lines and lyrics into his iPhone. His “stage” name is “AngelFromNE.” He tells us to “Stream AngelFromNE on all platforms.” So, one day, I did just that. I streamed AngelFromNE, and listened to a few of his tracks. He’s very raw, but there’s potential there.

When I saw him again, I said, “Angel, you need to read everything you can get your hands on. All the great ones know words. They use words to tell their story. They find a way to make unrhyming words rhyme. You have to be able to manipulate the language.” Then I asked Angel, “You know about Biggie?”

“Not really,” he said. “Biggie’s before my time.”

“Okay,” I said. “There’s this song I think you should Google.”

Get Ready for Ghosts Caught on Film

Get Ready for Ghosts Caught on Film

Congratulations to Barrett Bowlin whose debut book, Ghosts Caught on Film, comes out this week published by Bridge Eight Press.

Proceed with caution. A scientist and sister hope to transform gummy bears into embryos. A sleepwalking father poses a dangerous threat to his young son. Ghosts Caught on Film is a collection of stories both haunting and funny, full of warmth, anxiety, love, and foreboding. Winner of the Bridge Eight Press Fiction Prize, Barrett Bowlin’s debut is unafraid to make you laugh while looking over your shoulder or bring you to tears while turning the page.

The collection is available for purchase on the press website, Bookshop, Indie Bound, Barnes and Noble.

Inventive, entrancing, funny, and often wonderfully bizarre, Ghosts Caught on Film is a fantastic story collection. With an abundance of heart and humor, Barrett Bowlin sets the table for characters who are all daring to dream while facing their own impending apocalypse. Each of these stories resonates with existential questions, echoes and afterimages, flickers of love and longing—and taken altogether, this is a stunning debut.

Jason Allen, author of The East End

You can read “Skiagraphy,” by Barrett Bowlin in Issue 20. You can also check out Barrett’s website and Twitter to learn more about his work.

Linda LeGarde Grover Feature

Linda LeGarde Grover Feature

While Superstition Review loves to write about contributor updates from past issues, we are also thankful for the chance to get to know new writers with so many different stories to tell. Please welcome Linda LeGarde Grover and her new collection Gichigami Hearts: Stories and Histories from Misaabekong. In twelve loosely connected essays, Linda shares the story of her ancestors’ arrival at the American Fur Post in far western Duluth more than two hundred years ago, capturing the thrilling tales of her family’s fortune and fate, “all with a deep and tenacious bond to the land, one another, and the Ojibwe culture.” The array of genres is highly notable, ranging from memoiristic non-fiction to Ojibwe oral tradition fused into a contemporary story encompassing older oral stories. There is so much to explore in this collection, with stories that connect us all.

This book was published by University of Minnesota Press. It is available for purchase on the publisher’s website.

In Linda LeGarde Grover’s Gichigami Hearts, we are given the gift of an intensly personal, and at the same time brilliant, walkthrough of Grover’s part of the Anishinaabe universe. Just a tremendously lovely and unique book.

Erika T. Wurth, author of White Horse

Linda LeGarde Grover is professor emeritus of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe. Her books The Road Back to Sweetgrass, Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year, and In the Night of Memory, all from Minnesota, have earned numerous awards, including the Native Writers Circle of the Americas First Book Award; Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards for Poetry, Memoir, and Fiction; and a Minnesota Book Award for Memoir and Creative Nonfiction. Her book of stories The Dance Boots was the winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize.

Also from Linda LeGarde Grover: In the Night of Memory (2020), The Road Back to Sweetgrass (2016), and Onigamiising (2017).

An Interview with Allison Moyers

An Interview with Allison Moyers

Allison Moyers is an oil painter and video artist from Texas who currently lives and works in Phoenix Arizona. She traveled Europe and lived in France for five years where she received her bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from ESAD de Valenciennes in 2015. Her work explores the subjects of stardom, vanity, and excess within society with an emphasis on woman and the feminine. She is fascinated by western culture’s obsession with beauty in film, literature, and classic painting that have created idealized versions of reality. The stylized and romanticized art are indispensable elements in her work and correspond to the methodic use of color that expresses human emotions through their psychological representation.

In this post, we feature a short film made by Allison as she tours her art and answers questions from our Issue 28 Art Editor, Khanh Nguyen.

Check out more of her art here!

Artist Talk by Allison Moyers