No One In My Family Celebrates: A Review on Look by Solmaz Sharif

12079778_10106285764738939_240672169261332420_oSolmaz Sherif’s debut book, Look (Graywolf Press, 2016), interrogates the power structures of language and war; confronting political and social systems, as well as how these systems are deconstructed and used to demean one’s self-expression, identity, and behavior. Look strips away meaning and redefines military-esque language in order to extend our own ideologies circling the Middle East. We are left examining, wondering, unearthed by such in-depth search for what it means to be Muslim in a society such as our own. Look, as defined in the beginning of the book, taken from the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms: In mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit receptive of an influence.

The first section is inhabited by the title poem: “Look.” In this opening poem, we are introduced to a majority of the book’s themes, as it were. However, the poem is structured as a proposal; each stanza starting with, “Whereas,” as if trying to provide example or supplements in understanding the opening lines: “It matters what you call a thing: Exquisite a lover called me. / Exquisite.” The poem then follows with a number of stanzas explaining the different ways to understand this word: “exquisite”:

Where Well, if I were from your culture, living in this country,
                said the man outside the 2004 Republican National
                Convention, I would put up with that for this country;

Whereas I felt the need to clarify: You would put with
TORTURE, you mean and he proclaimed: Yes;

Whereas what is your life;

Whereas years after they LOOK down from their jets
                and declare my mother’s Abadan block PROBABLY
                DESTROYED, we walked by the villas, the faces
                of buildings torn off into dioramas, and recorded it
                on a handheld camcorder;

In just these few stanzas, Solmaz introduces us to intersection of; one, the gaze of the female body; two, how the destruction of the female body is pushed aside for male consumption; and three, the lack of familiarity, care, and treatment towards these bodies and its surroundings. However, what really takes me back is the choice words capitalized, forcing us to focus in the use of this language. The phrase, “TORTURE,” highlights is duality within the context of the poem; how it can be seen as “torture” to be in the speaker’s current situation mentally, and how that can easily correlate to being physically tortured within the Middle East. Solmaz uses this duality within numerous capitalized words throughout the book.

In the second section, we began looking at how family structures unravel within these systems. In various poems, such as “Dependers/Immediate Family,” we see a family suffering, questioning their own ideologies of war.

Dependers/Immediate Family
                for Amoo

At the WWII Memorial, FDR thanks women
for sacrificing their sons
and their nylons.
Mothers oil supply lines

of parachutes
and what weighs chutes down,

sailing toward tall grass or rock,

a sky delivered by God.
I’m told to say it plain:

you did not want to fight,
but family sent you to the frontline,

sons in NEATLINES, ON-CALL for the Lord.

Your crib, your teddy bears,
I want to say mother put a GUN
there, blocks and blocks of boys
with pistols in their lunch pails,

lined up at the Army Experience Center
playing Call of Duty beneath the pacing of recruiters,
shit-talking into microphones in select US malls
while mothers shop the bed linens or grind coffee, grateful
for the quiet home, for the empty backyards

where boys would slam plastic cars together, their lips buzzing
like copter blades. Boys, they dream

of invisibility suits, explosive inks,
then grow up to work
in weapons research labs,

formulating rays to knock you out,
rays to make you puke, rays to activate
each nerve ending, gas to make you laugh

and boil. A soldier told me about non-lethal weapons.

He told me about the innards he scooped
then sewed
(with what)
up the toddler and the smell
of copper.

I am older than you’ll ever be

and I keep going in that direction,
older than the boys

printed on state money
after going missing
in the smoke, beneath a tank,
the boys on a sun-faded, car-sooted mural
a wreath of white roses,
our precious, our cheapest

I’m now old enough to hear:
someone has to identify and
someone removes the shrapnel
and someone says not a scratch
when they pulled you out the fridge.

I imagine my father

looking into your cool face,
the difficult work of his knees

staying locked in that frozen place.

Solmaz Sharif

What’s lovely about this piece is the speaker talking to Amoo: “you did not want to fight, / but family sent you to the frontline, / sons in NEATLINES, ON-CALL for the Lord.” By directly speaking to Amoo, we are launched into the suffering or complication of Amoo’s life/the speaker’s own conflicts. We are told Amoo was encouraged to enroll in the military by “the family.” Here, we are drawn to the capitalized words, “neatliness,” and “on-call.” These words are attached to military conditions–being neat and always available. Yet, in this context, there is a double standard to neatness and availability which offers itself as mentally attacking and condescending. To be neat and on-call for the “Lord,” ties into the religious aspect of war and military. Not only do you have to fulfill these attributes, but you also have to do it without questioning the higher power. The “Lord,” here, can be seen as many things. One of those things being the government.

When Amoo dies, there is a guilt that overtakes the family. The speaker understands the guilt and incorporates military language to further perpetuate the conflict between a family pushing one into dangers and a family terrorized because they are perceived as dangerous: 

I am older than you’ll ever be

and I keep going in that direction,
older than the boys

printed on state money
after going missing
in the smoke, beneath a tank,
the boys on a sun-faded, car-sooted mural
a wreath of white roses,
our precious, our cheapest

I’m now old enough to hear:
someone has to identify and
someone removes the shrapnel
and someone says not a scratch
when they pulled you out the fridge.

The line, “I am older than you’ll ever be,” tell us Amoo has passed away because he can no longer age. When the speaker says, “I’m now older enough to hear: / someone has to identify and / someone removes the shrapnel,” we are given the process in identifying a soldier’s body once dead. The speaker announcing, “I’m old enough to hear,” illustrates a coming of age into Amoo’s death.

In the poem, “Vulnerability Study,” the speaker gives us short glimpses inside different scenes.

Vulnerability Study


your face turning from mine

to keep from cumming


8 strawberries in a wet blue bowl


baba holding his pants

up at he checkpoint


a newlywed securing her updo

with grenade pins


a wall cleared of nails

for the ghosts to walk through

Each scene is a moment of vulnerability–two people in the moment of climax, a man holding his pants at a checkpoint–in which involves another person witnessing a person’s vulnerable moment. The title includes the word, “study,” that teaches us, as readers, how to read the piece in a certain light. “Study,” can be lightly defined as watching closely or a constant going over. Here, in these few scenes, Solmaz is telling us to paying attention to some things. What floors me the most is the scene of the newlywed securing her hair with grenade pins. While she is alone in this scene, the grenade pins allude to people having been there before. Aside from this, beauty is platformed over destruction. Or the aftermath of destruction is used to create beauty. As we are not told of the relationship between the speaker and this newlywed, we know that the newlywed has a family (even if it is only their new spouse). Again, a notion towards how family can easily disregard another family member because they are consumed by societal structures.

The third section is addresses how deals with this language. In this section, “language,” is vastly defined as a verbal communication, photos, experiences, etc. Majority of pieces throughout this section or without titles. Having an entire section mostly without titles (however, one could definitely argue that all these poems are titled, “Personal Effects,” as listed in the table on contents) paints a wonderful picture of how we are unable to give these things a proper name without incorporating societal language/definition. In one piece, the speaker describes a photo of a soldier:

your whole body in a photo
your whole body
sitting on a crate
pressing your eyesocket
to the viewfinder
of a bazooka
crouched as you balance
the metal tube on your shoulder
in one you guide a belt of ammo
into the unfiring weapon
your elbow out as if
your frame strong
and lightly supporting the gun
a kind of smile
ruining the picture

In another piece, the speaker states: “Daily I sit / with the language / they’ve made / of our language / to NEUTRALIZE / the CAPABILITY of LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS / like you. / You are what is referred to as / a “CASUALTY.”

Both of these pieces describe a language in which disturbs. In the photo, the speaker announces the soldier’s smile as “ruining the picture.” By stating a “ruining” from the soldier smiling, the speaker is addressing the conflict shown through this picture–the soldier preparing to kill while smiling. The other piece uses this idea of “casualty” and expands it into what it means to be valued as such. Here, we understand the person is not a person, but just another number–and the speaker sits with this title. This language.

The collection ends with one poem elaborating on this idea of “drone.” This word stretches from not only military capacities, but into the family and self. This stretch illuminates what it means to be a drone–a robot controlled by another force. As the poem continues, we see ourselves being a drone. The language, stoic, trapping us in the limitations created by people in power; thus feeding us limited language in order for mass consumption:

:               he strikes me as a misstep away from she was asking for it

:               what did you expect after accepting a marbled palace

:               they drag the man who killed my uncle out a hole

:               they inspect him for ticks on national television

:               no one in my family celebrates

You can purchase Look here.



Falling Through the Silence: A Review on Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

“In the body, where everything has a price,
                I was a beggar. On my knees,

I watched, through the keyhole, not
                the man showering, but the rain

falling through him: guitar strings snapping
                over his globed shoulders.” – Ocean Vuong, “Threshold”


51t5rBcccGL._SX365_BO1,204,203,200_When thinking about Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016) by Ocean Vuong, I am captured by the beginning moments of the book–begging from within, wanting more than what was given or offered. And then, that wanting peeking through a limited access, watching a man being loved by nature. But, in these few lines, we fall in love with the lyrical imagery Vuong paints us. Well, it is this act of labor we have come to love from Vuong. The way he scripts a scene reminds us of the endless opportunities language often hides from us. Especially the English language.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds is patiently abusive. There’s a desire for understanding one’s body while watching other bodies linger and love. The voice in these poems are obsessive in this desire–reaching not only for oneself, but for the self seen by family and history. It’s more than an account of experiences, but a cracking open of Vuong’s bare chest–saying look here. Look where I begin. How I see myself searching for an end.

However, the book revels in its own accounts of history. While it speaks of the body and its turmoil, it enters an atmosphere where the familial histories seep into these stories. For example, in the poem,” A Little Closer to the Edge,” (one of my favorite poems, by the way), the speaker is telling a story of the night he was conceived. With lines like, “O father, O foreshadow, press / into her–as the field shreds itself / with cricket cries,” and “let every river envy / our mouths. Let every kiss hit the body / like a season,” Vuong is being completely vulnerable–in not only his own experiences, but in the experiences of others. We are forced to be intimate beyond the constraints of the book itself. 

In the second section, Vuong introduces us to the intersection of Vietnam and his family’s history. As we journey form poem to poem, we begin understanding the making of histories and how we are to measure our own in comparison to our cultural surroundings. In the poem, “Aubade with Burning City,” we see an overlapping of two otherwise contrasting experiences–the evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees during the fall of Saigon; all the while, telling the story of a man trying to persuade a woman to have sex with him. Here, we see the beauty of two bodies wanting to enter intimacy, while bodies are attempting to escape danger. The poem becomes the true meaning of love and war. Vuong is showing us how he wishes to entrust the body to the acts of love while destruction is literally tearing at the window; “The city so white it is ready for ink”; as if to say this is the time to rewrite your own history. It is sacrifice we are reading in this poem. Giving up the fear of destruction, of harm, for the immediate response to love. And then the pressure to turn your back on this fear or an otherwise erasure of history–“Don’t worry, he says, as the first shell flashes / their faces, my brothers have won the war / and tomorrow … / The lights go out.”

Aubade with Burning City
South Vietnam, April 29, 1975: Armed Forces Radio played Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as a code to begin Operation Frequent Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon.
            Milkflower petals on the street
                                                     like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright
He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
            Open, he says.
                                        She opens.
                                                      Outside, a soldier spits out
            his cigarette as footsteps
                            fill the square like stones fallen from the sky. May all
                                         your Christmases be white as the traffic guard
            unstraps his holster.
                                        His hand running the hem
of  her white dress.
                            His black eyes.
            Her black hair.
                            A single candle.
                                        Their shadows: two wicks.
A military truck speeds through the intersection, the sound of children
                                        shrieking inside. A bicycle hurled
            through a store window. When the dust rises, a black dog
                            lies in the road, panting. Its hind legs
                                                                                   crushed into the shine
                                                       of a white Christmas.
On the nightstand, a sprig of magnolia expands like a secret heard
                                                                      for the first time.
The treetops glisten and children listen, the chief of police
                                facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola.
                                             A palm-sized photo of his father soaking
                beside his left ear.
The song moving through the city like a widow.
                A white     A white     I’m dreaming of a curtain of snow
                                                          falling from her shoulders.
Snow crackling against the window. Snow shredded
                                           with gunfire. Red sky.
                              Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls.
A helicopter lifting the living just out of reach.
            The city so white it is ready for ink.
                                                     The radio saying run run run.
Milkflower petals on a black dog
                            like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright. She is saying
            something neither of them can hear. The hotel rocks
                        beneath them. The bed a field of ice
Don’t worry, he says, as the first bomb brightens
                             their faces, my brothers have won the war
                                                                       and tomorrow …    
                                             The lights go out.
I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming …    
                                                            to hear sleigh bells in the snow …    
In the square below: a nun, on fire,
                                            runs silently toward her god — 
                           Open, he says.
                                                         She opens.


The third section unwraps the character’s body fold by fold. The body is in a constant search to be loved by itself and others. It howls. It scratches at the front door, desperate for the things it can’t find. In the poem, “Homewrecker,” Vuong walks us through a series of love; that, as a result, ruins himself.

& this is how we danced: our mothers’
white dresses spilling from our feet, late August
turning our hands dark red. & this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka & an afternoon in the attic, your fingers
through my hair–my hair a wildfire. We covered
our ears & your father’s tantrum turned
to heartbeats. When our lips touched the day closed
into a coffin. In the museum of the heart
there are two headless people building a burning house.
There was always the shotgun above
the fireplace. Always another hour to kill–only to beg
some god to give it back. If not the attic, the car. If not
the car, the dream. If not the boy, his clothes. If not alive,
put down the phone. Because the year is a distance
we’ve traveled in circles. Which is to say: this is how
we danced: alone in sleeping bodies. Which is to say:
this is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning
into a tongue.

By using words like, “wildfire,” “coffin,” “kill,” and “beg,” the underlying contrast between suffering and yearning rears its ugly smile. The speaker is “dancing” with this other (or others), wishing the dance will never stop. However, he knows that this is only a temporary moment–unrealistic to his life outside the moment. The term, “homewrecker,” falls into many categories. “Home” being the wrecked body. “Home” being the broken heart and shattered fantasy. “Home” being another’s relationship. And it is this ambiguity that makes the final lines more realistic for the reader: “Which is to say: / this is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning / into a tongue.” What does it mean for a knife to turn into a tongue while cutting into a tongue? The image literally makes no sense. But, to think of the knife as something made to cut into something is a beaut in itself. No? This knife; one, inside the mouth, something intimate to oneself–again a contrast between suffering and yearning–then, not only splitting the thing that allows us to properly project language, but becomes the thing itself–made into an object of necessity.

Ocean Vuong

Moreover, this transformation of weapon into necessity brings to this idea of language and language is both weaponized but is essential in society. In the final section we are gifted with just that–the ebb and flow of language. In poems like, “Notebook Fragments,” we are granted entry in the speaker’s inner thoughts through fragmented pieces of note taking. Here, we are only given pieces of stories, yet, as the reader, we are left wondering about these stories and how they relate to the speaker. But, the speaker, in all they generosity, only allows us what is written down. Fragmented, here, does not only mean broken, but it means pieces of. While each instance is relayed to us in a complete sentence, the language we are missing is the overall happening of the event. Whereas, in the poem, “Ode to Masturbation,” all forms of punctuation has been removed. In addition, lines have been broken into one to three words; “because you / were never / holy / only beautiful / enough / to be found”; the lack of punctuation adds to the stillness and patience the book portrays. And yet, as the speaker announces themselves as never being “holy,” we are immediately on the defensive. The poem becomes completely drowned in a moment of discomfort and vulnerability. The poem announces their body as something sinful, or in the process of wanting purity. It’s dirty, to say the least. Again, in this poem, language is broken. The poem starts with the word, “because,” we alludes to both a response and a further breaking of “traditional” language.

In the poem, “Logophobia,” (which is defined as a fear of words), the speaker is necessarily proclaiming their fear of words, but is giving us the instance where they are defeating this fear.

Afterword, I woke
                into the dark
to write
                gia đình
on this yellow pad.
Looking through the letters
                I can see
into the earth
                below, the blue blur
of bones.
                I drill the ink
into a period.
                The deepest hole,
where the bullet,
after piercing
                my father’s back,
has come
                to rest.
Quickly—I climb
                I enter
my life
                the way words
entered me—
by falling
the silence
                of this whole
open mouth

The speaker, here, is having a writer’s block and is trying to address their family on the page. However, the history of their people is getting in the way of this; “Looking through the letters / I can see / into the earth / below, the blue blur / of bones.” And these histories are histories of death. Furthermore, it is these same histories that they are desiring to put at ease, or their thinking of these histories at ease, through the written language. The poem itself becomes a tranquil space for the speaker in wanting to find the language to address a history in which has, time and time again, offered itself as destruction. While the poem seems to follow traditional punctuation, it ends without a period. It is open ended, as if to say the journey to find this language–a language of history, suffering, and a desire to understand one’s body in relation to all of these things–is never-ending.

And truly, Vuong, it is.

You can purchase Night Sky with Exit Wounds here.

Announcin the Shade Journal

logoLet’s be clear, literature, for me, has been more and more about the work. But, that’s what we all keep saying–“the work.” What is this “work,” exactly? For me, the work is providing literary spaces for marginalized voices. It is tearing down white patriarchal systems; in which literature and literary spaces; one, suffers heavily; two, only benefits white writers; and three, creates a world where people of color feel they cannot thrive, both successfully and effectively. Again, let’s be real, a lot of journals and magazines aren’t doing this work. To be honest, most don’t even care to at all. 

Okay, I’ve spent a lot of times explaining the work and I haven’t, once, talked about the reason behind this pieces. For the past two years my blog, Shade, has been dedicated to giving space and exposure to queer writers of color. I created Shade because, as a queer man of color, I felt tossed aside in the literary community. Growing up, we didn’t study writers who looked like me. Or shared my experiences. And for the skim few we did study, their queerness wasn’t a topic of discussion. It literally wasn’t touched. It was like we were a disease. 

As I began studying poetry more seriously, I started reading works by QPOC. It was writers like Saeed Jones, Phillip B. Willams, Franny Choi, Danez Smith, Rickey Laurentiis, Natalie Diaz, and many others that taught me how to successfully write my body in a poetic nature. It was then that I realized the serious lack of queerness, in conversation with being a person of color, across my college classrooms. I had to do something. I mean, what use is it to know queer communities and not spread the love? Or to know writers who are literally slaying the game, if I’m not going to share their work with everyone around me. People, and more importantly, queer writers of color, needed to see and read people who looked like them. Y’all representation matters!

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of magazines and journals that are committed to this work–The Offing, Vinyl, Muzzle Magazine, Winter Tangerine, Nepantla, and a few more. But this isn’t enough. We can’t be satisfied with a mere handful. 

All this to say, I am more than pleased to announce that my blog, Shade, will be transitioning to a journal–the Shade Journal. the Shade Journal will be launching this September online. Peep the mission:

the Shade Journal is an online poetry journal focused on the empowerment of queer people of color (QPOC); publishing poems that inspires, devastates, and howls–work that challenges form and upsets the cannon, but understands its rigorous and traditional roots. 

the Shade Journal believes there is something divine about being a queer person of color in a world designed to destroy these bodies. 

Here, the term, “shade,” is defined as a space for QPOC to all home while fostering a community for themselves and other QPOC. 

Remember–you are beautiful. You are beautiful. You are beautiful. 

Submissions for the Shade Journal open on Friday, July 8th. Watch the link! 

*If you want to get involved or have any questions or concerns, feel free to reach out:

With peace,

Luther Hughes


“I’m a human with a petulant and sensual need for pleasure”: An Interview with Aricka Foreman

Dream with a Glass Chamber (YesYes Books, 2016), is a frightening chapbook. From dreamlike lyricism, to down right obsessive verse, Foreman manipulates the reader from space to space, allowing us entry to, what would be otherwise, a private sphere. The eloquent ways in which Foreman tarries along each dreamscape is damn near maddening. You are left broken, wanting to be broken again. And again. To say the least, I was just that–a black boy wishing to broken by these dreams. These altered realities; in that, they would offer me comfort while scratching at my sanity. Through Foreman’s use of language, imagery, and eroticism imagery, the chapbook is an elegy to critical illusion of time, and how much time the body has left in this world.


What does “dreaming with a glass chamber” mean?

The original title was Dream with an Empty Chamber. The chamber in the poem is specific to a gun chamber, but while editing the book, I kept thinking of different kinds of chambers: where people assemble; the heart chamber; an echo chamber. So much takes place without us being able to see how something takes place inside these spaces. My editor and publisher KMA suggested that the title didn’t hold as much light as the book did, and so I changed it in order to let that light in. As a reader, there’s a lot of time slippage and intricate ways of telling and retelling the same narrative. I’d like to think though that entering each poem helps to navigate them through the larger lyrical maze of the book.


How did Dream with a Glass Chamber become what it is today? What was the process in its creation?

The poems except for “Year of the Molotov” were written during a 30/30 through a writer’s group called The Grind. I signed up after my first grief group session; my therapist made it clear I wouldn’t be able to work through and with my mood disorder and depression until I untangled my “complicated grief”. The diagnostic and colloquial language we use to discuss grief and trauma is so absurd to me. And it’s complicated. Human instinct causes us to catalog and list and make linear the trauma of loss. So I kept interrogating the stages: anger, denial, bargaining, etc.; the process was compulsive, and obsessive. I’m sure there was some catharsis in there somewhere. Mostly I just wanted a safe space to thrash and rage, be out of control with some level of intention.

There are a few references to Detroit, or what could be seen as Detroit, throughout the book. Can you explain how this city influenced the creation of the book? How does Detroit inform your own work?

I mean I watched deer eat from the neighbor’s garden, asking myself whose life I was living. But I’d catch a moment here and there.

I’ll always be from Detroit, no matter how far I run from and back to it. At the time I wrote the book, I was living in Ithaca, NY pursuing my MFA. So much of it wasn’t Detroit: idyllic and pastoral; in that college town way where mostly everything is central to one place. I lived in a lake house I found on Craigslist. The first couple of nights, the silence kept me from sleeping. It was deafening. No sirens, or old men shit talking just outside my building. I mean I watched deer eat from the neighbor’s garden, asking myself whose life I was living. But I’d catch a moment here and there. I’d meet people who reminded me of bar patrons at a place I worked back home, or see a group of homies pump gas when I’d stop to get cigarettes. It’d feel more like “home” in that Detroit sense, where people nod and acknowledge you are someone in the world with them, albeit briefly. I felt a lot of geographical displacement in ways. In thinking about grief, I wanted to acknowledge how displacing grief can be in terms of state (psychological and emotional), as well as physical place. So much about to Detroit is wrapped up in the loss of my friend David Blair, who the book is dedicated to. Often when I’d be overrun with missing him, I’d miss Detroit.


While reading, I noticed poems titled different months. For example, “August” and “September.” More overtly, these poems lean more toward the fall season. What role does time and fall have in this book?

In his essay “Lyric Knowledge” James Longenbach opens with “ The impulse to be lyrical is driven by the need to be no longer constrained by oneself.” And I’m like word. I feel least constrained on the page when I play with time, as a way to take a moment that I can walk into, back out of, re-enter with as many points-of-view as I can. This book is clearly an elegy. An elegy is not inherently lyric, but potentially lives in the vast wheelhouse of the lyric poem. By pinpointing these poems to specific point in time, I can go back and pull from the moment something I missed, something I didn’t know to look at closely. Mostly I just wanted a safe space to thrash and rage, try to find myself beyond constraint but revising this contained moment. I have at least 4-5 other version of the “season” poems.


One of my favorite poems is, “Klapp Klapp.” In this poem, each stanza (and some lines) start with the word, ‘salt’. Can you explain the importance of salt (in all its varieties) in the book?

And then as a physical thing, how we use salt to seal doorways in ritual; to preserve and flavor in the domestic sense.

Honestly, I think that poem came after I told my therapist how salty I was at the Kubler Ross model. The neat ways that other folks seemed to methodically move through, and here I was, almost two years after Blair’s death, infuriated and then sobbing in the library stacks looking for a reference book. Then I’d get pissed at myself for not being able to move on in that same time, every triumph of “moving on” around me like salt in the wound. The word in all its iterations served different functions. The music video for Klapp Klapp is wild. A woman who refused to let the dead rest conjures them back. Clearly that goes against the natural order of things. But I started thinking about how we try to make sense and purpose of what has the potential to destroy us. And then as a physical thing, how we use salt to seal doorways in ritual; to preserve and flavor in the domestic sense. In some ways the poem is a clap back, at moving on, at being stagnant, how and what we unlearn in the process. It’s unsettling but can also be a kind of reclamation.


I noticed a few poems hinting at substance abuse and it reminded me of the stereotype that all poets become or are alcoholics (or some kind of addicts). What do you think is the correlation between poets and addiction? How do you see yourself as an addict?

I’m a human with a petulant and sensual need for pleasure, and sometimes escapism. We’re all addicts. When Louis C.K. talks about reality tv and gossip rags as everyone’s McDonald’s, their guilty hideout, it’s hilarious because it’s too real. The day after I got the news of Blair’s death, I essentially sat on my couch with a pint of whiskey, a bottle of water, and a pack of cigarettes. Drink. Hydrate. Smoke. And when the grief would come gnawing, even later, I had to implicate myself in my destructive behavior. Part of the work in living with depression and a mood disorder is not only being aware of my triggers, but paying attention to the frequency of when I’m doing the most harm: drinking, sex, eating, binging on Netflix. These days, if I can’t be inundated with the news cycle of Black death, Queer death, Woman death, I try to choose anti-vices: take walks, go to the conservatory and touch plant life, take a nap, roast a damn chicken; I’m just making different choices and trying to balance. Facing yourself, and facing the dismal state of things in the world right now (all the time)…you just want to shut the noise off, even temporarily. I won’t say poets have a predisposition toward addiction, but I did for a long time, and I happen to be a poet and a black queer woman trying to choose living over merely surviving.

It’s the knowing that’s the bitch: electric with the body’s hunger
how I say look, the moon is beautiful and you not as beautiful

as you
and I already know its the end before I’ve begun to catalog

your fingers, treasonous the way they spread me across the morning,
hips eased into the oldest language of want. O how I’d forgotten
the sun: intrusive light stretched, forced me into waking: how
much knowing makes a home beneath the tongue, in the mitochondria
of your mother’s name, her penchant for vodka and erasure.
I wish I had the energy after we tear into one another
to tell her otherwise, other names, other rituals for sliding shadows
through the cracks of doorways. I am a coward and our fucking falls against
the floor into sounds of breaking. I want to be satisfied with the carnality
of shame, our fumbling crash against. I wish I were a simple girl satisfied
with syllogism: date and discover, find a swarm, find us making promise
find us clutching the static of a wormhole where we settled into
disappointment. It’s natural, the confusion of it all: to meet in the clearing,
find a semi-trampled trail to lead us to the humdrum of collecting fruit,
what will not seize the blood, game that will not rot us through. I know
we are gods of failure, susceptible to the waning light. When you ate first
I knew there was no end to what we need, knew no thing could cast us out.
We’d have to crawl on our hands, on our goddamned knees.

There is a line in the poem, “Genesis,” that states: “I wish I were a girl satisfied with date and discover.” This line really seems to sum up the character of the book seamlessly. Can you talk more about this idea of “date and discover[y]?”

At the time, it seemed like dating seemed an applicable metaphor for way too many things. Job interviews are like bad dates. Therapy intakes are like bad dates. It’s all cataloguing. It’s arduous, and of course at some point you feel misanthropic about it like “why don’t we just be honest in that you (presidential candidate, potential lover, day job, new interior ghost I have to face today) might be trash, but let’s just see if you prove me wrong.”

And then you get surprised (probably not by the candidate, or the day job), and you at least discover something necessary, or something that makes living a little more than bearable. You find a small joy, and another; you recognize an old joy you overlooked in the midst of all that surviving. You take each one and dogear them like the poems you want to return to.

Dream with a Glass Chamber
Before I return to that ruinous city of lonely
smoke stacks, puffing rotton clouds against

graysky, i catch you inside another woman,
your coyote’s coat strewn on the floor, body of
a hungry man, beautiful in every wrong
way. I pull the revolver from my coat. Fire.
Casings shatter before they hit the floor.
I want to see what shred bullets can do to
flesh, how they pierce and lodge hard in the bone.
I am standing at your hollow
door turning the key. There are two wet towels littered
from the bathroom to the bedroom. I haven’t seen her face.
Surrender your hands as your mouth bleats. Tell me it’s not
what I thought. Not the confession you transmit from towers. Go
ahead. Time it to the cylinder’s click click click.
In the morning, everything burns. Hairs inside my nose, curled
      and brittle darlings. Throat, after-clawed. Hands sweat-
fresh and black with residue. A finch jangles a chime outside
      my window. This bed will never know the rattle of pelvis
against my wrist, my begging grip, what giving up looks
      like, though I know I’ve already pulled the trigger.
            Buried the gun in the snow.

I remember reading the title poem, “Dream with a Glass Chamber,” on the train and being in tears. Especially the line: “Tell me it’s not what I thought. Not the confession you transmit from the towers. Go ahead. Time it to the cylinder’s click click click ” Moreover, being the title poem, this poem has great importance to the book. Tell me about this poem and how its creation informed the making of this book.

There’s a lot of dreamscape in the book since for me, lyric poems inhabit that space. The title poem was based on a dream I had that someone I was in a relationship with betrayed me, and I shot him. Of course the betrayal was not about the relationship in question, but how part of my anger with the dead was feeling like they had betrayed me by dying. It’s selfish and sort of fucked up when I say it aloud. In the dream I make a rash decision, and am left with the consequences when I wake in the morning. Part of being honest about how I wasn’t processing loss was turning a mirror on myself as a way to veer from the script of wellness. There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance beyond the funeral procession, when someone walks up on me in a coffee shop and asks if I’ve gotten my dead friend’s autopsy back yet, because how he really died is important. Loss can make us ugly and gauche, overly familiar and quick to subtle violences. I wanted to be honest about my culpability in that.


There’s a poem in the book titled, “Looking Glass,” and I’m immediately reminded of Alice in Wonderland (and the discovery of a new place). Furthermore, this idea of the “looking glass” being a mirror—a reflective tool used to study the self in some way. I’m curious to know why “looking glass.” What’s the importance, here? And is there any relation to Alice in Wonderland?

Here’s another Little Dragon reference, but I think that’s interesting, especially with as many wander-world turns these poems take. I mentioned before about this need to turn a mirror on the self and examine in the book. After a while there’s only so many times you can beat the proverbial horse. Making it the last poem of the book, integrating lines from the song like, “Made me have to throw the looking glass,” reveals no gentle resolve.The dead are still dead, the speaker’s still here. Klapp Klapp was a decision to stay and deal, despite the speaker’s perception of things. I wish I was thinking of Alice in that moment, lol.


Million dollar question: What poets or books is your book, “Dream with a Glass Chamber,” in conversation with?

“Saudade: Elegy for You” is in conversation with Richard Siken’s poem “Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out.” I read Crush after months of the “numb” phase of my grief, and it helped me to articulate what at the time was unspeakable. Tina Chang’s poem “The Future Is An Animal” helped me write “dream in which you survive and in the morning thing’s are back to normal,” though instead of devouring the self, the speaker’s inability to cope consumes someone close to them. Traci Brimhall’s Rookery helped me to look at the intimacy of brutality, especially when I consider your question about addiction and the brutality we inflict on ourselves. Tracy K. Smith’s essay “Survival in Two Worlds at Once: Federico Garcia Lorca and Duende,” was incredibly helpful with looking at the borderwalker space poets can inhabit if they are generous with themselves and with the work. I seem to always find my way back to Pablo Neruda’s “Nothing But Death” it’s relentless pursuit of de-facing and rebuilding death as a figure. If I consider the book as one multi-poem lyric, each poem has a way of building grief as a figure to stare down and question and dialogue with.


One final question. Describe the last dream you can remember.

I’d flown to NYC to visit two writers who had previously been teachers/mentors to me. I think I was there to meet about my current project, and for some reason we couldn’t get the timing right. In and out of the same rooms at different times. One of them had fallen ill, and a number of writer friends had gathered in their home to wait on news of their condition. I started obsessively cleaning, and then making food for everyone while we waited for the phone to ring. Then I woke up thinking Ha! I should probably deal with my need to take care of people.


June 24, 2016

You can purchase Dream with a Glass Chamber at YesYes Books, now!

Aricka Foreman

Aricka Foreman’s work has appeared in The Drunken Boat, Minnesota Review, RHINO, Day One, shuf Poetry, James Franco Review, thrush, Vinyl Poetry, PLUCK!, Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation by Viking Penguin, among others. She is the author of Dream With A Glass Chamber from YesYes Books. Detroit-raised, she currently lives in Chicago.

Dear Columbia:Closing Remarks

“I feel like I can’t relate or critique this piece because I’m not a gay black man. Like I feel pushed out.”

Why is it when someone of color writes about their experiences, a white person feels the need to; 1.) disregard every amount of emotional vulnerability exuding in the piece because the writer happens to be of color—but is not talking about their culture specifically, but is simply addressing how an experience has damaged them. For example, when a white student told me this about my poem—a poem in which I never used the words “gay” or “black,” but had only had cues to gayness in regards of masculinity and father-son relationships within black families—I was left dumbfounded. You’re telling me you can’t relate to the feeling of identity confusion? You’re telling me parental problems aren’t universal? No. What she seen was a gay black male talking about “gay black things”; and, 2.) completely ignore the abuse and emotional sufferings we have poured into our piece—only seeing how the piece “challenges” or confronts the systematic thumb POC are placed under.

In the past week, the writers—Sung Yim, Jessica “Jade” Paul, Rai Mckinley, and Vanessa Borjon—of Dear Columbia have faced utter and complete disrespect from Columbia students, alumni, and otherwise. They have been called ignorant, self-absorbed, childish, ill-mannered, disrespectful, naïve, bad writers, and much more. These comments, though hilarious and ignorant in themselves—as I expressed to the writers, further illustrates the community Columbia has built. None of these critics gave these writers comfort or solidarity in their experiences, but defended the system they obviously benefit from. It is obvious in these comments, that Columbia has fostered a culture in which speaking out against systematic elimination, racism, and assimilation, is wrong and inappropriate. These comments just prove the bullshit these writers are talking about. They don’t care about the mental, emotional, and spiritual attacks the writers (and [Q]POC) are facing. They only care about the system and the way the writer has chosen to express their relationship with said systems. They critiqued the way they wrote, how they wrote, and why they wrote. They questioned their authenticity, their psyche, and their being. They simply didn’t care about the writer as a human being experiencing traumatic events. The fact of the matter is, Columbia these are your people who you’ve let in your classrooms. In your events. In your graduation ceremonies. These are the people you have raised.

Honestly, it’s hilarious.

Two of the writers, Jade and Rai, received emails from The Chronicle, Columbia’s student run newspaper, about interviewing them on their experiences. When they told me about this email, I told them to reply with the following:

Hi (I am leaving the person’s name out here due to respectability and privacy),

Thank you for reaching out. While I do believe it is important for the Columbia community to understand experiences of queer people of color at Columbia, Luther has advised us to decline the interview. This project, Dear Columbia, was not created to badger, condemn, or challenge Columbia and its administration. By creating a “story” with the intent of questioning administration for “their” side, you are diminishing and belittling our experiences. Furthermore, it is bluntly stating that our experiences are up for debate. They are not. We want to make it clear that Dear Columbia was created as a response to all the systematic abuse and hostility we as well as others have faced during our time at Columbia. It was not a call-to-action. As of right now, Columbia students and alumni are commenting on our pieces, shaming our experiences, calling us elitist and self-absorbed, and claiming we are too ignorant and young to understand our own feelings. This further illuminates the system we have all been abused by; moreover, proves how Columbia does little to cultivate change socially and culturally. If anything comes from this, we hope it is to teach this message: as artists, human beings, it is not our job to disrupt, maintain, and/or recreate systems. It is our job to author, cultivate, and record the stories, experiences, and voices of said system that has been affected so the next generation is equipped with the knowledge to succeed in a capitalistic society. Again, thank you for your concerns and efforts in understanding. Luther has recommended you publish this statement instead of creating a full spread story.

If you do have any questions, please email Luther directly at

I expressed to the writers my concern with the handling and the overall message behind this project. Furthermore, I was worried about the writers. This is to say, I was being overprotective of their experiences; in that, their experiences are not up for debate or study. The next day, the Editor-in-Chief reached out to me explaining their reasoning for emailing Jade and Rai—that they didn’t mean any disrespect and wanted to give as much support to us as possible. Although, there was some hidden offense (or maybe defense) in the email, I thanked them for understanding. Because truly, I was thankful for their understanding as to why I wanted them to decline the interview. Besides, the writers agreed anyways.

I want to get back to the experiences we, QPOC, have faced, are facing, at Columbia College Chicago. I want to go back to that day in class when my classmate felt as though she couldn’t relate. I want to look the teacher in the eye, who just sat there and nodded in agreement as if saying: “yeah, I see what you mean.” As if she agreed that I should whitewash my work for her. For them. I want to go back the night in my class when a white girl brought an extremely racist piece of writing to class and the only person who called her/it out was me. I want to know why the teacher said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that too,” and ask him why didn’t he speak up. What if I wasn’t there that night to call racism? What would he have done?

Well, I want to. But I don’t think I can.

The more I think about the people who have belittled these experiences (and others) the madder I become. Quite frankly, I’m pissed off. Quite frankly, I’m fed up with white supremacy, privilege, and normativity. Quite frankly, fuck anybody who has anything to say against anybody of a queer brown body. Fuck anybody who calls us too aggressive or too political or too ignorant in our writings. Fuck anybody who tells us to normalize our writings to fit their needs. Their whiteness. Fuck any student, alumni, faculty/staff, or administration that reads this and thinks we’re just a bunch of kids complaining about something out of our control. I don’t care for your feelings. I’m not here for you. I’m here for us. For our voices. For our experiences. And I will fight until the day I perish for the life, the respectability, the voice, the experience, the body, and the art of a QPOC.

As Dear Columbia comes to an end I ask myself what have I learned from all this. And I learned a few things. One, I learned that people will only support you until they feel like their power is threatened in some way or another. Two, I learned that true support comes in the form of putting what is best for the community that needs it and opposed to gaining any type of benefit for themselves. And three, it always takes a project like this for Columbia administration and staff to realize the bullshit QPOC go through on a day-to-day basis.

I want to take the time to thank the people who have shown their support. For sharing these experiences. For standing in solidarity with us. For offering us your kind words. I want to thank the faculty, staff, and administration that has fostered growth, empowerment, and education to those around them and above them in what it truly means to author a community built within the a system that caters to white people. Lastly and most importantly, I want to take the time to thank each of the writers: Sung Yim, Jessica “Jade” Paul, Rai Mckinley, and Vanessa Borjon for their bravery. For their willingness to share. To be vulnerable.

In closing, there is no closing. In closing, this work is never done. After we leave this world, our experiences will still be truth. Our experiences will not lessen in value, but will remain on the lips of others.

Dear Columbia, I’m a gay black male. I’m not a victim, I’m a target. I’m not a statistic, I’m an educator. I’m not the voice, I’m the platform.

With peace,
Luther Hughes

Dear Columbia: Dear Columbia, I Am Not Unknowable by Vanessa Borjon

Since being asked to reflect on Columbia’s lack of diversity, I have sat down multiple times to recall my own experiences being the only queer Latinx during my run in the poetry department, much less in much of the department’s history, but did not feel like any of the beginnings I came up with created an entryway to what I wanted to say. It isn’t like me to cause a spectacle, but perhaps that’s the response this may illicit.

My instinct is to tell you: Columbia doesn’t care about queerness (at least not any that strays beyond gay cis-males), Columbia doesn’t want to address white supremacy (or much of any urgent politic they can’t safely brand as ‘Historical Poetry’) (historical as in: not currently happening, ‘please don’t make me address my whiteness when I read your poetry about the diaspora’) and Columbia doesn’t care about sentimentality (god forbid I write a poem about my mom that has the word ‘soul’ in it). I don’t find sonnets written after white pop culture from the 80s to be groundbreaking, much less interesting. I don’t care about Instagram accounts of erasure poems created by some dental assistant who gentrified Wicker Park. What the poetry department favors is not what I am: queer, Chicana and bored by inaccessible intellectualism.

The horror stories you hear floating around in thinkpeices and articles about being a marginalized person in a creative writing program were not only true for me while a student at Columbia, but the memories are tally-marks of times I endured microaggressions and silencing on a weekly basis. Although by the end of my four years of undergrad, having to be around the neo-liberal elitism of specific faculty became unbearable and being paraded as a pawn to sell the program at Admitted Student Day completely lifted the veil that my professors could be anything but untouchable, my experiences certainly didn’t stunt my love and obsession with writing, or convinced me to believe that my writing would be impossible to understand by my readers. If there is anything I learned in my isolation at Columbia, it is that my poetry is not unknowable when it is written liberated from assimilation by being bilingual in nature.

My poetry does not isolate the reader when I choose not only to write in Spanish, but to never use Italics to other my own culture. I will never forget when a graduate student in one of my craft seminars refused to read my poem aloud because of the Spanish, and I sat there struck by my own loneliness. Yes I have heard it, “The Spanish just drives me out of the poem,” and “Maybe you can add a glossary?” Usually in workshop I’ll scribble down the feedback I get from my classmates, because they are truly wonderful, insightful and sensitive writers and I’m grateful for the community we built with each other. But it was out of resistance to assimilate and my freedom to call bullshit that each time I heard one of those critiques or something similar, I would put down my pen and choose not to follow. Some may call this laziness or ignorance, but I will never accommodate racist infrastructures found even in the poetry community, because for once in a white readers’ life, they might feel ‘left out.’

Isolation is being the only queer Latinx woman in the room. Isolation is looking at the words you wrote floating on the page doubting their power, because if the poem never leaves the room filled with mostly white folks, who will the poem save? The answer is you. The answer was me. The answer is all of the marginalized, otherwise invisible or silenced voices enduring that white or male or straight gaze upon our writing in any workshop which takes place in academic or non-academic spaces. To interrupt white male dominated spaces by the language and narratives of my history, which is otherwise being violently fought to be erased, I am demanding space, I am elbowing my way into workshops so that the trauma of my family may not go unheard.

While any workshop I took at Columbia wasn’t a healing environment, they helped me build the maps that would lead me to my other community-based healing. But bet if another white woman refuses to read my writing because of my language, pues no mames. 

vanessa borjon
Vanessa Borjon

Vanessa Borjon is a xicana writer, educator and trauma-informed youth facilitator living in Chicago. She hopes to release a chapbook soon and can be visited at

Dear Columbia: Live What You Love by Rai Mckinley

“Create Change”

When I arrived at Columbia College Chicago in 2013 the school’s motto was “Create Change”. The statement exemplified everything that the school seemingly yearned and strived to be; A place dedicated to social change through artistic practice, a place that put an individual’s human development first, and a place that placed great value in equity on campus and in the classroom. At the time the college was alight with The Obama Effect (which is to say a great sense of hope) following the appointment of the new president, Dr. Kwang­Wu Kim, who seemed to really understand just how important this equity is. It was generally believed that the institution would make an even greater effort to fulfill it’s promise to prospective students and then suddenly, the motto changed to a longer but much less meaningful slogan. This was my first sign.

“Live What You Love”

I spent my first year at Columbia joining every relevant program and club that I could, The Conaway Achievement Program, BigART (Which was cut following the year of my participation), Black Student Union, Common Ground, etc. I was building my creative posse as I’d been instructed in Mark Kelly’s “Hell Yeah!” call-­to-action. I soon became president of and rebooted the Black Film Society and where I saw that the school was failing on one of it’s largest principles, I felt it my duty to alert the administration in the only way I knew fit, through my major. In the film, titled “The Black Sheep Roundtable” Black film students and faculty members explore lack of diversity in the Cinema Arts + Science department. I naively did this wholly with the expectation that this incredible and inclusive administration would listen with open ears. Instead I was met with the sort of passive ­aggressive and patronizing institutional racism I had gone all the way to Chicago to leave behind, as well as the virulent microaggressions of a number of Cinema Arts + Science staff, namely Sandy Cuprisin. Immediately following these transgressions with the department Vaun Monroe, who had been BFS’s advisor, was denied tenure and left the college. I was made to feel so uncomfortable around the film department that finally, like BFS’s previous president Marcus Martin, I was forced to leave the department altogether. This was my second sign.

“Live What You Love”

By my second year at Columbia people from throughout the institution were telling me that these problems were college wide, and far more complex than I had imagined. I realized that I’d struck a chord that just kept ringing, and so I applied to become a One Tribe Scholar. One Tribe was a group dedicated to social justice on campus, created out of the Multicultural Affairs office as a liaison between the different cultural groups housed there. 10 students from 10 different backgrounds and different majors working together to create feasible social and institutional equity on campus, a perfect example of what Columbia claimed to be. In the second half of the year we split off into groups, my group ran Practicing Diversity which was a luncheon workshop series in which students, faculty, and staff came together to discuss ways we could ensure that Columbia could be as diverse and as inclusive as it claimed to be. It was another program that Columbia should have upheld as exemplary of the school it was/wanted to be. Instead, by the end of the year the One Tribe Scholars program was cut. A blaring third sign.

“Live What You Love”

It was around this same time that Columbia introduced it’s “Strategic Plan” which had all but completely ignored student voices; it’s planning committee consisted of only one undergraduate student (It is worth noting that I was asked to be on this committee, but because I had class during the pre­scheduled meeting time, I was unable to attend. No effort was made to work around this conflict.). In the diversity section of the plan, there were a number of things laid out that the college said it intended to do, but no mention of the things that were already happening. No mention of One Tribe, no mention of the Center for Innovation in Teaching Excellence (which housed the Practicing Diversity series), not even a single mention of the Multicultural Affairs Office, which itself is directed by a woman who seems more of a corporate hire and not someone who at all understands, or even cares to understand multiculturalism.

“Live What You Love”

In my third year, continuing to be heavily involved in the CiTE and the Multicultural Affairs office, I watched as crucial employees were investigated and fired, as the school continued to make brash decisions without student input. As programs and jobs are being cut, six­ figure VP positions are added. Eric Freedman came on as the new Dean of Media Arts, and 2 years post–“Black Sheep” he is reported by the Columbia Chronicle as giving students only “roundabout” answers about diversity. The administration continued to claim progress with gender-neutrality when in reality they did nothing more than don a few student ­made pronoun buttons (many times the wrong ones). Still nothing had been done to improve experiences of and resource for students of color, the plan for gender-­neutral bathrooms continued to see false ­starts and push­ backs, and the administration continued to engage in secretive behavior. In light of this, an entire league of faculty and staff are having a mass exodus from the school, and their calls to abandon ship were soon hitting me as well. Signs 4­10.

“Live What You Love”

After three years at Columbia College Chicago I have finally made up my mind to leave. The signs have come together to paint a picture that is only truly clear to me now that I am away-why those who hold the keys to Columbia’s success are undervalued, underpaid, and let go, and why white men are given fancy, made-­up, six­ figure titles. What we thought was a school going down in flames, has turned out to be a school that is lighting itself on fire, so that it can build anew. What looks like the end of our Columbia, turned out to be the beginning of a new Columbia that will certainly serve the needs of those whom it intends to. I take no issue with the fact that Columbia is effectively turning itself into a corporate money-­guzzler; Somehow even more blatanty than other institutions of higher education, Columbia seeks to pull in young creatives, suck them dry of every penny, and send them back out with nothing more than “Hell Yeah!” stamped on their foreheads. I have no right really, to disagree with this move, as my fellow former-Columbians and I have come to realize. What will be, will be, and for us folks who are conscientious, caring, queer, and of color, it seems the time has come to simply move on. However, Columbia’s self-­advertising must match the haste of it’s decision-­making, or else it is a liar as well as a thief. The college can no longer position itself as a place that caters to the needs of queer, black, and brown folks. Perhaps it was open to that direction once, but it seems that time has passed.

rai mckinley
Rai Mckinley
Rai Mckinley is an image maker and activist from Massachusetts. He spent 3 years at Columbia College Chicago studying cinema arts and photography, as well as co-planning and facilitating workshops based around topics of diversity. He is currently in the process of transferring schools to pursue a liberal arts degree.


*Photo by Nathan Manasakhan*