“Do Robots Make Good Poets?” Let’s Discuss.

They cannot evoke a poet’s self, but they can sometimes come up with useful lines.

Like many writers and teachers, I feel the gathering threat of machine-written literature. In the old days of computers, there used to be a saying, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Today, into the maw of large language models, some garbage no doubt goes. But these large language models are also fed, as I understand it, all the text that exists on the internet and that includes the great works of world literature (though maybe not very recent works). It is becoming more common to allow these models or chatbots to write essays, analyses, business plans, and the like. As a teacher of poetry writing, I wanted to see how these bots might operate in the creative-writing classroom. I wanted to find out if robots made good poets.

To attempt to answer this, I created an exercise for my Summer 2023 Drexel University poetry writing class to see how and how well ChatGPT generated poems. The exercise comprised several steps. Students first had to engineer a prompt that included a topic, a mood, and some key words. That took some thinking and attention to self. Next, students told their chatbots to produce a poem based on their engineered prompts. The bots produced the poems in fifteen seconds. Following this, students shared the bot poems out loud in class and posted them on our teaching platform (Blackboard), and we workshopped the robot poems. Finally, the students had to harvest from their robot poems any usable lines and make them part of their own follow-up poem. As a means of attribution, the students were required to underline the robot-written lines they added to their self-written follow-up poems. (It does feel weird to use the term self-written).

Occasionally the students found some strong and usable lines in the robot poems. More often than not, however, the students condemned the robot poems as soulless and rote imitations of verse. Not only were the students vehement and harsh critics of the robot poems, they were enthusiastic about each other’s real voices, praising each other’s follow-up poems for their sincerity and heart. I was very encouraged by the students’ overall negative attitude to the chatbot poems. As much as I hate to say this, I was a little less harsh than the students about some of the AI poems.

The students in this class were sophomores on up and came from a wide variety of majors. No one was required to participate in this exercise. Three students did opt out of the exercise: a philosophy major, a computer science major, and an English major.

Of course, the robots were good at spelling, mechanics, and standard English grammar. This was a benefit to all, especially the English language learners in the class. I appreciated the clean copy as I did not have to pinpoint glitches in proofreading. Almost always when the tool saw the term “poem” in the prompt, it generated a rhymed poem even when the student’s prompt specified an unrhymed poem. Once in a while, the bots committed the classic error of sacrificing meaning or correct usage in the service of rhyme. Sometimes I could detect the influence of English and American poets from the tradition in the AI poems even when the students did not request a poem “in the style of.” 

I present here a selection of student-engineered prompts, the raw robot poems, students’ own poems connected with the exercise, workshop comments about the robot poems, and a few other observations. Finally, I include some of my students’ overall comments on the exercise and some of my own opinions about the future of AI-generated literature. All the students quoted and named here gave me permission to use their work and their names.

The precursor prompt

Before I began the more creative part of the exercise, I had all the participating students ask ChatGPT to write an unrhymed ten-line poem from a prompt I engineered. The bot was to write a poem about a man named Sam who encounters a wolf while hiking in the woods, incorporating the words “gray,” “the smell of green weeds,” “teeth,” “gun,” “afraid,” “run,” “yell,” “twilight,” “safe.” All the robot poems were different!

Samples from the multi-step exercise

English major Diamond Warney offered ChatGPT this prompt: 

No rhyme scheme. Ominous and foreboding mood – “Something is coming. Use the verbs ‘devour,’ ‘drown,’ ‘mourn,’ ‘sleep’ and ‘drive.’  Use the adjectives ‘godly,’ ‘delicious,’ ‘heavenly,’ and ‘pungent.’ Use elements of different religions and faiths. Use the words ‘purple,’ ‘garlic,’ and ‘hospital.’ Use the phrase, ‘Richie, don’t be late for dinner.’” Diamond underlined the phrases in the raw ChatGPT poem that she included in her original poem, and she underlined those raw phrases (or their revisions) in her follow-up poem.

Here is the raw ChatGPT poem generated from Diamond’s prompt:

untitled

In shadows cast by gods of old and new,
An ominous veil, foreboding, weaves its view,
As whispers 'cross diverse faiths, they fly,
The harbinger of change, impending nigh.

Devouring stars, a cosmic tempest looms,
Religions' ancient scripts in heavenly tombs,
They drown in sacred waters, souls in mourn,
While deities in slumber, await their cosmic turn.

From east to west, the chariots of fate do drive,
A pungent scent of garlic, offerings alive,
Yet Richie, don't be late for dinner, pray,
For in this mystic hour, worlds may fall away.

Purple shrouds the horizon, darkness to distill,
A hospital for hope, a reckoning, and will.

Of this poem, Diamond remarked, “The first and last lines are interesting and could be reworked and added to a better work. I also like the line, ‘Richie, don’t be late for dinner, pray.’ I didn’t think about praying before meals when I wrote the prompts. I think ChatGPT could be used to connect ideas you had but didn’t realize were related. The bot didn’t pick up on tone and literally used the words in the poem, but there are some ominous images in here like the mass of purple on the horizon. The bot also connected some of the words that I used in the prompt, like garlic and pungent.”

A few observations from me as instructor:

My take here is that the AI knew many stock phrases about spirituality and the cosmos and churned them into a rhymed sonnet even though Diamond didn’t ask for a sonnet. The program mostly used Diamond’s key words in the order she listed them in her prompt. It did not use the word “godly,” but did use the word “god.” 

Below is the follow-up poem Diamond created incorporating some AI-generated phrases. These are underlined.

Kitchen Sink 

By Diamond Warney

Babies left behind 
by gods of yesterday and today
at fire stations, on doorsteps, in pews
reaching out plump hands 
trying to catch the stars.
The only sign the gods were ever there.

My mother left me
in a gas station. I drank warm fuel from the pumps
and got high on the smell of Black & Mild’s.

In death, our atoms spread 
to become tiny pieces of everything.
We are beautiful and cosmic. 
We are ourselves again. 

You said you knew I was trouble
from the way I drive, with my head out the window
devouring stars and flies. 
No one taught me to stay inside the lines

So drown me in the sacred waters 
your mother bathed you in
before you grew out of the kitchen sink. 
Maybe then, I’ll know how to be loved. 
Maybe then, I will be cleansed.

A few observations from me as instructor:

Diamond’s new poem cries out in sympathy for discarded and abandoned children whose only solace, sadly, comes from a mysterious connection to the universe. Then she shifts to a literary speaker who is an outsider, a foundling left at a gas station and who knows the world from gas station odors, such as the smell of tobacco and gasoline. The voice then speaks as an adult who still sees herself as an outsider evoked in part by the image of her dangerously driving with her head out of a car window.

Aliyadeth Griffiths, an English major, did a turn-about. First, she wrote her own poem on the theme of striving, critically assessing the self in the mirror, and incorporating the sentences, “Be more. Do more.” 

Are You Satisfied Yet?

By Aliyadeth Griffiths

As I look at myself in the mirror,
Reflections of all I could be watch me intently,
Their eyes gazing with avid curiosity.

They haunt the bathroom mirror,
With a sinister smile plastered across their face. 
Like lurking shadows, they taunt me. 
“Be more. Do more.” They breathe against my neck.
In return, I stare at my decaying appearance.
My skin, fractured and pale, crumbling under my touch,

The dark circles underneath my eyes rise as I try to smile,
My hands trembling from fatigue.
“Be more. Do more.” They whisper again, their cries louder this time, 
The voices of the expectations echoing on the reflection,
Reminding me that I am meant to be nothing but perfection. 

The bones in my body creak loudly as I stand,
Aching and frail, I stare at all the work that haunts me in my sleep.

I can always do more. 
I can always be more.
I can always work harder than I ever have before.

The voices in the mirror seem pleased by my response,
As I turn away from my reflection,
My body collapsing on the floor.

Aliyadeth’s own poem speaks through graphic and even ghoulish imagery that invokes feelings of self-criticism and self-condemnation, and it includes a strong charge to try even harder to achieve better things. There emerges an interesting dialogue with the self in the mirror.

After composing her own poem, Aliyadeth provided this prompt to ChatGPT. “Write a horror 22-line poem about being a burnout high achiever, including the phrase, ‘Be more. Do more.'” She also asked the bot to create a title. Here is what the robot wrote. 

Whispers of the Abyss: The Burnout's Lament

In shadows cast by fractured dreams, I dwell, 
A burnout high achiever's cursed spell, 
Once driven by the whispers of success's lore, 
Now trapped within a labyrinth of endless chore.
Be more. Do more. The mantra drilled in bone, 
A relentless pursuit, a heart turned stone, 
I climbed the pinnacles of acclaim and might, 
Only to find the abyss in that blinding light.
Frenzied steps echoed, accolades in tow, 
Yet the void within grew with every glow, 
A phantom grin masked the wearied soul, 
As I danced on embers, an unholy toll.
Be more. Do more. The voices never cease, 
A crescendo of torment, a maddening peace, 
Shadows stretch, merging with fractured mind, 
In this twisted symphony, where hopes unwind.
Reflections leer, distorted and askew, 
A burnout's tale, a nightmare woven true, 
Haunted by echoes of an insatiable roar, 
Be more. Do more. Until you're no more.

Here are peer comments on Aliyadeth’s two poems.

From Maura Mealy, a psychology major: 

As always, your work is stellar! As much as I hate to say, I enjoyed an aspect of the bot poem, the repetition in the “Be more. Do More.” The lines were surprising from ChatGPT, but it was part of your original prompt! Your actual poem blew the AI out of the water. The actual narrative and story felt realistic and relatable. The repetition in this felt much more natural and flowed better in the poem, and it was just, in general, more of an enjoyable read. The AI gets bogged down in trying to use fanciful words while you actually utilize descriptors to move the poem along. Great job, as always!!

From Zakee Aleem, a finance major:

The poem drafted by AI was surpringly good even tho still void of so much emotion or even a setting. I think it somehow works because the prompt lends itself to a cold poem void of love and affection. Your poem is much more emotional and I can really place myself in this poem much easier. Great work!

A few observations from me as instructor:

In the bot-generated version, I heard echoes of Byron, Shelley, and Poe. The AI poem had a drumming rhythm and remorseful tone that suited the subject and the injunction to “Be more. Do more.” 

Every so often, the bot would come up with a very sophisticated line. Malachi Solomon, a general studies major, told the bot to write an unrhymed sad poem with these terms: “kick, punch, stupid, good, honest, helpful, caring, fragrant, bang, uncle.” Although the AI poem was filled with the stock observations and persistent rhyme, the robot did come up with one terrific example of anthimeria (use of one part of speech as if it were another): “A kick to the heart, a punch in the think.” “A punch in the think.” What a great phrase. It evokes a harsh and shocking assault to the mind. While Malachi did not decide to use that phrase in his follow-up poem, I have to give AI some props for generating it. Makes me wonder what was going on in the think of the program. 

How beneficial is ChatGPT to you as a poet?

I posed this question to the class, and here are some of the students’ responses.

From Anna Bokarev, and English and writing major:

To me personally, I don’t think ChatGPT will be all that beneficial. In fact, I found it really difficult to workshop the poem that ChatGPT spit out for me. It didn’t really have a tone or voice, and workshopping that into the poem required me to tear it apart and delete most of it. I also wasn’t the biggest fan of the phrases it used. Some of them were pretty interesting, but they were all so surface level that I couldn’t really incorporate them into a narrative-styled poem. ChatGPT was doing a lot of telling but not a lot of showing. 

I also just think reading the work and finding inspiration from real writers is a far better way to do it than consulting ChatGPT. There’s voice and passion in the work of human writers, which I believe is what ultimately inspires a writer. For now, I’d rather avoid the tool at all costs. It seemed to make my writing process more difficult and dull.

From Grace Dhankhar, a computer science major. Grace was one of the students who opted out of the ChatGPT experiment:

Personally, I am very against the use of AI tools like ChatGPT, and I have very strong feelings about it, but I understand that people are going to use it regardless of my opinion of it. With that being said, if people are going to use it, I think that it would be a cool tool if someone wanted to find a new way to say something or a new phrase, since some of the phrases the AI came up with were sort of eloquent, but I would absolutely never rely on it to create anything actually creative. With all of the examples shown in class, the human poem or revision of the poem is so much better and less nonsensical since the AI couldn’t really put together coherent thoughts together.

From Aliyadeth Griffiths, English major: 

For me, ChatGPT has always been more hindering than helpful, especially when it comes to the writing process. I find that reading the bot’s writing before coming up with my own often confuses me, because of its excessive eloquence, along with feeling as if I can’t use any idea the bot might’ve come up with because of the questionable ethics. I also don’t particularly enjoy using even one line from it, as I feel like I’m stealing from the authors the bot has been fed. 

While I am not completely against ever using AI (I feel like there is no point in being so against it—this is the way technology moving forward, and there’s no point in trying to fight it; especially when it is being used so often, by so many people and organizations), but I don’t particularly enjoy it. It feels wrong, as we can’t make sure which of these authors would actually be okay with their work being used this way. While I do think it’s crazy how far technology has come (for better or for worse!), it feels wrong to use it, especially with the writers’ strike going on as writers are not being paid enough to make a living. 

[Note: The Writers Guild of America strike, which began on May 2, 2023, was still going as of the writing of this post in late August 2023.]

From Maura Mealy, psychology major:

I think it’s essential to make the distinction that ChatGPT/AI models like it should be used as tools and not solutions. We talked in class about how these models are fed information and language from great literary sources, like Poe or Wordsworth or whomever, but anyone can feed data into these models. You can tell the AI 2+2=100 enough times, and it’ll believe it. When using it to generate ideas or references, it’s super critical to fact-check them, especially when using it in a creative sense. We saw some fascinating lines come out of the AI poems from the class exercise, some of which didn’t totally suck. While the chance the AI-generated those lines entirely on its own is high, I still feel the need to do a quick Google search to check if these “good lines” were plagiarized material/lines someone else had fed into the machine. 

In the context of writing poetry, this is not a useless tool. It can come up with pretty words/fancy phrases if you are looking for some old-school inspiration. The narratives it generates are straightforward and basic, with surface-level meaning. I feel like most poets seek a deeper meaning behind the pretty imagery used, which the bot just couldn’t create. 

From a majority of students in the class:

The class suggested that I try this exercise next year because they said that the bots will change and people’s perceptions about large language models and other forms of AI will also change. 

Some perspectives on the future of writing and AI:

The students’ pushback against the robots and their observations on the dangers of AI gave me faith in the value of human sensitivity and creativity. But the exercise also made me fearful. ChatGPT did occasionally come up with good lines. The large language model was built on the DNA of the literary tradition, and thus was more learned that the students or me or anyone. It suffered no gaps in education or memory. True self-expression grows out of subjectivity and that oddness that puts the stamp of individuality on a writer’s voice. Can a machine ever duplicate that individuality, or if not duplicate it create a new individuality altogether?

I am concerned, as many others are, that facile AI creations might dominate the arts or “popular culture” (whatever that is). Will the bot scribes, in time, coax us into accepting their recombinations and mutations of preexisting literature, no matter how elegant and respectful of the human condition that preexisting literature is? Will AI-generated literature become so widespread that we accept its verbiage as literature?  Or, more concerningly, might AI create new believable individualities that produce real poetry? 

This is not the first time that human ingenuity has unleashed great powers for human benefit or harm. Consider the printing press, the radio, the telephone, the internet. Think of the atomic bomb, gain-of-function viruses, human-caused climate change. Then think of increased freedom of expression, nuclear nonproliferation treaties, laws (heeded or not) against chemical and biological warfare, medical progress, the fight against global warming. Reflect on how effective AI already is for speeding along propaganda and untruth. In the midst of doomsday threats, the prospect of AI-created poetry seems barely worth the worry. Depending on how seriously AI dominates, poets and writers can resort to samizdat. It would not be the first time writers had to do that.

You can read Lynn Levin’s poem, “Sam Shipper and the Rock: Fiction Writing 101” in Superstition Review‘s Issue 6. Additionally, her guest post, “Beloved, Open Your Door” can be read on our blog.

As a Poet, I Have Some Questions: A Guest Post by Marilyn McCabe

I have been thinking again, as I often do, about poetry as an inquiry.

book of poetry

I was staring at my blank page, so this was, in that moment, an incitement: What am I wondering about? I don’t mean literally a question that could be answered by research. I mean an opening of some sort, an uncertainty that can barely be articulated, a yearning or a bafflement that is deeply rooted in my experience of living.

In that moment, I idly thought and ended up scribbling “I wonder why against the dim light and gray sky the tree across the street seems to burn even brighter.” Yes, I could probably answer that question with some research into the effects of light and color and optics, but the possibility that some things can seem more clear in unclear situations opened something. I did feel like I could muddle around in the space created there. Between image and question, I could ease into a creative space.

Trying to feel my way into my own questions is also a useful exercise as I grapple with a collection of newer poems struggling to work together. Can I discern in my recent poem attempts what are my questions, where is the focus of my concern? I ask myself that because if I can better understand my questions, I hope to better hone my poems in the revision process. I suspect that from a far enough vantage point, a common concern will emerge from a large number of those poems. And if I can catch that whiff of inquiry, a path will be cleared to create a collection that coheres not around obvious theme but rather around a deep question.

By asking myself to define my question, I may risk writing poems that are ghastly earnest and stiff with self-conscious thought. To be too aware of where my head is at can block the whole process entirely, creation and revision (as revision itself is a creative process).  It’s almost like I have to pose a question and then hum loudly over my own thoughts, distract myself by doing the dishes or mopping the floor, let any response drift in and fade off, leaving sticky things behind: a bit of spider web, a crumb of chocolate. From those bits, I can work.

Do all poems have to have an inquiry behind them? I suppose this is arguable. But deep down inside, I think so. Sometimes though you have to dive deep beneath the veils of your own work, behind the imagery, the humor, the distractions, the voice, the masks, the showing off, to catch yourself peering out, to read your eyes. What do you fear? What do you hope? How do you live?

Meet the Interns: Ashley Goodwin, Poetry Editor

Meet the Interns: Ashley Goodwin, Poetry Editor

This semester, Superstition Review is highlighting the Editors producing Issue 32. Today, we got to know Ashley Goodwin, a Poetry Editor for Issue 32.

SR: What are your plans for after graduation?
AG:
To pursue a career as a business data analyst while pursuing my passion for writing.



SR: What are you currently reading?
AG:
“The Sundial” by Shirley Jackson.

SR: What is your hidden talent?
AG:
Writing was my hidden talent.


SR: What are some of your hobbies?
AG:
Writing, working out and cooking.

SR: Describe your perfect Saturday morning
AG:
Make an omelet, with some decaf coffee and write.


SR: What is one place you’d like to travel to?
AG: I’d like to travel to Switzerland.

SR: What’s your favorite midnight snack?
AG: Pasta.

Follow Ashley on Instagram and keep following to see her work in Issue 32!

Letter Review Prize Launches for July-August

Letter Review has launched their bimonthly Short Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Manuscript Prize for July-August. The contest has a total prize pool of $3800, and includes publication for the winners.

In each of the four categories, there are three winners who are published, promoted across social media channels, and split the prize pool.


Letter Review Prize for Short Fiction
Three winners are announced who are published, accompanied by an attractive original commissioned artwork. Winners share in the $1000 total prize pool. Twenty writers are longlisted and ten writers are shortlisted. All entries are considered for publication, and for submission to the Pushcart Prize and other anthologies.
Entry Fee: $20 for one submission, $35 for two submissions ($5 in savings), and $45 to enter three ($15 in savings).
Dates: Open now, closing August 31 11:59 p.m. ET.
Word Length: 0 – 5000 words.
Details: Open to anyone in the world. There are no genre or theme restrictions.

Letter Review Prize for Nonfiction
Three winners are announced who are published, accompanied by an attractive original commissioned artwork. Winners share in the $1000 total prize pool. Twenty writers are longlisted and ten are shortlisted. All entries are considered for publication, and for submission to the Pushcart Prize and other anthologies.
Entry Fee: $20 for one submission, $35 for two submissions ($5 in savings), and $45 to enter three ($15 in savings).
Dates: Open now, closing August 31 11:59 p.m. ET.
Words: 0 – 5000 words.
Details: Open to anyone in the world. All forms of nonfiction are welcomed including: Memoir, journalism, essay (including personal essay), fictocriticism, creative nonfiction, travel, nature, opinion and many other permutations.

Letter Review Prize for Poetry
Three winners are announced who are published, accompanied by an attractive original commissioned artwork. Winners share in the $800 total prize pool. Twenty writers are longlisted and ten are shortlisted. All entries considered for publication, and for submission to the Pushcart Prize and other anthologies.
Entry Fee: $15 to enter one poem, $27 to enter two (save $3), and $35 to enter three (save $10).
Dates: Open now, closing August 31 11:59 p.m. ET.
Lines: 70 lines max per poem.  
Details: Open to anyone in the world. There are no style or subject restrictions.

Letter Review Prize for Manuscripts
Three winners are announced who have a brief extract published, receive a letter of recommendation from the judges for publishers, and share in the $1000 total prize pool. Twenty writers are longlisted and ten are shortlisted.
Entry Fee: $25 to enter one submission, $45 to enter two (save $5), and $60 to enter three (save $15). 
Dates: Open now, closing August 31 11:59 p.m. ET.
Words: Please submit the first 5000 words of your manuscript, whether it be prose or poetry.
Details: Open to anyone in the world. The entry must not have been traditionally published. All varieties of novels, short story collections, nonfiction and poetry collections are welcomed. Manuscripts which are unpublished, self published, and some which are indie published will be accepted. Review full entry guidelines for further details. 

The judges will be Ol James and Kita Das.

All entries are marked blindly to ensure fairness for all writers. All contest entries are considered for publication, and for submission to the Pushcart Prize and other anthologies. Read some previous submissions here.

Entry is open to anyone. To enter, visit https://letterreview.com/information/.

The contest closes August 31 11:59 p.m. ET.


Letter Review is a literary magazine with a mission to publish new work, foster a supportive creative community, and help writers with all matters related to being published, performed and produced. Letter Review promises to pay writers professional rates and seeks submissions from writers across the globe. Letter Review is a proud member of CLMP and adheres to the CLMP Contest Code of Ethics. Letter Review features interviews with professional writers, publishes helpful information, runs competitions with monetary prizes, and remains open to unsolicited submission of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Superstition Review Submissions Open

Superstition Review Submissions Open

Superstition Review

Superstition Review is open to submissions for Issue 31! Our submission window closes January 31st, 2023.
Our magazine is looking for art, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Read our guidelines and submit here.

A photo of Jessica Lawson.

Jessica Lawson’s Gash Atlas: An Interview


Winner of the Kore Press Institute Poetry Prize, Jessica Lawson’s new poetry collection Gash Atlas is both beautiful and devastating. Combining sexual violence, history, and the speaker’s own complicity, Lawson creates a twisted mirror of our own world. Suffusing this world is the figure “Christopher Columbus,” a villain personifying a long legacy of colonization and current political terror. Columbus’s lines are filled with haunting references: “there is no turning the globe can make away from me… The fake news says there is no / oxygen in space, but anywhere is breathable if you know who to pay.” This is a collection that lingers.

Gash Atlas gives us a map of words—the physical and philosophical language—to navigate a visceral reckoning. History and the present move insidiously through bodies that serve as “soft / places to plant  menace.” There is relentless difficulty, complexity, setbacks, toughness, rage. There’s hard humor alongside the exhaustion of everyday fear. Actual and symbolic horror, borne and delivered through the tender precarity of motherhood and violently performative femme-presence, show us the unsustainable cost of institutional force. How intimate it is, how prevalent, how invasive even to one’s own private thoughts—“I have a fantasy of lying down in snow and not being.” Jessica Lawson’s poems, images and stagings take the pulse of existence and offer a bold, intimate conversation that shows us just how close we—humans—are to the ultimate wreck, if we continue charting our world according to the persistent peril of ignorance.

Khadijah Queen, author of I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On

Jessica Lawson’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Entropy, The Wanderer, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. Gash Atlas is her first book. To learn more about Lawson, visit her website.

Behind every great man/ is too much forgiving/ and an awl of blood” writes Jessica Lawson in Gash Atlas, a collection that erodes the statue Christopher Columbus has erected like a gash in each subjectivity colonized by powerful men. Lawson has given us poems that strike a balance between daring to ask the urgent questions and posing them with the care of one who knows how language often operates as a colonial mode.

Raquel Salas Rivera, author of lo terciario/ the tertiary and while they sleep (under the bed is another country)

To purchase Gash Atlas, go here.

We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Lawson’s collection. This interview was conducted via email by our Blog Editor, Brennie Shoup.


Brennie Shoup: What inspired you to create Gash Atlas?

Jessica Lawson: I had multiple moments of inspiration, or at least motivation, that defined this project for me. The first was the 2016 election, which transformed my previous plans to write a manuscript about maps into a project that was much more directly political. I began to accrue poems about the terror of that current moment, as well as the violent histories informing it. The character of an antagonist emerged, who would later become Christopher Columbus. Then a second defining moment came, this time more quietly but perhaps more powerfully. It was when I realized that my book wasn’t just, or only, about Trump, but was about the complicity of my own speaker in the violence he was performing. The book didn’t really come together for me until I did the difficult work of problematizing the voice through which the book itself is coming, letting the book question its own speaker. The book and its composition, in real time, became about strategies for fighting against a system that imbues one’s own subject position. It’s why I gave the book an epigraph that came from a protest slogan by liberal white women, and attributed it to Columbus. My book is about maps, about violence, about Trump, and about white womanhood, and I realized each of these through the act of writing it.

BS: Your collection includes what’s been described as visual and poetic “maps.” Would you be able to discuss why you used the forms you did in this collection?

JL: Visually experimental literature is something I’ve been passionate about for a long time, and is reflected in a lot of the work I’ve already published. I think there is sometimes a misconception that visual literature, or experimental literature more broadly, is necessarily apolitical, and I’d love to see that change. Visual and hybrid poetry gets associated with a messed-up school of poetic elitism that uses “experiment” as a way of looking down upon any readers who can’t (or don’t wish to) understand it. And while there are absolutely writers who create experimental literature that way (those are the boring ones), there is also a rich history of activist writers who use experimentation to activate their texts and their readers, jolting us out of our seats by demonstrating that this is not business as usual. So, that’s a big part of why the forms of these pieces are so important to me. Sometimes, the political needs of the time necessitate breaking away from the forms we’ve inherited. Sometimes, when the world feels like it’s breaking apart, the pages and words need to break with it.

BS: Gash Atlas examines both past and present atrocities, with a particular focus on Christopher Columbus. Could you describe what your research process looked like?

JL: I was researching for this book long before I ever knew I’d write it. I remember years ago learning that Columbus was a terrible navigator, that he thought that the globe was shaped like a pear (or breast) rather than a sphere, that he wholly mistook the place he landed for an entirely different continent. I didn’t know I’d ever be using those bits of information to write poems, but once I decided to include Columbus in the book, this entire set of trivia flooded back in. From there, most of the other research had to do with the present moment I was writing in. I wrote about the United State’s opposition to the U.N. resolution banning the death penalty for homosexuality as it happened. I felt like my book wasn’t just reaching back into a history I’d already learned, but sprinting frantically forward after history as it was happening. The very last poem I put in the book, days before my draft was due to my press, responded to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. I was scared as I wrote it, both about what had just happened, and about having to let go of the manuscript before Trump left office. In a way, it feels like he never did.

BS: Do you have plans for future poetry collections or novels?

JL: I’m currently working on a second book of poems (though, like Gash Atlas, it includes hybrid elements that sometimes complicate its status as poetry). It’s about the body’s relationship to money, sexuality, and trauma. I’m getting pretty far along: the structure is falling into place, and a substantial portion of the poems have been written. Now I’m working on making the space to really look at it and push it toward completion (which is a challenge to do while I’m teaching four classes and raising three children). I’m excited and scared about it, which makes me think I’m where I need to be.

An Evening with Rita Dove, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet

An Evening with Rita Dove, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet


Currently a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Rita Dove is coming to give a lecture at ASU’s Tempe campus. Called “An Evening with Rita Dove,” this event will be the highlight of ASU’s second annual Humanities Week. This is a series of special events that celebrate how students and faculty are exploring human adventure across culture, time, and space.

Born in 1952, Rita Dove has won the Pulitzer Prize, the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and others. She has written extensively; her most notable works include her poetry collections Thomas and Beulah (which won the Pulitzer Prize), Playlist for the Apocalypse, and Collected Poems 1974 – 2004. Although many of her awards relate to her poetry, Dove has also written essays, songs, a play, and a novel.

Dove’s lecture is free and open to the public; it will take place on Tuesday, October 18, at 7:00pm in the Roskind Great Hall. Go here to learn more and register!

A picture of Amsterdam University College.

Amsterdam University College Interviews SR’s Poetry Editors

Pictures of Amsterdam University College’s creative writing students


Amsterdam University College’s two creative writing classes are hoping for hands-on experience with literary magazines by reading through Superstition Review’s poetry submissions. They’ve interviewed SR’s poetry editors—Madison Latham and Au’jae Mitchell—to better understand what SR looks for in a poem, how they balance reading submissions between them, and to get to know them. Some responses have been edited for clarity.

Amsterdam University College: What are your criteria for choosing poems?

Au’jae Mitchell: My main criteria for choosing poems is rooted in three questions: Does it incite feelings inside me? Does it feel like the poem has something important to say? And is it unique? A poem or collection of poems that has a positive answer to all three of these questions is one that I contend for and am passionate about. Poetry is an artistic form of expression that ranges in structure and execution, but every poem, despite this diversity, can accomplish absolutely powerful things.

AUC: Do you discuss with one another what you choose or do you split work between the two of you? How long does it take for the two of you to agree? What’s the collaboration aspect between you?

Madison Latham: We use a platform called Submittable. Our founding editor, Patricia Murphy, assigns us poems to read through and vote on. We vote on the same poems and meet with each other—as well as Patricia at the end of September—and discuss the poems we voted yes on.

AUC: Do you consider the poets’ experience or amount they’ve published?

ML: We publish both emerging and established authors. This could range between one and a hundred previously published poems, to someone who is a part of an MFA program.

AUC: Is there a limited number of pieces you can publish in a given issue?

ML: There is no cap for how many authors we will take. In previous issues, it has ranged from 10-15, but we decide based on the poet and the collection of poems they have submitted. We may publish one of their poems, or all of their poems. It can vary, but there is no set number during a reading period.

AUC: To what extent do you edit the poems before publishing them?

ML: We do not. There are no revisions accepted for poetry submissions. If a poem needs revising, we vote against it. We get so many submissions that we always have enough polished poems to publish.

AUC: Is there any content that you refuse to publish?

AM: We do not publish harmful, disparaging, or discriminatory content.

AUC: How do you decide on the order in which the poems are published? 

ML: Poetry is published in the issue alphabetically by the author’s first name. Each author receives a page that includes their bio, headshot, selected poems, and an audio recording of those poems. Issue 29 demonstrates how the poetry section is organized.

AUC: How many submissions do you get in a submission window?

AM: This semester we received more than 422 submissions in poetry. These were narrowed down to 55 submissions to consider for Issue 30 of Superstition Review.

AUC: Do you write poetry? 

ML: I do! I finished my capstone in poetry at ASU last semester (Spring 2022). I still write poetry in my free time, but I also enjoy reading work by other poets—which is why I wanted this position.  

AM: I do write poetry! I write poetry in my free time between research for my Master’s program and my narrative writing. It is very hard for me to sit down and write poetry, so most of the poetry I write I jot down in my notes at spontaneous times during any given day and build upon that initial thought.

AUC: Is there anything you’d like to add?

ML: Thank you for your interest in SR and our work! We accept submissions from any creative writer that is not an ASU undergraduate. Our submission period for Issue 30 has closed, but we will begin accepting submissions for Issue 31 in January 2023. 

AM: To any aspiring poets, writers, or artists, I encourage you to consider submitting to Superstition Review. And to all creative minds out there considering putting themselves and their work “out there” for consideration, I believe in you and what you can do!


AUC’s creative writing classes consist of 25 students, each with different majors and many from international backgrounds. Later, they will be selecting poetry from Superstition Review‘s submissions, which will appear on our blog!