A Special Feature Edited by Laura Villareal
I chose “Document(s)” as a topic during a time of uncertainty— during an era of dis/misinformation, as the 2020 election approached, with ongoing civil unrest and police brutality, in the middle of an ever-evolving pandemic. “We’re living in an unprecedented time” became a refrain on the news that made me wonder how we, poets, are documenting this time. Many of the poets in this feature respond to timely topics, but the issues at the heart of their work aren’t unprecedented. Systemic racism, anti-blackness, homophobia, religion, gender, sexuality, and environmental concerns are evergreen issues. For these poets, these are lived experiences that are reckoned with outside the page.
What you’ll find in this feature is a range of voices and angles that address Document(s) in their form and content. They collage fragments to reshape narratives, they erase towards humanity, and much more. Their creativity and rigor in how they address the confines of the page absolutely dazzles. I want to note that Lucy Zhang’s hypertext poem is a West Branch first since it writes and revises as you watch— it is a living document.
While I included poems that document, I also wanted poems engaged with outside documents. Ariana Benson’s erasure of Justice Sotomayor’s dissent to the execution of Brandon Bernard brings the document back to Bernard’s humanity, back to his life as a son. Liam O’Brien’s poems collage fragments of Victorian-era domestic literature to reshape the gendered narrative around homemakers and bring light to as he described, “more obscure narratives of homelife, companionship, queer desire, labor, sickness, and grief.” And Joshua Garcia’s queer deconstruction of the clobber passages, verses commonly used to condemn the LGBTQIA+ community, in his photography and lyric writing. These are just a few examples.
Many of these poems speak to the American experience, but I also wanted to include poems about global issues. Like Aremu Adebisi’s response to the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria against police brutality and Mark Maza who combines family history with the EDSA Revolution in the Philippines during 1986.
I would be remiss not to end my note by pointing to a couple poets writing about joy, friendship, family, and hope—the things and people that have us through this time. Adrian Ernesto Cepeda’s “Mi Mami Talks to her Plantas” which illustrates both his and his mother’s tenderness of attention. Malcolm Friend’s “Ode to Paper Transfers” that celebrates youth and friendship in its remembrance of paper transfers.
You’ll find much more to admire than what I’ve described as you read and spend time with these poets. Let their poetry be a document, let it be proof, let it keep record of lived experiences, let it bear witness to their truths.
Laura Villareal, a 2020-21 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell, earned her MFA from Rutgers University-Newark and her writing has appeared in AGNI, Black Warrior Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. Girl’s Guide to Leaving, her debut collection, is set to be published by the University of Wisconsin Press in Spring 2022.
ṢẸ́RẸ́: An Ode to Women
one-hand, one single hand | is a crowd | can’t you see? | shuffling between slaps & waves | one-hand is all you need | to begin a revolution, to burn, to silence | haven’t we all seen the concealment | of the fist in an outstretched hand? | at least it’s obvious the art of backstabbing | offers you the undersides | of a hand tucked into itself | schemed in its transparent emptiness | the body is meaningless | when you know a single hand is its entire symbol | the leaping, the shivering, the heart-pounding | start from the end of a fingernail | the individual is a multitude | illusioned is the majority
one-hand, one single hand | can raise a man from the dead | shrouded | can signal the end of truth | & the pervasion of bitterness | a woman gives birth to one-hand | & then another & another & another | until she turns the hundred-handed one | unable to make them all clap | at the same time | to heal the world, we feed one-hand | replace one-hand’s kalashnikov with a rose | we tend a door with one-hand | that leads to a door that leads to a door | possibility is the amount of stealth | & subtlety of the second | not the panel of radical hours | or the congress of structural days | the second drifts & rambles | comes up to us stealthily | but before the second, what was? | time is unmeasured | & so is reason | the individual is a multitude | illusioned is the majority
one-hand, one single hand | triggers us | conceptualizes our body | defines what is exclusive in ownership | & art of naming | where i come from | one-hand snaps fingers to ward off evil | we say mo tàka òṣì dànù | one-hand snaps fingers to pave way for evil | we say ojú á tún ra rí | one-hand carries dust from the earth | shoves it in the sky to prove truth | to prevent misfortune, we move one-hand | in circle round the occiput of our heads | & snap our fingers | Ọlọ́run máàjẹ́ | Ọlọ́run máàjẹ́ | Ọlọ́run mú àjẹ́ | the left hand is one-hand | the left hand is female | the left is mystery | Ọlọ́run mú àjẹ́ | the left hand neutralizes, starts & ends a revolution | Ọlọ́run mú àjẹ́ | Ọlọ́run mú àjẹ́ | the left-hand is those we left | those we are left | a woman is a multitude | illusioned is the majority.
Aremu Adams Adebisi is a writer and economist. His work of poetry “Force Mechanism” was adapted into Lucent Dreaming’s first theatrical performance, in Wales. He has served as a mentor for SprinNG Fellowship and a panelist for the Gloria Anzaldua Prize. Adebisi edits poetry for ARTmosterrific and Newfound, facilitates Africa’s largest paid poetry masterclass, and curates the newsletter Poetry Weekly on Substack. He recently was awarded the Langston Hughes Fellowship. He tweets as @aremuadebisi_.
To Our United States
View this poem here.
tree n. [English]
tree n. [English] a woody perennial plant having a single usually elongate main stem generally with few or no branches on its main part
tree n. [English] a diagram or graph that branches usually from a single stem or vertex without forming loops or polygons
family tree n. [English] a visual representation of one’s line of ancestry
Ex. What does it mean to know the genus and species of your family tree?
tree v. to drive to or up a tree
Ex. In the days long before I blossomed, an untold number of members in my family tree (n.) were treed (v.).
tree v. to put into a position of extreme disadvantage
Ex. To understand the English language is to know that it is the subjects that tree the objects.
subject, n. [English] the answer to the question of “who”
who, pr. [English] an indicator used in reference to person or persons
object, n. the answer to the question of “what”
Synonyms of object: thing
thing, n. an inanimate entity or commodity that lacks consciousness and agency
Antonyms of thing: English
plant v. to place in the ground for growth
Ex. Who decides what to plant and what to weed?
plant n. spectre of seed
plant n. prelude to tree
seed n. a live sacrifice of oneself for one’s children and descendants.
forest n. a chorus of ghosts
forest n. a mass burial site for seeds
Ex. Which forests have you missed for the trees?
miss v. [English] to feel the absence or loss of, to long for
Ex. Is it possible to miss fruit you were not yet alive to see plucked from your family tree?
root n. [English] the part of a plant which attaches it to the ground or to a support, bringing water and nourishment to the rest of the plant
root n. invisible branches that hold a tree up—its mirror image interred in the ground
ground n. the solid surface of the earth
ground n. land
land n. [English] earth over which living beings claim territory
For more on ‘living beings,’ see ‘subject.’
ground (past tense) v. made dust of a solid object
Ex. To ensure objects would not reconfigure themselves post-weeding, subjects ground them into ash
ground adj. having been crushed into fine particles
Ex. The finely ground dust of my family tree was scattered ages ago—it has borne saplings across the world
ground v. to keep something here; give it roots
root n. [English] the basic cause, source or origin of something
Ex. The uprooting of a family tree and the replanting of it in unfit soil is the root of centuries of destruction.
root v. [English] to dig or search around wildly in the ground
Ex. What is the difference between rooting around for new land and digging one’s own grave?
root n. where you’re from, where your people are from
Ex. Are your roots the kind that hold up trees for thousands of years, or the kind cultivated solely for consumption? Or even the kind yanked whole from the ground?
tree n. in which we are rooted, firmly and immovably
Ariana Benson‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Lunch Ticket, Southern Humanities Review, Great River Review, and elsewhere. She won the 2021 Graybeal-Gowen Poetry Prize. She serves as the nonfiction editor of Auburn Avenue. Ariana is a 2019 Marshall Scholar and received an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London.
ADRIAN ERNESTO CEPEDA
Mi Mami Talks to her Plantas
Adrian Ernesto Cepeda is the author of Flashes & Verses… Becoming Attractions from Unsolicited Press, Between the Spine from Picture Show Press and La Belle Ajar & We Are the Ones Possessed from CLASH Books. His poetry has been featured in Harvard Palabritas, Glass Poetry: Poets Resist, Cultural Weekly, Yes, Poetry, Frontier Poetry, The Fem, poeticdiversity, Rigorous, Luna Luna Magazine, The Wild Word, The Revolution Relaunch and Palette Poetry. Adrian is an LatinX Poet who lives with his wife and their adorably spoiled cat Woody Gold in Los Angeles. http://www.adrianernestocepeda.com/
JASON B. CRAWFORD
The Art of Staying Alive
Jason B. Crawford (They/He)was born in Washington DC, raised in Lansing, Michigan. Their debut chapbook collection Summertime Fine is out through Variant Lit. Their second chapbook Twerkable Moments is due from Paper Nautilus Press in 2021. Their debut Full Length Year of the Unicorn Kidz will be out in 2022 from Sundress Publications.
If you are transferring, ask the driver for a paper transfer at the time you pay. Metro paper transfers are valid on only Metro buses. If you are paying cash and use more than one transit system you must pay a fare each time you board a different bus.
—King County Metro’s official website, under the “When using cash” section of their “How to Pay” page
Ode to Paper Transfers
Malcolm Friend is a poet originally from the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle.He is the author of the chapbook mxd kd mixtape (Glass Poetry, 2017) and the full-length collection Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple (Inlandia Books, 2018), selected by Cynthia Arrieu-King as winner of the Hillary Gravendyk Prize. Together with J.R. Mahung he is a member of Black Plantains, an Afrocaribbean poetry collective.
1. Instances of scripture are taken or modified from the King James Version of the Holy Bible.
2. “ יָדַע – yâdaʻ [yaw-dah’].” Messie2vie.fr. https://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/hebrew/kjv/yada.html
3. “A Further Consideration of D. W. Thomas’s Theories about yādaʿ.” Vetus Testamentum, vol. 41, no. 2, 1991. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1518887
4. “Faggot.” Oxford English Dictionary.
Joshua Garcia‘s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Image, The Massachusetts Review, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. He earned his MFA from the College of Charleston and will be a 2021-2022 Stadler Fellow.
For every tweet that reads “Black Women will save America”
Bri Little is a DC-raised/Seattle-based writer and editor. She covers Black arts and culture for the South Seattle Emerald and has published writing in Rose Quartz and Jump! She self-published her debut poetry collection, BELLEVUE, in 2017. Bri writes to heal and to explore the intricacies of the Black queer experience.
View this poem here.
Lucia LoTempio is the author of Hot with the Bad Things (Alice James Books, 2020), and with Suzannah Russ Spaar, she co-authored the chapbook Undone in Scarlet (Tammy, 2019). Lucia lives and writes in Pittsburgh. For more, visit lucialotempio.com.
Kundiman for Tondo: 1986
View this poem here.
Mark Maza is a Pilipino-American writer from Orange County, CA who grew up between Tondo, Manila, and Westminster, California. He has received fellowships from Community Literature Initiative and VONA. His work has appeared or forthcoming in Fight Evil with Poetry and FreezeRay Poetry, among other publications and anthologies.
Wrung Out of Sweet Trouble
View this poem here.
Liam October O’Brien grew up on a small island. Some of his recent work can be found in the Denver Quarterly, the Bennington Review, and Nightboat Books’ We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics. He received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and lives in New York.
Grrrl Black in Kilmarnock
My grandmother sets the table for our morning meal with squash blossoms, smudges of butter, fried porgies and corn, and a tumbler of iced-tea. My grandmother drops vine-wrought lavender into the tumbler and there is a faint smell of maple wafting thru the screen. I quickly wash up in the enamel basin. She weaponizes silence so we quickly chant the prayers we have been taught since we began to walk. I mention something about bless the food we are about to eat and I forget the rest. She looks at me with the evil-eye and I close my eyes in deference to Jesus.
Monocacy River and my grandfather the fisherman who owns the land that they toil comes in from his dawn’s work with a satchel of porgies, oyster trout and is preparing to leave to search for blue crabs. I follow him into his day waiting to swing from his thick arms and I holler with joy. My grandfather says that I can toss in the food scraps into the trough where I am filled with glee at the tussling of hogs for the large bits of mixed leftovers. I am visiting from New York City and mesmerized by the old pickup. I sit in the bed of the truck and wave furiously to our kith who are jinning their wares for market.
My grandmother bought me a bow and arrow that keeps me deliriously happy. My mother admonishes her for buying such a dangerous boy toy. I have a good aim. She’s afraid that I will kill myself or put out an eye. Kilmarnock is my mother’s home. My father is from the landside of percolation ponds near the South Carolina border and my mother says that it is too south even though she is from Virginia. My father and I exchange a wicked glance and my mother sucks her teeth.
Summers in the south are where Black children domiciled in the large cities that our parents went to during the great migration its farmlands are Black spaces for us to be free from the surveillance of black lives. We make pails of ice cream and play red light green light well into the dark. At home we run home at dusk right before the streetlights come on. I look for fireflies for my mason jar and croon at the marquee effect of their shine. I feel safe on the farm unaware that we are neither accepted or welcomed here.
We are shielded from the history of our plight and we swing out from makeshift swings of old tires chasing chicks and roosters. I am allowed to touch what I see. I play the untuned piano in the parlor and yodel my favorite songs. I can still see them in the large white house on a creek filled with crabs and fish in the house where my mother was delivered by the midwife, her auntie teal, my grandmother’s older sister. I am the last one.
Cynthia Parker-Ohene is a three-time Pushcart nominee, abolitionist, cultural worker, and therapist. She is an MFA graduate in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College of California, and the Chester Aaron Scholar for Excellence in Creative Writing. She is a winner of the San Francisco Foundation/Nomadic Press Poetry Prize. Her book Daughters of Harriet is forthcoming in March, 2022.
Try Telling Yourself You Are Not Accountable to That Great Moth Time
View this poem here.
Erin Slaughter is editor/co-founder of The Hunger, and author of The Sorrow Festival (CLASH Books, 2022) and I Will Tell This Story to the Sun Until You Remember That You Are the Sun (New Rivers Press, 2019). Originally from north Texas, she is a PhD candidate at Florida State University, where she serves as Nonfiction Editor for the Southeast Review and co-hosts the Jerome Stern Reading Series. You can find her online at erin-slaughter.com.
SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA
Thesaurus of Beauty with Ghost
Sneha Subramanian Kanta is a writer from the Greater Toronto Area, Canada. Her chapbook Ghost Tracks (2020)is available for purchase from Louisiana Literature Press. She is the recipient of the inaugural Vijay Nambisan Fellowship 2019. She was the Charles Wallace Fellow writer-in-residence 2018-19 at The University of Stirling. Her work has appeared in Muzzle, Palette Poetry, EX/POST Magazine, The Puritan, and elsewhere. She is the founding editor of Parentheses Journal.
My grandfather dies of covid hours after I put my cat down
Lisa Summe is the author of Say It Hurts (YesYes Books, 2021). She earned a BA and MA in literature at the University of Cincinnati, and an MFA in poetry from Virginia Tech. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bat City Review, Cincinnati Review, Muzzle, Salt Hill, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. You can find her running, playing baseball, or eating vegan pastries in Pittsburgh, on Twitter and Instagram @lisasumme, and at lisasumme.com.
Lucy Zhang writes, codes and watches anime. Her work has appeared in The Boiler, The Hunger, Fractured Lit and elsewhere, and anthologized in Best Microfiction 2021. She edits for Barren Magazine, Heavy Feather Review and Pithead Chapel. Find her at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.