Chris Munden, Sean Lynch, Curate This, Feed the Piranhas

Real Talk

Feed the Piranhas: A Poem by Sean Lynch

Of all the authors I’m curating this week, Sean Lynch is my most recent acquaintance. He appeared on a short-run podcast I co-hosted to promote his poetry collection Broad Street Line. I was struck by the way his verse was informed and infused by political awareness, while remaining grounded in the concrete details of the everyday people affected by elite political decisions. This focus on accessible, independent, politically informed work can also be seen in Whirlwind Magazine, which he edits. I asked Sean to submit a piece on the real issues that art can address, and he did, using his art.

—Christopher Munden, curator

The shooters are invisible from the artist’s point
of view, beyond those dunes firemen ignite
fuses that cause colorful explosions

because the sky seemed too blank
a canvas, bodies of gold light live
out their finite lives like fish that float

above the beach and boardwalk stuffed
with herds of tourists, sparks spread
in predicted paths toward the abstracted

as ash rains on wood and eyes aimed
in arcs traced thousands of miles east
through the ocean that separates minds.

A holy land erupts again.
Phosphorus clouds
hover above cages

where smoke pours in like blood brewed
in boiled over data. The artist is asked,
“what’s wrong?” There’s no easy answer

except that fireworks disturb too few
Americans without ptsd, everything out of context,
everyone commoditized. The artist glances

at young men in blue who holster death machines,
sport childish faces, pimples, and crew cuts
or even Mohawks in mockery of the extinguished natives.

These officers of the peace laugh at girls
wearing booty shorts stamped with male names.
This is the Wildwood boardwalk

where toys made by the enslaved a half a world away
sell as bounty won by local boys for lust,
where the feasting Gerasene swine arrest

a dreaded kid who stole some paltry item
and will be branded criminal for life.
They’ll shoot him if chance begets

the moment, but Jesus will not drive
this legion into the sea. No one
bears witness on the boardwalk.

And yet something doesn’t feel right
to the man commissioned to draw a child.
And the parents cajole the artist

as to why he can’t do his job
any faster; it’s just a caricature.
The artist is no longer immune to violence.

Close by in a makeshift
storefront aquarium more consumers
gather. A hooded boy dumps the contents

of a plastic cup
down a PVC pipe
as two young girls film

the scene with smart phones
waiting, gazing at the tank now
clouding under a sign that states:

“Feed the Piranhas
a live goldfish!!!
$3.00 each or 2 for $5.00.″

As sharp teeth turn yellow bodies into red clouds
and deafening explosions are cheered
by the crowd, the artist places final touches

on the piece – then turns the easel to show
a swarm of jets dropping bombs
over the naked child’s decapitated head

as the kid’s corpse is covered
in luxury goods: jewels, designer clothes,
electronic gadgets and the like.

The parents gasp and grab
passing authorities to nab the perverted
artist who sits in catatonic disassociation.

Then a smile appears as the officers
place handcuffs onto his wrists,
since the fireworks have finally subsided.

Icarus, Dear Disgrace, Love Penelope, Chris Munden, Curate This


What Would a Nervous Breakdown Look Like Here & Other Urgent Questions

I met Penelope when she was recently separated from her husband; she married as a Texas teen and came to Philadelphia as a newlywed. They would separate and reconnect and re-separate. She moved away and returned, trying different things: crime reporting, Occupy, investigative reporting on a corrupt Caribbean island, ill-fated love. Through each misadventure, Penelope would become more disillusioned and more radical, but never hopeless. And after each supposed failure she’d show me a better piece of creative writing. She now has multiple publications and her first novel was accepted for publication by Scarlet Leaf Publishing House. For some of us, our failures drag us down; Penelope’s seem to drag her up.

– Christopher Munden, curator

Every time I move somewhere I evaluate my surroundings by asking what would a nervous breakdown look like here? I ask that question in the same way that other people ask: what is the feng shui of this residence going to do for my waistline? Or will the rent go up due to gentrification? Or where is the nearest green space or Whole Foods? I think about who is there, the neighbors, and the accommodations, and I think of them all in terms of madness. I have a commute, back and forth, about a three year long commute. It helps not to have roommates. I look for wider than average streets, old buildings with good architectural bone structure. A river nearby is like finding a vein in the body of nature which we all share. Lower density is best, too.

/ / /

When I was 25, and my mom was kicking me out of the house, I had to call my uncle, her brother, to come assist, to cool things off. I was barefoot in the backyard because she had locked me out of the house before I could put shoes on. I had my cell phone and my cigarettes. She had just attacked me in the kitchen. I had been living there, again, for two weeks. I was broke, attempting to leave my husband, “bipolar,” unemployed and carless. I was putting away groceries. We were fighting. I had borrowed the car when she didn’t want me to, to go to the store. And I had failed to put the toilet paper roll on the thing when it ran out, and I had not placed the bathmat over the lip of the tub, which had to be done because otherwise the fourth cat—the forlorn, clearly autistic, runtish low-man-on-the-feline-totem pole—would vent his rage at his status by peeing on it. (You’ve seen the movie Misery with Kathy Bates? Well, the penguin always faces 45 degrees Southeast! She loves you dearly; she’s your biggest fan, but you can’t leave with both your legs on.) Plus I was ignoring her. So she came up behind me and threw me onto the floor and tried to wrest my iPod lanyard off my neck, like, through my neck, because my neck was in the way, and my head and my face. It wasn’t exactly strangling, but it wasn’t exactly not.

/ / /

When my uncle came, as we were putting some of my bags in his truck, he said, “There has to be a novel in this somewhere.”
He was trying to be sweet.

/ / /

Over and over again, people have called me “resilient.” At this point, I think, I’d rather be called “diligent” or even “succulent.”

I am like that old mobster who must sit in a restaurant at a table or booth facing the door. I am waiting for myself to show up. I am an importer/exporter of the past at the same time that I am a refugee from it. I write little these days, but most of my current stuff is my real life revisited. I must admit I think of them as puny consolation prizes compared to my fiction. Like this essay I kept trying to write when I was running at a local park and instead I got the above poem to come out first. It was a precursor work. The essay is about the time in the Virgin Islands when I dated a drug dealer who told me that he had killed three people and then gaslighted me by fucking me up the ass and texting me that I/he/we were HIV positive.

Misadventure. Yeah. You must, you must, write about it. It’s so much fun. The same way you must endure poverty, have bouts of mental illness, go to the tropics or die an expat, live in a boarding house, be a journalist, be wildly sexual or at least pretend to be in print, work for social justice and befriend at least one Communist leader in your life. You must collect and absorb and obey clichés until one day you look down and you’ve grown a dick and people are calling you, in Spanish, Papa Hemingway. Misadventure, disgrace, I call it now, is a cliché you must collect in order to be a “real writer,” which is itself a cliché.

As suicide is the last cliché, you must earn that, too. Ain’t no such thing as a free career in this world.

But first you must live it: misadventure, disgrace. Which means that in order to write about it, the drama in your life must be two things: strong and worthy of words, even when you yourself are not, even when the pain and humiliation feel unspeakable.

I’m talking about the time I was arrested in the deep backwoods of Kentucky for public intoxication but I actually thought I was still in Tennessee. And I wasn’t even drunk. And I mooned my arresting officers. They added the charge “resisting arrest.”

I’m talking about the time I was so manic I wandered in the middle of the night into a tent of Evangelicals, then thought I was levitating—hell, I think they thought I was levitating—because a storm came in and the strong winds uplifted the tent flaps and some of the flimsy benches they were using as pews. I went to sleep on such a bench by the woodburning stove, and a woman from the congregation came up to me, put a blanket over me and asked me: “are you an angel?” And I said, again, manic, “Ma’am, if I am, I don’t know it yet.”

I’m talking about a completely undocumented spiritual life underneath the life you think you live. Friends and family who have been in the military have said this line to me: “They break you down completely and build you back up again.”

But you can leave the military.

I’m talking about escaping from a mental hospital and hitchhiking back to home in nothing but a hospital gown, panties having been taken from me, no buttons or zippers, just homely sheets split down the back.

I’m talking about my best friend calling me in the midst of a similar misadventure— she was running away from Girard Medical Center in a sweatsuit, security guards in tow—and asking me, “What should I do?” and me telling her, as I am getting dressed for work, “Run faster.”

I’m talking about same best friend calling me years later and telling me about the poetry scene in Philadelphia becoming claustrophobically bipolar and academic at the same time. “D. and C. and A. shredded up Kafka texts and made suppositories out of them. Also, they are smearing monuments and statues of Betsy Ross and Benjamin Franklin with their menstrual blood and semen in some bizarre invocation ritual. These people have PhDs, Penelope.”

“This is why I don’t do poetry anymore and live in Connecticut,” is what I said.

Some scenes are heavy on misadventure. They are not to be missed, but not to be embraced either.

/ / /

I think I read somewhere that in his stories drawn from his real life, Hemingway managed to make everyone around him, particularly rival writers, look like twerps and sniveling, uppercrust cowards and intellectual tightwads and himself look like a manly hero. Supposedly this is historically inaccurate. Imagine. The ego.

Let me be clear here, I’m being arch. I’m not an advocate for this pattern of self-destruction and self-excoriation and self-redemption through art. As a writer, I’m not an advocate for self-anything, at all. Because it’s all cyclical, and once you start on this path it hooks you the way Benzadrine got Kerouac and heroin got Burroughs. And because there’s a tendency to develop a tolerance.

But you can quit drugs. To live this kind of life is to be bested over and over again by demons of your own making. The last thing you want to do is to develop a tolerance to that.

For the longest time, I was a self-help book junkie. I hated them. I thought they were vile, inferior products. I couldn’t stop buying and reading them. I think my baseline happiness level jumped a few increments when I quit that shit. Same with therapy, which is proof of its success.

In my twenties, I hated myself. In my thirties, I tend to hate the world. Maybe in my forties I will hate just…men? You see how this is progress, in that old, “awful rowing toward God” sort of way?

/ / /

In kindergarten, I was a hyperobedient child because, again, white trash violent parents. My first day I peed my pants. Here’s how: The teacher had explained the rules of kindergarten to us. One of the rules which was different from pre-K was that we had to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. We couldn’t just get up and go. We had to ask silently, by the use of a hand signal. We had to make a fist and put our thumb through our fisted fingers and hold our arm up in the air. When the teacher touched your thumb, it meant you could go to the bathroom.

After she explained the rules to us, she gave us an assignment to do. Then she sat with her back to us. I had to go. Really bad. I used the hand signal. My powers of five-year-old logic told me that this would not work, given the logistics of the room, but if I had just had the rules explained to me, and if one of the rules was that you did not voice your request, and if another one of the rules was that you did not get up from your chair without permission…Well, I waited, fist raised, until all the blood drained out of one arm, then the other. Then I pissed myself in front of everyone. Then the other children told her what had happened, she turned around and made me fetch paper towels and clean it up myself. She made everyone else watch. The next day I was transferred to another class, which I thought had to do with the peeing but was more likely because I had tested out of that group in reading ability. Still. For the rest of the year, I refused even to sit down in a chair for long periods. Damn private school. Damn school.

/ / /

When I wrote the essay about the drug dealer trying to convince me I had AIDS, it was the first and last time that I had ever written anything and felt a cathartic release from it. I resisted it, the feeling of having calmly conquered something painful through writing, because that seems to be another clichéd idea non-writers have about writing: that it can do that, that there are selfish benefits, writing as therapy, etc… I had never bought into that idea. Writing was always about what I could bring to an audience, not the other way around. But it’s not always one or the other; they are not exclusive categories, and there are some misadventures, disgraces, so deep that, potentially, everyone stands to benefit. Just like sometimes, in real life as opposed to fiction, there are real villains and cowards and intellectual tightwads.

/ / /

It’s very barren in psychiatric wards. The humans there are very barren; the mind goes barren there. This is called healing, by some, because they are barren, somehow. They already were, and they are in charge, and this is how they got to be in charge.

/ / /

A disgraced person is a hundred times more likely than everyone else to question authority, and that can be a great boon to an artist. But the greatest thing I have learned from my misadventures is to seek unadulterated joy and fulfillment (fulfillment is different from achievement) and to know that I must cultivate a life that only includes writing. I used to include quotes from Hemingway in my personal essays about my mom, my family life, the drinking, the fights, the psychiatric disorders: “stronger in the broken places.” What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger bullshit. That was before I met Jackson ‘Jax’ Teller, the Hamlet-like protagonist of the TV series Sons of Anarchy. ‘Jax’ is heading up an organization of community-minded, gun-running motorcycle club outlaws in a made-up town in Northern California called “Charming.” They are fiercely opposed to franchise outfits such as Starbucks getting into “Charming,” which is kind of like Bridgeport, Pa, which is kind of like walking out into 1968, replete with Pabst-swilling, Gadsden flag-flying white supremacists and it’s weird. Anyway, ‘Jax’ writes letters to his sons, as his father, the patriarch of the motorcycle gang, did before him. To pass on wisdom. In one of these letters, he writes:

“Maybe that’s the lesson for me today, to hold onto these simple moments—appreciate them a little more, there’s not many of them left. I don’t ever want that for you, finding things that make you happy shouldn’t be so hard. I know you’ll face pain, suffering, hard choices, but you can’t let the weight of it choke the joy out of your life. No matter what, you have to find the things that love you. Run to them. There’s an old saying—that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—I don’t believe that. I think the things that try to kill you make you angry and sad. Strength comes from the good things, your family, your friends, the satisfaction of hard work. Those are the things that will keep you whole, those are the things to hold on to when you’re broken.”

This is the truth: the things that try to kill you just make you angry and sad. They don’t make you stronger, or a better writer. You have to be that from the get go, and give a damn about yourself and other people, in equal measure. In the end, it’s happiness, highly unoriginal but highly selective in who it endows, happiness, happiness and caring, neither danger nor vainglory, that is the most bad-ass thing.

Run to it. Send notes back.

/ / /

Dear Disgrace,

Every time I see you,
you look so different.
I almost don’t recognize you.
I see a pretty woman in the park,
and I think you are late,
so late this time. You might not
even show up. But, just in case,
before you do, I should go up
to the pretty lady and tap her
on the shoulder and warn her
you are coming, that I have
an appointment I can’t get out of,
but, for her, the pretty lady, it might
not be too late.

So, I do, and then you turn
around, and then I realize
it’s you, the pretty lady;
you were early. Then
I can’t run away from your
awful, radiant but
same-old face. It would be
awkward to run. It would
look weird.

I apologize for being late
to our meeting, and then
you are polite to me
while you knife me
in the groin.
“It’s all right,” you say.
A twist and a thrust later:
“I knew you would come

Sly bitch.

Until next time…
Different time? Same place?


P.S. I love what you’ve done with your hair.

Christina Gesualdi. Photo by Miles Yeung._small

In the Studio

A Walking Practice

I know Christina through working with her as members at Mascher Space Co-op. She has a special way of thinking about her art and about Mascher, and a deep love for the well-worn, DIY rehearsal and performance space. Christina often talks and writes in a roundabout, muddled-through way that gives weight to the slow, the dispersed, and the felt, and this modus operandi extends to her sincerity in working with the multiplicitous, slow-moving organism that is an artist cooperative. I thought of Christina for an In the Studio piece not only because she is an integral part of this unique cooperative studio, but also because her art space expands beyond those walls. She walks around Kensington as part of her dance and life practice.

-Antonia Z Brown, curator

For a while now, I’ve been saying “I have a walking practice.” I’d like to rethink that and instead just say, “I like to walk.” I think of walking like digestion—an active space of doing, sensing, and soft absorption and excretion. For the past few years I’ve been rehearsing fairly steadily at Mascher on Friday afternoons. I often split my time between being INSIDE and OUTSIDE of the rehearsal space.

When I’m INSIDE:

  • I try to move from where I am.
    It isn’t about generating or accumulating something to show people or to show myself. I dance with values of anti-productivity.
  • I question preparedness—does my body need to be warm, focused, and integrated in the studio? Yes . . . probably somewhat, BUT can I move without moving though codified ways of preparing? Sort of. There is no void to fill.
  • The space (4 walls / floor / ceiling) doesn’t exist to be filled by me. I am permeable and we seep in and out of each other. Even when it is just my body in the room, I am not at the center of this constellation. There is no void to fill.
  • I spend a lot of time rolling, sliding, laying, and finding low to the ground washing-machine-like cycles of churning in my body. The Mascher floor is the floor is the floor. I experience that floor. I experience the materiality of my own body and the space. I am influenced by the choreographers Leah Stein and Luciana Achugar. They have really different ways of trusting experience and pleasure and of addressing the way the stuff of the world meets the stuff of the skin. Both of their approaches resonate with my movement instincts.
  • Often I like working in pairs or with larger groups of people who I invite into the process. We do “Authentic Movement” in pairs. I hate the name “Authentic Movement” because I’d hate to think that movement could somehow be inauthentic, BUT I love the practice. One person moves for a timed duration with their eyes closed and their partner witnesses it while also witnessing their own experience as the situation unfolds. They switch roles.
  • WRITING TOO: I also find this way of slicing time up to be essential in my studio world. I like doing chunks of free writing. I enjoy pushing my hand and words forward on the page and making space for my thoughts to fold and to be murky and diffuse.
  • QI GONG TOO: This is a chinese energy medicine technique. It is a meditative way to move and resonate the holistic and energetic body. I like how its practices are based in ideas about sensing and guiding alchemy within the body and its fluids, its fires, and its winds, and then being in relation to the alchemy and pull of the surrounding environment and the five elements in nature. I like how it uses touch and sound.


  • I am walking. I keep my body moving forward in space, down the sidewalks and across streets: Cecil B. Moore Ave. or North American St. or 5th St. or Susquehana. Like sausage getting squished through the grinder.
  • I’m noticing and letting go. I am skeptical of accumulation. I’m not taking pictures or trying to document it. This is experiential. I am skeptical of sensory tourism; it is messed up to romanticize, exploit, exoticize, and lock down what I see. My senses and awareness feel crisp and my skin feels awake.
  • I’m not at the center of this constellation. My body is here and also soft and permeable and spilling and absorbing.
  • Lately, I slice time up and try to keep my walks to a certain duration using a felt sense of timing; I used to use a timer to keep track of duration.
  • I walk alone or in pairs or with a slightly larger group of people who I invite into the process. We are not “showing/performing,” yet I know that there is a violence in assuming or holding rigidly to how we expect others to see us. I welcome an ambiguity in how we perceive and are perceived. Of course I hope that we don’t look like a town watch or a group of ambitious millennials on a realtor’s open house tour. That isn’t my intent.
  • When we walk in pairs or groups, there are no leaders and no followers. We aren’t afraid of dissonance and the possibility that we aren’t all on the same experiential track. Even walking in close proximity to each other, we leave room for not matching.

How do artists or citizens move through the landscapes, dynamic environments, and communities in which they make their work, especially when those communities and neighborhoods are rapidly gentrifying and changing? It is our job to turn over and over and over the ways that we are embodied within ourselves and our work but also in our physical and geographic location.

This experience INSIDE and OUTSIDE of Mascher has collaged itself into a solo that I have made called lasso belly. Many of the pictures are of me rehearsing that solo. The piece asks how process and studio time can transparently and unapologetically live in a finished work. The piece asks how I want to engage with an audience and how I want to frame my own solo body and the contexts in which I choose to put it in.

All photos by Miles Yeung.

See Christina’s solo at Fresh Juice, Mascher’s 10th Anniversary Cabaret, Nov 20 – 21, 2015, 155 Cecil B. Moore. Info here.

Teatro Nacional Sucre, photo by Héctor López

Artist to Artist

Arterial Opera House and Philly’s Poetry Scene

I chose Anne-Adele Wight for Curate This because her poems are a constant rush of poetic experiments, of surprises, of kaleidoscopic gladness, of images that mix fancy with science and art. She animates buildings, for example, a globe-trotting opera house! Who else could have thought of that? She is a force in the Philadelphia poetry scene both because of the reading series she directs and because of her own rip-roaring work that delivers such unexpected pleasures.

– Lynn Levin, Curator

Anne-Adele Wight is the author of Sidestep Catapult and Opera House Arterial from BlazeVOX Books. Her work has appeared in American Writing, Philadelphia Poets, Apiary, Fairies in America, Jupiter 88, Luna Luna, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Bedfellows. Her poem “Nothing but Villas in Tuscany” was selected as the Editor’s Choice in the Sandy Crimmins Poetry Competition. In July she took part in a panel discussion of Pablo Neruda’s work, reading her own translation of one of his poems, for the live TV series Who Do You Love? She curates the monthly Jubilant Thicket performance series and lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two cats. Curate This spoke to Anne-Adele about her most recent book.

CT: Opera House Arterial is quite the inventive series. How did you turn a structure into a living creature with a trickster spirit?

A friend showed me a postcard from Quito, Ecuador. It showed the city in layers. There was a strip of city and then there was the opera house. Behind the opera house were the Andes rising up. I looked at that postcard and something happened in my brain. I felt the picture going deep in and wanting to become something. So I thought, “Oh, it wants to become a poem,” and at first it just didn’t work as a poem. So I put it away for a long, long time, and when it resurfaced I realized it hadn’t gone anywhere at first because it wanted to be 56 poems. I got so into it for a while that everything I wrote turned into an opera house poem.

And eventually that evolved into a mythology in 56 poems. You’ve clearly had a substantial career. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your relationship with the poetry scene in Philadelphia?

So, the series Poets & Prophets was in the city since 1983, and they now hold readings out in Media, Pennsylvania—near where the driving force, Bob Small, lives. I worked with Bob on Poets & Prophets for a long time, and was constantly finding myself running readings, so this is how I learned to do that.

I detached myself from Poets & Prophets three years ago, because I took over the series I now run, which is called Jubilant Thicket. It is a mixed-media series principally devoted to poetry. It was founded by my friend Debrah Morkun, who is an absolutely wonderful, very avant garde poet.

It has been passed onto me and I am doing my best to honor the multimedia aspect, but often we’ll have readings that are entirely poetry. Occasionally we will have a musician or a dancer. A few months ago we had a musician accompanying a dancer, which was quite an accomplishment because we read at Head House books in the children’s section, which is charming, but it is a very small space.

You’ve been in the Philadelphia poetry scene for a while, both working with Poets & Prophets and Jubilant Thicket, but you are not originally from Philly.

I’m originally from Massachusetts around the Boston area, but I’ve lived here for 37 years.

What do you think is specific to Philadelphia’s poetry scene?

The first thing that comes to mind is particular personalities. I think of Frank Sherlock, Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate; CAConrad, who created a whole new poetics and now teaches internationally; Larry Robin, who runs the wonderful Moonstone Arts collective; and people who really shape the way events are run. Another thing that is characteristic here is how many of the same people go to all the readings.

That’s interesting; do you view that as problematic?

No, I think that’s excellent. But one thing I try to do, and this is where it gets a little problematic, I look for readers for Jubilant Thicket who aren’t necessarily going to be people everybody else has heard. I try to find off the beaten track series and they are not always easy to find. I try to be ingenious.

Another thing that is very characteristic is how many events there are. There is something going on practically everyday. You often have to choose between events because you can’t be in two places at once.

So there’s a staple audience, and a plethora of events, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Philly attracts poets. From experience do you think Philadelphia, in fact, attracts poets?

Most definitely, I’ve heard people say they came here for the poetry and the people who don’t move here will often go to great lengths to give a reading.

How can people support local poets?

Go to a reading, buy somebody’s book, talk them up, and make sure you bring as many people as are willing to go to a poetry reading. Being a poet in the busy poetry scene it is easy to forget that not everybody is crazy for poetry. Sometimes you say to a more mainstream person, “Come to this poetry reading with me,” and they go green around the gills. Readings often are held at a bar or a place that serves food and drinks. Try to buy a drink and tip the bartender. The establishment is counting on bringing in some money during the event.

Also, support independent bookstores. They’re endangered and are more likely to host local poets than the larger establishments.

Photo by Héctor López

Delicious marshmallow. Image by Margaret Kearney.

Tip Jar

If Emily Dickinson Went Camping

Lynn Levin does a lot of things. Levin is a poet, writer, and translator, is adjunct associate professor of English at Drexel and lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. She is, with Valerie Fox, co-author of the craft-of-poetry textbook, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013), a finalist in education/academic books in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Levin’s other recent books include Birds on the Kiswar Tree (2Leaf Press, 2014), a translation from the Spanish of a collection of poems by the Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales, and the poetry collection Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013), a finalist in poetry in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Lynn Levin has received eleven Pushcart Prize nominations. Her poems, stories, essays, and translations have appeared in Ploughshares, Boulevard, The Hopkins Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, E-Verse Radio, Verse Daily, and Garrison Keillor has read her work on his radio show The Writer’s Almanac.

—Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder

Poetry is not a big tent. It is an encampment with lots of little tents in which souls select their own societies. If Emily Dickinson went camping (not likely), she would probably not share a tent with Anne Sexton. But after a hard day of walking in the woods and making poems, I can see the two of them sitting around the campfire relaxing, talking po-biz, looking for shooting stars. Poets who pitch different kinds of poetry tents can be friends, but one does stand by the tenets of one’s own tent.

Here are some tips about what I love best in poetry. I present them with examples from some poets I admire, poets who write emotionally clear, witty, accessible poems that convey love and sympathy for the world.

1. Describe generously

Our world will vanish, therefore imagery, either through straight description or figurative language, is essential. Mark Doty’s poem “A Display of Mackerel” from his book Atlantis never fails to dazzle me with its rapturous descriptions of fish in a market.

They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity

barred with black bands,
which divide the scales’
radiant sections

like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.
Iridescent, watery

prismatics: think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soapbubble sphere,

think sun on gasoline.

The poem scintillates with its subject. When you read the whole poem, be sure to catch the brilliant irony: as much as Doty presences the material and the now, he meditates platonically on the idea that there is a truer form of mackerel in “heaven’s template.” Doty expands on his devotion to imagery in the essay “Souls on Ice,” which includes the complete text of “A Display of Mackerel.”

2. Surprise your reader

As a reader, I yearn for the moment in which a startling turn of thought, a comparison, a profound observation slides into a poem. I want to feel that moment of awe, that shiver before a truth I did not see coming.

Surprises can be fierce or gentle. In her poem “Olives,” from her collection Olives , A. E. Stallings slips in a gentle surprise. Her poem begins with a gourmet appreciation of olives, but very quickly the poem turns unexpectedly melancholy:

Sometimes a craving comes for salt, not sweet,
For fruits that you can eat
Only if pickled in a vat of tears—

Stallings chooses the sorrowful “vat of tears” to express the brining. It made me wonder what troubled the speaker’s heart. The diction in the poem also delivers the unexpected. Stallings combines everyday words with seldom-seen terms, always precisely relevant to olives, such as “indehiscent” and “drupes.” The poem surprises line after gorgeous line, and at points it shifts from darkness to light: “The nets spread under silver trees that foil/The blue glass of the heavens in the fall.” And I am struck by the poet’s subtle slant rhyming of “foil” with “fall.” From the diction to the sound effects to the constantly changing emotional and sensory perspectives, Stallings gives me something to gasp about in every line. You can find the whole text of the poem in The New Criterion here.

3. Take a stand without ranting

A poem should be brave enough to take on a political subject, but it should not hector the reader. In her collection Doll, Kim Bridgford uses an inflatable doll as a persona to symbolize women who have been silenced or intimated by sexist partners and a sexist society. Here are a few lines from her sonnet, “Inflatable Doll as Driving Companion”:

No backseat driver, this one’s in the front:
Her upbeat plastic buckled in to go
Wherever you go. This blow-up doll is silent,
Offers her support. I sit; therefore I know.

Bridgford’s wit, formal grace, and her sympathetic and subtly sharp approach empower this poem. You can read the whole poem here.

4. Be funny

I love having fun with dark subjects, and that’s what successful funny poems usually do. They deploy humor to beckon the reader only to slide or pounce into something grave or existentially large. Charles Harper Webb’s poem “Nostalgia’s Not What It Used to Be” from his book What Things Are Made Of, ruminates on an ice cream truck, a fond memory of youth, seen by the speaker hilariously through the lens of social and political critique. The poem begins:

I’m well aware it’s problematic to miss the ice cream trucks
that clinked and tinkled down Candlelight Lane. The name
“Good Humor” privileged bourgeois affability, and valorized
consumption. Songs the trucks played—“Daisy, Daisy”
and “Dixie”—legitimized patriarchy, women’s oppression,
and the Mariana Trench of slavery.

Eventually, the poem travels to an incident in the speaker’s youth involving class distinctions, and then rockets out to a pessimistic view of the future, thus bringing not-so-delightful past in conjunction with fraught future. But there’s so much fun in between. You can read the all of Webb’s poem here.

5. If you can write a happy poem, do it

Mostly you will be pondering lost love, illness, guilt, failure, violence, hurt, and all the other things that flesh and spirit are heir to. The Polish poet Anna Swir wrote about all those things, but here she takes a moment to sample joy.

Happy as a Dog’s Tail

Happy as something unimportant
and free as a thing unimportant.
As something no one prizes
and which does not prize itself.
As something mocked by all
and which mocks at their mockery.
As laughter without serious reason.
As a yell able to outyell itself.
Happy as no matter what,
as any no matter what.

as a dog’s tail.

Now and then, let your verse celebrate simple pleasant things. Swir’s poem appears in her collection Talking to My Body, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan. You can also read Swir’s poem on the Poetry Foundation website.

Avoid dense brush, swamp land, and other hazards around the poetry encampment

The five tips above spotlight some of what I value in poetry, but I want to point out what I don’t like as well. I do not care for self-consciously academic poems, abstruse poems that prize difficulty, poems with subjective associations I cannot follow, or syntactical weirdness that seems downright ungrammatical. Boring poems, I can’t tolerate them either.

All that said, I know that other poets and readers might find fascinating a text that I consider a flatliner or might dig the challenge of a hermetic poem. I reserve my right to be opinionated. I stand by the aspects of poetry that I revere because I think they help poetry do its job, which is to enlarge our world and abide with us in the wilderness of time.

Image by Margaret Kearney

nigh slip_large

Transcending Medium

night slip: A Poem by Julius Ferraro

Transcending Medium is a prompt which asks artists to create a work of art in a non-preferred medium and treat it as critically as they would a project in their chosen field. I chose poetry, which I haven’t touched since college, but thought was close enough to my preferred medium that I could treat it critically.


The wide open sky.
Sky as broad and blank as the earth
As the sky
a great, wet sky
wet sky



Not rightly.
What is a play without a vision.
What is a vision without a dollar.
What is a dollar without a passion.
What is a passion without a body.
What is a body without a liquid.
What is a liquid without a pool.
What is a pool without a cutting oar.

I wear these sunglasses

to a
powder just by looking at you.






Poetry of the moral Universe,

I got seven glimpses of the same thing at the same time.

Hot motion peace has no place.

Growl at it

Slant not known

Guns are significant

Where the whores won’t go.

Encounter night slippage

men have curves

yet everywhere

cooked brass shapes on my night eyes blue yanked out on grids blue whale harmonics

taking up two taking up.

Looking out over the arc

A pitcher of pounce

(god grant me)

Brought on blue wails

. The great American wails.


I we don’t half open think

around ten tonight

I’ll be here

it’s a


on to

the earth is
still yet
he stands before me living

. is
you like.

a brief
a moment
all a dreamy rules

somewhere else, you see
a hand, he take
an exit

. violence
. a deliberate
. a cheese sandwich.

I have hands
(see through white)
(and peruse online catalogs)
skin why
that says it all.

for everything

night cats on blue paper the Finnish product is awful kind.


Seven glimpses
he’s talking about

that doesn’t rhyme
isn’t a vegetable

inside joker Orlando
the greener pastures
the one that’s true

I read
too much
( )

I read
too much
( )

I read
too much

that much is true

the hot hands a clinical approach a God it’s hot a many kind a people

Coherent form

the next good thought

Julius Ferraro is a journalist, performer, playwright, and administrator based in Philadelphia. He is co-founder of Curate This, has served as theater editor of Phindie, and writes for thINKingDANCE,, The Smart Set, and the FringeArts blog. His recent performances include Micromania, The Death and Painful Dismemberment of Paul W. Auster, and The Mysteries of Jean the Birdcatcher with {HTP}, On the Road for 17,527 Miles with 14th Street, and his Phindie Fringe Bike Tours. With the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program’s Restored Spaces Initiative he coordinates community-led environmental arts projects.