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.” *

BECAUSE WHEN GOD IS TOO BUSY: HAITI, ME, & THE WORLD, GINA ATHENA ULYSSE

“Less is known of this black female rage. There is usually no place for it.” – Gina Athena Ulysse

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I live for the collections that rage and question, that are unabashed in their depiction of language and culture, and that reclaim what has been stolen. One such collection is Gina Athena Ulysse’s Because When God is Too Busy: Haiti, Me, and the World. Combing photographs, poems, and creole chants, here we have a collection that is uncut in its desire to name and take back what it means to be a black Haitian woman in the 21st century. Because When God is Too Busy places the body as center as it draws inspiration from family, history, and politics. Every poem is dangerous in its attempt to unearth the silence inside of us, and the speaker tells us from the beginning that she “ha[s] a complicated relationship with silence” (20).

Because these poems are a shout against shame, they are raw and empowering to read. In the poem “Circles of Power Children of Resistance, or My Rules of Engagement” the speaker asks “why is it that everywhere we go in the world / darker skinned people are always at the bottom / always at the end of the line?” (78). Each poem in Because When God is Too Busy pokes and prods, asking the questions that many have failed to voice. The speaker exposes the years of trauma and oppression her and her people continue to experience: “blood has been shedding in South Africa black blood colored blood” (45). The poems oftentimes break form, and utilize heavy repetition, lending themselves to being read out loud.

In the poem “Parallels My County’s in the Newspaper” the speaker expresses her outrage at the question “Where you from?” that oftentimes comes from people who wish to other her. The complex relationship the speaker has with her country is exposed in this poem as she attempts to reconcile her love for Haiti while acknowledging the following: “yes, we have a history of fucking over our own . . . I’ve come to see that my country’s fucked up” (58). The tension the speaker feels is also shown in the choppy line breaks and displaced chunks of texts.

Because When God is Too Busy is split into four sections. The cover is stunning, and so are the photographs in the collection. The photos expose the ruin, the beauty, and the art work in Haiti. I love how these poems are written, and how powerful this collection is as a whole.

Buy Because When God is Too Busy: Haiti Me, & The World here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Wesleyan University Press: “Wesleyan University Press has an editorial program that focuses on poetry, music, dance, science fiction studies, film-TV, and Connecticut history and culture. Publishing in its current form since 1957, Wesleyan University Press has published an internationally renowned poetry series, collecting five Pulitzer Prizes, a Bollingen, and two National Book Awards in that one series alone. The mission of Wesleyan University Press is to develop and maintain a sound and vigorous publishing program that serves the academic ends and intellectual life of the University.”

(Photo of Because When God is Too Busy courtesy of Wesleyan University Press)

View Ulysse on TEDx below.

MANNISH TONGUES, JAYY DODD

“Infinite Black mothers / wailing in daylight for safe return / infinite Black children / breathing broken & wild to be put down” (“Infinite Monkey Theorem” lines 4-7).

tumblr_oite0owu4z1ubxemko1_1280This week, I’ve been spending time with Mannish Tongues, a debut poetry collection by Jayy Dodd. The haunting and beautiful poems inside Mannish Tongues are nothing short of stunning. These poems offer readers a new way to examine the black body and to bear witness to survival. The prologue of Mannish Tongues includes a quote from Essex Hemphill that states “I’m faced daily with choosing violence / or a demeanor that saves every other life / but my own.” These poems rebel against silence, becoming a powerful testament for speech and language, for empowerment, and for the identities we inhabit.

From the beginning of Mannish Tongues to the end, Dodd’s mastery of language is electrifying. There’s a natural rhythm to Dodd’s words, and the play on form keeps readers on their toes. In the poem “There’s Something bout being Raised in Church” Dodd writes: “our knees know something bout aching, / bout singing in jail cells” (lines 28-29). Through this poem, the speaker examines the church and its role in their upbringing, while also reflecting on the importance of language: “Every language I learned was in verse, translated / across all kinds of salvation” (lines 7-8). The careful articulation and weaving together of family, history, and discourse is what makes reading Mannish Tongues so compelling.

The strong voice in Mannish Tongues places the body front and center, forcing readers to bear witness to the consequences of the identities we hold. The poem “Physical Education” challenges our ideas of manhood. It is written as a prose poem and utilizes white space, giving readers a chance to slow down and really take in each word:”He will learn to not cry in the echo of middle school laughter. He will know bruised throat & swollen wrist as rough housing.” This poem is just one example of the astounding fearlessness in Dodd’s voice and in this collection as a whole.

Mannish Tongues is split into six sections: Confessions, Prayers, Interrogations, Testimonies, Myths, and Eulogies. When I interviewed Dodd, they mentioned one of their influences as Danez Smith. Both Mannish Tongues and [Insert] Boy leave you a little more broken after you’ve read them, but for good reason. This is an important collection to read, and worth every second of readers’ time.

Check out my interview with Dodd here.

Buy Mannish Tongues here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Platypus Press: “Platypus Press is a boutique publisher based in England. We seek to unearth innovative contemporary poetry and prose from a broad variety of voices and experiences.”

(photo of Mannish Tongues courtesy of Platypus Press)

UGLY TIME, SARAH GALVIN

GALVIN-COVER-FOR-WEBIt’s not everyday that I get to read a collection as hilarious as Ugly Time by Sarah Galvin. I have so much appreciation for the humor in this book. It seriously saved my life this week. Upon opening Ugly Time, I couldn’t have known that I had 90 pages about human genitalia, cowboys, rubber band ukulele’s, and lots and lots of butts to look forward to. The genius in Galvin’s writing is that she is able to balance all of these elements while staying true to the emotional turmoil the speaker feels at various points in the collection. Most of the poems in Ugly Time are short, funny, and sassy, making them perfect for when you’re having an especially shitty week. These poems are like that really blunt and sarcastic friend you want to have with you at a party when things go haywire real quick.

In the poem “Why ‘Lexicon Devil’ By the Germs is Better than the Entire Indie Genre'” the speaker states: “From building a garage-sized house wallpapered with gay porn I learned I can do anything. This may be why I tried to kill Donald Trump with my house keys, a self defense technique I learned from Oprah.” This poem captures all of the feels associated with having Donald Trump as president right now. The closer the poem gets to the end, the more satisfaction one feels about imagining taking out Donald Trump with house keys: “To finish him off, we had to hold hands with children dressed in 1980’s tennis tracksuits.” The amusing and random images, coupled with the political message in this poem makes this collection hard not to love.

The charming wit and humor doesn’t slow down in Ugly Time. Neither does the vulgarity, which is oftentimes coupled with weird and wacky images. In the poem “You Deserve an Entourage” the speaker states “You deserve an entourage, and anyone who doesn’t see that can set their dick on fire.” This is a speaker who actually gives no fucks, who does not ask or need your permission, who is so unabashedly herself that nothing will stop her. This is what makes Ugly Time so refreshing, and why everyone needs to read this damn book.

Galvins’ poems will shock you. They are meant to. Every page in Ugly Time delivers a punch, making this one of the most refreshing collections I’ve read. When choosing whether to laugh or die, here is a group of poems that choose to laugh over and over again.

Check out my interview with Galvin here.

Buy Ugly Time here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Gramma Press: “Established in 2016, Gramma Poetry is an independent press that publishes a diverse array of poetry, both online and in print. Gramma seeks to broaden its audience and to be poetry ambassadors by collaborating with people and organizations in other art mediums. Gramma Editors are based in Seattle, Portland, Boise, Boston, and Berlin.”

(photo of Ugly Time courtesy of Gramma Press)

IRL, TOMMY PICO

IRL_COVER.inddHappy March, friends! I hope everyone is enjoying a (hopefully) quick end to the cold weather. I’m ready for spring, and I started this month out in the most refreshing way: By reading IRL by Tommy Pico. This hilarious and dizzying collection is a great read for anyone looking for a unique spin on poetry. Composed as one long epic poem that is written as a text message, IRL follows Teebs, a queer and Native American boy as he attempts to navigate the world. The language is oftentimes disjointed and messy, and the poem is written in a stream of consciousness kind of way. The speaker effortlessly moves in and out of topics. At points he utilizes Beyoncé lyrics, text message acronyms (LOL), and conversation on Grindr, as well lengthy reflections about Muse. Then, he’ll switch to talking about his Native American ancestry, and offers readers an emotionally compelling discussion about his family and the reservation he grew up in.

I enjoyed IRL because the language is fresh and interesting. I like the choppiness of the writing and how it’s used to evoke the anxieties of the speaker: “Surely Muse will want / to kiss me bc I appear / disinterested in kissing” (36). The pop culture references, which are not commonly used in poems, are utilized to introduce the world of Teebs, which is social media obsessed and ridden with hipster ideals: “Tweets my sushi brings / all the boys to the yard” (50). This is definitely a collection that will be enjoyed by millennial readers because they will catch the social media and texting language it presents.

I also appreciated the way the speaker reflects on the California reservation he grew up in. The anger Teebs feels about the mistreatment of his family and people is fully expressed within the poem. Teebs also seems to struggle with honoring his ancestors and dealing with the guilt he feels about leaving the reservation: “In a poem Sherman Alexie / gives me permission / to leave the reservation I / cut my long hair” (46). The contradictions this speaker feels are shown through the jumbled nature of the writing, and the sadness he expresses is raw and honest: “Kill / the Indian, Save the Man – Sow / a shame so deep it arrives / when I do, it waits for me” (73). Pico does an outstanding job of balancing these contradictions and ideas in IRL, while staying true to the form and style of the collection.

IRL is about 100 pages of poetry. It’s a long, continuous poem with few breaks. When I first opened IRL, I thought I would hate it, but Pico’s writing style and voice keeps you reading further and further. The language will feel jumbled at first, but there’s a rhythm and movement to Pico’s words that is addicting and fun. The unique voice  is worth checking out – and I think readers will appreciate the wittiness and humor in IRL.

Buy IRL here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Birds LLC: “Birds, LLC is an independent poetry press based out of Austin, Minneapolis, New York, and Raleigh. Specializing in close author relationships, Birds, LLC believes that great books are a collaboration of editors and authors. Birds, LLC supports readings, events, and podcasts for its authors, believing that poetry demands a human voice to read it, and an audience to hear it.”

(photo of IRL courtesy of Birds LLC)

FIELD GUIDE TO THE END OF THE WORLD, JEANNINE HALL GAILEY

field-guide-mediumMy favorite thing about opening up a collection like Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Field Guide to the End of the World is being delightfully surprised at finding poems about teen vampires, John Cusack, alien autopsies, and magic mirrors. From the first poem, the speaker warns us that “we cannot sleep too far from disaster zones” (“Introduction to Disaster Preparedness” line 12). Each poem after this is meant to surprise and humor readers as we prepare for imminent destruction. But don’t let it fool you, because among the wit and many warnings that fill these poems, Field Guide to the End of the World is full of the hope and survival we need during the inevitable setbacks of our lives. And thank goodness for Gailey, because I couldn’t ask for a better instruction manual to carry with me.

One of the poems that I enjoyed in Field Guide to the End of the World was “Lessons in Emergency.” The speaker does a great job of creating a sense of urgency and panic by asking questions and urging readers to construct their own emergency evacuation plan. Despite this poem serving to remind readers of their own mortality and fragility, it stays lighthearted and humorous: “In the end you are still yourself, yourself a little dustier a little blood in the hair, maybe a bit rattled but why are you still clutching the egg-beater in your hands so tight, your fingers still touched with flour?” (13). I love the voice in this poem (and collection) because of its whimsical and chatty nature, and I think “Lessons in Emergency” really captures the energy in the speaker’s voice.

In the poem “Introduction to Spy Narrative as Love Story” the speaker’s playfulness emerges  yet again. The dark images in the poem are brilliantly balanced with odd image that shock readers and create tension within the text. One of my favorite lines in the collection as a whole is “I’ve hidden my gun // in a container of ice cream that’s calling me” (lines 3-4). These moments in Field Guide to the End of the World are what make it such a dazzling collection to read.

Field Guide to the End of the World is split into five sections: Disaster Studies, Cultural Anthropology, Hard Science, A Primer for your Personal Genome Project, and End Times Eschatology. The cover is stunning, and as soon as I saw it at AWP, I knew I had to buy it.

Buy Field Guide to the End of the World here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Moon City Press: Moon City Press is a joint venture of the Missouri State University Departments of English and Art and Design. With series lists in “Arts and Letters” and “Ozarks History and Culture,” Moon City books feature collaborations between students and faculty over the various aspects of publication: research, writing, editing, layout and design.”

(photo of Field Guide to the End of the World courtesy of Moon City Press)

LOOK, SOLMAZ SHARIF

12079778_10106285764738939_240672169261332420_oI’m always amazed when finding out that a poetry collection I’m in love with is a debut. I spend a lot of time on this blog promoting debuts because so many of them are armed with the social and political fervor that makes reading poetry an act of resistance. 2017 is the year poetry and art will save us, and Solmaz Sharif’s collection Look reminded me why. At a time when we are desensitized to cruelty, finding truth and humanity is difficult. Look demands our attention, and holds us accountable for our nation’s brutality. In Look, Sharif uses the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms to craft poems that alarm and dismantle. These are poems that take the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and make this war into something personal. This collection forces us to bear witness, and to understand the importance of our words and the way we use language.

In the poem “Desired Appreciation” the speaker confronts her own “learned helplessness:” “Am I grateful to be here? Someone eventually asks / If I love this country” (lines 8-9). What I find interesting about this poem is that the speaker protests her own obedience to America, and starts the poem off by arguing against the harmlessness of her Muses’ poetry. It makes a direct statement towards arts’ responsibility to challenge injustice. It also speaks for immigrants who oftentimes do not vocalize their disagreement against this country for fear of appearing unpatriotic in a place where they already feel they are unwelcome.

Sharif’s brilliant use of the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms throughout Look also calls for celebration. Her creative manipulation of these words can be seen in the poem “Safe House:” “Sanctuary where we don’t have to / Sanitize hands or words or knives, don’t have to use a / Scale each morning, worried we take up too much space” (lines 1-3). By using these words, Sharif strips them of their power, making the political personal.

To say that Look is an important collection would be an understatement. It’s a powerful declaration against complacency: “I place a photograph of my uncle on my desktop computer, which means I learn to ignore it” (“Personal Effects”).

Buy Look here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Graywolf Press: “Graywolf Press is a leading independent publisher committed to the discovery and energetic publication of contemporary American and international literature. We champion outstanding writers at all stages of their careers to ensure that diverse voices can be heard in a crowded marketplace.”*

(photo of Look courtesy of Graywolf Press)

 

BORN PALESTINIAN, BORN BLACK, SUHEIR HAMMAD

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Drawing from her Palestinian roots, as well as her experiences of growing up in Brookryn, poet Suheir Hammad’s collection, Born Palestinian, Born Black shows readers what it means to struggle as a woman, as a Palestinian, and as an immigrant. Hammad’s strong voice takes us to the broken streets of Brooklyn, the war torn Palestine, and the intimate conflicts that make up this speakers’ friendships and family. She breaks traditional poetry rules, oftentimes embracing the language of the street. Here, Hammad offers us a personal account of poverty, war, and survival.

From the beginning, this collection holds nothing back. The language is unflinching, and oftentimes shocking.  The speaker immediately pulls readers out of their comfort zones. In the poem “blood stitched time” the speaker reflects on the ongoing crisis in Palestinian: “stand under the strain of false peace jammed up hopes / we speak with dried olive branches / caught in chests” (lines 34-36). The speaker, mourning, says she is tired of “watching kids get bombed and blown” (line 25). Then, we are taken back to the streets of Brooklyn, where the speaker says the following about her people’s refugee statuses in the United States: “whose mouth was jammed silent / with food stamps in brooklyn” (lines 42-43). I love Hammad’s writing because of its rawness and uncleanliness. Her words don’t try to be pretty in their protest, but you can count on each poem delivering a lot of truth.

In the poem “99 cent lipstick” the speaker looks back at the harsh streets of Brooklyn that raised her. She laments the friends she lost to jail and drugs, and reflects on the ways “we killed each other with / a fear that wasn’t even ours” (lines 69-70). The language in this poem is accessible to many. Through Born Palestinian, Born Black Hammad creates a space where everyone can grieve, and where she shows us that suffering is something we all feel. The speaker is doesn’t forget her origin, and pays homage to Brooklyn, and to Palestine.

Born Palestinian, Born Black took me a few days to read. I was amazed by Hammad’s voice and urgency. Each poem has a life of its own, a movement that is uniquely hers. The collection was originally published in 1996 by Harlem River Press, but was reprinted in 2010 by UpSet Press (The University of Arkansas Press is the distributor of Upset Press).

Buy Born Palestinian, Born Black here. 

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about UpSet Press: “UPSET PRESS is an independent press based in Brooklyn.The original impetus of the press was to upset the status quo through literature. The press has expanded its mission to promote new work by new authors; the first works, or complete works, of established authors, including restoring to print new editions of important texts; and first time translations of works into English. Overall, the Press endeavors to advance authors’ innovative visions and bodies of work that engender new directions in literature.”

View Suheir Hammad on TED Talk below:

PRELUDE TO BRUISE, SAEED JONES

Layout 1Happy 2017, friends! Thanks for being patient during this break. I’m back this week in great company with Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones. It’s not everyday that I read a collection as thrilling as this one. Every poem (no exaggeration) in Prelude to Bruise is straight fire. Jones’ writing is brutally honest, so much so that it hurt to read this collection at points. The emotion here is strong and loud, and the poems are disturbing, oftentimes taking readers out of their comfort zones and into the psych of a young black queer boy. Through Boy, issues of sexuality, identity, and race are questioned.

One of the first poems that blew me away in Prelude to Bruise is “Boy at Edge of Woods.” In just 11 lines, it’s one of many poems that demonstrates Jones’ handle on craft and image. By the end of “Boy at Edge of Woods” I realized I’d forgotten to breathe, which happens a lot while reading this collection: ” . . . I relearn my legs, mud – / stained knees, and walk back / to my burning house” (lines 9-11). This poem introduces readers to the sexually charged nature of Prelude to Bruise, as well as its focus on the body, which serves as a motif throughout the book.

Familial issues are also focused on in Prelude to Bruise. The character of Father and the tension between Boy and Father appear multiple times. In the poem “Boy in a Whalebone Corset” we find Father burning Boys’ “sissy” clothes: “Corset still on, / nothing else, I’m at the window; / he’s in the field, gasoline jug” (lines 20-22). The poems that discuss Father hold nothing back, and the speaker does not cloak the abuse and aggression.

One of the last poems in the collection is written as a prose poem and is one of the most emotionally charged poems I’ve ever read. Time stopped while I was reading “History According to Boy.” I didn’t realize I was crying until I reached the end of it. Over the course of 12 pages, the speaker walks us through Boys’ adolescence. It takes place at school where Boy is bullied, a chatroom where Boy attempts to explore his sexuality, a gay dance club where Boy meets Stranger, and at home where Boy confronts Father. One of the last lines of the poem is “Boy has a name.” This is a great penultimate poem for Prelude to Bruise.

I think Prelude to Bruise is a testament to the power of poetry and storytelling. These poems break the silence in a way that is loud and brutal. Jones’ writing is haunting, and this collection is not something you will quickly forget.

Buy Prelude to Bruise here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Coffee House Press: “Coffee House Press is an internationally renowned independent book publisher and arts nonprofit based in Minneapolis, MN; through their literary publications and Books in Action program, CHP acts as a catalyst and connector—between authors and readers, ideas and resources, creativity and community, inspiration and action.”

(Photo of Prelude to Bruise courtesy of Coffee House Press)

2016 Reflection

unnamed2016 has been a wild year. In the nine short months that this blog has existed, I’ve featured 34 collections of poetry, conducted 10 interviews, and promoted over 50 small presses. When I started this blog, my expectations were few. I only wanted an excuse to connect with some of my favorite poets, as well as a motivator to keep reading and writing about poetry. This blog has done so much more. Although Nervous Poodle Poetry is a very tiny aspect of the poetry community, I’m excited about what’s ahead in 2017.  Thanks so much to the readers of this blog, and to the poets who I have interviewed and featured. Your work is needed and appreciated. I’ll be back on January 15 with the collection Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones, and then Born Palestinian, Born Black by Suheir Hammad. In 2017, you can keep expecting weekly poetry collection features, but I will be focusing more on interviews and local literary event coverage within the Northeast Ohio community. Also, AWP is going to be a huge week, so look out for that. Thanks for your patience during this break, and Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone! – Noor