Leslie Contreras Schwartz
INTERVIEW: Jennifer Jackson Berry
Jessica Fordham Kidd
Dana L. Stringer
ART: Erin Marie Hall
Leslie Contreras Schwartz
ODE TO ROOTS CRACKING SIDEWALKS
Of tangled dark hair,
Limbs, arms, reaching
Up through blackened
Soil to find its way
To its beloved.
This always the buried
Body of a woman,
Her black hair knotting
Into black fists
To crack the concrete,
The heavy foundation
Of a brick house.
Oh, that weight
As the family
Walks back and forth
Over her open body.
To crackle through walls,
Through the family’s bones,
As they huddle at night
In smothered dreams
That remember her
In the night.
Even the baby
In his crib, his tiny
Sigh breaking open
This cenote in the
Uncurling of his fist.
Give into it, dear
Child, my child.
Crack in the wall
On the ceiling,
The rocking chair snaps,
A small neck or wing
Against the bars
Of your bed,
Those rails held up
To keep you
All those roads
That have been
Poured over her body,
The years of bayou,
Swamp, all its heavy
Black map, those
Blood lines, bloodied.
Mouths, weeping through
The dank womb of the world
Mayim of this world,
Always seeking to
Find you again,
You, in your foot-pajamas
Dressed of frozen stars.
UN CADEAU, UN COUTEAU
There is blood on the knife but you lick it clean. I notice you have no scars, that your
bruises heal before they become any color that's not beautiful. Mine are rotten
greens, appear like freckles in the sun, easy. You turn the blade over and over in
your hand, find a new way of looking at it every time you slide it out of my skin. No
one believes that you were kind, because, look at this mess you left. No one runs at a
knife more than once, do they? Your eyebrows dance at the question and the way
my fingers finger each scar, like a sleeping baby's hand, delicate and small as a milk
drop. You say, you hold your pain in reverence.
I say, give me something else to hold.
My cousin points to my septum ring:
It’s too big, she says in English. Ugly.
She pulls at the hoops in her ears—cheap gold things—
this, she says. I like this. Boys, she says. Boys like this.
She turns to my aunt and asks for coffee
in Portuguese. I look down at the scratches
in my arms, raked over with fingernails until I bled.
I’m ready to offer, hives, but no one asks.
Instead, it’s my nose ring, tattoos, uncombed hair.
My grandma is stirring the feijoada on the stove
under a single crocheted curtain.
The dog whimpers out on her courtyard.
I look my cousin in the eye. She might be beautiful.
Certainly more beautiful than I am—scarred hollow body.
Her husband beats my uncle.
Her brother ignores his anorexic daughter my aunt is raising.
My more beautiful cousin fingers her wedding ring—
cheap gold thing. I go out into the courtyard,
sink my naked fingers into my grandmother’s potted plants.
Sometimes I can’t breathe in my grandmother’s house.
Later, across the city I was born in,
as strange to me now as my grandmother’s superstitions,
my godfather leads me by the shoulder.
Here, there are no whimpering dogs.
No narrow cement brick courtyards.
My godmother’s ghost is a perfumed shadow
across the folk art masks,
the woodcut prints on neat stucco walls.
We walk through the garden. I remember it
as a swimming pool. We filled it in, my godfather says
in Portuguese. I ask about the ancient tortoise
I remember feeding overripe bananas.
She’s dead, I gather when he changes the subject.
He names every plant. They’re so big here,
impossible to imagine as the same houseplants
in my small Pittsburgh apartment.
My godfather points at my septum piercing.
Just like an Indian, he says. Beautiful.
He makes a joke I don’t completely understand.
His hand on my face is the phone call my godmother made
before she drove her car off a red dirt road.
It’s the wet philodendron leaves as broad as we are—
shoulder to shoulder, breathing in the easy recognition
that we might be strangers.
Jennifer Jackson Berry talks about embodied poetry
and writing The Feeder
Please describe your journey toward writing poetry that reflects on the experience of living in the body. Have you always written this way, or did you come to it over time?
The oldest poem in The Feeder is “Fat Girl Confuses Food & Sex, Again.” I wrote it when I was an undergraduate in 1997, and it was one of three poems that was my first literary journal publication, a feature in the Summer 1998 issue of Chiron Review. It was in the mid- to late-1990’s whenI first started writing poetry seriously, so yes, I have always written this way. I’ve always had this body. I’ve always had these poems.
Back then, I was very lucky to encounter the poem “Bulimia” by Denise Duhamel in the 1994 edition of Best American Poetry series. That poem was so important to me; I read it over and over. This poem and poet gave me permission to write about a women’s body, to write about sexuality, to write about disordered views of eating and food—the details in that poem are so honest, so daring. I started writing poems that felt like secrets. I started telling the truth and making people listen to my truth. I started cranking out Fat Girl poems.
I did have a professor tell me to explore other topics; she told me I was limiting myself with that content. I’m glad I didn’t listen. As I was working towards an MFA, another professor insisted on calling my Fat Girl poems “persona poems.” I always felt uncomfortable with his use of that label. This wasn’t a persona for me; being a fat girl wasn’t a mask I could choose to take off. I’m glad I wasn’t deterred by his misunderstanding of my project. While I want to emphatically stress that it is never ok to assume a speaker in a poem is the poet herself, or that every poem is “true” in that the situation happened to the poet, I also think that poems about the bodies are pushing towards some greater truth, some unmasking of inner workings.
This book is so gutsy. It covers terrain that, at least in my reading, is seldom examined in poetry. From the beginning, the fat girl is troubled and troubling. She is judged by girlfriends, boyfriends, herself, and the implicit societal rule that only certain bodies are acceptably desirable. Despite this, she is sensual, sexual, and loved. Her voice reads to me as unafraid to leave it all on the page. What compelled you to write The Feeder?
I think that I put Fat Girl to bed, literally and metaphorically, in “Fat Girl Has Regular Sex,” which is the only poem in the Fat Girl series that I wrote in recent years, in 2013. Because of my size, any time I write about sex, I feel it is a political act. My body isn’t supposed to be seen as sexy or desired. (I want to acknowledge that there is another side to this issue: when the fat body is fetishized and only seen in a sexualized way—just as problematic, of course.) Fat Girl’s story in The Feeder was about finding love and acceptance, from a partner andfrom herself.
I tried to end some of the silence surrounding infertility and miscarriage in The Feeder as well. There were many times in the months after my miscarriage when I just couldn’t face the world. I remember calling off sick and writing “Post-Miscarriage: Day 74” in my living room, scribbling the lines curled over the coffee table. The revised version of the poem takes place “today,” as in “I fell inside Cogo’s today,” but in the first version it was “yesterday,” written on a Monday morning after Sunday’s baptism of my nephew. The 74th day after I miscarried. The process of writing the poem saved me that day, saved me from my grief. The poems also saved me on the 55th day when I came across a picture of me and my husband smiling at a holiday party when I was pregnant, on the 186th day when the Similac Newborn Nutrition Kit showed up in the mail, and so many other days when the poems didn’t end up being strong enough to include in the final manuscript.
I feel fortunate that I had this coping mechanism available to me and that I knew putting the words on the page would help me. I’m thankful that I learned many years earlier when I was learning to live peacefully in this fat body that part of the learning how to live peacefully child-free would include writing the poems about it.
Some of my favorite poems in The Feeder are “I’m Showing” and “I’m Telling.” The voice is absolutely fearless. I get the idea that “showing” and “telling” are both personal testimonies and political acts. Please say more about those particular poems—the process of writing them, what they mean to you, anything you like.
“I’m Showing” is still a difficult poem for me. I’ve performed it many, many times, and I know it’s an important poem to the book—for not only its content, but also its placement at the end of book. I wrote it before I miscarried, and even now, on my worst days years after the event, I fear that feelings like the ones that close the poem are why it happened. I fear that I somehow let those feelings of doubt dictate what happened in my body, as if I had that kind of control over my uterus.
I didn’t know if I’d ever get to show what was happening in my body. The doctors said I should only gain approximately 10 lbs. through the pregnancy. I was having trouble with all of the typical language surrounding pregnancy, so I wanted to try to reclaim that particular phrase with the title. The way that every informational book and web site use fruits as comparisons to the size of the fetus—why? The cravings, the show & tell game on social media, I wanted to show all of those things from a different perspective and experience. And of course, I wanted to write an honest poem, even if it wasn't completely true—these are the kinds of fears that some women experience. Is it a political act to tell that truth? I think so. The silencing of women’s health concerns is part of pervasive systemic oppression.
I’ve had this belly for years, this belly now
speckled with insulin shot sites, some
in varying stages of bruise. I'm four weeks
& high glucose in the mornings. I'm five weeks
& internal ultrasound wand, the first condom
inside me in over a year. I'm six weeks
& craving spicy, hot sauce splashed
on every plate. I'm seven weeks
& you're the size of a blueberry, baby.
I’m high risk, at risk of callousing every fingertip
from up to seven tests a day. Fasting,
one hour after eating, bedtime.
We are careful to speak in ifs:
if all goes well at the next appointment,
if I’m able to carry to term.
But we’ve told everyone too
soon. I was on incompatible meds.
I stood at my mother’s fridge before Sunday dinner
four weeks ago & ate pinched fingers full of blue cheese.
The journal I’m keeping isn’t littered
with cravings of ice cream & pickles, isn’t
interspersed with pictures of my belly with a placard
of the time frame held to the side.
When you start a pregnancy obese, your belly
isn’t for show. What I’ll share with you
is a log of glucose readings & carbs per meal.
I hope my fingertips heal. I want to save you,
but I’m afraid I’m carrying you like a bruise,
that you’re soon to fade, but not before you turn
a sick yellow. Not before you leave me tender.
The title for “I’m Telling” came naturally as a companion poem after the miscarriage happened, after the fears came true. These two poems closing the book, with a final poem actually titled “Before & After,” made sense as to where to leave the reader. It is gratifying to hear those two poems described as “fearless.” Those poems still scare me sometimes.
I have new bruises now:
on the back of my hand, blue
& small as forget-me-not petals
where the medic tried
to start a line en route
to the ER, after failing
at the inside of my elbow—
fluids needed since I was losing
so much blood.
The medic told me how his wife
miscarried twice before
they had their daughter.
He gently pushed my ring aside
so he could lay his hand flat
across the top of mine
as he tried to find the vein.
He failed again & I didn’t get a line
until after the ER exam,
the plastic speculum clicking
into place, the collection
of blood into a white cup.
When I offered to take off
my ring, he joked that man
of mine better not find out
how easily I remove it.
I feel like I’ve let go
of too many things too easily.
I tried to keep you, baby.
Please share with our readers a list of 5-10 books you think we should read right now.
Some recent favorites are listed below. I do keep track of all of my reading at my Goodreads page.
Sympathetic Little Monster by Cameron Awkward-Rich (Ricochet Editions, 2016)
Jackknife: New and Selected Poems by Jan Beatty (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017)
Landscape with Headless Mama (LSU Press, 2016) and Protection Spell (University of Arkansas Press, 2017) by Jennifer Givhan
I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well by James Allen Hall (Cleveland State Poetry Center, 2017) (essays)
In Full Velvet by Jenny Johnson (Sarabande Books, 2017)
Bestiary by Donika Kelly (Graywolf Press, 2016)
I'm So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On by Khadijah Queen (YesYes Books, 2017) (hybrid)
Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith (Triquarterly Books, 2017)
Some Rogue Agent fans are just beginning to explore what making art about the body would look like for them. What advice would you give to someone just starting down the path toward writing poetry that features the body?
Read. Read. Read. This is actually the advice I would give to any young poet or any poet tackling new territory. Look at my list above. Look at ire’ne lara silva’s list in the last issue. (I just ordered a copy of her Blood Sugar Canto. I hate that I didn’t know of it sooner! I shook my head yes at her suggestion to read Sarah Chavez’s chapbook, and I’ll re-read that one soon.) Click on every single link in the Rogue Agent inspiration list. It is important to see how the body has been written in the past, how other poets have approached the body in their work, how one’s own poetry speaks with or against that work.
Jennifer Jackson Berry is the author of The Feeder (YesYes Books, 2016). She is also the author of the chapbooks When I Was a Girl(Sundress Publications, 2014) and Nothing But Candy (Liquid Paper Press, 2003). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as Booth, Harpur Palate, Poet Lore, Verse Daily, and Whiskey Island, among others. She is the Editor of Pittsburgh Poetry Review and an Assistant Editor for WomenArts Quarterly Journal. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Visit her website at www.jenniferjacksonberry.com
FIVE ROUTES OF EXPLICATION
in the parking lot, you paused.
a scream from the passenger’s seat.
the burning of shoulder blade with fingertips from the
base of neck down and back again, skin catching,
your thick thumb heavy.
you burn and bury others in the way one can only
screech silently for. you swore the act was out
of love, the love you had for me. I swore
it had ended, you spent subsequent weeks
attempting to clear my memory but
my cells would not allow it.
I felt it in my skin for years
the epidermis incapable of sloughing off
the tissue toughened like dried fruit
in a dusty shade of apricot
tight and taught and dry
no one can see you crying like this they’ll think I did something wrong
STITCH UP. SEW. LICK THE THREAD STRANGLE THROUGH EYE OF THE NEEDLE AND CROSS
-HATCH NEEDLE THREAD SUPERIUS ORIS NEEDLE THREAD INFERIUS ORIS NEEDLE THREAD
SUPERIUS ORIS NEEDLE THREAD INFERIUS ORIS NEEDLE THREAD
proverb: should anyone notice, it is the fault of appearance, not causation.
proverb: the sin of surviving is further singeing.
once, you let me stay away, insisted you’d be there when I woke
but there’s nothing here for you anymore.
today I witnessed the scar swallowed up.
you’ve left nothing here.
I am never enough.
The doctors swallow my face
with their eyes like tar seeping
through the cracks of city pavements.
Skyscraper hospitals spoon
my reflection into glass & pour me
into the eyes of a waiting room.
A surgeon orders a cat scan to
slice my heart—arms—legs
into bite-size bits and p i e c e s
Medical machines gnaw
at my breasts & my back
salivating on scars of skin.
I stick two fingers down my throat.
What is there left to give?
A shadow lodged in the sternum. A reflux
of regret. A hole in the trachea.
Because it hurts.
Because I’m hollowed.
Survival is not enough.
Jessica Fordham Kidd
RED IN THE TREES ALWAYS CATCHES THE EYE
Lil Jamie has unrestrained ideas of love
and a muscle at the hinge of his jaw
carved and burly from all the clenching it does.
He clenches at every mention of family.
He clenches every time someone assumes
he is their same, has their same insecurities.
He mostly wants people to shut the fuck up.
At night he dreams of a woman in a wide-brimmed hat
and overalls. When he undresses her,
she has the wings of a hummingbird
and she makes them both vibrate
as they make love in his granny’s garden.
Or he dreams of a man also in overalls
who keeps a great red fox tail hidden
down the back of the left pant leg.
When he undresses him, the tail caresses Lil Jamie
before they both run wild through the woods
to swim the creek. The tail is warm
and Lil Jamie loves the way it drapes
across his chest while his lover stretches
belly down beside him.
Dana L. Stringer
HOW TO WHIP A KING
1. chase him down in the valley
2. rally the force to be with you
3. dress for bellum in your darkest blue
4. remember he is black and his body is a stubborn thing
5. wait for him to kneel as a formal act of surrender
6. now prepare to carry out the ritual of the law
7. draw your baton and swing it like a whip
8. like all of history depends on every blow to
9. break his back
Erin Marie Hall
In this triptych, I aim to explore the body as an ephemeral manifestation of self, the body as a trap, and female bodily autonomy/emergence as a unique form. I am frequently attracted to the apocalyptic, and my work seeks to reflect how the awareness of death- the final embodied experience- plays a role in our formation of identity. My work also seeks to highlight ways in which physical representations of self are limited or unreliable.
sun warmed fig
soft crunching sweet
in my teeth
filling me with
thoughts of you
and her, and them
so many flavors
and oddly familiar
sliding into my
while you watch
intent on my pleasure
knife at the ready
to slit the skin
and feed me more
but only the ripe ones
and ready to fall
MY BROKEN HEART
I hear its beat at eighteen—the cold
jelly helps the echo-
cardiogram wand wander
across my chest—the ba-bump, ba-
bump sounds strong and loud and then
the whimper, the slight gasp of tooth-gap
wheeze where flap won’t seal
so blood splashback, down—things
will change, not in the way people say
"there goes the neighborhood"—
in the way people say "I
love you. I need you. Please don't,
Red buds on the trees, girls
sprawled over the prickly hot grass,
through their frizzing hair.
How did I forget this:
sun on my bare arm,
thawed earth yielding
to my steps, shimmering haze
off the sidewalks,
the surrender of solidity to heat?
I think I wanted to forget.
I think I became comfortable
in the mourning world—
snow and night, sparkling
bodies of ice
climbing the doors and windows,
all the latched windows. I forgot
the quiet was a sacrifice,
a painful bargain I’d made
to bring back the one I loved.
And when she comes
I’m shy, still wrapped
in my scarves, my limbs
still white as ice.
Issue 27 Contributors
Aaron Berkowitz earned his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and is an educator for the CUNY Start Program at Bronx Community College. He is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Literary Journal. His work has been published in or is forthcoming from New York Dreaming, The Society of Classical Poets, Crack The Spine Literary Magazine, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, among others.
Jennifer Jackson Berry is the author of The Feeder (YesYes Books, 2016). She is also the author of the chapbooks When I Was a Girl(Sundress Publications, 2014) and Nothing But Candy (Liquid Paper Press, 2003). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as Booth, Harpur Palate, Poet Lore, Verse Daily, and Whiskey Island, among others. She is the Editor of Pittsburgh Poetry Review and an Assistant Editor for WomenArts Quarterly Journal. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Sossity Chiricuzio is a queer femme outlaw poet, a working class radical storyteller. What her friends parents often referred to as a bad influence, and possibly still do. A 2015 Lambda Fellow, recent publications include: Adrienne, Vine Leaves, Atlas and Alice, NANO fiction, Mash Stories, and Glitterwolf. More info at: sossitywrites.com.
Lara Coley Lara Coley, a San Franciscan francophone, is Co-Curator for the VelRo Reading Series. Former poetry editor and EIC, she is pursuing an MFA in Poetry at SFSU. Lara's writing and art appear in journals including New American Writing, Visible Ink Anthology, Transfer, and Opium. She has been featured in readings for the DeYoung Museum, LitQuake, Beast Crawl, Quiet Lightning, and Red Light Lit, and she is the recipient of the Daniel J Langton Poetry Award for "un cadeau, un couteau."
M.E. Gallucci's poetry and prose have been featured in HangingLoose, Monkeybicycle, and The Lyric, among others.
Erin Marie Hall is a poet and visual artist from South Bend, IN. Her work, which explores the body, sexuality, mental illness, and the apocalyptic, appears or is forthcoming in Grimoire, Rust + Moth, and (b)OINK. You can find her on Twitter @erinmariehall and on instagram @oftalonsandteeth.
Jessica Fordham Kidd is a lifelong Alabamian. She is the associate director of first-year writing at the University of Alabama, and her poems have appeared in Drunken Boat, Storyscape, Tinderbox, and The Paris Review among others.
Jasminne Mendez received her B.A. in English Literature and her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. Mendez has had poetry and essays published both nationally and internationally. Her book Island of Dreams (Floricanto Press, 2013) was awarded Best Young Adult Latino Focused Book by the International Latino Book Awards in 2015. She is an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at the Rainier Writer's Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.
Laura Romain is a writer, editor, and writing coach from the wilds of suburban New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Stirring, Penny, The Hartskill Review, Day One, Shape.com, and The Manifest-Station, among other venues. She is currently finishing her first novel, and she writes about creativity, mental wellness, and the writing life at http://lauraromain.com.
Leslie Contreras Schwartz is a writer concerned with the experiences of women and girls, and turning stories of victimhood into stories of survival. She is currently working on a novel about human trafficking based in Houston, her hometown and where she continues to live with her family. Her first book, Fuego, was published in March 2016 by St. Julian Press. She earned an MFA in poetry Warren Wilson College. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in The Collagist, Tinderbox Literary Journal, Texas Review and other publications.
Kim Sousa was born in Goiânia, Goiás (Brazil) and raised in Austin, Texas. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with two illiterate pugs. Her work was most recently published, or is forthcoming, in Poet Lore, PEN & The Rattling Wall’s post-election anthology, Only Light Can DoThat, and The Pittsburgh Poetry Review. You can find her at kdowsousa.wordpress.com.
Dana L. Stringer is a poet, playwright, and screenwriter. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, where she also serves as an online poetry instructor and book coach in the Inspiration to Publication Program. She is the author of In Between Faith (2014), and she has work forthcoming in the African American Review. Dana’s work as a playwright and screenwriter includes five productions, three staged readings, and a semifinalist status in the Nashville Film Festival Screenwriting Competition (2017). Visit her at: www.danastringer.com.