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by Yusef Qualls-El

I am the revealer of truth
And healer of youthful minds
Spiller of fruitful lines
A spirit of something divine
Not just religious, dig it,
This is something more
Feel it down in your soul
It gets deep in your core
Bold & blatant statements
Shaping up taking form
In a place where there’s no hating
There are poetic pages born
Trying to find a means of escape
But there’s a horn
That’s in the background blazing
Saying “look world, here he comes”
I am the author, like the architect
Of people speaking tongues
I am a poet, so I write
Until me & those pages are one
Symbiotic, co-existing
On one breath from one lung
Co-dependent through life
Until death brings its guns
I’ll let my pen lead & defend me
From all ills at once
And let my pages be my shield
Pen & pad in the front
While my words are my fists
And each phrase is a punch
In a battle for my life,
They are never giving up
Clever witty stuff
Or irrelevant junk
As my heart beats
Each word eternally’ll pump!

Competent to Stand Trial

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by Jamie Laufenberg

Bombarded with visions of the man,
with his unkempt beard and filterless cigarette in hand,
smoke trailing straight up his sleeve,
another satisfied customer stretches his arms and gets up to leave.
The prison yard chiropractor puts on his origami hat.
He strides away quoting the Bible from front to back.
The King James Version word for word,
directed to waiting ears but never heard.
Into a dark room, vacant look in the eye,
muttering incoherent words from mumble to cry.
She hangs in his hand, gripped by the hair, eyes open in dread.
His wife. His life. His Love. He cut off her head.
How he was found guilty I cannot comprehend,
sentenced to prison for life, till he ends up dead.
With a straight face the state’s doctor said he knew what he did.
Though by all accounts they were in love and that’s how they lived.
Another tragic decline in his mental was seen by all.
A professor who started conversations with ghosts in the hall.
Somehow the state said he was competent to stand trial,
while drooling and mumbling, unfocused the whole while.
Said he was a genius and knew how to fake,
30 years later with origami hat and Bible he’s still faking first-rate.
A genius with some things but with no traces of hate,
A 60-year-old man with a paper hat for god’s sake.
The judge, the prosecutor and the doctors in his case
all incompetent or liars. I hope they pay dearly one day.
This wasn’t the only time and they do it straight faced.

What Could Have Been

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by David Armstrong Jones

Feel it coming like a hint of fall in a September breeze
hear it coming in thought-echoes of words
purposed to mask the secrets of the heart

The mind knows it’s coming
but her smell, her touch, her smile
paralyzed, I do nothing

Been gone for awhile now
been holding on to a remnant of a beautiful soul
etched onto my heart

Shocked back to reality by the silence of loneliness

Heart haunted by the ever-so-faint glimmer
of a fire that struggles to remain
what could’ve been

Writers Block: Voices from Macomb County Correctional Facility, Michigan

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Last fall, I traveled to Detroit on a guest invitation from the Hamtramck
Free School to help direct a workshop and discussion at Macomb County Correctional Facility called “Writers Block.” Founded in 2011 through the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project, this weekly meeting between inmates and volunteers has become a place of contact for both groups with new ideas, new models of learning and expression, and for a serious, alternative discourse surrounding poetry, prosody, image, and the line.

One of the many aspects of Writers Block that may seem obvious, but
is moving all the same, is that these writers have decided poetry is not
just a worthwhile, but a necessary endeavor in their lives. Beyond the weekly workshops and prison-approved visits, their only contact with the outside is through the approved cable networks and books in their state- regulated library. Those who want access to paper, pencils, or a typewriter have to save for and purchase them by working for the standard prison-wage of twelve cents an hour, and, as one might imagine, the conditions under which they produce and share work are difficult and tightly regulated.

Still, conversation in those two hours I was present dealt with the philosophy and poetics of the institution we were inside—the “architecture
of control,” as facilitator Jonathan Rajewski would say—with more
awareness than any other workshop I have ever been involved in. Members enthusiastically and critically dissected the intersections of race, class, and the law with poetry itself. The sense of community in the room was palpable, and relationships extended beyond the traditional bounds of writer-to-reader/ writer, forming an inclusiveness that encompassed the wide range of styles, training, and interests of the participants. Any sense of competition in the work only served to bolster the discussion of ideas and the propulsion to create more work in the future, a sort of pedagogical, yet non-didactic cycle lacking any form of ideological exclusion.

The seven poems in this feature come to us, yes, from marginalized, and perhaps, unfamiliar voices. As Rajewski says, many in the group “were told as teenagers they would die in prison.” What’s remarkable is that they “[have] become writers and artists, musicians and teachers.” Here, poetry is both
the artistic end we typically think it is, and also a means toward building
new ways of thinking about one’s life and engaging the others therein. As surrounded as many of us are by poetic infighting, camp divisions, and by the many arguments against the quality and usefulness of poetry in our lives, one might look to the Writers Block to see how poetry and the practice of poetry can create a common space—and that that is only one way that poetry can be, and is, necessary.

Mike Lala, 2013-14 Poetry Editor

***

FROGS IN A DITCH
by James D. Fuson

I’m watching a pair of frogs,
in a drainage ditch,
watch me.
They sit there in the shallow water—
deep to them—
calm, waiting for that bug to fly by to snack on.
I take a step closer and they flee into the drain pipe
and don’t come back as long as I stand here;
so I sit on the stone bench
just off the track.
A small crab spider,
light green, almost white,
crawls on my hand.
It travels across my fingers—
great valleys, steep hills—
stopping to look around,
gauge distance, direction,
and then, for whatever reason,
chooses a direction and goes.
A strong breeze blows and the spider lets loose a silken parachute,
to drift on a zephyr whim.
Behind me, a small flock of birds—
sparrows, starlings, red-winged blackbirds—
peck at the grass
just beneath the gun tower,
unaware of this miraculous ability to fly
through the links in the fence.
Then, the yard closes,
and the frogs and the spiders and the birds come and go,
and I get on my bunk for count.

An Interview with Natalie Eilbert, Editor-in-Chief of The Atlas Review

The Washington Square Review sat down virtually with Natalie Eilbert, the editor-in-chief of The Atlas Review to learn about how she puts together an issue. This interview was conducted over email in the week of 1/19/2014.

ONSQ: When you set out to work on an issue, what are your goals as an editor? Do you think of your publication as having a mission? How does each issue enact that mission similarly or differently?

NE: My original goal as editor of The Atlas Review was pretty simple: I wanted to display the talents and various aesthetics of emerging writers whom I might not have already encountered. I wasn’t bored or miffed by my cohort and peers in this most famous petri dish of culture and art, but I was thirsty to read what the rest of the country was up to as well. I also felt that were I to open up submissions, I’d have to go through some minor hurtles to not let the names of certain authors affect my judgment. Then the solution was simple: We would vet work anonymously, soliciting only a handful of pieces per issue. That became our ethos: the coupling of emerging and established writers would attract perfect strangers to new work. 

Each issue has its own spin on this mission. While we’re pretty draconian about submitters remaining anonymous, we have different ideas of whom we might solicit each issue that steer us in a given direction. What ended up happening—especially in the second and third issues—is that the work accepted early (whether or not it was solicited) subconsciously informed the desired tone for that particular issue. I wasn’t expecting that at all. So then the modes with which we operated were driven—without getting pigeon-holed—by these more pointed nameless desires. Our forthcoming issue (#3), as it turns out, has a several pieces in it about the dissolution of family. That doesn’t define it, and of course, there are many, many exceptions to the rule. But that is certainly there.

Finally I have to emphasize that, while we aren’t interested in names, we have developed a keen interest in identity. There’s this pervading worry sometimes that, once we accept all our contributors, that list will be made up majorly by white men. Yikes. I’m troubled by this notion, but it’s something that I know (or at least hope I know) won’t be an issue if I’m always gearing us away from a uniform voice. As an editor, you’re completely accountable for the kinds of contributors you accept—and an organization like the VIDA count is so important because, well, their main purpose is to tally up the numbers at the end of the year. I want writers of all stripes to know that they’re absolutely welcome, that we don’t subscribe to some secret template of style or character. That’s become so much more important to me than simply vetting blindly.

ONSQ: Point us to some recent work you’ve published that you’re really excited about. What draws you to it?

NE: This is such an unfair question! I’m so excited about all the work we’ve published and feel odd about “shout-outs” so I’ll stick to contributors who were not on my radar at all until the acceptance reveal. Last issue, I was super thrilled to discover the writings of Maria Anderson, who wrote this incredibly penetrating story called “Calfkiller” (run, do not walk to read it); Vanessa Jiminez Gabb is a fantastic poet, so brilliant and frank and hilarious at every turn and she sent in two excellent pieces; Matthew Fee was another fella I hadn’t heard of before, but whose three poems just blew me out of the water with their lyric resonance.

For Issue 3, I’m really, really pumped for John Jodzio, whose piece about a trio of mute soldiers ass-chugging vodka in a post-apocalyptic Philip K. Dick-like world is just outstanding. Wendy Lotterman, a frighteningly intelligent poet, submitted these absolute tour de forces on travel and absence and the internet that I adore all over. Dale Megan Healey broke my goddamn heart with her essay about grieving her deceased mother through the lens of performance artists like Sophie Calle and Tracey Emin who focus on beds/sleep. Soleil Ho sent us this funny, revolutionary essay delivered in the form of instant messaging regarding race conversations on the internet and the classroom. Gah, I could blab about every single piece. I really could. I’m that excited.

ONSQ: What is your favorite part about putting together an issue?

NE: One element that I think is unique to Atlas is that I write personal letters to all accepted contributors. I’m super insecure, and am slightly bothered when my pieces are accepted and the letter is terse and all “Thank you for sending us your work. We love ‘___’ and would like to publish it in our upcoming issue. Best, x.” Why are they taking it? What is their taste? Do they even understand what I’m doing? Probably yes, they do, but TELL ME. Anyway. I really, really, really love writing love letters to the contributors. I tell them what I like about what they’re doing, and why I appreciate this piece in particular. It always swells my heart when they respond, I suppose, because they aren’t used to that sort of approach and it feels good to hear someone “get” you.

I also absolutely love ordering the issue. It feels like a puzzle that I’m working out. I sit with the pieces for so long, envisioning their layout, envisioning their abilities beaming off the page, so it’s nice to braid that together and get the pieces “talking” with one another. Likewise, I love that I can send these visions of order to Jason Demetillo, our ridiculously talented graphic designer, and he lays it all out with indefatigable commitment to its look. That makes everyone happy in the end.

ONSQ: What other periodicals are you excited about right now?

NE: So many! I love Armchair/Shotgun, Fence, jubilat, [PANK], Gulf Coast, apt, A Public Space, Black Warrior Review, The New Inquiry, and so many more. I like to sit down with issues and read them cover to cover. I’m excited to dive into new magazines either out now or forthcoming like Adult and No Tokens. I’m also just exploding with love for online magazines like Paperbag Journal, STOKED, Sixth Finch, Dusie, Octopus—too many. I try to read as much as I can, and if a periodical is publishing work I grok with an impressive design, I’m freaking sold.

Natalie Eilbert began The Atlas Review after a craving for other voices was met with an anonymous system that enabled writers of all backgrounds to submit biannually. Her background is chiefly in poetry, having received an MFA from Columbia University some years ago. She has learned the ins and outs of magazine work from both being widely published and from her professional career as a proofreader/production assistant of eBooks at a large publishing house. It was also extremely important to have Jason Demetillo, graphic designer extraordinaire, by her side to help create and nurtureAtlas’s identity.

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