A record year for Akron Poetry Prize submissions

Mary Biddinger

What will I be doing for the next two weeks? Reading a grand total of 606 poetry manuscripts for the Akron Poetry Prize competition. This is a record-breaking year for our contest, and we are so excited by the robust response to our call for submissions.

Once the finalists and semifinalists are sent to final judge Oliver de la Paz, I’ll hopefully be back to writing my own poems again. I’m planning to write a poem on each of the even days of July.

Huge thanks to Noor Hindi of Nervous Poodle Poetry for being my second set of eyes on the poetry submissions, and to Oliver de la Paz for judging this year’s contest.

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WORLD OF MADE AND UNMADE, JANE MEAD

“How will you spend / your courage, how // will you spend your life.” – Jane Mead

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Through the collection World of Made and Unmade, poet Jane Mead examines death and the relationship between a mother and daughter during the last and most intimate moments of the mother’s life. While the speaker takes us through a series of short poems that weave together topics of grief and dying, these poems are in no way self-pitying. They surprise readers with touches of well timed humor, and offer a face to the controversy regarding immigration between the U.S and Mexico. World of Made and Unmade takes place at a family vineyard, where Mead’s lyricism and imagery offers readers a pause from the stark imagery of the dying mother.

Balanced with the light humor that makes this collection so personal, the haunting nature of Mead’s imagery makes World of Made and Unmade deeply touching.  In one poem, hospice requests to interview the mother, but the mother says “I’m deaf and I’m blind and I’m not / answering any more questions” (17). The poem ends with the speaker amusingly admitting that “the patient exaggerates.” In another poem, the tumor on the mother’s liver looks as if “there was a plank // and a grapefruit under the covers” (22). Mead’s collection is honest in its depiction of the relationships surrounding the mother. It does not try to dramatize death, but rather shows us the frustrations of trying to care for a dying loved one, the intimate moments of our speaker’s grief, and our never-ending yearning for love. I love the lines “I want to press my body / all along her body – / hold her damp back to me” (34).

There is so much bravery in World of Made in Unmade. There is strength in its vulnerability, and it is blunt in its depiction of the U.S’s failure to acknowledge Mexican refugees and immigrants: “viva viva viva. Mexico // is a house on fire. // Miedo en todas partes. / Fear everywhere” (33). Mead’s poems are a reminder that the world is constantly making and unmaking itself. The ebb and flow of love and pain exist within the most personal relationships we inhabit.

Buy World of Made and Unmade here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Alice James Books: “Alice James Books is named after the sister of the famous philosopher William James and novelist Henry James, Alice James. She lived a largely confined and isolated life. The youngest of five children, she never married and lived with her parents until their deaths. Although her four brothers were broadly educated in the US and Europe, Alice’s education was haphazard, reflecting her father’s belief   that “The very virtue of woman… disqualifies her for all didactic dignity. Learning and wisdom do not become her.” Keenly self-aware, she started a journal in 1889, as a way of recording her own understanding of herself. She entrusted it to her friend Katherine Loring, shortly before her death in 1892, of breast cancer. Loring sent copies to her brother Henry and other family members. In 1943 it was published, in incomplete form, by a niece, who called it Alice James: Her Brothers — Her Journal. Not until 1964 was the journal published in its entirety. Alice James has since become somewhat of a feminist icon, in recognition of her struggle for self-expression within the repressive Victorian notion of femininity.” *

Announcement & Review

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courtesy of Bloof Books

Hi friends! Thanks so much for your patience during this break. It was so nice having some time to read for fun, and catch a breath after a busy semester. I’m very excited to jump back into poetry reviews, and I’m in great company with Crawlspace by Nikki Wallschlaeger. Before I start though, I wanted to inform my readers that NPP is going to start doing bi-monthly reviews, rather than the weekly reviews I’ve been doing. The reviews will still post on Sunday, but writing them twice a month rather than four times a month will give me a chance to focus more on interviews. After today’s review of Crawlspace by Wallschlaeger, I’ll be posting the next one on Sunday, June 18. So, reviews will always be posted on the first Sunday of the month, and the penultimate Sunday of the month. Thanks for your understanding during this transition.

During the blog’s break, I spent some time with Crawlspace, which was just released by Bloof Books this past May. Bloof Books consistently publishes some of my favorite work, and Wallschlaeger’s book is no different. As with The Sonnets by Sandra Simonds (also published by Bloof Books), Crawlspace is written as a collection of 14-line poems that call back to the sonnet form. Each poem (55 total) acts as a disruption of the status quo. Our speaker occupies the spaces that oppress people of color, specifically women, and then attempts to rattle these territories through a series of poems that challenge and disturb. Within these poems, rules are established, albeit ironically: “You can only play with squirt guns / in the backyard never the front yard” (sonnet 29, lines 10-11). The language is surprising, and the poems oftentimes interrupt themselves, revealing a level of chaos within the speaker’s mind and the text.

The irony in many of the poems is exaggerated to expose the hatefulness of white supremacy. A few of the poems take place on the beach, where our speaker writes, “I got so much sun long ago that / I’m permanently black the sun gave / me protection from the sun and you / say I am not good JESUS will save me” (62). Each poem is layered with satire, confessional lines such as “I’ve been exhausted my entire life // I hate telling you / how I really feel” (24), and empowerment: “I keep my blackgirl magic protected protected” (48). I loved the mix of humor and juxtaposed images throughout Crawlspace, and I really admire the careful use of sarcasm throughout the collection.

Buy Crawlspace here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Bloof Books: Bloof Books is a collective poetry press based in Central New Jersey, publishing perfect-bound paperbacks as well as limited-edition handmade books and chapbooks. Our perfect-bound books are available on our site, at select bookstores, and via online retailers.*

Temporary Break

Hey, friends!

Before I kick off the summer for NPP, I wanted to take a short break. I graduated yesterday with a B.A in English and a minor in creative writing (my graduation cap is pictured below).

What’s next? I’m really excited to jump back into school and get my MFA in poetry through the NEOMFA program. I’ll be starting the program this fall.

I’ll be back in a few weeks, but until then, thanks for your patience!

See you in a few weeks, friends! 🙂

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AL YOUM, GEORGE ABRAHAM

“i can’t help but feel like an occupied entity being queer being arab being survivor means my body is a valley of so many shadows” – George Abraham.

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Courtesy of The Atlas Review

It was at an AWP17 reading where I was first introduced to George Abraham’s fierce poems. As I watched Abraham unpack his writing, I was in awe at the beauty of his words, as well as the raw and unflinching honesty he presented to audience members. Months after AWP17, Abraham published Al Youm, a chapbook that places the queer, Palestinian body at center. Weaving together issues of displacement, inherited trauma, and sexual assault, Al Youm interrogates what it means to exist in a body that is “irrelevant in all political scenarios” (15). Through Al Youm, Abraham exposes the violence that has taken place in Palestine, embodying a history “written in ash and rubble” (46).

Throughout Al Youm, the theme of erasure is threaded, creating a statement against censorship and the systematic oppression of the Palestinian people. When Abraham writes, “even when the land was ours / it wasn’t / (this is how i feel about my body sometimes)” he fuses the personal and the political, tracing how and why an occupied country and an occupied body are oftentimes the same (lines 54-56). In the poem “Song of Ash” our speaker mourns Palestinian victims, then asks “where were your tears / & hashtags when the fire spread / to the West Bank? when Gaza caught fire / Again? & in August? & in 2014? & in 2008?” (lines 20-23). These searing and vulnerable words unmask the ways in which silence is a form of violence, something our speaker grapples with throughout Al Youm.

As Al Youm calls back to Arab culture and heritage, a sense of displacement haunts the speaker. The poem “Ghazal of Ash” reads, “My people carry another sunrise on their backs; / Bear the ashes of two diasporas on their backs” (lines 1-2). The lack of home and country throughout Al Youm forces our speaker to question the circumstances that make him American. The very first poem, “photographs not taken” introduces this idea: “so where’s home for you? / falls out of a stranger’s mouth” (lines 40-41). This concept is later revisited in the poem “Inheritance,” where our speaker attempts to understand what kind of identity he is to occupy: “sido is forced out of his home at age 20. hence, mama is born in america. hence, i am american” (lines 41-42). What I admire about Al Youm is that it doesn’t attempt to reach a resolution. Instead, it documents the traumas and asks the necessary questions.

Al Youm is a brave and crucial chapbook. These are daring poems that heal as much as they hurt and expose us to the beauty and trauma of language.

View my interview with Abraham here.

Buy Al Youm here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about The Atlas Review: “The Atlas Review was founded in 2012 as a way to combat the institutional weight of the literary community. All submissions are vetted anonymously, allowing the work to stand above names, associates, and credentials.  We believe that the strongest work will (and must) innately carry the most important elements of identity, elements that go beyond 75 word bios or accolades. Our work is who we are in the world.”*

THE DEAD GIRLS SPEAK IN UNISON, DANIELLE PAFUNDA

“We are as ineffective now as we were in life.” – Danielle Pafunda

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Courtesy of Bloof Books

There’s something inherently thrilling about reading a collection written in the voice of dead girls. In Danielle Pafunda’s The Dead Girls Speaks in Unison,  “Happy Death Day” is an event where “every dead thing / becomes a girl” (50). In a world of broken bones and maggots, of shattered dreams and gashes, The Dead Girls Speak in Unison is beautiful and terrifying. Our speakers are badass female corpses, making this collection a unique read.

From the beginning to the end, reading The Dead Girls Speak in Unison made my goosebumps rise. Pafunda’s images are cutting and ironic, delivering a collections that is full of surprises and dark humor. In the poem “We aren’t much uglier” Pafunda places the female body at center, mocking traditional body standards: “We aren’t much uglier / in death / than we were in life” (lines 1-3). These fierce lines, which come at the very beginning of the poem, are surreal and haunting. Through this poem, Pafunda takes every body image standard and twists it in the spookiest way possible. Lines 28-30 read, “bags of meat lodged / in our innermost quarters / former lives, rotting there” (lines 28-30) . This poem is just one example of Pafunda’s eerie writing style.

Because we have multiple speakers in The Dead Girls Speak in Unison, the poems often feel cutthroat and aggressive in intent. When the dead girls say, “we get no news / of home down here” I feel lonely and desperate for our speakers, yet acutely aware of the inherent awkwardness of identifying with a group of corpses (page 9, lines 3-4). When the speakers say, “Everything tastes dirt / in the companionable ground / where we lie open mouthed” I feel a chill up my spine (page 19, lines 13-15). Pafunda’s images are honest and precise, shocking readers page by page.

In total, The Dead Girls Speak in Unison is roughly 70 pages of poetry. Many of the poems are untitled, or are written in a series of chants, fragments, lullabies, and fables.

Buy The Dead Girls Speak in Unison here & check out the video below of Pafunda reading the poem “We aren’t much uglier.”

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Bloof Books: Bloof Books is a collective poetry press based in Central New Jersey, publishing perfect-bound paperbacks as well as limited-edition handmade books and chapbooks. Our perfect-bound books are available on our site, at select bookstores, and via online retailers.*

HAPPY POEM IN YOUR POCKET DAY!

poem in your pocketHappy, happy, happy Poem in Your Pocket Day friends! My #PocketPoem for this year is Fatimah Asghar’s “If They Should Come for Us.” This poem shatters me each time I read it. In her essay “Against Explanation” Tarfia Faizullah writes “The first time I read Vievee Francis’s poem “Say It, Say It Any Way You Can,” I didn’t breathe. It’s a poem that doesn’t let you.'” This is how I felt the first time I encountered Asghar’s poem. I didn’t breathe. When I finished reading it, I was crying, and feeling absolutely struck by its beauty. I often think about the following lines, “my people my people I can’t be lost / when I see you my compass / is brown & gold & blood” (lines 22-24). I have a lot of appreciation for Asghar for writing this poem, and lots of gratitude for Poem in Your Pocket Day, which allows me to celebrate wonderful poems like this one.

MADWOMAN, SHARA MCCALLUM

“In the country where she lives, which is no country, the madwoman maps desire’s coordinates onto her body.” – Shara McCallum

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Courtesy of Alice James Books

Hi friends! Thanks so much for your patience last Sunday! It’s been a few weeks since I’ve done a review, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been in good company. This week, I’ve been spending time with the collection Madwoman by Shara McCallum. I love the fury in these poems. As they unpack the madwoman inside all of us, McCallum offers us a powerful reflection on motherhood, race, and family. There is a hunger in these lines that is furious and electrifying. As McCallum writes, “And what would that mean: to be seen?” she shatters the shame and silence around so many women, allowing the madwoman to emerge, bold and unabashed. These poems are so daring I am surprised the pages don’t set themselves on fire.

From the beginning, McCallum delivers a collection that challenges. The poem “Memory” comes at the start of Madwoman and establishes the voice of the speaker: “No spit-shine shoes, / I’m dirt you can’t wash from your feet” (lines 3-4). This poem is haunting in its images and sensory details: “I’m bone. Rather: the sound / bone makes when it snaps. That ditty / lingering in you, like ruin” (lines 12-14). Not only does the madwoman struggle to navigate a destroyed world, but the destruction is very much a part of her identity as a speaker. This is also reflected in the poem “Oh Abuse,” where the speaker documents the complicated relationship she has with abuse: “. . . you swallowed the sun / when you came but also taught me / it never shines for any of us, exactly” (lines 12-14). Both “Memory” and “Oh Abuse” are written as single stanzas, a form McCallum often uses in Madwoman.

The poems in Madwoman take place during the speakers childhood, adulthood, and then motherhood. Many of the poems take place in Jamaica and do a powerful job of documenting what it’s like to grow up biracial (see “Race”). Aside from this, some of the best moments in Madwoman occur when the speaker examines her relationship with her mother, as well as her own relationship with her children. The poems “Hour of Duppy and Dream” as well as “Now I’m a Mother” are nicely paired in Madwoman, giving readers a nice contrast between the two perspectives. In the poem “Hour of Duppy and Dream” McCallum writes, “Before consciousness / took hold, I knew my life would be marked // by her sorrow, pressed into my skin” (line 7-9). This poem is raw and emotional, and I love the use of the couplets in both poems. The poem “Now I’m a Mother” utilizes repetition, and is biting in its use of humor and irony: “Everything I’ve said and done has come back to bite me in the ass. / Humility’s what I’m learning – time after time – now I’m a mother” (lines 5-6). Both these poems demonstrate Madwoman’s range in voice and style, as well as the tender moments that make this collection so beautiful.

In total, Madwoman is roughly 70 pages of poetry. When I saw this collection at AWP17 I knew just from the title that it would deliver a punch. I’m so glad I bought it, and as usual, I’m thankful for Alice James Books, which consistently delivers the best.

Buy Madwoman here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Alice James Books: “Alice James Books is named after the sister of the famous philosopher William James and novelist Henry James, Alice James. She lived a largely confined and isolated life. The youngest of five children, she never married and lived with her parents until their deaths. Although her four brothers were broadly educated in the US and Europe, Alice’s education was haphazard, reflecting her father’s belief   that “The very virtue of woman… disqualifies her for all didactic dignity. Learning and wisdom do not become her.” Keenly self-aware, she started a journal in 1889, as a way of recording her own understanding of herself. She entrusted it to her friend Katherine Loring, shortly before her death in 1892, of breast cancer. Loring sent copies to her brother Henry and other family members. In 1943 it was published, in incomplete form, by a niece, who called it Alice James: Her Brothers — Her Journal. Not until 1964 was the journal published in its entirety. Alice James has since become somewhat of a feminist icon, in recognition of her struggle for self-expression within the repressive Victorian notion of femininity.” *

No Post This Week

Frowny1aSorry, friends! I’ve been busy with school and admission stuff for my MFA (eeeeek!).  I’ll be back on the blog next week. I’ve also lined up a review and interview for the chapbook Al Youm by George Abraham. In the meantime, please check out the newest issue of Sixth Finch, which just came out Friday and features some stunning poems and artwork! Happy Spring and National Poetry Month! – Noor