Guest Post, Kamilah Moon: Beyond Looking

Beyond Looking: Revealing What’s Hidden in Plain Sight


Kamilah Moon bio photoBearing witness in poetry is about intention, empathy and clarity; the ability to zoom in and out of an emotion or event with a camera’s precision, yet calibrated to the human pulse. I believe it is our charge and bond as poets, and as human beings, to acknowledge and bolster each other as thoroughly as possible. To bear is to be able to carry, to sustain. At our most significant life events, we require a signature, some sort of proof that yes, these people love each other and promise to do so for a lifetime. Someone has accepted a position or calling of great responsibility, standing before others to be sworn in. A precious child has arrived on earth and his or her parents, along with chosen community, have circled in a ritual of dedication to assist in this person’s life journey, agreeing to nurture this child’s spirit and burgeoning potential. And when someone prepares to leave this plane of existence, there is usually a vigil of loved ones, and an official declaration followed by a ceremony honoring that this person was among us and lived.

Bearing witness is an attempt to honor the magnitude of beauty and struggle on our bewitching planet, to affirm as many manifestations of life as possible for each other. It is one of the most crucial, loving and generous things we can offer to another human being and shouldn’t be taken lightly. As poets, we work in the often inadequate medium of words to glean meaning from and give voice to what David L. Ulin calls “the succession of simple moments, the bedrock bits and pieces of reality by which we compose our days.” We turn to craft to build what we hope will be indelible records of existence that address our collective and inextricable fates in a valiant effort to celebrate, explain, interrogate, foster and lament our interactions with the world and all of its inhabitants.

This is not easy work. In fact, my fellow writing friends and writers for centuries have remarked on how foolish we are. What many people spend their entire lives avoiding because of its challenging nature, we willingly sign up for. We stare at voids and imagine what could be. We run back into the hard places and record what it means to endure and escape, or succumb. We document the transformations and the failures. We plumb depths as often as we seek transcendence. We agree to be small in the enormity of the sublime and risk being consumed by it in order to share whatever the results are—a triumph, a close call, lessons of survival. We cull moments of grace, recognize and banish shame, restore dignity. We sign up to be mirrors of treachery and glory, reflecting everything underneath, above, between and within every surface we encounter, literally and figuratively.

The willingness to get lost and the faith to handle what is discovered as a result is essential not only to bearing witness, but to creating something new. And sometimes when something is familiar, we don’t explore it as thoroughly as we should; it can remain hidden in plain sight. Known but not understood, thus valued. A witness interprets and values what he has seen, far beyond simply looking.

Below are two examples of when craft, experience and spirit meet in the creation of poems that unabashedly bear witness. In the first, I retrace my own process of conceiving and composing a poem. The second is an exploration of another poet’s poem.

The first example comes from what I now see as a turning point in my own work. The summer after graduating from Sarah Lawrence, I received a fellowship to attend the Prague Summer Writing Institute. To walk down completely unfamiliar streets and be immersed in language completely foreign to my ears was both delightful and disorienting. Discovery in every sense of daily life would surely lead to new perspectives and ways of bearing witness to my own journey and the journeys of others.

We visited Terezin Concentration Camp. I had no idea of what to expect. The first thing I saw was this huge Star of David looming out of a bed of roses. For a place that had experienced such a harrowing history, it was so pretty and peaceful. We read bios along the walls of those who lost their lives there. Scientists, housewives, musicians…oh the musics lost in that compound! I’d read many accounts of the Holocaust…as I walked around the empty rooms of this former death camp, I knew I had to respond somehow. I wanted the terror to be immediate to someone who didn’t know what happened here, or who knew and had let it become a numb, inert history—which sets up the possibility of return.

I turned to formalism. To enter something this big, I needed a small container to hold part of this outsized grief. Rita Dove calls form “a welcome cage.” I chose the villanelle because of the repetitive nature of the form, building in meaning and impact like an obsessive lullaby (which always tend to be scary, ironically.)

In terms of content, my mind kept returning to a small photograph that had been in a room that had served as a kitchen.  It was a picture of detainees peeling potatoes. How mundane and odd in such a place, was my first thought.  Secondly I thought, “how terrible to prepare dinner for your executioners?!”

My reference point for this kind of sick circumstance is slavery and Jim Crow in America: maids cleaning a bathroom they aren’t allowed to use; mammies nursing children being taught to hate her own children—who miss her presence at home due to long, grueling hours; packing the picnic a family might eat at one of the lynchings depicted on postcards, as if attending a sports event…cruelty, like love, needs no translation and is universal in its reach.

I knew that this photograph was the content—the common, repetitive action of peeling potatoes as the metaphor for the vicious end these people were about to face. Old story, new way to view it; a way to remember the ferocity in order to guard against its resurrection. Simple, direct language. Image-driven, quiet so that the violence screams between the lines.




Ribbons of skin pile at our feet;

we count wet orbs like heads.

Beneath the blades, white meat.


Their kitchens are not kosher, or neat.

The knives engrave our dread.

Ribbons of skin pile at our feet.


They will salt these crops, a doomed fleet

torn from the earth’s cold bed.

Beneath the blades, white meat


to be mashed or boiled, a treat

ravished to nothing but shreds.

Ribbons of skin pile at our feet,


flesh carved in dangling sheets—

slice after jagged slice spread

beneath the blades, white meat.


We work under the glare, a street

of eyes gouged and shed.

Ribbons of skin pile at our feet.

Beneath the blades, white meat.


This poem needed to be a persona poem as the potato peelers/detainees. Writing outside of ourselves and our experiences fully invites imagination and encourages empathy. This could be as simple as writing from a perspective opposite of our own experiences—perhaps someone of a different race, gender or class background. Science fiction writers dare to go even further, imagining spaceships, life on other planets. On occasion, making the decision to inhabit our art as “aliens” regardless of genre is a way to keep the process surprising and our awareness keen.  The empathy required can erect sturdy bridges connecting our humanity, if enough of us are willing to do the grueling work of building them.

Writing this poem was a revelation to me in so many ways. It showed me the importance of being deliberate and listening to what each poem needs to accomplish over any ideas that the ego may have in mind. It made clear how imperative it is to respect a subject’s humanity. Otherwise, a poem can become spectacle without meaning, and come off as gawking rather than bearing witness.

Aracelis Girmay’s poem “on kindness,” is a tour-de-force of bearing witness with such a deep consideration, compassion and respect for herself and for her subject matter that packs an emotional wallop without venturing into a cloying sentimentality.

This poet-witness undeniably interprets and greatly values what she has seen, wielding exceptional lines and imagery that go far beyond simply looking at a scene transpiring outside of her window. It is almost cinematic in quality, with jump cuts and flashbacks. She excuses, implicates and forgives herself in the same poem. She juxtaposes her loneliness with the woman’s loneliness in the street. She acknowledges a kind of falling, and this stranger’s fallen war cry, the haplessness of it that indicts everyone –

I heard a woman screaming
about how she was lonely & so lonely
she didn’t know what she’d do, maybe kill
herself, she said, over & over like a parrot
in a cage, a parrot whose human parent
only taught it that one sentence

-until the poem parachutes open into the soft landing that the boy’s quietly heroic gesture provides to this woman in crisis, which inspires the poet and models for her what is possible.  This poem begins personal and rooted in a specific world-weariness and sweet melancholy that is ultimately hopeful (the attentive sisters, the mail lady’s greeting), veers into a moment of distress that feels intrusive and breeds resentment, admitting that sometimes the agony of others piled on top of our own agony is too much, then proceeds to avalanche into a breathtaking poetic treatise and tribute to the best in the human spirit.

The devotion to bearing witness is why we still have and return to Rumi’s and Hafiz’s timeless testimonies to being human, thousands of years later. It is why we can’t forget Stanley Kunitz “Passing Through”; Philip Levine’s faithful renderings of his brother’s factory worker life that the writing life saved him from; Marie Howe’s tribute and elegy for her brother in What the Living Do; Yusef Komunuyakaa’s decision to face it all—war, love, despair in his poetry collections with such eloquence and lyrical dexterity. It is Cornelius Eady’s bruised elegy for his father, You Don’t Miss Your Water. It is why we are forever devastated and unable to look away from Lucille Clifton’s first few lines in “jasper texas 1998” for James Byrd’s senseless death, chained and dragged behind a pickup truck by racists: “i am a man’s head hunched in the road. /i was chosen to speak by the members/of my body.” It is Sharon Olds’ compassionate, deeply self-aware and astute farewell to her ex-husband and their way of life together after many years in Stag’s Leap; the intergalactic reach yet earthbound realness and radiance of Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars.

We affirm and grant each other worth through paying close attention, selectively using the craft tools we have available to, as poet Beckian Fritz Goldberg writes, “generation after /generation, speak to the broken horse / of the human heart.”

Guest Post, Nicole Rollender: Quiet: What It Means for Your (Writing) Life

When my husband and I recently took a road trip with our two young children, the talking was deafening. As we hit open highway surrounded by mostly trees and hills, my husband tried to play a game. “OK, I’m going to count to 15 and see who can stay quiet,” he said. The record for silence in the car that day was about six seconds.

quiet-area-1450738Silence is an interesting concept. Pre-children, when I was surrounded by too much of it, I created noise and clamor: turned on a fan, tapped my pencil against my desk, hummed Blondie. I rebelled against either its calmness or vastness that forced me to think too much. These days, as a parent of young children who barely let me finish a full sentence or a thought or a line of poetry, silence is a locked room whose key I lost in some dream years ago.

I was reading an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and memoirist Tracy K. Smith on femmeliterate, where she talks about 21st century feminism, being a teacher of language, social responsibility as a poet and how motherhood has changed her writing. She had an insightful take on it, which was that caring for young children has forced her to develop a lightning-reflex creativity and agility – and this new form of response crossed over into her writing process:

I have to pick someone up from school, drop somebody off, etc., etc., so my ritual or my practice is when I have the time, and I know I need to get down to work, I just get down to work. And oddly enough, I think those constraints made me more productive. When I was younger and living alone, I could waste all this time, and I could kind of just tinker with things slowly; now there’s a real hunger when I have the space …

I’ve been thinking about the ways my life changed – mostly since having my second child two years ago. The demands of caring for small children has its many ups (all the firsts, the enchanting laughter, the hugs, etc.), downs (tantrums, projectile vomiting, the aforementioned unceasing talking and activity) and the unexpected (how the energy and needs of two children seems to create its own tornado that only quiets when they’ve gone to sleep). At the end of the day, it’s hard, no, let’s say almost impossible, to push my tired, still-feeling-like-post-pregnancy body and mind into writing and editing mode.

I was reading Amy Clampitt’s poem, “A Silence,” and kept re-reading this part, which shows all the chaos we’re surrounded by (all kinds of disordered things) and how after processing them, a (creative) silence opens:

beyond the woven
unicorn the maiden
(man-carved worm-eaten)
God at her hip
the untransfigured
bluebell and primrose
growing wild a strawberry
chagrin night terrors
past the earthlit
unearthly masquerade

(we shall be changed)

a silence opens

For writing parents, that silence might be different than what it used to be. As I steal time here and there even to write this blog, the dishwasher runs noisily behind me, my daughter is playing a loud game on her tablet and my old cat is meowing for his night food. It’s hard to sink deep into that creative trance I used to get into before when I really did have hours of silence. So it’s two things: It’s writing through the din, and it’s also looking for a space and time to secure that needed and actual silence.

What’s seemingly contradictory to me saying how exhausted I am and how hard it is to write is that this year and early next, I’ve got three chapbooks and my first full-length poetry collection coming out. Ray Bradbury wrote, “We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” This feels true, in that having children opened me up (bodily and spiritually) in a way I hadn’t been before – and both vulnerable and resilient in a way I hadn’t been. I found strength in the ability to grow my children, but also to persevere in my work. But like Bradbury wrote, you need to know how to tap your tired self to let our writing fodder out.

Being a mother writer, I often feel that I shouldn’t ask for help, or that I should be able to nurture my children all the time, and work at the job that pays me a salary, and then also do the writing that fuels my heart. And do it all in the clamor, in the middle of the fatigue. A few weeks ago on a Saturday, I went to the dentist to get two cavities filled (my children were at my parents’ house). When I got home, my lips hung strangely because of the Novocain and I couldn’t speak clearly: Yet the house was strangely silent. It was like floating underwater. I felt hungry. For one hour, I wrote, rewrote and edited in the bright sunlight and was nourished in a way I hadn’t been.

In that same interview with femmeliterate, Smith also talks about being strong enough to know she deserves to take time away from mothering for her creative work. That’s an area where I still struggle, in acknowledging that it’s OK to take time away from parenting, that perhaps it doesn’t have to be at 5 am or midnight, when I should be sleeping. That I can find an easier way to make it work, instead of making it hurt when I take that time:

… it’s really important to find a way to secure that time and space to make the work. As a mother there are so many demands that it’s a genuine struggle to say ok, I’m not going to be a mom for two hours; I’m going to write. But I think it’s essential to do that: enlist somebody to help you with your child so you can be a writer for part of your day. … it’s really important to create security for the writerly self that is a woman and that is an author. Without apology.

Listen to Franz Kafka who wrote, “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” And it seems so simple – find the silent time and the whole world will come to you, so you can translate it into your art. But parenting and writing are never simple, of course, so as I write now into dusk, into squinting through my glasses at this bright screen, with my son calling good night, mama over and over, I commit to writing through the din and then making my own silences (where I can transfigure what world I find).

Nicole’s website

Redivider Journal to Celebrate 10th Anniversary

RedividerIf you are unfamiliar with Redivider, we are a literary journal produced by the graduate students of Emerson College in Boston, and this year we are commemorating our 10th anniversary. Looking back over the past decade, we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished thus far: We’ve published amazing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art since our inception from writers such as Sherman Alexie, Tracy K. Smith, Steve Almond, and Denise Duhamel; we’ve been catapulted into the digital age with the release of our first e-book this past winter, reaching wider audiences than ever; and we created our annual Beacon Street Prize with $500 prizes, for both fiction and poetry, as well as publication—which is open for submissions February 15 to April 30. Each year, we have special guest judges, and we’re thrilled to announce that this year our judges are Amy Hempel for fiction and Heather McHugh for poetry.

With AWP just around the corner, we’re ramping up for a Redivider Birthday Bash— complete with cake, party hats, and piñata— that you don’t want to miss. We will also hold our AWP Quickie Contest which challenges attendees to write a short poem within the span of the conference. The winning entry will be published in our Winter 2013 issue, 11.1, alongside the 2013 Beacon Street Prize winners and our selection of both established and emerging writers.

For our current issue, 10.1, we designed a cover that commemorates some of our favorite covers from the past ten years. It is a simple, yet beautiful, design that showcases what has come before while looking toward the future of our journal. The content includes the winning entries from 2012’s Beacon Street Prize and a breathtaking array of original fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art from Kim Addonizio, Jen Hirt, Diane Cook, and many more. You can read it in print or on any reading device by ordering through Amazon or our website. But, for now, please enjoy an exclusive sneak peak of 10.1–a short fiction piece titled “False Teeth” by Glenn Shaheen right here, the only place you will find it online.

For more details about the Beacon Street Prize, our Redivider Birthday Bash, the fun we’ll have at AWP, submitting your work, or anything else Redivider, check out our website, or find us on Facebook and Twitter.


FALSE TEETHglenn shaheen
by Glenn Shaheen

Sarah loves Halloween. She puts weeks into preparing these parties, putting cobwebs on all our books, fake severed hands in each of our drawers. The parties are always hits. Everybody has Facebook photo albums of them from all different angles. This year Sarah went as a vampire. She got those fangs that they specially make, the really expensive ones. But she left them in even after the party, after Halloween. At first it was funny, like some kind of novelty. Everybody just saying “Oh, Sarah!” and getting back to work. But now it’s almost December. Thanksgiving has passed. I said to her that it can’t be good for her real teeth, to leave those fake ones in for most of the day. I wore mine just during the party and my mouth hurt for like two days. She said that was because I threw my werewolf costume together at the last minute and bought my fake teeth from a gas station. Hers were real art. I said it was probably time to take them out, people are talking. She just raised her arms above her head and said “Blood! I vant your blood!” It’s tough to argue with her when she’s being cute. I can’t stand vampire movies, but when we started dating I told Sarah I loved them. It’s way past the point of no return on that lie. We actually have sex to the Lost Boys soundtrack a lot more frequently than I’d even care to admit. People are strange, thou shalt not kill spilling from the speakers. Jesus. Sarah’s great, she’s not like a goth or anything. But when does that road start? When we fight she wishes aloud sometimes that “her romantic vampire” would just come and take her away. I don’t know how I get jealous of that but I do. Of some imaginary creature that would never exist in a million years. And when we watch any new vampire movie I just get furious secretly. The guys flash teeth and I’m sure she’s getting off on it. I can’t picture my life after her, if she left, but I can feel the air being let out, the pressure letting up. I tell her she’s pretty, she’s the best, there’s no end to my love. “Fangs a lot,” she says.