ROGUE AGENT IS three YEARS OLD THIS MONTH! A HEARTFELT THANKS TO OUR AUTHORS, artists, AND READERS, WHO HAVE MADE IT POSSIBLE. MAD LOVE TO YOU!
Tara Shea Burke
INTERVIEW: Jenny Johnson
Julia C. Alter
Shannon K. Winston
Leslie Contreras Schwartz
Tara Shea Burke
AFTER THE BREAKUP
so all my days have added up to this I look at my body and see myself as flesh as
something like love as something like a life carried by pain that fading scar on my
leg looks like the letter E I carved it EDNOS during one of many long and lonely
nights with less hope a lot of cheap wine a whole pizza down the hatch then a mess
in the toilet my notebooks scribbled full how badly I wanted to be more always
more hardly legible a twenty-something's hunger drawn in blood on the page
did I know then the only way was through because oh how I drenched myself like a
baptism in all the pain no one outside me could hold and here I am again alone
afraid of who I might meet inside the dark hall of myself so what does the body
carry now a newly renovated home I no longer own 600 fence posts I drove and
banged into the ground under the hot desert sun two goats I lured behind that fence
and I imagine still bleat for my hands at dawn a life I thought was mine where her new
love lives a relationship now only a dream I keep waking up to sweaty in the dark
legs covered in stretch marks purple veins so many years on my feet a thirst like a
throb coming into my own desire unmuted tenacity like a canyon the river comes
through a woman without a home a woman who was asked without words to leave
her home a woman's body a heartbreak sobbing all over her new city crying for a
love lost a new love brought in and lost too all the old buildings knocked down around
me gentrification next door at my door all the bodies gone new bodies wiped clean
bodies bodies all the bodies dying around me and little old me the same young girl
begging for a love I fear doesn't exist no I know now the love I want is not
outside I understand now why so many wanderers without homes walk around full
scream in public stories so loud in our hearts incessant thumps against each wall of
the body how can anyone survive this I keep asking and I smile at a stranger every
cell open hungry and sharp so I soften my gaze look at her and mean it oh
stranger my broken body wants you wants something I cannot name so many
books open and face-down on my chest so we talk about something more than the
weather what else is living for she asks me and my body is water instantly river
Chorus in scrubs, come inform us—
bring us noise of prognosis,
scanning a father’s lungs
confettied with asbestos.
Come, gloved chorus, assist us—
Deploy poison medicine
to ventriloquist cells
signaling wild, droning refrains:
Come to us, stricken chorus—
Open a secret room
inside the song,
red velvet walls
plush & nerveless.
Death snoozes in the ruts harrowed through this breast, and sighs.
Each time he has visited this flesh, he has found it wanting,
its yield a measly pittance, not the juicy banquet he craves.
Lusting for more than mere antipasti, he appraises all potential flesh
for further excavations, weighing succulence against the hackneyed
cartoon he discovers sketched from raked furrows and erasures.
He heaves himself onto his side. Even as his appetite balloons
at the scent of organs he covets, he decides he needs more time
to contrive a satisfactory reprise. He rolls over and rises,
then shuffles off to gorge on more accessible chitterlings,
victuals, desserts. Meanwhile, I confess, at this point in my life
I could surrender whatever he desires and not feel a thing.
TALK OF HANDS
Energy jumps like fish in
clear bowls & hands jerk too
since they are quick since
their fear is the towns of your
heart so the right monsters
will ride with you instead of
plunging off the platform once
they read the map but revile it.
Hands take textures as food
like a memory of bread still
soft in the middle, also the way
burlap will snag, the ease of
zippers though someone else
always stops first, if not at
schools then later by lakes
or killed in hallways hot
with closets. Hands like aunts
or fathers, hands as bandages
finding harm by highway
though we keep a compass
in the cave of our palms
in case a bomb buried down
in the pavement cuts deep,
makes you cry. Though
you did the best you could.
Christ, we all did.
Jenny Johnson talks about embodied poetry
and writing In Full Velvet
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?
Honestly, it’s always been a preoccupation—how do I live inside this body? Since I was a kid, I felt at odds with my material body. And yet, I often found joy, clarity, or release in capturing the felt sense of my body through language, initially by writing fictional stories. As a closeted teen, too— filling pages of composition notebooks with journal entries and poems—however, confused, awkward, and ashamed I was to speak about my queer desires and my genderqueer body, I loosened shame’s grip by finding language to describe ways of feeling and being.
In Full Velvet is amazing! What is most astonishing and beautiful to me, is the joy writ throughout its pages. I wanted to read every poem aloud. They feel like ecstatic odes. Even the places where violence is alluded to (I’m thinking of the hunters stripping the buck’s velvet antlers), it is relatively subtle, and the overarching feeling from the book is celebration. How and why did you make the choice to take this path?
Thanks for the generous words. I think of celebration as a radical act. Writing an ode—a form of address that some might fear verges on the sentimental—for me is a method by which to critically affirm lives and experiences that are regulated, dismissed, and threatened by the dominant culture.
I’d add that I consider many of the poems in the collection to be simultaneously joyful and aching. I was thinking consciously about how to oscillate between the ode and elegy. What I wanted to contain in these poems was that often concurrent sense of ecstasy and grief that one can feel. Specifically with the opening sequence “Dappled Things,” I wanted to write a poem that celebrated an ecology of difference, but in the writing I found that I couldn’t celebrate biodiversity without also mourning it, and implicating myself in its erosion.
One of my favorite poem pairings in this book is “Summoning the Body That Is Mine When I Shut My Eyes,” immediately followed by “Tail.” These poems feel like two sides of the same coin. They both evoke a sense of the speaker’s identity as she is coming into her power. Please say more about these particular poems—the process of writing them, what they mean to you, anything you like.
No one’s ever asked me about these two poems side-by-side. So thank you for this question. You’re right that they are in conversation. One is a kind of summoning forth of a shadow body via language and the other an attempt at actualizing this body via the imagination.
In “Summoning the Body That is Mine When I Shut My Eyes,” I summon forth what I describe in the poem as a “second heartbeat,” “familiar spirit,” and “private imposter.” I was reading Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, where Tomkins, a psychologist and theorist, talks about body image and phantom limbs, and then mentions a specific exercise he did, where he asked people he worked with (his “subjects”) to close their eyes and draw a picture of themselves. When writing this poem, I attempted to do this visual exercise using language. Unexpectedly, `I spent as much time working on the poem’s sonic texture and rhythm, as its imagery. Viscerally, I felt that I needed it to sound right, so I read it over and over to myself. I feel I should confess that it’s a very private prayer that snuck its way into a book that I now share very publicly. For this reason, I never read “Summoning…” aloud when I give readings. And if I ever do, I can only imagine sharing it with my eyes closed.
“Tail” meanwhile is a poem that’s all about possibilities, about picturing and rejoicing in the ways that a body’s parts signal, flex, and flash in space. In a conversation about my book that I was fortunate to have with writer and friend Christina Crosby (whose book I recommend below), she told me that for her “Tail” is a poem of “subjunctive transformation”— I love this description.
SUMMONING THE BODY THAT IS MINE WHEN I SHUT MY EYES
Come second heartbeat sounding in the breast
Come prismatic light dissembling
Come familiar spirit Come bare-chested in the weeds
Come private imposter Come hidden ballast
Come sudden departures Come stress without shape
Because belief is odd Come swaggering answer
Come invisible ink Come beatific scrawl
Come as squirrels are climbing backwards
Come as dogwood blossoms come apart
Come strumming an unspeakable power ballad
Through a torrent of rain with cheeks flushed scarlet
Come down the rusty metal slide
Come belted kingfisher flapping
Come lavender asters wheeling
Come loose, a sapling lengthening
Come honeysuckle Come glistening
Please share with our readers a list of 5-10 books you think we should read right now.
Because there are too many poetry books to name, here’s a list of some of my favorite poets currently writing about the body: Meg Day, Natalie Diaz, francine j. harris, Oliver Baez Bendorf, Rickey Laurentiis, Ari Banias, and Gabrielle Calvocoressi.
Other nonfiction and theoretical works about the body that have been important to me are: A Body, Undone: Living on After Great Pain by Christina Crosby and Assuming a Body by Gayle Salamon. As for what’s currently on my nightstand, I’m reading The Life and Death of Latisha King: A Critical Phenomenology of Transphobia, Gayle Salamon’s latest book, which was just released this spring.
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?
As someone who has often felt like an imposter writing in an imposter’s body, the best advice I can give is: Trust each poem and its strange authority.
Also, because shame keeps us from talking to each other, when you get stuck, be brave and go talk to someone about what you’re writing about. I especially would advise having an intergenerational conversation. Go talk to someone whose perspective might surprise you. I have learned so much about my subjectivity as a queer person from conversations with people I admire who are younger than me and older than me.
Jenny Johnson is the author of In Full Velvet, published by Sarabande Books in 2017. Her honors include a 2015 Whiting Award and a 2016-17 Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. She was recently named one of the "Ten Poets Who Will Change the World" by Poets and Writers Magazine. She has also received awards and scholarships from the Blue Mountain Center, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Yaddo. Her poems have appeared in The New York Times, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, New England Review, and elsewhere. After earning a BA/MT in English Education from the University of Virginia, she taught public school for several years in San Francisco, and she spent ten summers on the staff of the UVA Young Writer’s Workshop. She earned an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College. She is a Contributing Editor at Waxwing Literary Journal. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and at the Rainier Writing Workshop, Pacific Lutheran University’s low-residency MFA program.
Julia C. Alter
ODE TO MY PLUM (12 WEEKS)
Your eyes have migrated
to the front of your head,
gentle clenched seed pods.
I swim every morning, diving
into the unwieldy weightlessness of you.
My lips fleck with deep red blots, like stains
from stone fruit. Thin skin. Pregnancy
mask or luscious bruise-y kisses from beyond.
Our ancestors amongst plum trees, Oma
clipping on a helmet when she shook them
so the plums wouldn’t knock her out
as they cascaded. She collected them in baskets
to cook down with lemon zest and sugar,
to bake with butter and marzipan, to pour
as heavy batter into greased sheet pans.
This is just to say, we are rooted in women
who spent their days in aprons sweating
and trusting there was always a way
to coax more sweetness out of something.
Burying currants under meringue, spooning
vanilla cream onto wild strawberries.
Here you are, purple honey, teaching me
a new lexicon for delicious, a twinge
at the back of my jaw.
WAKING UP FROM TOP SURGERY IN A SPARSE AIRBNB LIVING ROOM
My breasts are gone.
Orange lights seep through the blinds,
caressing my wife’s face
as she worries the kitchen clean.
The hardwood floor
reflects my new watch, large
face swallowing wrist:
a reminder that I am a man.
My body now a map instead of a globe,
rivered with lines and incisions.
Heavy bandages and compression
protect my newfound flatness.
I am heavy and still with Percocet.
My wife keeps a medication chart
at her bedside; she kneels and washes
my feet with a borrowed cloth.
If I stood, I know I would rise
like a Lazarus in the heat of certainty.
Shannon K. Winston
BECAUSE I'M AFRAID TO SPEAK
In 7th grade, someone called me Helen Keller
as if it were the worst epithet in the world.
I won’t lie: I had to go home to ask who that was.
But oh my relief because she had no “s’s”
in her name for me to stumble through.
Did you know, living in France I had no lisp?
In Paris, I felt as though I were slipping
into another girl’s silk dress.
Fitting another’s diamonds around my fingers.
Even at that young age, feeling beautiful,
unfettered, and sexy. This is what stepping into another
language affords. But in English,
my own native language, I’ve always felt clunky and heavy
as if lumbering about in loafers too big to be mine.
So I began imagining this scene in almost cinematic
detail: I’m a woman standing
on a rooftop of some strange city stringing letters
of the alphabet on a clothesline like white linens.
The letters appear suddenly, seamless, and bright.
“A” is a negligee with lavender thread patching the underarms.
I would have wanted someone to kiss me there.
Loneliness skirts the letter “C”—
the curve soft-white like my belly button.
“D” is for the dampness between my thighs, for the blue
socks I tried to dry, but put too close to the fire.
Skip ahead to “G” and “H.” To “Q,” “R,” and “S”—
letters lined with happiness, sadness, and defeat all at once.
How can they assume so many shapes?
Round, square, oval, sticky, I felt them all.
I shoved them in my mouth
and ironed them with my tongue.
I turned buttons into sweet velvety seeds.
Leslie Contreras Schwartz
NO ONE ASKED WHAT HAPPENED (AND I WOULDN'T HAVE HAD THE WORDS)
he smiled in the rearview mirror, he was driving [
fifteen, nine months old ]
my face [ my back on the hood
she arched on the screen ]
felony of the first degree the Texas code § 22.011 defines two degrees of the crime sexual
assault the victim was a person whom the actor was prohibited from marrying
or purporting to marry or with whom the actor was prohibited from living under the appearance of being
married under Section 25.01
in the throat
a fine of $10,000
life in [prison] legs
back then it was her too, homecoming queen,
maybe I loved her [
]there was no name for it
cuando ellas abren las piernas
sacred mother of run
sacred left me
stop looking at me you don’t get the details its mine this is not some rape performance
here’s what you need[
I lived I lived I live too]
THESE I SINGING IN SPRING
after Walt Whitman
spectrums of color
woven in handkerchiefs,
forming sounds of lusts
unspoken, loves too
[i whisper all manner
of frightening things]
and nothing more than
a self, a flower
in bloom against all
odds, all pesticides sprayed
in futility at the trunk
of the oldest
tree known to man.
Issue 37 Contributors
Julia C. Alter lives and writes in Burlington, Vermont. Her poems can be found in, or are forthcoming from, Clementine Unbound, Storyscape Journal, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Literary Mama. She was a finalist for Hunger Mountain's 2017 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize.
Daniela Buccilli's poetry has been published in Cimarron Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Paterson Literary Review, and Quail Bell, and other journals. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Pittsburgh and is currently enrolled in the Carlow MFA in poetry program. Her work includes a full-length manuscript called All She Is Willing. She has taught at a public high school now for 25 years.
Tara Shea Burke is a queer poet from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She served as poetry editor and co-creator for several small literary journals, and is a guest editor and board member for Sinister Wisdom, a Multicultural Lesbian Literature and Arts Journal. Her chapbook Let the Body Beg was published in 2014, and recent poems can be found in Adrienne, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Minola Review, Public Pool, The Fem, and Whale Road Review. She has taught in Virginia, New Mexico, and Colorado. She lives in Denver. www.tarasheaburke.com
Willa Carroll is the author of Nerve Chorus (The Word Works, 2018). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Tin House, LosAngeles Review of Books Quarterly, Narrative, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere. She was the winner of Tupelo Quarterly's TQ7 Poetry Prize and Narrative Magazine's Third Annual Poetry Contest. Carroll holds a MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars. Video readings of her poems were featured in Narrative Outloud and Tuesday; A Reading Project. A former experimental dancer and actor, she’s collaborated with numerous performers and artists, including her filmmaker husband in NYC.
Eric Cline is a queer writer currently residing in northern Virginia. They are the author of the poetry chapbooks his strange boy eve (Yellow Chair Press, 2016) and something further across the ocean (Throwback Books, 2017). They tweet @EricClinePoet.
Leslie Contreras Schwartz is a fifth-generation Houstonian of Mexican heritage. Her essays and poetry have recently appeared in Catapult, The Collagist, Tinderbox andLuna Luna. Publications include Fuego, (Saint Julian Press, 2016) and her second book of poems, Nightbloom & Cenote, forthcoming from the same press in 2018. Schwartz earned an MFA in poetry from The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in 2011.
Jenny Johnson is the author of In Full Velvet (Sarabande Books, 2017). Her honors include a 2015 Whiting Award and a 2016-17 Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. Her poems have appeared in The New York Times, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, New England Review, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and at the Rainier Writing Workshop's MFA Program.
Laurinda Lind is an adjunct English teacher in New York's North Country, near the Canadian border. Some poetry publications/ acceptances have been inBlueline, Chautauqua, Comstock Review, Constellations, The Cortland Review, Ekphrasis, Kestrel, Main Street Rag, Paterson Literary Review, and Transom.
Bo Niles is a former magazine editor/writer who concentrated on home design. She began writing poetry at 92nd Street Y workshops in New York City, and is now a member of its senior poetry group. Her poems have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, plus three chapbooks – intimate geographies, natural causes, and crescendo | decrescendo – from Finishing Line Press in Kentucky. Recently widowed, she has two grown sons, one married, and two grandchildren.
Remi Recchia is an MFA candidate in Poetry at Bowling Green State University, where he serves as Assistant Poetry Editor for the Mid-American Review and teaches first-year writing. His work has appeared in or will soon appear in Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Old Northwest Review, Blue River Review, Front Porch, Gravel, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Ground Fresh Thursday Press, among others.
Shannon K. Winston's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pretty Owl Poetry, Whale Road Review, A-Minor, Crab Orchard Review, Zone 3, among others. Her first poetry collection, Threads Give Way (Cold Press), was published in 2010. She earned her MFA at Warren Wilson College and her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She teaches in Princeton University’s Writing Program.