Review: This Is A Clothespin (Lucas Scheelk) – Reviewed by Clara B. Jones

This Is A Clothespin
Lucas Scheelk
Damaged Goods Press
50 pages
$3.00 (eBook)
$6.00 (Print)

Transgender poets are, arguably, the most underrepresented marginalized writers in the literary community, though, their visibility is increasing. Most of these poets address their identities through personal narrative and, often, experimental forms challenging the mainstream’s aversion to poetry with a “message” and with strong sentiment without a conventional degree of detachment. Some transgender poets, however, are gaining a reputation beyond the borders of their own communities, including, Lee Mokobe, Stephen Paden, Zach Hanlon, and Ryka Aoki. Transgender poet, Trace Peterson, recently designed and taught the first college course on transgender poets and poetry at Hunter College.

Another reason for the increased presence of chapbooks and books by transgender poets is the appearance of literary presses encouraging submissions by this sub-group of writers. Among these outlets is Damaged Goods Press, whose webpage describes its mission as “a micro-press specializing in queer/trans poetry and flash-fiction chapbooks,” celebrating the “beauty and terror of queer life.” The publisher and editor of the press, Caseyrenée Lopez*, has recently issued a book, This Is A Clothespin, by Lucas Scheelk, who describes themselves as a, “white, autistic, trans, mentally ill, queer-identified poet,” conducting research on “autistic coding in modern media”, particularly, the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Based upon an e-mail interview, Scheelk informed me that they have been writing since the age of thirteen and studied creative writing as an undergraduate. Their poems are often presented innovatively, including, the use of white spaces and, similar to a signature of Gertrude Stein’s writing, the use of repetition. For example, several of Scheelk’s pieces are titled, “This Is A Clothespin,” revealing self-consciousness about their self-presentation and their tendency to be stereotyped when in public. Suggesting that Scheelk experiences social anxiety and panic attacks, they write, “To avoid the question, ‘Are you autistic.’ in public, to avoid the answer, ‘Yes, and I can’t breathe.’” Though Scheelk’s poems are intensely personal, and, sometimes, written in a cryptic way, they speak to all readers who are reluctant to reveal themselves or who may have something to hide or who have experienced “imposter syndrome.” Another title poem reveals Scheelk’s youthful angst when they state that their writing derives from “internalization so deep I can tell you in detail each psychological wound….”

Scheelk makes it clear that music and writing are life-saving components of their practice, reporting that they return over and over to Sia’s song, “Chandelier” [“I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier….”]. In several poems, Scheelk seems to speak to their former identity, addressing transformation and finding their true self. The author has a refined ability to share their inner voice, demonstrated, for example, in the poem, “Headline—the long-term effects of harmful narratives against autistic people.” Several of Scheelk’s poems are in the form of letters to anonymous recipients or, perhaps, to everyone or to a former way of being. When telling us that, “Here, on paper, time-travel is possible….”, they announce, “I deserve to live,” expressing the seeds of personal insight and self-care, self-awareness, and the will to survive their pain and “trauma” (Scheelk’s word), as well as, their self-destructive tendencies (“The artifacts of self-harm come from shame.”; “They ask if taking testosterone was causing stress; I respond that it brought me happiness.”). This Is A Clothespin is not without lightness, though, and the poem, “Polar Bear And The Lemon” is reminiscent of a fairy tale.

I feel that I would violate Scheelk’s intimate contract with their audience to reveal all of their secrets. They are worthy of respect, not observance as a spectacle, even though a number of these poems may lead some readers to feel uncomfortable. When considering the poet’s use of repetition, I felt that its purpose was, in part, to say, “I want you to understand them.” Though Scheelk trusts their readers sufficiently to take risks with the darkest details of their experiences, their writing is, like Sia’s persona, provocative and veiled. When reading Scheelk’s poems, I felt, not only, their pain and trauma, but, also, an abiding sense of loneliness; although, not knowing the author, their “voice” may not be that of an isolated writer but, less problematic, a singular and gifted artist. Whatever the case, I hope that they find or belong to a community of supportive comrades who realize that some element of their shared challenges derives from patriarchy and the rigid sexual and behavioral norms represented by its institutions and hierarchical structure. Scheelk informed me that they are currently working on a second volume of poetry, a work that will be eagerly anticipated by their current followers and appreciated by future readers.

*My heartfelt thanks to Editor Lopez for giving me the opportunity to review this book.


Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. As a woman of color, she writes about the “performance” of identity and power and conducts research on experimental poetry. Her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous venues.

Review: Periscope Heart (Kai Coggin) -Reviewed by Dustin Pickering

Otherworldly Oddity
Periscope Heart, Kai Coggin


Periscope Heart is part of the new spectrum of confessional work released in contemporary literature. Swimming With Elephants Publications has done an incredibly professional job with the layout and graphic design. And the content? This collection is the sigh of the Universe after Joan of Arc sweeps her flaming sword across love’s horizon.

We read of Coggin’s philosophy of desire, her mapping of the human body, and the magical realm of learning to love. “The Day I Was Jesus Christ (Total Eclipse of the Heart)” gives the protagonist a new face. She plays Christ in a school play and is surrounded by numerous vices.


“That’s when I step off the cross
and to go to her,
my broken young follower,
my torn down, persecuted child,
as if I am Savior,
as if I am Messiah,
Mess i ah,
Mess I am,
Mess of me becoming salvation?”
Who is the persecuted child and does she reflect the protagonist’s actual Self? Coggin convinces herself she is the Savior, and we are all in need of a Savior. She steps outside of her own troubles, becomes Teacher/Rabbi, and holds the young hearts in her arms to shield them from pain. She turns her bright eyes inward and experiences the total eclipse of her heart by recognizing the playacting is perhaps serious. We realize ourselves in the roles we play.

In “This is how to eat your past:”, the poetry becomes a way to uncloak and surrender the story one experiences as initiation into poetic experience.


“find the day your daddy drove away after
leaving you and mommy and sister in another country,
first learning the word divorce,
find worrying and fear,
find the day at 13 when you were raped
by the dark hands of a stranger…”


The writing ceases to be a conflagration of ideals and images. It becomes pure wings floating on the winds of courage, facing the malice and intentional ill will of others. This collection is a series of confessions advanced after discussions of beauty and desire, and musings on love. Take “Yuanfen” at face value: “Yes,/ this is/ a word/ it has/ rested buried/ between/ my breastplate/ and heart/ since my last/ incarnation, lover…” Coggin is flirting with desire and fate in this piece. She makes the dream of existing come alive, and clarifies why it often fails to hide its dreaminess.

Kai Coggin is a passionate educator, as Sandra Cisneros remarked, and her poetry steps outside the usual curriculum. She invites you, as the title suggests, into her heart to take a peek above waters and out into the unknown. This collection defies categories of mind, and trusts feeling and empathy over all. I cannot speak volumes on it. It is a pure, original, and beautifully simple collection. It will have you dancing in your own mind, looking for that pen you just had in your hand, and wanting to understand that deep grief in your own heart you have attempted to expunge for years with little luck. Coggin has mastered the art of making truth clever, bright and charming, and of using a self-created myth to untie the knots personal history has created. The yarn of the labyrinth can only be untied by its maker, Ariadne. This is part of making the past art: finding that origin, cutting into it no matter how fearsome it is, and recovering the loose strings that made it so mysterious in the first place.

I must confess I felt this book deeply. Without having met the author in person, I have used her poetry as a vehicle to meet her face-to-face, our hearts intertwining and clasping each other like friends in battle against a common enemy. The enemy is fear, in all its forms, and only poets are acclimated to it well enough to know its purposes. The natural consequence of the depth of mystery is fear. We must let go of the denial: some are scared of fear.

Periscope Heart is a conceptual title. You are not let down into the heart—the heart ascends to meet you. Think of the cosmos, the imagination, your first kiss. The heart peeks out of its nest and seeks conversation.

Poets are often lovers, troublemakers, whisperers, heroes, warriors, soulmates, loners. Poetry as an art form reaches out from within. It tells the reader what the truth of the inside is. Art is the rare place where people can pursue honesty about themselves, their world, and their hopes and feelings. This inquiry is knitted with questions regarding aesthetics, motion, virtue. Art is not only a seeking; it is a finding. This collection is a beautiful expression, tender and kind. Its angelic wings will bring the stars to you after a long climb. You can rest now.

If poetry is only a communication of writers between writers, we are failing as artists to make the unknown graspable to the average ear and eye. Periscope Heart does not read like an Auden or early Yeats, full of compounded thought. It is an unveiling of color and the heart’s singing to itself for others to hear.

This is a remarkable performance. You will love this collection.


Dustin Pickering is founder of Transcendent Zero Press, an independent poetry publisher based in Houston, Texas. He has been published by Lost Coast Review, Seltzer, di-verse-city 2013 and 2015, and the virgin Muse for Women anthology. He also hosts two separate poetry reading events in south Houston.

A Lie And A Truth: Empathy in Storytelling by Ally Malinenko

When I was in college, a friend told me that she thought I had Borderline Personality Disorder.

I didn’t know what that meant so I looked it up.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious mental illness marked by unstable moods, behavior, and relationships.

Here’s some of the signs:

  • Extreme reactions—including panic, depression, rage, or frantic actions—to abandonment, whether real or perceived
  • A pattern of intense and stormy relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often veering from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation)
  • Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self, which can result in sudden changes in feelings, opinions, values, or plans and goals for the future (such as school or career choices)
  • Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few day
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness and/or boredom


Needless to say, she was wrong. But the term borderline stuck with me. Borderline like something on the edge, open to interpretation.

Over the years I have come to think of it as empathy to a fault. Radical empathy. I can quite easily put myself in someone else’s shoes. The problem is, I never seem to give them their shoes back. I made a habit of collecting other people’s stories and twisting them together with my own.

I would pick up pain or happiness or fear or anger and eventually it would become a part of me. Even if I didn’t own the root of those feelings to begin with.

I’ve been thinking about how this serves in creativity.

Since the publication of This Is Sarah, the number one question I get is, Is it true? And I understand that. I wrote a book about the aftermath of the disappearance of a teenage girl, told through the interlaced experiences of her sister, Claire and her boyfriend, Colin. It is a story about the stages of grief and the eventual acceptance process of those left behind.

So when I’m asked Is it true?  I recognize that people want to know if I am Claire, Sarah’s sister. Or Colin, Sarah’s boyfriend.

But I am not Sarah or Colin or Claire. Thankfully no one I know has been kidnapped. No one had vanished.

Inevitably the next question was, how did you know so much about what it would feel like?

Or something to that effect. They are fishing out the possibility that I am a giant imposter.

And they would be right. I am, to a degree, a giant imposter, as is everyone who writes fiction. But the real answer to how do you know so much about what it would feel like is much simpler.

Because I had grieved. Because I had lost people. And grief, regardless of how it lands at our door, is universal.

Personally, I thought that was a pretty good answer. And yet more often than not they were disappointed.

As if my “making it up” rendered it emotionally untrue.

A lie.

I had deceived them and I was an imposter.

They wanted the story itself to be real. It didn’t matter that the emotions were. It didn’t matter that the pain and the anger and the fear were. It didn’t matter that some people, like Colin, shut down in the face of death. That other people, like Claire, refused to. None of that mattered as much as wanting it to be true.

Empathizing wasn’t enough.

John Green wrote a book called The Fault In Our Stars. You’ve probably heard of it. It’s pretty famous. He dedicated the book to Esther Earl. Esther was a young girl that died of cancer, and the author of “This Star Won’t Go Out.

Mr. Green met Ms. Earl at a Harry Potter convention. He was moved by her story and he credits her with being part of the inspiration for his character Hazel. The book was published in 2012, after her death.

In a goodreads interview John said the following:

I could never have written this if I hadn’t known Esther. She introduced me to a lot of the ideas in the book, especially hope in a world that is indifferent to individuals, and empathy. She redefined the process of dying young for me.

Walking out of the hospital in 2000, I knew I wanted to write a story about sick kids, but I was so angry, so furious with the world that these terrible things could happen, and they weren’t even rare or uncommon, and I think in the end for the first ten years or so I never could write it because I was just too angry, and I wasn’t able to capture the complexity of the world. I wanted the book to be funny. I wanted the book to be unsentimental. After meeting Esther, I felt very differently about whether a short life could be a rich life.

But a lot of people have interpreted that to mean that John’s main character is Esther.

As if a story about death – the most universal thing of all – wasn’t as powerful if there wasn’t one specific life behind it.

Gayle Forman, also pretty famous, wrote a book called If I Stay. It is the story of Mia, a girl who narrates her story from a hospital bed after losing her entire family in a car crash. Except Mia is in a coma.

Gayle wrote a piece for the New York Times about how that car full of people were her friends. Except for Gayle, no one lived.

Mia, the cellist, was fiction, but the accident, and Mia’s family — her punk-rocker turned 1950s throwback of a father, her strong-willed mother and her adorable little brother — were resurrected from the ashes of my loss. A loss that no longer had the power to sucker punch but instead had become part of me, like a scar, or maybe a smile line.

The power in stories lies in their universality; that we can see ourselves in the people that populate them and can recognize the emotions that fuel them, be it love, sadness, heartbreak, fear, joy, misery or loneliness.

The greatest tool a writer has is to be able to absorb that emotion, to hold it bare in her hands and live with it. Stories are stitched together by the needle sharp power of empathy. They’re a lie and a truth all rolled up into one.

And if they’re good, then they make us remember what it means to be human.

Ally Malinenko is the author of the poetry collections The Wanting Bone and How To Be An American (Six Gallery Press) as well as the novel This Is Sarah (Bookfish Books). Better Luck Next Year, a poetry collection is forthcoming from Low Ghost Books. She lives in Brooklyn and tweets @allymalinenko mostly about Doctor Who and David Bowie.

Review: A Clock of Human Bones (Matthew Borczon) – Reviewed by Clara B. Jones

A Clock of Human Bones
Matthew Borczon
Yellow Chair Press
Reviewed by Clara B. Jones

Until recently, war has been a man’s game, inspiring poetry since Homer’s Iliad documented the 10-year Trojan War in Ancient Greece (about 1,200 years B.C.). Homer’s epic poem told the story of battles between King Agamemnon and the warrior, Achilles, fighting in and around the city, Troy, a site located in what is now Turkey. In the West, poems about war are particularly common among British (e.g., Alfred Lord Tennyson, Wilfred Owen, W.H. Auden) and American (e.g., William Meredith, Robert Lowell, Muriel Ruckeyser) writers who often idealized their country’s and their countrymen’s roles in battle. In his poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” American, Randall Jarrell, wrote, “This is how it’s done:/this is war./…Men wash their hands, in blood, as best they can:/I find no fault in this just man./” The Viet Nam war seemed to change America’s perception of “war” and “warrior,” as expressed by Yusef Komyankaa in his poem, “Tu Do Street,” “We fought/the brothers of these women/we now run to hold in our arms./” Soldiers and war are humanized, their foibles exposed, including, the pain that they experience and cause others.

Matthew Borczon’s book, A Clock of Human Bones, won Yellow Chair Review‘s 2015 inaugural Chapbook Competition judged by poet, Kai Coggin. Borczon presents a raw, compelling, record of his experiences in 2010 as a Navy medic in Afghanistan, as well as, the personal aftermaths of his deployment. Coggin stated that she chose the book because, “His work stood apart from the pack, I just knew…this is the one. This book will stay with me for a long time.” Borczon’s poems do not disappoint the reader. They are, at once, personal narrative written in experimental style and expressions of psychological realism offered, for the most part, without overbearing sentiment and emotion. As a revelatory token to the reader, Borczon shares that he suffers the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD, e.g., the poem, “Dreamed Too Often,” pg 18), an illness described with candor and without self-pity.

The form of these poems is minimalist, almost a series of fragments woven by each poem’s dominant theme. Borczon usually eliminates the conventions of punctuation, capitalization, and lineal conventions, producing a conversational tone and feel to the pieces (“this war/scrubbed clean/with bleach/and lye soap/sterilized daily/this aint no/killing floor/the klling/happens/beyond the/flight line/of the/helicopters/here/is just/where they/come to/die./” (“No Killing Floor,” pg 2). Clearly, writing the book served as catharsis for the author, whose economy of style and thought compresses the process of trauma over time and space. Borczon allows himself to be vulnerable to his reader, exposing his fear and loss, as well as, his own detachment and his comrades’ cruelty. The linguistic and emotional compression of the poems in A Clock of Human Bones reflects the need to truncate responses under stressful conditions that do not permit the luxury of extended reflection. Thus, writing about a dead child, “/all/I remember/is the/exact color/of the/towel/I wrapped/its body/in./” (“Hazel,” pg 4—note the depersonalized, “its” instead of “his” or “her”). Borczon’s poems masterfully integrate form, function, and substance.

Even though the themes in this book are personal, particular, and, often, foreign, the reader can identify with many of them because they express experiences common to all of us. In “Night Terror 1” (pg 16), for example, the poet recounts, “/I have/not found/your body/parts yet/but I/will keep/looking/for them/year after/year in/my dreams/,” highlighting memories of loss and reconciliation, human universals. Borczon tells us that, during his time in Afghanistan, dreaming was “repressed,” perhaps explaining the explosion of night terrors once he returned home (“What Do I Want,” pg. 28).

Except for the poem, “Foliage,” on pg 5 (“We once/walked across/the whole/base just/to see/some live/grass./”), the intense nature of the pieces under review is not relieved by joy or hope or color (except the color, red—of blood). One wishes to be informed that Borczon is healing, that he no longer has night terrors, that his darkness is now light. The poet, Michael C. Peterson, has described his own writing process as one in which he takes his writing to the point where it almost breaks. Many of the poems in A Clock of Human Bones “break” under the weight of their author’s continuing sadness, a characteristic that often gave me a jarring feeling. On the other hand, by the last poem, Borczon suggests that he is charting a course ahead, that living is more than an act of soldierly duty. One looks forward to reading more of his exquisite poems when Borczon is further away from the edge (/I want/the ghosts/of the/dead soldiers/to carry/the ghosts/of the/wounded/far enough/away so/I can’t hear/their scream/” (“What Do I Want,” pg 28). In the meantime, Borczon will attract a large and deserved following. I, like Coggin, will remember these poems “for a long time.”


Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. As a woman of color, Clara writes about the “performance” of identity and power and conducts research on experimental poetry. Her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous venues.


The Lawless River
Shaun Turner
Red Bird Chapbooks

“Everything Blooms,” the title of one of the stories in Shaun Turner’s new chapbook The Lawless River, is also an inadvertent commentary on the writing in this richly textured, exquisite fiction collection about growth, destruction, and renewal in small town America. Turner’s prose begs to be devoured, as he casts the eastern Kentucky foothills and the Rockcastle River as characters both beautiful and brutal, their harvests and creatures as alive as Turner’s human protagonists. The Lawless River lifts us out of ourselves and throws us headlong into the marrow of Kentucky life, with its courageous and damaged inhabitants in whose dreams we invest and whose tragedies we mourn. Here pumpkins, pickup trucks, cornfields, and campers reflect all of our truths. When Turner is done with us, we are all from Kentucky.

I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with the author, who speaks of his stories’ origins and the ways in which the chapbook format has captured his message:

Your chapbook represents life in Kentucky through beautifully woven, gritty, familial stories. What made you choose this approach?

Storytelling and close familial ties are definitely a part of Appalachia. And I’m a firm believer that my writing usually comes from a seed planted by Appalachia. The Rockcastle River turns and twists through fifty-odd miles of forested Appalachian foothills. The now-wide fields sit only on the ridges. In 1750, the river was originally named the Lawless River, and so that name inspired me.

This collection came from a series of focused edits to both new and previously-published work that ended up bound by eastern Kentucky: A definitely-gritty version of country life.

How much of your upbringing and experiences are reflected in these works of fiction?

Growing up in eastern Kentucky, storytelling is always and has always been a part of my family and regional cultures. Or more truly, people used to (and still do!) catch up by telling stories: about people we knew, about the times we were apart, about genealogy, our most far-flung and distant pasts made close.

But none of mine or my family’s experience is directly fictionalized in this work, though many of the stories do have some kernel in real life. Those small details may not be very obvious to the reader: for example, in “Everything Blooms,” in which a girl with city dreams meets a several-hundreds-pound pumpkin. That story came from an old friend’s exaggeration that his uncle grew pumpkins up to his knees. And it turned to an aspiring model interacting with her uncle and this miracle pumpkin that could somehow save them all.

Which story did you write first, and how did that story inform the others?

The last story, “Zion,” was, no-joke, the first piece of anything that I’d ever written, so in this collection, the last comes first.

That story definitely comes from a place of emotional truth for me, especially after the death of my grandfather, and that informs everything I do.

I love that you’ve written a chapbook of fiction! There’s something so satisfying about reading an entire collection of stories in one sitting. How do you see the chapbook format as advantageous in writing fiction?

Well thank you! And it’s really thanks to publishers like Red Bird Chapbooks that more and more fiction chapbooks are being seen and read.

I am a great fan of the chapbook as a piece of art, as an artifact. Red Bird Chapbooks‘ publication manager and book designer Dana Hoeschen, designs and crafts each chapbook beautifully and very personally, and it was a pleasure working with Evan Kingston, fiction editor, and editor-in-chief Sarah Hayes.

As form for fiction, chapbooks are a consumable and friendly face in which one can feel comfortable taking 5 or 10 minutes to finish a couple stories. The chapbook is the perfect home for impactful stories at one’s fingertips without the time commitment of a longer work.

Talk a bit about Krista Graham’s artwork on the cover of your chapbook. Did you ask her to paint the eastern Kentucky foothills, or did you see her work and it matched the images you’d created in your stories?

Krista Graham is a young artist who works in multiple mediums, this time in watercolor. She painted this image from her own experience traveling in the mountains, and graciously let me use the image as the cover for this piece. I felt that her piece of art matched the feeling of the hills in flux, the fall colors that are so fleeting but well-loved, and I thought it fit the book so well, and felt that Dana Hoeschen designed a lovely book to fit it.

Which books or chapbooks have influenced your writing?

I’ve always been very inspired by Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. At the time, I reread Ron Rash’s fine collection of stories, Nothing Gold Can Stay and Bo Ball’s classic Appalachian Patterns. But mostly, I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction: material about steamboating the Cumberlands, and always the Foxfire series of southern Appalachian folkways.

Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the chapbook Gathered Bones Are Known To Wander (forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks). She is a regular contributor to the newspaper Newcity, and her work has appeared in Lunch Ticket, Burningword, Typehouse, Menacing Hedge, Rogue Agent and elsewhere. Amy lives in Chicago and teaches English at Harper College.

Assessing the Unknown (Review) by Dustin Pickering

Assessing the Unknown
Compos Mentis, Rael Xavier Bischoff
Review by Dustin Pickering

Compos Mentis, a recent collection by Canadian poet Rael Xavier Bischoff, presents its readers with a task: to judge the author. This is a reader’s unconscious action while reading literary texts, but what Bischoff succeeds at doing is making this duty conscious. He implores you at the beginning to decide if he is of sound mind, and he reminds you of his request near the end of the collection.

This poetry collection refuses to be despondent. In fact, it is a hopeful announcement in part. There are Zen riddles to contemplate, oddities in point-of-view, and serial confessions. Bischoff battled alcoholism until the illness began chipping at him. He shows us in these poems why he made this turn for the worst. He also bravely exclaims that he would live all the worst and best moments of his life again, passionately.

Rael Xavier Bischoff is truly a Renaissance-styled existentialist, guided by the simple principle of amor fati and a radical understanding of time and beauty. Here is a prophet of the eternal recurrence, as in the poem “Swerve”:

“Even after the collapse of time
the intricate insects will still insist to take
wing, buzz and form swarms with their kin,
spawn larvae, because they have to,
pure, pretty, imaginary machine expressions of being.”

Also, in “Glittering Pinnacles”, the presence of the eternal recurrence is again noted:

“…while the Book of Names holds us in Its place.
Feeding, setting us free, all a part of It. I love that it recurs…”

Compos Mentis is informed by Nietzsche’s literary themes, the character of Renaissance art, and the riddles of Zen Buddhism. In the Intermezzo, we are given peeks into the subtlety of Bischoff’s humanism. This section serves to lead the material into his final guilt confession. In the last breaths of the collection, Bischoff sports a brag; the reader is told that the author excelled without trying in academia, and sought to be a Renaissance man who embraced literature, music, and the arts wholeheartedly. The author is taunting you with his own pleas of humility. He is simultaneously laughing at his gifts, and shrugging his shoulders at the necessity of his approach in life.

One notable theme begins the volume. In “Fault Lines”, the author presents a symbolism of self-criticism:

“Such dense foliage of character defects
to work through with my dull machete…
Self criticism is a threat.

Yet, in poems following Bischoff illuminates the necessity of faults and defects.

The author springs for a dual metaphor in “Note”:

tone & tone,
how to focus on the nexus,
index of the breast,
sin of the letter, next.”

The brevity of this poem allows it to pack more punch. The title pun (Compos Mentis also means “of sound mind”) is drawn sharper. Poetry is both sound and breath. Here, Bischoff makes the poem a sinful act, a promiscuous folly, and is able to twist the meaning to heighten our awareness of poetry’s religious nature. How like meditation poetry is! Life is celebrated here in full.

In “Cartograph Her”, woman’s body is compared to the earth itself and the lover to a cartographer pleasantly mapping her contours. The feeling is both mental and sensual. Neruda bore such fancies in The Captain’s Verses.

The turning point occurs when we travel with the author into his battle with addiction. The collection becomes an autobiography of the torment of reclaiming oneself after a fierce struggle with alcohol. The author does not stoop to shameful confession. He humbly accepts his fate as part of the machinery of life, and begs to do it again. While Nietzsche was tormented by the eternal recurrence, Bischoff seems amused by it. He is already prepared.

Overall, Compos Mentis is both celebration and lust for adventure. As we witness the author struggle to understand his place in the Book of Names, we are also granted access to his private thoughts in such a manner we may confuse him with ourselves. Reader, you are the jury. The trial is both tribulation and perusal of the question of the author’s sanity. How do you find the defendant…?


Dustin Pickering is founder of Transcendent Zero Press, an independent poetry publisher based in Houston, Texas. He has been published by Lost Coast Review, Seltzer, di-verse-city 2013 and 2015, and the virgin Muse for Women anthology. He also hosts two separate poetry reading events in south Houston.

Review: Fortune (Alaina Symanovich)

Alaina Symanovich
17 pages
Damaged Goods Press
$3.00 (ebook)
$6.00 (Print)
Reviewed by Clara B. Jones


How do we cope with and recover from the insanity of infatuation? This is the question addressed by the young poet, Alaina Symanovich, in her chapbook, Fortune, edited by Caseyrenée Lopez, publisher of Damaged Goods Press whose website describes it as “a micro-press specializing in queer/trans poetry and flash fiction chapbooks” celebrating the “beauty and terror of queer life.” Queer and lesbian literature have, most commonly been expressed via the genres, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and romance, though queer and lesbian writers are among past and contemporary high-profile poets (for example, Gertrude Stein, Audre Lorde, Maggie Nelson, Eileen Myles, Nikki Giovanni, Mary Oliver). In her fiction, Symanovich has described her early persona as a “boyish girl,” perhaps a precursor to identification as a lesbian, and, in one of her short stories, she mentions her father’s interest in the supernatural, possibly, explaining the author’s fascination with Tarot (Fortune-telling).

Indeed, in attempting to come to terms with a failed relationship, Symanovich organizes her series of poems as a game modeled on a deck of Taro cards. The cover of Fortune represents l’étoile tarot, card CVII (#17) of a deck, associated with Ganymede, a “divine hero” named for Jupiter’s 7th moon. As one of her devices, the author’s final poem appears on page 17, and many hours might be spent researching Tarot numerology in relation to the positions and page numbers of Symanovich’s poems. For example, a Tarot deck comprises four suits and 4 face cards which sum to 14, the number of poems in the author’s book. Symanovich’s text is a verbal and numerical (quantitative?) game that can be analyzed as a whole or in separate pieces. “The Fool” is the trump card in a Tarot deck. The author’s “fool”, a scarecrow described on page 7 in the poem, “Glitter”, is a figure with whom the poem’s female narrator (presumably, the author), identifies. Interestingly, by the end of her text, the narrator appears to triumph over, to “trump,” an abusive object of desire whose gender identification is ambiguous (possibly, a transgender male, a bisexual, a lesbian, or a hetero-normative female). In this poem, and, throughout the book, the narrator’s voice is passive, suggesting that she views herself as a victim, as stated in the poem, “Relief,” on page 8: “I was always in respect, deferential, stepping back/half-lit silhouette./.” Reflecting a concern with inequality, Taro card #8 is “Power.” In the poem, “Retrograde,” on page 9, the narrator acknowledges her subordinance to the unattainable object (“Your reign is stronger.”), another sign of her feelings of powerlessness.

On pages 10 (“Winter”) and 11 (“Quarantine”), the desired object is revealed to manifest a psycho-dermatological pathology, and the infatuation is characterized as crazed. Indeed, the narrator is metaphorically bleeding, possibly, a symbol of physical damage, emotional and spiritual suffering, and/or menstruation (the word “blood” occurs in several poems). On page 12, “Supernatural,” the narrator states, “I dammed away the truth about you.”, referencing the unconscious, a Freudianesque marker of Surrealism, the apparent literary root of Symanovich’s poems. Though a poem should speak for itself, consistent with classical standards, the author’s contrivances seduce, even, require, the reader to play games with her in a search for meaning. These highly lyrical poems threaten to be overwhelmed by their complex structures. However, the narratives in Fortune can be understood as “innovations on the lyric,” as the critic, Linda Russo, has stated about other female poets’ work. Russo points out that lyric allows a writer to examine gender, community, and/or personal intimacies, a fitting concept for Symanovich’s use of the forms in her book. See, for example, the author’s use of last lines to reference first lines of subsequent poems, highlighting images and language for the reader as well as linking poems to one another—intimate acts.

I do not know which female poets have influenced Symanovich’s practice. However, her narratives were reminiscent of Mary Oliver’s, “The Uses Of Sorrow” (Thirst, 2006). Oliver wrote: “(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)/Someone I love once gave me/A box full of darkness./It took me years to understand/That this, too, was a gift./” Similarly, in her final poem, “Fantasy” (page 17), Symanovich “envisioned a new freedom,” though she characterizes herself as being in a dream-state. She, suggests, then, that she remains embedded in myth rather than reality, and one wonders whether the narrator-author has moved beyond victimization or powerlessness. Certainly, Symanovich’s narrator remains self-conscious and full of anxiety. Her poems are personal narratives, and radical feminists and political queers would suggest that her [homo-]normative (binary?) view of relationships requires expansion to the political realm. In future work, for example, Symanovich might consider viewing her themes through the lens of Patriarchy, an institutional arrangement that radical feminists hold accountable for female suffering (e.g., depression, marginalization, power asymmetries). Notwithstanding these reservations, Fortune deserves a wide audience as testimony of one young poet’s attempt to understand intimacy, to recover from pain, and to achieve agency.


Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. Her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in many venues, and Clara’s collection, Ferguson And Other Satirical Poems About Race, won the 2015 Bitchin’ Kitsch Chapbook Competition, available at

Review: (Set List and others) all by Glen Armstrong

Glen Armstrong
Set List
31 pages
A Talbott-Heindl Experience, LLC Chapbook

Glen Armstrong
The Most Awkward Silence Of All
6 pages
Cruel Garters Press

Glen Armstrong
In Stone
6 pages
Cruel Garters Press

Reviewed by Clara B. Jones*

Glen Armstrong studied at Wayne State University and the University of Massachusetts and currently teaches at Oakland University (MI). In an interview by e-mail, he revealed that he dictated “little rhythmic scraps to my mom before I was able to write—before I knew the word, ‘poet’.” As a writer with an M.F.A., Glen is intimate with the “canon” of poetry; however, major influences on his current work are Nina Simone, Muddy Waters, John Ashbery, as well as, other popular figures and members of The New York School of Poetry, an influential movement of the 1950s and 1960s associated, especially, with New York City and Chicago. Similar to The New York School collaborators, Glen’s early years as a poet in Detroit were influenced by a group of artistic individuals meeting in a bar—“poets musicians, playwrights, and social activists”. Like Ashbery, Glen uses language accessible to the average person; but, unlike many members of The New York School who belonged to privileged elements of society, Glen’s roots are working-class, and he worked as a machinist to finance his education. I asked the poet whether he considers himself an academic poet, and he responded in a characteristically candid and humorous manner: “Declaring myself an ‘academic poet’ is like declaring a major; I’m going to put it off for as long as I can.”

Humor is a recognized characteristic of New York School poetry. Like those writers, Glen’s work is avant garde, surrealistic, imagistic, semi-autobiographical, and modernistic, breaking with conventional forms. Similar to one critic’s description of Ashbery’s poetry, Glen’s writing seeks “to release the creative potential of the unconscious,” often by the “irrational juxtaposition of images.” As his chapbook, Set List, reveals, Glen’s poetry exposes his interest in African-American culture (“She tells me in no uncertain terms:/You can’t title a poem ‘Afro Wig’/…How would you like it if Sam and Dave/wrote a song called ‘The Bald Caucasion?”/), and the rhythm and pitch of jazz permeate the poems in this text. Set List references numerous jazz, blues, and blue-collar figures, and the volume’s poems display a skill for “riffs,” what Fred Moten calls “improvization” as a characteristic of African-American creative writing. I, particularly, like the poems, “Chief Pontiac Digs His Fortress Of Solitude” (“But I am never quite sure/ if the shovel is striking time or not./), “The Last DJ,” (“There was a keepsake inscribed/ by Robert Johnson:/ Stop Breaking Down./), “A Place Under The Bed” (“There was a place under the bed/ for her bass guitar./ A place in Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong/ to wonder about man’s tendencies to mistake/ miracles for business ventures./), and “Requiem For Harry Partch” (“There is a kind of American soldiering/ that is known only to those/ who hear voices,/ who know how to breathe/ life into a shortwave/ radio late at night./). Ben Lerner, poet and novelist, has stated that he weaves fiction and non-fiction throughout his writing; and, when reading the poems in Set List, I needed to resist any impulse to search for precise meaning, similar to The New York School of Poetry but highlighting Glen’s open-ended, musical, individual style.

The pamphlet, The Most Awkward Silence Of All, includes six poems demonstrating Glen’s playful curiosity (“We were all there for a reason,/ and it wasn’t to solve the mystery/ of why we were there./), his attempts to figure life out (“A missionary, unsure/ of my position./), irony (“…and we all agreed that screaming/ was the most awkward silence of all./), and humor (“This is espionage,/ not particle physics,/ a poster on the wall reminds/ me./”). Despite his obvious interest in lighter aspects of life, Glen mixes this feature with seriousness, awe, and awareness of daily contradictions (“I have felt as small./ As removed from this world./ As toothless as a ghost/ a clock being eaten,/ I desire you more./ Than ever.”/). Glen privileges inanimate objects as well as the human domain, highlighted in his thoughtful, interesting poem, “The Bedside Book Of Evil Knievel” (“It wonders for a moment/ where it left its keys/ before realizing there/ is nowhere left./ The key’s point of view/ is our only point….”/). The poems in this pamphlet are surrealistic, sometimes plaintive, and very successful.

In my opinion, poems in the pamphlet, In Stone, are more studied than in the previous texts, seeming to be more manipulated than spontaneous. Also, I detected a style that appeared more narrative than in the other two collections (e.g., the poem, “Centennial”), though these poems are not pretentious, exhibiting Glen’s characteristic musical style (“Flowers In Stone” is an exquisite piece). I was, particularly, aware of repetition (“stone;” “night”), alliteration (“while the bugle blares”; “the mentor of myth”), as well as, a few non-binary sexual references (e.g., the poem, “Androgynous”). The poem, “Toy Boat,” departs from Glen’s typically avant garde style with a more clearly narrative voice than in the other works (“We’ve been talking all night/ about the night and how the night/ leaves us just enough to say,…”). In this pamphlet, Glen combines free-form poems with poems in a more conventional style, continuing his penchant to play with technique and composition. Glen highlights his respect for The New York School in the poem, “Flowers In Stone,” by dedicating this piece to Paul Klee, an artist representing Modernism and Expressionism.

I think any reviewer would conclude by expressing great satisfaction with Glen Armstrong’s poems. He deserves to be widely known, a writer whose work can compete with poets having a higher profile. One of his comments to me was that he “aspire[s] to being something like a really smart entertainer,” though a reader will observe that Glen is, as well as a skilled “entertainer,” a serious practitioner of poetry producing thoughtful work. Some academics have criticized The New York School poets for producing “arbitrary” poems; but, the three chapbooks under review reveal that Glen is dedicated to craft as well as spontaneity. I would like to suggest that Glen might consider combining the poems in The Most Awkward Silence Of All and In Stone with a set of new poems to produce a full-length chapbook that could be available from Amazon. Others appreciating fine poetry should have access to Glen’s work, and I look forward to reading his future collections.

*Unless stated otherwise, all quotes in this review are by Glen Armstrong.


Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. Her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in many venues, and Clara’s collection,Ferguson And Other Satirical Poems About Race, won the 2015 Bitchin’ Kitsch Chapbook Competition, available at

Interview with Logen Cure

I had the honor of interviewing Logen after reading her chapbook, Letters To Petrarch.   Do you remember your first love? The one who simultaneously felt like forever and also like it would crumble at any minute?  This chapbook is the poetical equivalent of that agony.

Logen earned her MFA in Poetry from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the author of three chapbooks: Still (Finishing Line Press 2015), Letters to Petrarch (Unicorn Press 2015), and In Keeping (Unicorn Press 2008).  She’s on board to be Yellow Chair Review’s Chapbook contest judge for 2016.   We are huge fans.

-Sarah Moran, founder/editor


SM: Writers are frequently asked, when did you start writing? I’m more interested in when writing became important to you? Was it always important or did that feeling grow over time?

LC: I’ve been a writer as long as I can remember. I grew up surrounded by people who love to read. My family has always been super supportive so it’s always been important. When I was young, I tried out different genres. I was probably a junior or so in college when I decided poetry is really it for me. It’s hard to explain. Poetry is just magical. It’s what I enjoy most as a reader. Language is powerful; it’s how we connect with everything around us. Poetry is the most distilled version of that power.

SM: How has your writing changed from that point of importance to present day?

LC: Okay, so now that I think about it, I’ve been through a lot since then. Also about that time, I started getting on stage and performing my poetry. Performance gave me the gift of not having to imagine my audience; I got to be present for whatever connection people made to my work. That practice made me more aware of the aural quality of my poems.

I started writing Letters to Petrarch my senior year of college. I went straight to Greensboro, NC for my MFA after I graduated, still working on the project. My MFA was two years; Letters to Petrarch was both the first thing I worked on and the last thing I completed in those years. I stopped performing during my MFA. I just had a different focus then. I had never been in a poetry workshop prior to grad school, so it was a pretty intense adjustment. I read a lot and I wrote more than ever, including a semester writing formal verse. I feel good about what I did there. After it was over, I burned out for two years.

I’ve been working on a full-length manuscript about my hometown since the burn-out ended. It’s a queer coming of age narrative enveloped in a natural and cultural history of my West Texas birthplace. I’m writing poems about the desert, plants, weather, animals, historical events, all the things that shape the town. The common thread is survival in a harsh environment. I’ve always been a story-teller type, so the narrative is my wheelhouse. The nature and historical poetry is totally new to me. I’ve really enjoyed the challenge. I don’t want to be just one kind of poet.

SM: Letters To Petrarch is agonizingly beautiful. As I read through it I experienced those same emotions of first love and first loss; the bittersweet. Was the process of writing it a personal journey or simply a way to connect with Petrarch?

LC: It was both. It’s definitely taken from my own loss. Petrarch’s work is also agonizing, so I identified with that at the time. I think framing the story as letters to him helped me to approach the heartbreak.

SM: I’ll be honest. I had zero idea who Petrarch was prior to reading Letters To Petrarch. I’ve been doing all this research and am fascinated but I wonder what drew you to him? How directly important was his work to the work done in Letters?

LC: I learned about Petrarch in a British Lit class in college. He’s an Italian poet from the 14th century. He popularized the sonnet and romantic love poetry as we know it. Guys like Shakespeare were imitating his poems. His major poetic work is The Canzionere, written entirely for a woman named Laura. The story goes Petrarch met Laura maybe once, maybe from across a room. Maybe she was a figment of his imagination. If she was real, she was married to someone else. So here’s a guy who changed everything for a woman he didn’t know. I thought that story was fascinating, so when I came up with the idea to write letters to him, I arranged to take an independent study to learn more about him. I spent a semester reading The Canzionere, which is 366 poems, as well as Petrarch’s letters and other works.

The Canzionere is beautiful and difficult, written over decades. Petrarch is both totally in love and absolutely furious. He celebrates Laura and blames her, praises and curses her. I think everyone has a Laura, a big, intense, probably-doomed love. When I lost my own Laura, I was surprised how much I identified with his work. I was like, how could he possibly have all the feelings I have if he never knew her? And then I thought, oh damn, how much does anyone know anyone? What does that even mean? So those questions lead me to write him letters telling him what it was like to spend a single day with Laura. I use language to signal to him that I’m talking about the same woman. I refer to things that figure prominently in The Canzionere like her lovely eyes, the sun, worship, and dreams. But it’s not stylistic imitation by any means. My poems are free verse and spare.

SM: Why the form of canonical hours ?

LC: I wanted to tell the story of a single day. I started out with digital time stamps, actually, but then I realized Petrarch would conceptualize time differently. The canonical hours are prayers said at particular times of day. Petrarch was deeply religious, so the canonical hours would definitely be meaningful to him. In Letters to Petrarch, they offer the literal structure of the day, just like a time stamp, but I also think of those poems as prayers. So the day unfolds through the lens of the meaning of the prayers. It helped me maintain focus and added another layer to the project.

SM: Do you have any upcoming projects you’re excited about?

LC: I’m excited about the desert poetry I’m working on. It’s still very much in progress, but I’ve had some luck placing some pieces in journals.

I’m also a teacher at Tarrant County Community College. This spring I’m leading a course where students edit the campus literary magazine. This is my second year to teach it; last year was the first-ever student editorial staff. In the past, volunteer English faculty members edited the publication. I’m super excited to help students put together the 30th anniversary edition this year.

SM: Tell us some of your favorite books/authors of 2015:

LC: Villains by JeFF Stumpo. I really enjoy Stevie Edwards; her book Humanly came out this year. I picked up Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn when I met her at a reading in Dallas. She was lovely and I think the book is great. Published last year, but I got Instant Winner by Carrie Fountain in 2015. It’s been a fantastic year.


To purchase any of Logen’s chapbooks (and we highly recommend you do) please follow the link:

Logen Cure – Publications

How To Make A New Year’s Resolution by Kai Coggin

Video: How To Make a New Year’s Resolution

The eve is here,
the cusp of a new beginning,
between the letting go and the taking in,
between the old habits and the new shaping,
the eve is here,
the time for New Year’s resolutions…
lose weight,
exercise more,
budget your budget,
get that better job,
quit this, quit that,
change this about yourself,
work those hips, that shape, that physique
because you are not your best self right now,
or at least
that’s what
you are made to believe.

Go ahead.
Make your New Year’s resolution,
but I know that these cycles are just promises
we make to the breaking,
to the open chasms
of our hearts
waiting to be filled with light.
This year,
I will not resolve
to lose weight,
because the only time I really did lose weight
was not all the years
that I hated my body,
hated the reflection of stretched out skin
and folds of unexplored softness, no,
the only time I really lost weight was when
I believed someone
who told me I was beautiful,
when I saw that
I AM Beautiful.
When you love yourself,
the beauty of your own higher self fills in the cracks,
fills in the empty.

Go ahead.
Make your New Year’s resolution.
If you want to exercise,
exercise your RIGHTS,
exercise your FREEDOMS
and stand for
the freedom of others,
exercise your VOICE,
speak up for the silenced,
hold a protest sign
high in the air
that proclaims your own individual song into the night,
the buildings
and windows
and trees
and sky
will ring in a brotherhood of repercussive chanting,
spirals of sound
filling a chamber
with human solidarity,
exercise your TOLERANCE for one humanity,
flex these muscles in the gym of your own growing Spirit,
infinite mirrors that reflect
the weight of your Soul,
exercise your Spirit,
exercise the muscles in your face that create a smile,
that shape laughter,
exercise hugs,
exercise PEACE.

You want to budget?
Budget quality time,
it’s the only currency that matters, the exchange rate
is reciprocation.

You want to quit something?
Quit judging yourself.
Quit judging others,
quit hate and separation,
quit building walls
and start breaking them,
quit quitting on yourself
and do something that
brings you joy,
when you have joy, share it,
quit keeping
all the joy for yourself,
quit the people
who bring you down,
quit accepting less
than what you are worth,
you are golden,
quit forgetting that.


This New Year’s Eve,
make a wish upon the star
of your own beating heart,
hear the echo
of that wish bounce
off the sun and
back into your bones,
let’s make this a
New Year’s Revolution,
let’s make promises that serve others,
not just ourselves,
let’s bring in the New Year
knowing everything is an open door,
a chance,
a blessing,
a teacher,
a moment of decision,
a mirror reflecting Infinity.

Happy New Year.
Kai Coggin is a full-time poet and author born in Bangkok, Thailand, raised in Southwest Houston, and currently a blip in the 3 million acre Ouachita National Forest in Hot Springs, AR. She holds a BA in Poetry and Creative Writing from Texas A&M University. She writes poems of feminism, love, spirituality, injustice, metaphysics, and beauty. Kai’s poetry has been published in Split This Rock, Elephant Journal, Cliterature, ITWOW, The Manila Envelope, [empath] quarterly, Catching Calliope, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, and anthologized in several publications including Journey of the Heart and Journeys Along the Silk Road.

Her first full-length book of poetry PERISCOPE HEART was published by Swimming with Elephants Publications in September 2014, and has quickly become the best selling book on the press. She is also a Teaching Artist with the Arkansas Arts Council, specializing in bringing poetry and creative writing to classrooms around the state.