By: Janet Griffin

River water rushing over rocks
Like a glass falling infinitely on the inside
See that cloud between two trees
Some in, some out
Gold foil in the mail
Or foil in the gold mail

Paper cornstalks in autumn
Personify hands placed inside your vest
Carnal, cruel, as you would have it
Dusk is a temporary home
Young birds in gold foil
Or gold birds in foil mail


A single femur, clear as water
Placed between your pelvis and glass hands
A small bird rests in a single cloud
Falling infinitely, as you would say
Saint Genet is cruel on the inside
Saint Genet is You


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Paperbag Interview with Adam Soldofsky

Adam Soldofsky was born in Oakland, California and raised in the Silicon Valley. He received his MFA from New York University in 2007. He lives in New York City. For more of Adam’s poems visit:

Paperbag: What is the importance of the visual impact of a poem?/ What are your thoughts on digital, internet-based journals and publications?

Adam Soldofsky: Generally, if it appears someone is listening very seriously to me or on the verge of accepting something I’m in the process of asserting, I begin to feel as though I’ll be unable to forgive that person for it. Next, I begin to feel like I should make an apology to the person, who is clearly undeserving of ridicule and is only being punished for his or her open mind. Then I feel a little sorry for myself because again it seems I have failed to have a serious conversation unsullied by self-consciousness. Finally, I begin to feel sorry for all of us, for humanity, who I have determined, based on my difficulties, must live in a state of constant miscommunication – in part because I believe this to be true, and in part because I don’t want it to just be me. This is all to say that very soon I am going to start talking about poetry. Like now. Like right now.

*    *    *

The visual aspect of the poem is clearly essential to the reader’s experience of the poem, though it should be impossible to explain scientifically why this is. It is impossible because however abstract, shapes and configurations are sensuous, i.e. they feel a certain way once they are internalized. A small green triangle, for example, feels distinctly like itself. Apprehended or conjured, it feels pleasant or irritating or neutral. Or it feels like something too difficult to articulate. A cloud of small green triangles is sensationally different than a grid of the same. Why? To pursue an answer beyond the domain of Aesthetics into the realm of the anthropologists and the head shrinkers is not my intention here. I’m not certain the shape or look of the poem is inseparable from its meaning. Conveniently, I am against the pursuit of hard evidence to justify this.

When we talk about the visual, I suppose we are really discussing two categories of the visual, one of which we typically spend more time considering than the other  – we are talking about the shape/ look/ visual nature of the text or we are talking about the shape/ look/ visual nature of the field in which the text appears.

Regarding the visual nature of the text – my suspicion is that before actually reading the poem for its meaning in language, a reader reacts to the poem by automatically measuring the level of order/entropy in the appearance of the text as far as it is situated in the field (readers of books are of course used to the field being rectangular – I want to address this later). An orderly form, a poem in quatrains for example, must feel a certain way to a certain individual, before the poem is read, and regardless of the poem’s content or agenda. Likewise, an entropic poem registers a certain way to a certain individual before it is read for content. What qualifies as “Orderly/ Entropic” is also scalable to each unique reader, though I wonder if anyone would dispute the characterization of the quatrain as “orderly.”

While the reader is reading (if the reader is me), the reader is registering space as occupied or unoccupied by text. When the space is occupied, the reader divides his or her attention between the physicality of the presence of the text/ the meanings of the words (as words alone, as combinations of words, as devices with literal and figurative contextual implications etc.). When the reader encounters unoccupied space, the reader acknowledges and internalizes it as such, and if it occurs within the unfolding of the poem, it stands for a silence roughly proportional in time-length to the time-length it takes the eye to travel it. The more predictable the terrain of the field, the more it tends toward the orderly. The less predictable, the more entropic. Every locale on this spectrum represents a zone of satisfaction for an individual reader. In this sense the spectrum is built entirely of thresholds – thresholds that owe their spontaneous existence to the individual and to the circumstantial influences (large and small) that weigh upon the individual who approaches the poem.

To summarize before we move on: A poem (in this discussion) = a field distinct in space and of a particular shape which accommodates a text. The configuration of the text is the terrain of the field. The terrain, because it has an overall shape and is composed of shapes (which are sensuous) must necessarily warrant a physical response when encountered. This response is directly related to the respondent’s tolerance for order/ entropy within a poem. The level of order/ entropy is automatically measured when the poem is encountered in a strictly visual sense and considered simultaneously as the poem is being read. Would it be correct to assert that the more extreme the terrain, the more extreme the physical response? Why not? It is true out there in the world.

Beyond this analysis lies the interiority of the reader and his or her traumatic, ecstatic, moderate, mild, or too-subtle-to-characterize intuitive response to specific shapes/ configurations, which is unique to the individual reader, and which to hear discussed is like hearing a person analyze his or her dreams – which is contemptible. What is not contemptible (I hope) is to ask the question “should the shape/ look/ visual nature of the poem bear any deliberate resemblance to its content or agenda? The answer must be highly personal. It is for me, anyway.

I don’t want a poem whose order shows too much of a correspondence to its content or agenda. A poem about a tulip that takes the shape of a tulip? (Pardon, monsieur Guillaume. Je t’aime!) A poem in quatrains about traveling by horseback? This behavior is ill advised. My reasoning: when the shape of the poem shows too much conscious similarity to its content or agenda, what is most notably sacrificed is spontaneity – which for me is tops. Besides, it is terrible enough to have an agenda, as poems tend to, but to have one’s agenda echoed in the form is to beg for its being noticed.

Now to “the field” – it is most commonly a rectangle. So commonly, in fact, that we begin not to see it. This is ultimately for the good and for the bad. Good because the world has to end somewhere, so there can be a little space for the poem to exist. The rectangle, whether detectable anymore to the reader or not, has historically been a fairly successful perimeter for visual art and art in the form of literature. Bad because this seems like a limited and too defensive position for art to take. Perhaps now is a good time to discuss digital technology and its potential to improve poetry or at least increase its dynamism. (I’m not of the opinion that digital technology/ the internet is detrimental to poetry or art exactly the way I’m not of the opinion that it is attractive to run scared from what you cannot change).

One thing technology can do and has already done is to change the shape of the field. Jenny Holzer, whether you agree she is a poet or not, is a good example of the way the field can be enlarged/ pleasantly altered to accommodate a text. The field can now be a building or a river. I suppose “the field” can even be a field. I’m sure there are numerous and more compelling examples than Holzer, and you can have them, you think you know so much…

The Internet, strangely, has been reactionary as far as the field is concerned. I say this to be provocative but also because so much reading online is the reading of scrolls, and who (besides Kerouac) would have predicted such a large scale return to an anachronism? Of course, there is software that mimics the turning of the page as well as the pervasive tablet computer, which at this point is mostly devoted to the rectangle. I do think that the touch screen will have an impact on the field, will at the very least replace the rectangle with the cube, will add a dimension of physicality to the visual that we have never known before as readers and writers, once software developers and online publishers have more time with it. This shouldn’t frighten readers or writers. What should frighten readers and writers is what has or should have frightened readers and writers from the beginning of time – those who would assert unreasonable control, restrict and/ or exploit content for profit.

Also carnivorous fields that live on the Internet.

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Paperbag Interview with Donald Graham Hershey

Donald Graham Hershey, b.1984, lives/works in Brooklyn, NY. His videos appeared in Paperbag 4. About the artist:

“The images I create are imagined stories that find their being in the retelling. Starting first with an idea (the story) and then creating the picture (the retelling). As I believe all stories are fictitious and all memories are beautiful lies, so too are my images. They are neither based in reality or non-reality; they are between surreal happenstance and the memory of a collective past. I often deal with archetypal imagery that is contorted to reveal alternate paths for the audience to follow; some are silly, some are macabre, and others are in between.

I am most interested in the mystical concept of ‘Before-Life’, ‘Life’, ‘Death’, and the ‘After-Life.’ My work highlights the fantasy of these intangible ideals by creating incidents and metaphors through which a narrative emerges. My fascination comes to life by exploring these metaphysical conceptions through video and narrative—an attempt, based in the physical realm, at understanding the unknown. This particular search for meaning has existed since mankind’s first thought, recollection, and reflection and been passed down through myths, legends, and stories. And so it has been passed down to me through family histories and lore that continually inspire the work I create.”

Paperbag (PB): Have you participated in any cross-medium artistic/writerly collaboration?

Donald Graham Hershey (DGH): Yes. Recently I met painter Virginia Wagner through an artist residency. She and I share a similar interest in mythology, darkness, and mysticism. We created a collaboration project titled Ouroborix, which compiles a series of rituals documented through videos, installation, and writing.

Wagner is a painter and I primarily work with video but we both have our own side projects where writing is the focus. I write a story about a magical world and its inhabitant’s adventures called, “In The Wild Time Of The Ruby Twins.” Wagner writes in a magical realist style about her experiences and memories. I recommend checking out her work at

(PB): What were the results?

(DGH): Each ritual vignette has its own style and focus. One is about empathizing with technology, another attempts communicating with the realm of the dead, and most recently we tried to connect by way of our dreams through a series of ceremonies that tap into each other’s unconscious. Virginia has been in Texas for the past week, so she and I have been trying to communicate across the distance through our dreams.

We each have our own methods and experiment with them. For example Virginia sleeps half way through the night and wakes up in the middle of her slumber and from beneath her covers she tries to draw what I’m dreaming. I begin by picturing her distinct face and breaking it down into muscle structure, nerve system, followed by bone/skeletal frame, then brain, and finally I picture neurons flickering until I am asleep. If all goes as planned I spend my dreamtime navigating her dreamscape.

(PB): How was the experience?

(DGH): It has been a wonderful experience to work with another like-minded artist. It’s been really great for bouncing ideas off one another that are then realized through the project. We also support each other in our separate art practices, which is motivating.

Ouroborix is ongoing so there are several new experiences up coming. A website with the ceremonies will soon be available for people to experience online at

(PB): What are your thoughts on digital, internet-based magazines and

(DGH): I think digital and internet-based magazines are the wave of the future—haha! In all seriousness, though, I believe they are just as, if not more important, than printed ‘zines at this point in the digital age because they are easier and less expensive to access. I do think this will change as online magazines start charging for subscriptions, which I think is smart.

I do appreciate printed material because of its history and of course the tactility that makes the experience of flipping through a magazine so rich. I love the repulsive scratch and sniff perfume advertisements—imagining the people who buy the perfume and what they look like obsessed with their vanity.

I love the iPad, aside from its name which reminds me of a feminine hygiene product, because it replaces the tactility that one desires when looking at a printed ‘zine with a whole new experience—the experience of the future. In today’s world only a fool would oppose the online magazine.

(PB): Is the internet the harbinger of doom, the doorway to the future, just another tool for communication, or something else entirely?

(DGH): Sometimes when I log onto the internet I feel like the black gates of Mordor have opened, ominously vast and dark with hidden evils, sucking time and energy out of me. Other times I feel the complete opposite, bounding though the Elysian Fields of technology where anything is possible. I think it is not necessarily a harbinger of doom, nor the doorway to the future. It is just is a symbol of how our lives have changed over the past 20-30 years and how quickly they can do so. I never would have thought in 1992 printing out dot matrix Disney images to collage with that one day I could download a high-res file from my computer and print a full color image of Mickey Mouse. Now you can watch Mickey and Donald Duck in online animated porn. The world has really changed and I attribute a lot of this to the internet, because it has allowed people from every walk of life, all over the world, to communicate with each other in whichever way they choose. It’s very similar to the tale of Babel. I wonder if it will ever come crashing down on us? I secretly hope so. shh!

(PB): As a visual artist, is it necessary for you to have a digital space that showcases your work beyond your own website?

(DGH): Unlike my view on printed magazine v. online magazine, where I’m all about online exposure, I think that it is more important to have your physical work on view somewhere tactile, in a physical space. Online galleries as a singular entity are not as powerful and are not taken as seriously, in my opinion. I only use my website as a way for people I meet to see my work. It functions as a portfolio. Many galleries showcase their artist’s work on their sites for online visitors and collectors to see but again only as a portfolio. I guess I’m a little close-minded to the idea of showing my work solely in an online gallery, but not opposed to it. I guess I just need someone to change my mind or convince me.

(PB): Paperbag works to establishing a more substantive footprint for
individual writers and artists by asking for more work rather than
their best singular poem or piece. Do you feel that the magazine
accomplished this for you? Why/not?

(DGH): Yes. And I agree with your push for more work rather then singular works. It gives perspective to the artist or writer’s vision. I appreciate that. Thanks!

(PB): What are some of your most recent influences, direct or otherwise?

(DGH): I was just home in Wyoming for New Years and spent it in the wild nature taking many videos and sound clips. Wyoming and New Mexico are big influences for me. The desert and the prairie both share the essence of desolation and isolation. I would say that natural emptiness carries embedded in it a certain kind of darkness reminiscent to death, death being a huge focus/fascination in my work, like the wandering landscape of the afterlife – if there were such a thing. I’m really influenced by the sounds of medieval music, Lisa Gerrard, Dead Can Dance, and Zola Jesus as of late.

(PB): What is your relationship to your audience?

(DGH): I want my audience to see my work with fresh eyes, without any knowledge of what they’re seeing prior to their viewing. I have explanations and stories that are tied to what I create but they are only as important as the audience’s experience. I have always wanted to be in the background of what I create. I don’t necessarily need to be recognized as who I am outside of creating the work. Of course there is ownership tied to what I create and I can be territorial like any other artist. But I don’t want to be an art-star. I want my art to be the star. Thus I want my audience to recognize their importance as free thinking, dreaming, story-telling creatures and own their viewpoints or interpretations of the work. It’s the bureaucracy that makes the artist’s audience an idiot. With all their signage and directions on why a yellow vase is yellow and why you can’t possibly think differently. So people start to rely on the captions to get through an exhibit, like life support. It drives me mad! Haha! It’s even worse than listening to a gallery attempt to sell their artists and totally miss the point of the artist’s intention. I just hope my audience realizes how important and valid their experiences, stories, and dreams are when viewing the work. I want them to realize that within my ideas are ideas or dreams of their own.

(PB): For you as a visual artist working with drawing and painting as well
as video, what do you see as the links and differences between those artistic media?

(DGH): I think my subject matter remains the common thread throughout my multimedia exploration. All my work pulls from a place of mysticism, magic, and death, in someway. I have a way of working with space in all my work that comes from my years of working as a printmaker. That influence can be seen throughout my studio process.

(PB): What is it about the writhing, severed head that intrigues you and influences this project?

(DGH): I’ve always had this fascination with the macabre. One day I was looking at a book of famous French beheadings. There was a line in the text that talked about watching the severed head falling into the basket and moving around, blinking its eyes and trying to talk up at the people above. It said this was common and that it lasted for moments but the image was haunting long after it had stopped writhing.

Then I was reminded of a story my father told be about when he was younger growing up in a very small village in Wyoming. On the edge of town was an old covered bridge with only enough room for one car to pass. It was late at night after a local dance when two boys came speeding down the narrow two-lane highway, driving drunk. They zipped toward the edge of town and the covered bridge, where fate crept. One of the boys had drunkenly fallen asleep with his head out of the passenger window bathed in the cool breeze of the night. As the car sailed through the narrow arch of the bridge, so did the boy’s head sail from his body into the ravine below. Because my father had a job doing cleanup he was there at the scene and that’s when he found the boys head face up in the creek that flowed beneath the bridge. That story has stuck with me since I was a kid.

(PB): Any insight on your current work?

(DGH): Being home always offers a wellspring of inspiration and the opportunity to take video of settings that are very foreign from my life in New York. I always joke that I go home once a year to get footage and enjoy the beauty of nature and when I return to the city I spend the next year making sense of it. As alive as New York City is it’s not very inspiring to me. I am more interested in nature. If I had it my way I would make my work year round in a studio somewhere in the middle-of-nowhere New Mexico and return to New York in the spring to show my work. I’m still a baby though; there is plenty of time to do that later in my career. So I suck it up. My new work for 2012 will continue along the themes of before— life, life, death, after-life, and alchemy. But I have some new things I’m trying out. Stay tuned….

(PB): Last thoughts?


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Paperbag Interview with Paul Hlava

A nominee for the Pushcart and Best of the Web, Paul Hlava has poems in Gulf Coast, Rattle, Agriculture Reader, and Juked, among others.  He has had performances at the Dixon Place theater and Bowery Poetry Club.  He is a poet and grammar teacher living in Brooklyn.

Paul’s poems appeared in Paperbag 4, and he produced the videos for the launch reading on March 30th, 2012.

Paperbag (PB): Have you participated in any cross-medium artistic/writerly collaboration? If so, what were the results? How was the experience? If not, is there anything in particular holding you back?

Paul Hlava (PH): I’m really fascinated by the recent upsurge in cross-medium artistic collaboration that’s been going on and am thrilled by what we can do in the future. A couple weeks ago I went and saw The Supernatural Wife, a dance troop performing an Anne Carson translation. It was great, mixing ancient Greece with the present day, tragedy and humor, dance, song and poetry. Something’s happened in our culture just in the past few years, I think, which has led to a kind of democracy in artistic thought. I’m talking about the cool work done by Teleportal Readings, Puppets & Poets, and the comics of Bianca Stone, among others. I’m constantly wondering how I can make my poetry more three-dimensional or interactive.

Recently a friend and fellow writer Phillip Grayson and I started shooting short videos. Although their purpose is still unclear to us, I’m excited to see how the smaller pieces will fit together to form a larger picture. A few years ago I performed as part of a poetry/video collective Opus Vulgate. In that collective three other poets and I wrote a kind of disconnected poetic conversation trying to reconcile Revelations with the very different and sometimes equally as bizarre future we found ourselves living in. Scenes interpreting our poems were projected onto the wall behind us as we spoke. Being able to work with friends and then see that work take on a life of its own was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done.


(PB): What are your thoughts on digital, internet-based journals and publications? Is the internet the harbinger of doom, the doorway to the future, just another tool for communication, or something else entirely?

(PH): Like most tools we create, I don’t think that the internet’s going to have an intrinsically positive or negative effect on writing, just a new one. There are few other inventions that have affected writing and thought so profoundly, maybe just the printing press and the invention of various forms of paper. What’s cool is that we get to be around to witness the change this time. Things like online journals, the Kindle and so on are already changing how we visually perceive writing and I think that the physical book/journal’s response has taken an equally interesting shape. Publishers that are evolving with the industry are producing some of the most interesting books out there like Anne Carson’s Nox, Carlos Oquendo de Amat’s 5 Metros de Poema, or magazines like Tuesday; An Art Project. Personally, I’m not really interesting in sending my work to places that don’t work online.

(PB): Paperbag works to establishing a more substantive footprint for individual writers and artists by asking for more work rather than their best singular poem or piece. Do you feel that the magazine accomplished this for you?

(PH): Paperbag definitely asked me for more work, rejecting much of what I’d sent them. I appreciated the honesty of the editors and the chance to go back and review what I had that may or may not have been publishable.


(PB): Your work in our latest issue is at turns political and personal, tagged to both the intimacy of a one-on-one romantic relationship and the larger idea of social responsibility. What foregrounded this turn in your work?

(PH): Wow. This is a great question, thanks. The power of language to evoke change on a social level has always captivated me for seeming at once necessary and impossible. On one hand, when faced with things like the growing disparity between the classes, hunger, poverty, our increasing loss of privacy and dependence on diminishing sources of fuel, working to affect change is the noblest thing someone can do. On the other hand, who am I to reroute a culture? Just some middle class kid from the suburbs barely eking out a living wage. I don’t even have enough self-control to stay awake on the train. This weekend I watched two movies in bed. It’s these inconsistencies of thought that interest me. If we can reconcile them, we can do something really good. How is what the President says on TV about the Middle East reflected in my living room? Can a shift in our personal notions about our neighbors move nations? To help myself answer these questions, I invented a character, Gloria, and wrote a hundred poems about her, a few of which you are publishing. I still don’t think I’ve successfully answered the questions. Now I’m trying to learn how to write about social issues more directly.

(PB): What is your relationship to your readers? Do you believe in conveying a particular message, or do you regard reader response as relatively open?

(PH): I don’t think about the reader too much. It would be too claustrophobic. I would, though, like the reader to be entertained. I think writers often forget that writing is also a form of entertainment, and that it’s enjoyable. Occasionally I’ll hear one of my friend’s voices in my head tsking and telling me the joke’s gone too far, at which point I’ll try to pull in the reins on my natural absurdity.


(PB): As a young writer, what are your hopes for the future of poetry?

(PH):It’s hard to generalize about the future of poetry. I would like it to continue and grow as it has been for ages. For the future of my poetry, I guess I would like to try to branch out more. Mix poetry with other mediums in fun ways. Maybe like poetic children’s toys. Or poetic cakes.

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Paperbag Interview with Sarah V. Schweig

Sarah V. Schweig’s poems have appeared in BOMB Magazine, Boston Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Western Humanities Review, and Verse Daily, among others. She received the David Craig Austen Memorial Award from Columbia University for her MFA manuscript, and in the spring of 2012, she began the Emerging Poets Residency at Poets House in Manhattan. Her chapbook, S, is available through Dancing Girl press, and her poem “The Hunger Rooms” appeared in Paperbag 4.

Cathy Linh Che: Your poem “The Hunger Rooms” reminded me of two Charles Wright quotes: “I’m always looking at and thinking about how the exterior landscape reflects the interior and vice versa. And almost all my poems begin with something I’ve seen, something observed as opposed to some idea I have for a poem…” and “All forms of landscape are autobiographical.” How did this poem begin?—as a feeling, an image, or a concept?

Sarah V. Schweig: For me, writing often begins as a confrontation with something—or, perhaps more accurately, with nothing: a lack, an absence, a shortcoming, a disappointment—even boredom. The process of writing is also a confrontation with the possibility of saying nothing, of something going unrecorded, or of saying something in a way that doesn’t do it justice. This threat and challenge is often what starts me off.

I suppose this means that the poem started with a feeling. But feelings and ideas are very much intertwined, and images embody both feelings and ideas at once. I agree with Wright in that having an idea for a poem often results in an overly conceived, or belabored product; but having an idea that becomes a poem because, in order to exist, it has to—that’s another story.

It’s funny you should mention Charles Wright—I was lucky enough to study with him around the time I wrote “The Hunger Rooms,” and while the poem sounds very different from Wright’s work, I do think it shares that interest in exterior and interior permeating each other, and in landscape as autobiography. That’s definitely a reflection of his influence.

Paperbag: I love long poems/poems that operate as a series. What was the process of writing this series like? How did you know to move on from one section to another? For instance, why a series, rather than just one long poem? Or, why not write several medium sized poems to convey your ideas?

Sarah: How did I know to move on from one section to another? I really didn’t. I was the poem’s only reader for a long time, and its only critic; it was never workshopped. I had to trust my instincts, and as groundless as it sounds, putting it in sections just felt right. As it ended up, I think each section serves as a different facet of the feelings/ideas the poem tries to create.

Here’s where the jig is up: “The Hunger Rooms” is pretty old. If it were a child, it would be able to write its own complete sentences by now. It was the longest poem I’d ever written at the time, and it was, I think, the first poem I’d written in relatively lengthy sections. Because this poem was the first time I’d attempted something like this, I really learned from it. I think parts of it are slightly over-the-top, but I like that “The Hunger Rooms” bears the marks of a far-reaching ambition, regardless of some of its occasional overreaching.

Paperbag: Throughout the poem, time seems to be quite slippery, shifting from present to past to future, and I find that movement true to how our minds process loss or grief. There’s a kind of double or even triple living. It reminds me of Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”: “I can feel that other day running underneath this one/like an old videotape…” Could you talk a little more about time in this poem?

Sarah: I think poetry can accommodate for the kind of time-shifting that comes with grief perhaps better than any other art form. Even film, with all its capacity for flashback and montage, is pretty married to a chronology. In this poem, I think time is almost a non-issue except for its capacity to contribute to loss (the more it moves forward, the more things fall away). The poem makes its own time, in a way, through the sections that are sort of episodic, and the reader’s movement between those sections is an experience of time, in time. It isn’t that there isn’t a chronology exactly, but the events described and their order are less important than how the movement of the poem resonates and summons up images, remembered or imagined or dreamt.

Paperbag: Are there any particular artists/writers you find especially compelling these days?

Sarah: Speaking of slippery time, I’ve been making my way through Proust, though slowly; I’ve just started the second volume, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. I’ve also just read Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife, which is a really interesting analysis of our need to impose the structure of story and drama to the arbitrary events of our personal and civic lives, and Franzen’s The Corrections, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve also been doing a lot of rereading recently. Forster’s A Room with a View, Beckett’s First Love, and I always keep Berryman’s The Dream Songs and Kafka’s short works close.

And while I’m pretty resigned to there being no real answers, I still crave explanations of how/why things are the way they are, so I usually keep some philosophy in the pipeline. I’ve been reading Being and Nothingness, though very slowly, and The Rebel by Camus.

And I’ve been listening to Scott Walker recently—and almost constantly.

Paperbag: What are you working on right now, or what ideas are you currently obsessed with/interested in?

Sarah: I’ve been mulling over this passage from The Rebel, among others: “The world is divine because the world is inconsequential. That is why art alone, by being equally inconsequential, is capable of grasping it. It is impossible to give a clear account of the world, but art can teach us to reproduce it—just as the world reproduces itself in the course of its eternal gyrations.”

I also go back to this passage from Susan Sontag: “The function of art isn’t to sanction any specific experience except the state of being open to the multiplicity of experience which ends in practice by a decided stress on things usually considered trivial or unimportant.”

Most recently, I’ve been interested in method acting. There’s an audition studio in the building where I work and sometimes I go and watch actors pace the hallways and get into character. It’s strange to watch people become other people and change back again.

I’ve also been working on last edits to my full-length manuscript, as well as writing some new work. The newer poems definitely don’t belong in this manuscript, similar to the way the poems of my recently released chapbook, S, didn’t belong there, and that’s encouraging. The poems keep inventing their own worlds; perhaps I haven’t run out of places to go.

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Paperbag Interview with Sally Wen Mao

Sally Wen Mao is an 826 Valencia Young Author’s Scholar and a Kundiman fellow. Her work can be found published or forthcoming in Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Passages North, and West Branch, among others. Born in Wuhan, China, she has lived in Boston, the Bay Area, Pittsburgh, Amsterdam, and most recently Ithaca, where she is an MFA candidate at Cornell University. Her series “Consider the Stakes” is published in our latest issue of Paperbag.

Cathy Linh Che: Your poem, “Consider the Stakes” was written as a series—and I’ve always been interested in series poems myself. What’s your take on series poems? How do they work and what about them appeals to you? What inspired you to write this particular series? 

Sally Wen Mao: Writing a series is daunting. In workshops, series poems tend to get pitted against each other in a Darwinian battle of survival—which one is the “weakest link”? Which one seems to deviate from the whole? To me, series are not about uniformity—they are an excellent way of capitalizing on an obsession. Each poem needs to retain its own distinctiveness, reveal a new angle, and yet cohere with the rest of the series.

This series, for me, is a foray into a difficult emotional landscape, a space of dissemination. It’s very raw and barely edited. I keep returning to the word “stake”, its power and multitudes—not only what’s at stake, the stakes in a dire situation, but as an object that could impale and hurt, as an object of sacrifice.

Paperbag: The original series included an illustration with each poem. I’m wondering, what came first, the images or the writing? How do you think the images interacted with the poems?

Sally: The drawings came first, actually. In 2010, I was waiting for the F train in Manhattan on Thanksgiving. I started drawing the platform, the subway, some of the passing strangers, but the sketch seemed too placid. I was very devastated at the time, and as I drew, nothing in the picture could quite evoke this alien sensation wracking me. Everything normal needed to depart; something strange needed to arrive. Then I drew a dolphin on the platform, with harpoons sliding out of its flesh. I drew a few more of these—dolphins with stakes through their bodies, in domestic settings, in meadows, in hotel rooms. They appeared like little valentines, maimed and vulnerable. This is where the words came in. The words were an attempt to convey these images of terror and susceptibility.

PB: Are there any particular artists/writers you find especially compelling these days?

Sally: So many! Dawn Lundy Martin’s Discipline is gorgeous. Terrance Hayes’ Lighthead still thrills me no matter how many times I reread it. I love this poem by Cathy Park Hong, this poem by Brenda Shaughnessy, and this poem by Jennifer Chang. I’ve also been reading Create Dangerously, a new collection of essays by Edwidge Danticat, and it’s seriously a delight.

As for artists, in San Francisco I discovered an eerie and luscious fairy tale Of Lamb (McSweeney’s), a collaborative work between poet Matthea Harvey and artist Amy Jean Porter. It’s a beautifully illustrated tale of attachment, obsession, anthropomorphism, bestiality, depression, blueberry patches. This all sounds kind of disturbing, but trust, it’s lovely and strange.

Also, I recently visited the Brooklyn Museum exhibition of artist Sanford Biggers. His installation pieces are complex and compelling (one of the centerpieces is a piano cracked open by a tree, its keys playing a song, “Strange Fruit”). They have a way of haunting the viewer with their sublime beauty and uncanny evocation of brutal racial narratives in the South.

PB: Are you working on any projects? Or, obsessed with any particular ideas in general?

I’m working on my first manuscript, On the Sorrow of Apiary Thieves. Recently, my poetic obsessions have included cyborgs and androids (Janelle Monae’s last LP and EP and Bhanu Kapil’s Space: An Incubation for Monsters may have sparked this). I’m obsessed with this elemental lonesomeness, of living not even on the margins, but isolated and decontextualized altogether. Science fiction narratives echo long-held histories of border-crossing, displacement, and transnational identity. Somehow, that’s how my poems are becoming more political.

I’m always interested in the space between vulnerable and ferocious, speakers or animals that appear weak but do everything to prove their strength and courage. In a sense, this space feeds into the condition of being marginalized—pariah, abnormal, perpetual outsider. I want to empower that space. As the child of immigrants, constantly moving and relocating, I always return to “freak studies.”

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By: Kathleen Gallagher

Medium: Old postcard, leather strips, bathroom grouting and paint for clay (sinopia), plastic flowers, pictures of Madonna from magazine clippings

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By: Kathleen Gallagher

Medium: Paper Bag, magazine clippings, paint


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By: Sophia Le Fraga

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

By: Sophia Le Fraga

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment