Join Superstition Review in congratulating past contributor and Carol Brown Award-winning poet Cameron Barnett for being featured in the Poetry Society of America‘s poetry series, “Saying his Name.” The series is curated by Terrance Hayes and focuses on how the story of Emmett Till’s murder in the 1950s has influenced a new generation of black poets. Emmett Till was just a child at the time of his lynching and his story is still intimately tied to many people’s perceptions of what it means to be a young black boy in America. Cameron’s poem is titled “Emmett Till Haunts the Library in Money, MS” and touches on the invisibility with which black boys learn to navigate the world, a poignant and bitter dissection of the way black authors have been tucked aside and forgotten over the years. Check out the poem for yourself here.
Essay as Solid Object
On July 18, 1974, Pete Seeger wrote to me: “Dear Dave: Thanks for your letter and the magazine. Please believe me, in a very short while most individuals’ names are forgotten. But the work we do will play a part in the future, for good or bad. And the work that millions of people must now do is to realize that it is they who are important, not a few well known individuals. I hope that you in your writing can make people proud of themselves and help them get off their asses as they will if they would only realize how effective each one of us can be if we want to. Best Wishes, Pete Seeger.” Underneath he wrote, in script, his tag line, “Take it easy, but take it.” Here’s the context: I was the co-editor of my high school history magazine, with Rob Steele (first and last names synonyms), and Rob agreed with my dedicatory desire.
I sent a copy of our magazine, a ragtag issue of mini-essays mostly indicting Nixon, though I wrote a mixed review of the recently released Planet Waves by Bob Dylan for, I now imagine, without a great deal of ballast, some arty cred. It was smart and committed for seventeen year olds, and Pete Seeger’s response—I don’t have a copy of my undoubtedly sincere letter—is a redoubt of his reputation for being a good guy. And, as you might imagine, from my little row house perch in Brooklyn, I was just so pleased that that this icon that I admired politically and musically was encouraging me to write.
In 1974, I had already had experience working in a political campaign. Rob Steele (I’m trying not to say it again) and I were co-managers of canvassing for the McGovern campaign in our Brooklyn district. This says something about our dedication and perspicacity, or the terrible organization of the campaign. There have been moments over the last 45 years when I’ve thought, “how was he supposed to win with a couple of 15 year olds directing his canvassing?” In any case, I went on to work for the campaigns of Bella Abzug and Ramsey Clark, and got into the habit of thinking that throwing my heart into the campaigns of those who were throwing their hats into the ring meant inevitable heartbreak. These were the campaigns of, to use Leonard Cohen’s phrase, “beautiful losers.”
My next directly political foray was working for the Sanctuary organizing committee in Syracuse in 1982-3. It was mostly a group of nuns and me meeting and trying to find a way to use the upstate Catholic churches to give safe have to political refugees from Guatemala and Nicaragua. Anyone remember all that, or has all of this faded into the morass of Reagan hagiography?
I’ve almost forgotten one other early episode: I was a on a ballot slate in the NY primary in 1977, to be an elector to choose the Democratic nominee for State Supreme Court in NY. I won a slot for undoubtedly obscure reasons—perhaps the perverse people in my district thought I was Swifty Lazar, and spent a quiet few hours months later casting an inconsequential vote.
Since then, my direct action has been limited to political donations, a few marches here and there, signing petitions, and spouting off incessantly about a series of mostly fixed betes noirs: the cupidity of the Republican party, the misery of thinly (if at all) disguised racist, misogynist and homophobic indulgences by the seemingly endless dying white patriarchy. You know: that kind of thing. I am, after all, no less a type than any one else: a progressive New York Jew born of familial connections to the labor movement. A quirky type, yes, even perhaps inconsistent, perchance unpredictable if the barometer is swinging wildly, but mostly close to the set of beliefs I had, lo, those many years ago in Brooklyn.
Now, as for Pete Seeger’s admonition about using my writing, and my own consideration of how politics has figured in my work: the result has been rather indirect, I think, but far from absent. I’m tempted to say to I’m not a political writer until I realize that I’m not at all an apolitical writer—far from it. My politics, which is to say my political self is too essential to me, too bound, to ever be too many rooms away from where I’m throwing the children’s hammer down on the walnut of whatever obsession I happen to be chasing in an essay. It makes itself known in almost everything I write, even if what I write doesn’t lead with political questions or ideations. The Rosenbergs, Donald Trump, 911 . . . my indignity at various forms of human indignities make themselves known. But to be fair these are all things that I discuss as part of my thinking-feeling self, not as leading subjects.
One of my favorie essays has always been Orwell’s “Why I Write,” just as Orwell has always been one of the polestars of the essay for me—a bit, I suppose, like saying, “I just adore Bach. He’s one of the best.” In any case, in “Why I Write,” Orwell speaks to his reputation as a political essayist and surprises, as an essayist might, an essayist should, by upending our expected sense of his motives. First he describes his sense of the political, telling us that no book is apolitical, and that he means the word in the widest sense, as the “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after” which can manifest itself in so many ways, in deeply personal writing, in fact. Along with insisting on his rational, committed, getting people of their asses motives (which Orwell, however, took more ambitiously into a desire to change consciousness), he acknowledges, “All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”
It is precisely in the ability to combine these impulses, sometimes jarring, but hardly contradictory, that great works are born. Think Baldwin, Hazlitt, Woolf’s Room of One’s Own. One of the reasons I love Orwell is his understanding of what he could never be free of: “I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.”
This is one of my favorite passages in the entire essay canon: so clear, self-knowing, resigned to what cannot be changed, what must be. The essay, one comes to almost feel here, is a solid object that can change the world a little through oneself.
Join us in congratulating past Superstition Review contributor and award-winning poet Kathleen Winter on being featured in DMQ Review’s September Virtual Salon. The DMQ Virtual Salon is a series in which authors share poems from their 2020 books. Kathleen released her latest book of poems titled Transformer in June of this year. It is currently on sale through Small Press Distribution. This collection of poems focuses on violence and domestic abuse, the pain that often comes with revisiting the past, and the nakedness with which one must present herself in order to discuss these things. Kathleen uses historical references and a transcendence through physical spaces we are all familiar with in order to craft a narrative that is electric with emotion. Congratulations Kathleen on the release of your new book and for being featured in DMQ Review’s September Virtual Salon!
How to Be More Than One Thing
I’ve been thinking about collaboration as a means of queering. In writing, collaboration queers the traditional artist-as-precious-genius notion by forcing writers to relinquish creative control while still in the midst of creating. It queers the solitary writing process by exposing our artistic vulnerabilities. It queers the commercial author machine by sharing profit and leaving less room for a promotional cult of personality. It can even queer the almighty “I” on any given page.
I’m currently at work on a collaborative poetry project with Carol Guess about a character named NonMom. Like me, and like Carol, NonMom is queer. Love and sex aren’t structured around binary gender for NonMom. She lives without interest in the heteropatriarchal family structure. She rejects easy categories. Sometimes she refuses a stable identity altogether.
So I’ve also been thinking about what it means to claim that term, queer—and not just as a verb, which academics (including myself) love to do. I’m talking about a concrete, women-loving woman (to use my own life) kind of queerness. Around the time that Carol and I began this project, I also began to claim queerness for myself in concrete ways, though I hesitated to use the term at first, because it was not a term I’d claimed in the past. When I’d been in straight relationships, I had written about queerness a little—but only in “persona” poems. I’m embarrassed to say this now, afraid of suggesting to you that I was in the closet or simply oblivious. Those notions don’t capture my life in the slightest.
As Carol (who is a frequent collaborator) has pointed out to me, a collaborative poem is a kind of persona poem. The reader knows the “I” is compromised. If needed, the author can hide—but she can also write a role for herself. I didn’t want to hide in NonMom. I wanted to enter into something big and complicated with the support of another queer writer. I wanted to create some of the most confessional poems I’ve ever written by claiming not just queerness in NonMom’s voice, but also her refusal to keep quiet. She’s outspoken about her desires—and her lack of a desire for children, which is embraced in her very name. I, on the other hand, am still learning how to speak up about such things.
A former colleague once spoke to me about an acquaintance who identified as a lesbian but married a man, had a child, then divorced the man and fell in love with a woman. It was just that she made such a big deal about being a lesbian, my colleague explained, and then she wasn’t, and then she was again. It was the swerve that bothered her, apparently—the shift from one lane to another, or perhaps worse: occupying multiple lanes. The question that needled: How could anyone be more than one thing?
In collaboration, voices can meld, but they can also clash in fruitful ways. I often teach collaborative work from literary journals and anthologies (like They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing). One of my favorite collaborative essays to teach is “Pink” by Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade. I ask my students why it matters that the essay has two authors. Many admit that they didn’t at first notice there were two authors, while others say they knew because one author calls herself “straight” and speaks of an ex-husband, while another calls herself “a proud gay woman”—though it’s not necessarily clear who is speaking at any given moment in the essay. At this point, someone in class typically reminds everyone that who you’re with doesn’t determine your sexuality. Maybe someone else says sexuality can change. A pregnant pause enters the room. Eventually we conclude that although there are two distinct authors, the lines between their identities and experiences intersect and even blur. After that, my students usually create fantastic collaborative essays that use “I” to challenge the very notion of a stable identity.
On the page I am Rochelle and I am NonMom, who is also Carol, who is also I. We travel a loop through the poem, leaving in the center a wide-open space for being.
We are pleased to announce that former Superstition Review contributor Sigrid Nunez has just released a new book titled What Are You Going Through. Sigrid is a New York Times bestselling author and her newest book is one of seven she has written over her career. What Are You Going Through is narrated by a woman who uses the stories of friends, family members, and even strangers to assess the beauty of human nature through the conversations they hold. The narrator is a passive listener until she gets whirled into a life-changing encounter of her very own. What Are You Going Through is currently available for purchase on Amazon.
“Reading Sigrid Nunez’s absorbing new novel is somewhat akin to having a long conversation with someone who is telling you something very important, but is telling it in a very quiet voice. You have to really pay attention. Be assured, however, that the experience will be worth it. You will emerge calmer, meditative, more thoughtful, as if you have benefited from an excellent literary massage of sorts.” –The New York Times Book Review
Join Arizona State University’s Department of English in welcoming author Jonathan Safran Foer at a virtual event to be hosted on October 1, 2020 from 6:00-7:30 p.m. The goal of the Common Read program is to have incoming freshman read and write about a topic of interest that relates to ASU’s mission for change. For this event, the focus will be on environmental protection, as is described in Jonathan’s book We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. The event, where Jonathan will discuss his book and answer questions from students and staff, is free and open to the public. More information about the event and a link to register for the reading can be found here.
Join us in congratulating our faculty art advisor, Rebecca Fish Ewan, on her new book Doodling for Writers, published by Books for Hippocampus. Rebecca Fish Ewan is an artist and author and founded Plankton Press. In addition, she is currently a professor at ASU and teaches for the landscape architecture program. She has previously written two books, A Land Between and By the Forces of Gravity. Her new book Doodling for Writers features her own cartoons, as well as tips and tricks for authors who want to incorporate drawing into the writing process. It guides the reader through processes that will enhance their writing with prompts and activities to guide the way. Rebecca’s book will be released on October 6th, 2020 and is available for pre-order here.
The Superstition Review blog posts two types of content from past contributors to our magazine, guest posts and Author Talks. Both of these are posted regularly on the blog and are a great way for us to hear authors talk about their writing process and what they have been up to since being featured in the magazine. We now have an easier way for past contributors to submit both guest posts and authors talks to the blog. Both can be submitted by following a link to Submittable, an online submission form found on the front page of our magazine, or by clicking here.
This interview was conducted via email by Summer Blog Editor Kelsey Kerley. It regards Davon Loeb’s memoir, The In-Betweens (published in 2018) as well as his process and experiences as a writer and educator.
Davon Loeb is the author of the lyrical memoir The In-Betweens (Everytime Press, 2018). He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers-Camden, and he is an assistant poetry editor at Bending Genres and a guest prose editor at Apiary Magazine. Davon writes creative nonfiction and poetry. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and one Best of the Net, and is forthcoming and featured in Ploughshares Blog, PANK Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Mauldin House, JMWW, Barren Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. Besides writing, Davon is a high school English teacher, husband, and father living in New Jersey. Currently, he is writing a YA novel. His work can be found here: davonloeb.com and on Twitter @LoebDavon.
The In-Betweens is a coming of age journey about a biracial boy who is trying to navigate the nuances, struggles, and joys of growing up in two different cultures, a Black family and a white-Jewish family, while living in non-diverse communities. This memoir, written as poetic flash and lyrical nonfiction, explores how racial and cultural identity is shaped through family, friends, and community, as well as how each of these factors are deeply complex and tumultuous, especially in the very divided America we have today. And as noted by Paul Lisicky, author of The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship and Later, “…The In-Betweens is awake to the awe of being in a boy, and the beauty and danger of negotiating a culture that wants to drive space between us, inside us.”
Superstition Review: Could you describe the inspiration for your memoir The In-Betweens?
Davon Loeb: My inspiration for my memoir The In-Betweens was really about trust—trusting myself, in my stories, in my craft. Ever since I was young, I was imaginative. Writing this collection was just about going back to being that little kid again, back to a world of make-believe, to when I was encouraged to dream, to tell stories. Sure, the MFA helped develop some skill, but this was about the persistence that followed. I was inspired to do the work, to write, to commit to this collection.
SR: Some of the chapters that stuck with me most as I read your memoir were the one-page chapters, the small snippets of a moment in time that were packed with emotion. Could you please discuss your process for writing the sections?
DL: I wrote those chapters to tell a story, and sometimes that story only grew into a paragraph or a page simply because the memory itself was small; it was a fragment, but the emotion was still like a hot wire. So I tried to lean into single images as support for the frame of those smaller chapters. In the chapter “5-Series BMW”, my stepfather is working on his car in the garage. The BMW is an image in itself but also a symbol for masculinity. Instead of explaining masculinity, the image and the symbol do the work for me. Once there, in the minute of the moment, I need to trust in the storytelling—really believe in the brevity. After finishing the memoir, I realized these flash chapters balanced the book well.
SR: You’ve managed to capture so many unique moments of your own childhood while still making them relatable to the reader, creating a sense of nostalgia and memory of things they have never known. Which memoirs and memoir authors inspired you?
DL: I intentionally wanted to capture memories that readers could identify with. I’m a real believer that it’s sometimes our duty, as writers, to create universality through individual stories. I wanted my readers to experience the same dirt of childhood, to be hand over hand with me, through the joys, the laughter, the tears. I’m so glad it worked, and readers felt a connection to this little boy. In regard to reading memoir, the genre was actually new to me. I started my MFA as a poet and left writing memoir. A reasonably short list of some of my favorite memoir authors are the following: Paul Lisicky, Roxane Gay, Porochista Khakpour, Tyrese Coleman, Chloe Caldwell, Tracy K. Smith, and more names I know I’m missing. I actually read more poetry than memoir, and that list would be too long.
SR: As well as being a writer, you are also a teacher. How has your experience as an educator influenced your writing?
DL: So much of writing is being vulnerable, which is like teaching. I believe the best teachers are the ones who are not afraid to be themselves, not afraid of getting “eye-level” with their students. When writing this memoir, I took the same approach. I said, “This is who I am. I am not scared to show you,” because readers can see through a façade as quickly as students can. But the relationship between the two is also evident in my craft as a writer and educator. I teach Literature and Composition; I read and write all day. This is my life, a muscle always at use. Consider this: as writers, we are constantly changing, a course of lifelong revisions; in the same way, teachers are forever adapting, sometimes in the moment in a classroom or as society shifts, like now, during a health pandemic. Nonetheless, these roles are inseparable; they are equally part of my identity, and I could not do one without the other. Though it can get messy. My students love to Google me, and read my book, which is cool, but sometimes makes for an interesting conversation. The point I try to impress is that I am forever in it, forever learning, forever a student.
SR: One of the main factors of an identity that you discuss in The In-Betweens is race. How did you go about addressing this topic and what did you find most challenging about it?
DL: Discussing race is definitely the crux of a lot of my writing. I try to focus on race as something fluid, rather than stone. I want readers to value my experiences, as well as understand that my experiences are not the tell-all stories of racism or the entire black experience. I felt especially confronted with my race or my blackness in the last couple months, during the protests and public murder of George Floyd. I’m biracial. I grew up in a predominantly white community. While some aspects of my upbringing were discriminatory, I still had a great childhood and adolescence. There’s a duality that exists here, in the danger of being a minority, but also this safety in racial ambiguity. That is challenging to write about, to straddle two cultures. So instead of steering away from that, I drive forward, push to the uncertainty, the in-between of my race, of where I fit in this American narrative.
SR: As an educator, what impact do you think or hope books like your own will have on younger generations?
DL: I hope books like mine will help students who have never read an author that looks like me to realize different authors do exist beyond what they’ve read since starting education. Different stories exist, ones that are similar or dissimilar from their own. I want my students to know that the writing community is incredibly diverse. I believe that if our Nation wants to rewrite its identity, it starts here, with books in schools. As an educator, I really hope, if anything, something I’ve said will inspire younger generations to tell their stories, and know, really know, their stories matter.
SR: One of the most notorious issues in English education is a lack of diversity in the voices and stories children experience in the classroom. Have you seen any indication of a change in this pattern? What steps do you think need to be taken to increase literary diversity in the classroom?
DL: Yes! Education is changing. We need to take some steps away from the Canon. Sure, continue to read and teach Shakespeare, of course, but syllabi and curriculums need to change and adjust the perimeters to what is literature. When I was a kid, my mother required me to read books by black authors, but in school, that rarely happened. So what do we say to the kid who has never read a book with a character similar to them? Do we tell them their stories don’t matter to us? To give an example, there’s a children’s book, Farah Rocks Fifth Grade by Susan Muaddi Darraj, who is a wonderful author, and Farah is the first Arab-American character I have ever seen in a children’s book. I think about that, and it makes me so sad and disappointed. I think about that kid who is Arab-American and has never, ever, read a book about them. I think about the kid who knows nothing about Arab-Americans besides the single narrative often depicted in the media, and that kid maybe needs a book like Susan’s more than the other. For our society to grow, the required-reading list needs to reflect our country. But to get there, for these stories to arrive on our students’ desk, we need education to change as much as publishing needs to change. We need diverse leadership like Lisa Lucas, the Vice President & Publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books, who is reshaping the publishing industry.
SR: In “Thoughts On Hair,” you portray the plight of racially ambiguous and mixed race children attempting to fit in. You emphasize in particular how you have experienced the perception of your race changing based upon how you style your hair. What do you think experiences like that among others say about the way racially ambiguous people are perceived in our society? Do you think this perception has changed since you were a child, and if so, how?
DL: As a child, I struggled growing up in a black family where I was biracial while living in a white community where I was non-white. I was regularly in-between cultures. But I do believe the perception of racially ambiguous people has changed since I was a child. We have always been here; but I think through entertainment: television, movies, sports, books and other media, the focus has shifted toward people of mixed race rather than away from them. While this should not denounce people who are not racially ambiguous, I can barely think of any professional athletes who were biracial when I was a kid. Today, one of the highest paid quarterbacks in the NFL is biracial; he is the face of the NFL. Though that has other implications, it also says something about our society, good or bad. On a personal note, I am interracially married and have a biracial daughter. My wife and I will raise her in a way where we celebrate all of her multitudes, rather than just focusing on her differences.
SR: The In-Betweens was first published in 2018. Now, in late 2020, we have seen a shift in the sociopolitical climate as more and more people are becoming aware of social justice issues and movements. Have you found that reactions to your work have changed now that the present context is so different than it was when you originally published?
DL: Thank you for asking this question. In 2018, my book was important to me, to the friends and family who supported my work, and the small group of writers and editors who valued this collection, some of whom even wrote reviews of The In-Betweens. For them, I am forever grateful. People like Chris Campanioni, Steve Burns, Yi Shun Lai, Roy G Guzmán, and Paul Lisicky, thank you. Now, in late 2020, the shift in the sociopolitical climate has given my memoir a new life, a resurgence. I have always believed these stories of race, identity, and culture were important, but it feels like a greater interest is stirring. I’m not sure what that means—more sales or more reviews or whatever; but I do know that it means my story can reach you and maybe before it could not. That is important and invaluable. I’m fortunate that literary journals and magazines have repurposed and republished chapters of my memoir. These literary spaces have offered a second home to my work. I am grateful for the reviews and interviews that are still happening in 2020, almost two years after publication. Yes, the context has absolutely changed, and my gratitude for the love and support of The In-Betweens is so immense.
SR: This book has much to do with several varieties of learning, from learning about yourself and your family to learning about your greater identity as part of a whole. What is the main take away you want your readers to gain after having experienced all this learning with you?
DL: The main take away I want readers to gain after experiencing this with me is to learn that we are more similar than we are different. I might be of another race, culture, or what have you, but the stories that make me who I am are just like the stories that shape you. My identity is rich, and I’ve learned to love who I am and all that I am through storytelling, through writing this memoir. In a way, we write our own memoirs every day—through photos, videos, posts, calls, and texts, we are forming our memories of life into an order of things. Writing The In-Betweens was my attempt to order my life, to order it with purpose, with an attention to cadence, image, and sentiment. I want you to experience that; I want you to read my book, but I’m okay if you don’t. I would rather you partake in your own memoir, in whatever form it will be, but do it, believe in it, and share it. You’ll realize just like I did that what connects us is stronger than what divides us.
Today we are excited to welcome back poet Sarah Carey on our Authors Talk series. In this podcast, Sarah shares some tips for getting “unstuck” in your creative process. She revisits an unfinished poem and walks us through her process of revision with fresh eyes—giving us some incredible insight along the way.
“Don’t give up, explore the hidden…practice self-love, forgiveness, kindness towards yourself and others, and rest.”
Want to hear more from Sarah? Follow her on Twitter.