Guest Post: William Cordeiro: Once More, with Feeling

Feel? Let the reader feel!
—Fernando Pessoa

James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, David Kalstone, and a couple others were once at Merrill’s house in Key West when they each decided to write a poem that morning. When Merrill came downstairs to show his work, Wilbur said, “Well, Jimmy, it’s very fine—very formally sound, it’s just… missing something.”

“Oh right,” Merrill said, “I forgot to put in the feelings!” He raced upstairs, and, in another hour or so, doctored his poem. He then read the new version to the delight of all.

I remembered this anecdote while down in Tucson a few weeks ago, attending the UA Poetry Center’s Bagley Wright Lecture Series. Timothy Donnelly made a comment that’s stuck with me; he claimed he was more of a “constructivist” poet, as opposed to an “expressivist” poet, meaning that he often didn’t have anything particular to say—he just liked building things, tinkering, working with the materials of his chosen medium. Constructivists, like Merrill and Donnelly, can sometimes forget to put in the feelings.

The impulse of a constructivist is to make patterns. Three rocks scattered in the woods might not seem significant, Donnelly said, but three rocks stacked in a cairn do. We observe the imposition of human consciousness. However, we don’t necessarily know what such patterns signify—turn left, straight ahead, or look out for the poison oak. Likewise, in poetry, patterns create music and architecture, arrangements which suggest mood and sensibility: penumbras inflecting and leaching out into the tone, the heft, the configuration of a poem beyond its ostensible content.

Expressivists, on the other hand, tend to have something specific to convey. Language acts as a medium of communication by means of which the author’s ideas, experience, or emotions can be transferred to the reader. An expressivist poem is thus a more chiseled version of the way we use language in everyday life. In some cases, it strives for a message, a moral, and it has designs to incite political action.

Every poet, perhaps every poem, must figure out how to reconcile these divergent motives. The results of this balancing act contribute to one’s style. Although there are limitations to this (or any) binary, Donnelly’s distinction proves useful in observing a trend and unpacking the forces behind it: American poetry is having an expressivist moment.

In the ’90s and 2000s, the pendulum swung away from the Confessional poets. New Formalists and LANGUAGE poets, New York Schoolers and Ellipticals alike could be deemed constructivists while Slam poetry, as an example of expressivist work of that era, infrequently saw the pages of literary journals. One might argue, too, that the immediacy of Slam poetry is suited for the voice and stage, rather than the drier archival pages of journals anyway.

Today’s poetry scene, with journals now mostly online and many hosting video content, values immediacy. Expressivist poems appear urgent, direct, sincere, visceral, approachable, and woke. They’re bone spurs and gut-punches, shivers and fist bumps. Constructivists poems, by contrast, will always have critics who accuse them of being empty, academic, confusing, oblique, or baroque. Constructivist poems can be ponderous, requiring interpretation and repeated readings, though a handful of constructivists have developed enough panache or sprezzatura to avoid this fate. A certain elitism prevails among constructivist poets, since their work, whether harnessing traditional modes or disrupting them, appeals to what Milton called a “fit audience… though few.” They require the reader to pick among the stones they’ve set and wander in the runes, as it were. The reader must construct and deconstruct along with them.

That said, the expressivist poem, so popular currently, faces the dangers of being obvious, too literal, a tad boring, blunt and underwritten, and ultimately little more than dressed-up journalism. Expressivists foreground the author over the work. Thus, expressivists can develop hang-ups about authenticity. An expressivist poet may fall to repeating herself, boxed in by her own voice, the work shrinking to the size of a single viewpoint instead of expanding to encompass the multiplicities of the imagination.

The trend toward expressivists might, of course, result from a political climate in which readers are spoiling for poems that give voice to their anger and disorientation, as well as greater institutional awareness and efforts to expand the variety of perspectives represented at all levels of publication. Also, poems that spill their guts might rise to the top of slush piles: blood floats on ink. Busy editors sometimes just don’t have time to re-read and interpret delicate, challenging, or more subtly structured work before casting it aside in today’s clamorous marketplace.

A counterargument to my own analysis above, however, is the state of creative nonfiction (CNF) today. CNF has been trending more constructivist lately. The heyday of the echt memoir was the 90s and early 2000s—think Mary Karr, Frank McCourt, James Frey. As opposed to straight narrative, today’s CNF is lyrical, collaged, broken, braided, collated, curated, speculative, or anagogical: it emphasizes its structure and shifting registers and embedded texts; it’s by turns hermetic and punchy, colloquial and precious, erudite and rude. Given this newfound stress on form, and the play that form affords, essays are increasingly like poems—at least, poems with a constructivist bent—and it’s no accident that many of our major essayists are bona fide poets: Maggie Nelson, Ander Monson, Anne Carson, John D’Agata, Kevin Young, Lia Purpura, Nick Flynn, and Claudia Rankine, to name just a few.

This tendentious bifurcation between “constructivists” and “expressivists” aside, as writers we should perhaps recognize that all expression must be constructed; all construction yields some expression. So, writers whose temperament is mushy might benefit from thinking how to give shape and definition to their sentiment through more attention to structures, logics, forms, and outward facts. And those, like myself, who tend to dawdle over form for form’s sake, need to circle back to ask: What am I bothering to say? Does it matter? And, importantly, am I giving my reader the feels?

Guest Post, Darrin Doyle: Write What You (Don’t) Know

Darrin Doyle

As someone who has dedicated the majority of his life to – for lack of a better term – making shit up, the popular dictum of “write what you know” is troubling.  Or maybe troubling isn’t the correct word.  A better word is limiting.  If I were restricted to writing about places I had been, people I had met, and situations I had encountered, my writing options would feel pretty grim.

The great thing about fiction, and art in general, is that it gives us a way to escape the confines of our experiences.  It also allows us to overlay order, structure, and meaning upon the randomness of everyday life.  Fiction lets us enter the minds, the circumstances, of people we will never be.  Literary scholar Michael Bryson wrote that “Art . . . raises us out of ourselves for tantalizingly brief, yet intensely felt and long-remembered moments, reminds us that we are somehow part of something greater than ourselves – even if that something is illusory and mythical.” (

The experiences of our lives do not follow a tidy arc.  They lack the focus of a central conflict.  They provide little, if any, symbolism.  The people we know are not protagonists or antagonists, even if they act antagonistic at times.  Art gives us the chance to shape the world, to highlight connections between events and people and places, to suggest symbolic value – multiplicity of meanings and the entire range of human complexity – within the everyday.  This is why stories are read again and again.  When we allow fictional elements to enter the mix, these connections, symbols, and shapes get stronger, more complete, and more nuanced.  It’s why art lasts while autobiographies and history books generally fade away.  When is the last time someone handed you a history book from, say, the 1970s, and said “You gotta read this!”?  Art is timeless, while fact-based historical books usually have short shelf lives.

And yet American culture largely prioritizes nonfiction over fiction.  Remember when James Frey couldn’t find a publisher for his novel, A Million Little Pieces?  Then he decided to pretend it was non-fiction, and it became a bestseller.  Folks say they don’t want to read about something that “hasn’t happened and probably won’t ever happen.”  I honestly can’t understand the reasoning behind this statement.

Even if the events in a story or novel haven’t literally happened, what has happened are the emotional truths of the story.  Huck Finn may have never walked the Earth, but his dilemma – his internal conflict between caring for Negro Jim while being told by society that Jim is less than human – are universal and powerful.

Even better, because Huck is fictional, this means we all can know him.  We can all possess him; we can all have our own vision of what he looks like, sounds like, etc.  Same goes for Romeo and Juliet, Harry Potter, Willie Wonka, Emma Bovary, Holden Caulfield, and so on.  These characters are more alive – more truthful – than historical figures for the simple reason that they are not literal flesh-and-blood people.  They are eternal because we help create them with our minds and imaginations.

This is why I get depressed when people insist that Old Testament stories happened literally, exactly as written – as if any admission of fictional elements would somehow diminish them, weaken their power.  In fact, I’m pretty sure the opposite is true.  Take Noah’s Ark for example.  As a story, it shows us the heights to which people can rise in demonstrating faith.  It shows the ultimately forgiving nature of a God who will also punish unrepentant wickedness.  It shows us the covenant, the promise that God made with humans.  Read as fiction the story is relatable and epic and larger-than-life, and it’s OK not to get hung up on the plausibility of a 500 year-old man building a boat the length of two football fields before rounding up a male and female of every species of animal on the planet.  If I’m assured that the story is fictional, I’m along for the ride and can reap all the great wisdom it offers.

The terrific writer Eudora Welty offered her own version of “Write what you know.”  Her version was this:  “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”  Read that sentence a few times.  What we know are people, places, conflicts.  What we don’t know are the whys.  By using a foundation of familiar human events and then allowing ourselves to expand into the realm of the fictional, we can begin an inquiry into everything we “don’t know” about what it is to be human in this odd, fleeting world.

Meet the Interns: Elizabeth Anderson, Nonfiction Editor

elizabethanderson_0_1Elizabeth Anderson, one of our Nonfiction Editors, is a senior majoring in Creative Writing and working on a minor in Art History.

Superstition Review: What do you do for SR?

Elizabeth Anderson: I find nonfiction literary writers across the country and solicit them for work for SR. I also choose a few nonfiction writers that speak to me and solicit interviews.

SR: How did you hear about or get involved with Superstition Review?

EA: I first got involved with SR after taking a poetry class with Trish. Last year, I was the Solicitations Coordinator, where I kept track of the editor’s e-mails, created spreadsheets, created documents of responses, and added names to the Solicitations List.

SR: What is your favorite section of SR?

EA: My favorite section is the Art section because of Karen Green’s work, which I find not only unique, but also very inspirational.

SR: Who is your dream contributor to the journal?

EA: Currently, my dream contributor would be Mary Cappello (whom I sent a solicitation e-mail out to!), because I absolutely loved the idea behind her narrative, “Awkward: A Detour.” She not only covers touchy familial subjects, but she has a fluid way of talking about normal, everyday life.

SR: What job, other than your own, would you like to try out in the journal?

EA: I would love to be one of the Art Editors because it is so outside of my realm of the written arts. The visual arts can excite so many emotions without saying anything, and I would love to learn how to capture these emotions.

SR: What are you most excited for in the upcoming issue?

EA: I am so excited just to hear back from the nonfiction writers that I solicited. I think that their feedback will be the biggest pay off for all of my hard work thus far.

SR: What are you currently reading?

EA: I am currently reading My Friend Leonard, by James Frey. No matter what the media says about him, Frey will always hold a special place on my bookshelf.

SR: What are some of your favorite websites to waste time on or distract you from homework?

EA: To distract me from homework, I love to read Democratic Underground, The Onion, and of course, playing Waka-Waka on Facebook.

SR: What would be your dream class to take at ASU? What would the title be and what would it cover?

EA: My dream class at ASU would be a poetry class that not only focuses on forms (I am currently in ENG 490 Forms class), but also incorporates actual student readings of the poetry outside of class. The title would be ENG 490.5 “Forms and Presentation.”

SR: What are some of your favorite literary links?

EA: My favorite literary links are,, zeroland.