poetry feature: Trust Tonji

This week’s poem, “The thing about colors,” is a fine example of how poets often have to be unsettled in language. For instance, there is the performance of language in the public realm, where we do our best to honor one another in regards to pronoun preference, ability, and sexuality as well as cultural and racial backgrounds. Then there is the way language is rooted in the private realm, the personal effort and experiences that shape the way we come to understand such language and how we embody and live what it means.

Nebula Space Sky Abstract Colorful ColorIn my own life, I welcome a phrase like “person of color” for what it offers in the public realm, how it offers me, as a Latinx, a place in a larger, societal conversation. As a tool for unpacking and coping with insults and imbalances, such terminology provides a way to speak up with and make big picture connections where otherwise I would be too hurt to do so. And yet, in the private realm, I am obligated to unpack such phrases further because the distance they provide as tools leave a space where things like hurt and emotions remain to be addressed.

To put it another way, words that help in one realm don’t necessarily help in the other. But as poets, we are curious as to why that is. They are words after all. We will never have enough words to describe every hurt, nor will the world wait for us to find the right ones. We can only manage with the words we have, and add to those when necessary, when vision and heart allow.

Tonji had this to say in regards to the poem:

As a non native speaker of English language, ‘The thing about colors’ is my attempt at voicing my confusion and revealing my sociolinguistic interest on the expression ‘people of color’, especially when we are all cognisant of the denial of the obvious that comes with it; a statement of ambiguity attributing the black person a sense of being special or out of place as the case may be, the tendency of humans to rechristen everything but themselves.

What I admire about Tonji’s poem is how it points to the work still left to be done beyond political terms. When the speaker describes a moment with an immigration officer who lingers, trying to place “the colour of my accent,” and then goes on to describe the “color riot” caused by skin-bleaching, it is an admirable and necessary interrogation of the space between the public and private realms. Poetry aids such interrogation by making clear the mutability of language, a mutability that we as people can only continue to learn from.

The thing about colors – Trust Tonji

that I don’t understand
in this language
is why only black men
are said to be of color
when everyone has it
painted across their skin

the thing about colors
is the way they paint
themselves into what
lives under tongues
in borders, names
everything that looks
different from your norm

and yes,
this is not America
my skin’s brown like his
still this immigration officer
is slightly tilting his head
listening for the difference
in the colour of my accent

the thing about colors
on your brown body when
you stopped bleaching is
it beginning to heal itself
returning you back to the
color of your beautiful self
saving you the shame
of looking like color riot

the thing about colors
is that everyone has it
but if you’re too afraid
to share identity with us
you can keep painting
your imaginations black
black . . . black . . .


Trust Tonji is too confused to choose, he doesn’t have a particular favourite. He writes from Porto Novo, Republic of Benin. His poetry has appeared in Prachya Review, Synchronized Chaos, The Kalahari Review, Praxis Magazine, The Electronic Pamphlet and elsewhere.


reverie: emily corwin

In my recent microreview & interview of Emily Corwin’s tenderling (Stalking Horse Press), I noted how the poems showcase Corwin’s singular attention to the fluidity of language. Through anagrams and juxtaposition of elements from fairy tales and relationship narratives, tenderling pulses with the discovery of new stories being wrought from stories past.

tenderling-buy-300x300The poem “reverie” (below) is a good example of this mix of elements and discovery. The poem begins with the speaker’s admission of eating “the honeycomb whole and now there are bees / inside me.” The fabulist logic of the opening metaphor places the reader in the center of a poetic crucible. From there, vulnerability (“I try to / look human today”) and a sense of longing are brought together and mix until the poem itself becomes a “place” similar to the “place where / slept our bodies, young and peaceful.”

Within this context, reverie transforms from mere daydreaming to a state of evocative newness via language. The poem’s final word, “humming,” points back not only to the opening metaphor of the eaten honeycomb / bees inside, which evokes a physical humming, but also to the humming within words that lyric poetry is able to strike via meaning. Through conjecture guided by wonder, the speaker arrives by the end at a place beyond daydreaming.

reverie – Emily Corwin

I ate the honeycomb whole and now there are bees
inside me. a leaf drips out of my underwear; I try to
look human today. my panic—unrelenting, my ball
-gown gone missing, somewhere under the blossoms.
in the nights, I return to him often, to the place where
slept our bodies, young and peaceful, and I wonder if
he also returns, if we happen to meet, if he would kiss
me a little in the closets—touch like mercy, like a long
-awaited relief. we lay down our breadknives, we lay
ourselves down in quiet, feeling our way toward a
sweetness, toward my insides humming.


Emily Corwin’s collection, tenderling, is available for pre-order from Stalking Horse Press.

microreview & interview: Emily Corwin’s tenderling

review by José Angel Araguz



Looking up definitions of the title phrase to Emily Corwin’s tenderling (Stalking Horse Press, 2018), I found three meanings: one definition refers to one who has been coddled, or one who is weak or effeminate; the second has the word “tenderling” refer to a little child; and the last to one of the budding antlers of a deer (source). I find the juxtaposition of these definitions fascinating, particularly the pronounced mix of weakness and affection in the first two, and the nod towards strength and protection in the third. The poems in Corwin’s collection reflect a sensibility capable of interrogating each facet of these definitions, challenging the perceived weakness of illness while subverting the world of children’s stories and fairy tales, all while presenting the fact of the poem as a space where strength and imagination can bud and flourish.

In “tantrum,” for example, the uncontrolled outburst of anger implied in the title is seen as a mirror able to reflect back not a self but a slip of self that overwhelms:

at first, this terrible mirror, gutted. it is thinking of taking me.
at midnight, screaming illness, I fill a particular dark. I rustle, I
thrash—a girl loose in the bramble, getting wretched, smashing
up a glass syringe. how to return this rage, how it circles endless
—like bruise, like stone too black. I get hurt in you, becoming
skeleton. my ruffles everywhere, wilting.

The mirror metaphor here is far from passive; aligned with the idea of a tantrum, the mirror becomes an active part of the outburst, threatening to redefine the speaker. Succumbing momentarily, the speaker “fill[s] a particular dark” and is witness to seeing herself as “a girl loose in the bramble.” This slip of self creates a desire “to return this rage,” a desire which ultimately goes unfulfilled, but which in itself is revelatory. As mirrors in fairy tales often serve as passageways to other worlds, what matters is ultimately getting back home. Here, getting back entails not home but the self, and also naming what was experienced, the “hurt” and the “wilting.”

The work of naming experience is done here and elsewhere through attention to the fluidity of language. As with the multiple meanings of the word “tenderling,” this collection consistently engages with language for its variety as much as for its veracity of feeling. The opening of “split oak,” for example, makes compelling use of anagrams:

you felt me, you left me — moaning open in a landslide.

Having this three word phrase turned on its head with a quick shuffle of letters creates dramatic tension in a poetic way, concisely evoking two sides of a relationship. Yet, beyond the wordplay, it is meaningful to emphasize how the word implying intimacy (“felt”) is made up of the same letters and thus holds the word implying that intimacy’s end (“left”). Later, in the poem “torn,” the speaker notes

how you can’t spell slaughter without laughter,

bringing these words together in a way that evokes urgency and intimacy mixed with threat. In this way, tenderling makes its case for language as a kind of bramble, one from which identity and relationships work at turns to free themselves from and lose themselves in.

Corwin’s poetic sensibility remains engaging throughout tenderling because of this complex relationship with language. Words and fairy tales alike are repurposed and reclaimed in poems that point to something beyond themselves. There are no simple retellings here; rather, what occurs in these poems is more akin to resurfacing, language and self coming up for air.

In “abacus” (below), the metaphor of a mirror returns, only here its counterpart is a smartphone. The way the self is complicated and reflected across glass and social media apps is meditated upon, until the language of technology and relationships merge in a moment of bittersweet awareness.


abacus – Emily Corwin

I use my phone as a mirror. I have zero likes. I like
mud-rose & jewelweed & you. you left my body cells

astonished. I am missing you something fierce in these
greenfields & oil fields & fields of scary love I do not like.

such a long way from this little while together. with you,
it is a presence or absence of claws — your hands that might

injure. desire holds me like a knife. what do you want me to
say to that?
you say back. I research what larger animals are

most likely to kill me in the surrounding areas — most likely
horse or dog — & you think my hair is alive & it is. I get so

impossible with emotion, blighted, startled like a starling.
I order the latest version of a cave — tight, dripping — where

I can disappear into. I remember we enjoyed getting down
low in the bull thistle, downloading each other. you sent:

remember this? in your message request. the attachment
failed to load, inside the glow screen, silken.


Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Emily Corwin: I believe that the shape of the poem on the page is just as important the content. A poem’s form is its container, and that container provides information to the reader about what kind of speaker this is, the pacing of the line, the breath. Form lends physicality to our encounter with a poem. So, in tenderling, and in all my work, I like to experiment with shapes. This collection came from the first two years of my MFA at Indiana University, during which I was really into prose poems. There was a cleanness, a precision to that shape which I liked—the prose poem as a container felt tidy and orderly, juxtaposed with the sprawling, listing, anxious, messy quality of the voice in these poems.

There are lots of poems out there which re-adapt fairy tales, which play with themes of witchcraft, magic, femininity, dark woods, bodily transformation. This is a familiar set of images—however, my particular slant on these images concerns mental illness, chronic pain, and morbidity. I have a hip impingement on my right side, which causes me daily pain and discomfort. The cartilage between my hip bone and socket has essentially been worn away over time, most likely from my years as a ballet dancer. I also have misaligned ankles, for which I have to wear orthotics, as well as a generalized anxiety disorder highly focused on sudden and violent deaths.

After being diagnosed with these conditions—both physical and psychic—I was drawn to gurlesque poetics as a potential aesthetic for my work. Gurlesque aims to “enact, signs, bodies and psyches in crisis” (Lara Glenum, “Welcome to the Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics”). I want to demonstrate those crises, but not in such a way that the reader will leave the poem feeling despair. My intention is to show that it is possible to live with pain and beauty simultaneously, a life that is grotesque and lovely too. I think this is how the fairy tale as a genre works for me—the fairy tale is a space filled with irregular bodies and bodies in transformation—fairies, giants, unicorns, mermaids, princes and princesses turning into wild animals like swans, frogs, beasts. I imagine that in a fairy tale world, my body and brain would fit, in all its irregularities, conditions, illnesses.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Emily Corwin: My struggle with this book is the same struggle I have always. I am an inherently impatient writer and reader—I think the reason I was drawn to poetry in the first place is because it’s short, it’s concise. I really struggle with prose. As a poet, I write fast and prolifically, which can be good, but also means that sometimes I rush (or I worry that I rush) through editing and submitting my work. James Reich, at Stalking Horse Press, has been excellent with catching things I missed when I first submitted the manuscript, with making changes that I suddenly needed, with being so kind and thoughtful throughout this process. I am consistently hard on myself and it helps to have an editor who is encouraging, who believes in the work and in me. I think I will always be impatient with myself, but surrounding myself, especially in the last year, with a community that I trust has made me feel okay, has helped me to let go of some of my anxious obsessing and to move forward with the next project.


Special thanks to Emily Corwin for participating! To find out more about Corwin’s work, check out her sitetenderling is available for pre-order from Stalking  Horse Press.

19511246_10159192203360657_4469382361765686401_nEmily Corwin is an MFA candidate in poetry at Indiana University-Bloomington and the former Poetry Editor for Indiana Review. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Gigantic Sequins, New South, Yemassee, THRUSH, and elsewhere. She has two chapbooks, My Tall Handsome (Brain Mill Press) and darkling (Platypus Press) which were published in 2016. Her first full-length collection, tenderling is forthcoming in 2018 from Stalking Horse Press. You can follow her online at @exitlessblue.


meditation: william stafford

This time last year found me writing about meditation in a blog post for the Cincinnati Review, about its place in both the writing and personal life. It’s one of those concepts and practices that gets lost under human error and flash, much like good poems often get lost in the error and flash of revision. Yet meditation’s troubled calm is worth reckoning with for whatever glimpse of clarity it might bring to your life; in this way, too, meditation is linked to the reading and writing of poetry.

oregon-51014_960_720One poet who I feel lived and reckoned with this troubled calm is William Stafford. In “Meditation,” Stafford adds his own take on the concept. This short lyric reveals and hides itself like a coin flipped in the air. Both an admission of defeat and of hope, it dwells right where one waits for things like memory, poems, and clarity.

Meditation – William Stafford

If I could remember all at once — but I have forgotten.
But some day, looking along a furrowed cliff, staring
Beyond the eyes’ strength, I’ll start the avalanche,
And every stone will fall separate and revealed.


Read more about William Stafford here.


new work & book review!

Just a quick post to share that the first chapter of my hybrid memoir, A Personal History of Want, was published this past November in The Acentos Review.

Read the excerpt here.


Also, wanted to share the release of my latest creative review for The Bind. For this one, I spent time with Khaty Xiong’s collection, Poor Anima (Apogee), 2015) and created a cento around the Rimbaud’s idea of the self/I.

Read the creative review here.


See you Friday!



between seeing & feeling: Jenny Sadre-Orafai

MalakIn my recent microreview & interview of Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s Malak (Platypus Press), I spoke about the collection’s theme of divination and how poetry itself becomes a similar source of insight and perception for the speaker in a number of poems. This week’s poem, “Queen of Cups” also from Malak, is a good example of this poetic perception.

The poem develops through juxtaposition, following a story about where Queen Elizabeth was when her father died with a story of where the speaker’s father was when his mother died. The speaker then details where she was during the latter, the death of her grandmother. The turns within this juxtaposition, the move from historical fact to personal memory, create an intimacy that pulls the reader in while simultaneously disorienting them in a fruitful way. The poem then pivots into its ending, using the created intimacy as an imaginative space.

So far, as readers we are brought into what is happening because of narrative, but we become invested in it because of what is evoked from the images that follow. From hallucination to the comparison to a movie, the speaker’s narrative becomes driven by an urgency to see further into the memory while not dictating or forcing any straightforward understanding. The stakes behind this urgency become apparent in the final lines of the poem as the speaker considers whether Elizabeth was “instructed not to cry.” The return to the image of Elizabeth watching elephants up close parallels that of the speaker trying to see further into the large animal that is grief; this last juxtaposition ends the poem with the emotional tension of being torn between seeing and feeling.

Queen of Cups – Jenny Sadre-Orafai

Queen Elizabeth was with Philip in Kenya
when her father died. She was watching

elephants from her hotel within the trees.
My father was with his three sisters when

his mother died. I was with my bed,
hallucinating a fox. After the fox left,

I called him, but he was taking a shower.
Like a movie, the protagonist crying

surrounded by water, lots of empty cups?
Was Elizabeth instructed not to cry?

It will shake this tree.
The elephants will trample this nest.


Find out more about Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s work at her site.

Also, here’s more from Sadre-Orafai on this particular poem.


microreview & interview: Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s Malak

review by José Angel Araguz


Autobiography at Fifty Feet – Jenny Sadre-Orafai

We’ll write our autobiography when we’re teenagers,
before we grow into our teeth. Before we meet
people who will laugh at us for reasons we’ll talk about
when we’re older and divorced. And we’ll both still know
our exes because we have to, not because we want to.
We’ll write our autobiography just before we kiss
in the log flume tunnel, our log smacking against the rail,
and we’ll pretend, for that part of the ride, we are old and blind.
We’ll write that I squirmed next to you when you said
there were snakes and that they’d launch themselves
like canned confetti into our log, that wasn’t really a log
of course, that the kids, somewhere behind us, said
the water smelled like urine. We’ll tell everyone
in our autobiography that our teeth glowed
in that darkness when we laughed.

One of the great pleasures of reading Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s Malak (Platypus Press, 2017) is engaging with the balance between urgency and seeing at the heart of these poems. The poem above, for example, uses the future tense phrasing of “we will” to dip both into the past and then that past’s future in a compelling way. This play with verb tense creates the feel of one looking in several directions for pieces of a story. As the poem develops its narrative of past and past/future, details of hurt and lost love are doled out, leading up to a scene on a log ride as the log enters a tunnel, a literal plunge into darkness. This image of the speaker and the you being carried into the dark brings together the implications so far in the poem; that there was hurt in both the past and later past of this couple, and that they will have found each other by the later point of the poem’s creation. What is being sought by looking in several directions around this story becomes clear when the last line reclaims laughter; something that at the beginning of the poem was a source of hurt, is, in the last line’s remembered, re-narrated moment, into a instance of brief light.

This balance between urgency and seeing plays out in the collection in a number of other ways. One key way is in the form of poems dealing with the poet’s grandmother, whose name, Malak (the Arabic word for “angel”), gives the book its title. The significance of the name Malak is further charged by the grandmother’s gift for divination. In “Company,” the reader learns:

Malak hears futures in cups the way we
hear oceans inside shells. Families we know rush
through Turkish coffee, scalding their throats.
They wear black stripes down their tongues like
Plains garter snakes

This brief excerpt presents both Malak’s natural ability as well as the urgency with which she is sought out. Here, the ability to divine and read coffee grounds is described as hearing, which expands the word “seeing” as I have been using it. In the world of these poems, seeing is something that occurs via a variety of senses, and, as in the case of “Autobiography at Fifty Feet,” tenses. Whether seeing or listening, picking up on what is yet perceived and what it means is the crux for both grandmother and poet.

In “Listen,” one sees the speaker engage with their own attempts at sussing out meaning from the elements of the world:

We found the first bird behind the museum near Sixteenth.
We held hands and it wasn’t vulgar until we were standing

at a funeral. Yes, I let go first. My wings pulled in tight.
Death is the most comfortable suit.

And I wanted to take its picture like the bird was going off
to its first day of school.

Here, the speaker draws a number of meanings out of a scene of discovering a dead bird. One is the subtle pivot into the “vulgar” which occurs upon the realization of the bird’s death between the first and second couplet. The nuanced phrasing between stanzas evokes the way human actions, such as holding hands, can be recast by death. When the speaker later admits to wanting to “take its picture” as one would a child on the first day of school, there is a pivoting of an image of death back onto life. Again, the reader is presented with a poem that lyrically veers between two planes of meaning (here, life and death). The impression is of an urgency felt by the speaker to see more of what is happening before them, to “listen” in on what she might be missing. If “Death is the most comfortable suit,” then the living must squirm and wrestle in discomfort. One of the sources of comfort, Sadre-Orafai’s collection contends, is in exploring and finding meaning.

In the poem below, a childhood memory of the poet’s father is similarly plumbed for the meanings it has to offer. The washing of grapes and the care implied are balanced against an image of a father teaching self-rescue swimming to an infant. This powerful juxtaposition opens up the complexities of a human relationship without trying to answer or explain them. In this poem and elsewhere, Malak makes clear that the divination available for the poet is one of imagination and evocation, a divination that offers not answers, but another kind of perception.


Jamshid’s Angoor – Jenny Sadre-Orafai

In the spring I am at my childhood home.
My father goes to and from the store
with dark grapes for his daughter.

He holds them by the tops
of their heads to the sink, drops
them in a bowl. Dunking them,

he pulls them out like he’s making
something more than grapes clean.
He’s cautious with his hands like

he’s a father of an infant again.
Like he’s a father of an infant again
who makes her body go corpse

every time she hits water and then
waits for the attention, the calling,
the bringing of her body back to life.


Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Jenny Sadre-Orafai: As I’ve gotten older, my definition of poetry has become less rigid. I also think that literature is constantly contesting genres. So, with this collection I was less strict with myself about what is and what isn’t allowed. Even though the manuscript was rejected more than a few times, I felt that the prose section really needed to be there. I remember reading Kate Greenstreet’s Young Tambling and just being blown away by her writing of course but also what she included in the collection—photography, notes, etc. But, most importantly, the presentation wasn’t a gimmick. It was necessary and intentional. Maybe it sounds dramatic, but as a Type A person, I saw it as brave. Malak was my way of being brave I guess. I didn’t want to be limited by form or genre so much all the time. I wanted to free myself up. If a poem needed to be a prose poem, then it was. If a poem didn’t need punctuation, then I didn’t include any. I was always intentional though. It took me a long time to get to this place though and it’s my hope that I keep pushing against what I think I can and can’t do.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Jenny Sadre-Orafai: I’m a fairly private person, so publishing poems about my family can be a challenge sometimes. Since I’m so close to them, I feel protective about what I share. But, there’s a special frequency I see and hear when I’m around them and it’s difficult not to write about that. Another hurdle for me with this book was writing about being sexually assaulted. I’ve never written about my experiences in the twenty-four years I’ve been writing. So, the poems in the collection that speak to these times were incredibly terrifying for me to both write and share. But I think this loosening with genres and form happened around the same time I began to untie all these emotional knots I’ve been carrying around for so long. Writing this book, like writing any book for me now, is my way of learning to be vulnerable. It’s not always comfortable and I think that’s okay.


Special thanks to Jenny Sadre-Orafai for participating! To find out more about her work, check out her siteMalak can be purchased from Platypus Press.

555Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of Malak and Paper, Cotton, Leather. Recent poetry appears in Cream City Review, Ninth Letter, The Cortland Review, and Hotel Amerika. Recent prose appears in Fourteen Hills and The Collagist. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and Associate Professor of English at Kennesaw State University.