Exchange with Charles Kell on Cage of Lit Glass

By Karthik Purushothaman

Karthik Purushothaman: Can you start with the ground floor of this book, the core experience of incarceration that so encapsulates its entirety that it’s impossible to tell which parts of Cage of Lit Glass (Autumn House Press, 2019) are you inside looking out & outside looking in? Please share as many particulars as you’d like, about the events that led you to imprisonment, for how long you were in prison, and your life journey then until now.

Charles Kell: Thanks so much, Karthik, for these sincere and insightful questions! They mean a great deal. I’ve always thought of myself as a fiction writer, that I would write a novel, something along the line of John Hawkes, a John Hawkes rip-off. I’m hoping to start one soon. I’ve always loved poetry immensely, have always been an avid reader, and would scribble poems here and there; however, it wasn’t until I took a poetry class in the fall of 2013 at the University of Rhode Island, with Peter Covino, that I became obsessed with the practice and thinking of poetry; that, and meeting and becoming friends with Timothy Liu in the fall of 2013 as well. At first, I was trying to write all these philosophical, wordy, or word-drunk poems and early on Peter challenged me to write about something “real”; I took it to mean a tangible experience. Timothy Liu gave me similar advice. I sent him some poems and he wrote back that he wouldn’t give me any feedback until I sent him something with real feeling, not simply a bunch of fancy words jammed together. I took it as a positive challenge and decided to do the complete opposite of what I had tried to do; I decided to give myself over to what I heretofore thought anathema. I’ve always been uncomfortable sharing, or writing about life, about personal experience. I liked it in other peoples’ writing, just not mine. I decided to practice the very thing that initially made me sick, and this is where the first decent poems came from, I believe.

My story is actually different from most folks who are or have been part of the system. Here is what happened: I was arrested for a felony dui in 2006 and fled the scene; I was in an accident—I had been drinking— and drove off but was caught. Initially, I thought I was going to get a one-year sentence, but I received a two-year sentence; fleeing the scene was the reason for the additional year. Luckily, I was eligible for this program, a treatment program while incarcerated, so I ended up getting out early. I ended up doing a year total. For the first two and a half months I was in the processing center, in Lorain, Ohio (Toni Morrison’s birthplace); this is where everyone goes before assignment, before each person goes to his destination (minimum, medium, maximum security) to serve out the time. This is where everyone is. I talked to one young white guy, he was nineteen or twenty, who shot a cab driver in the head and killed him—this happened in Akron, Ohio. The young guy had a new baby he was telling me about. Then, I was transferred to a minimum-security prison (all nonviolent offenders) to wait to get into the program, which was at the prison as well. The beautifully diabolical thing about the program, though, was that the prison sent something like three-four letters to each individual’s judge saying this person is in this program and that he will be getting out early upon successful completion. Now, the judge has the opportunity to nix this. I saw a number of guys who were in the program, halfway and nearly done, get denied by their judge and then have to complete the full sentence. So, there was this existential, absurd dread each day, that one would get the call and find out the judge denied the program for whatever reason, and then have to complete the entire sentence. One day my name and number were called and my heart fell, I thought, “well, this is it,” but it was simply to swap out some replacement socks. There is some black humor in all of this. But back to my difference: I was already a senior in college, at Kent State University, when I went in. I considered myself a literary person and somewhat educated. I read Proust. I was obsessed with Kafka, Beckett, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Woolf, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and so on. I should have known better. I was and am ashamed of myself—it’s all disgusting, really. I love drugs and alcohol, what can I say? I love them so much I don’t really touch them anymore. The actual body of the book started in 2013, and I worked on, going through fifteen or so iterations until 2018. Peter Covino and Timothy Liu are the two people who helped me the most with the book. I owe the book and my life to them in many ways.

Purushothaman: Your writing reminds me of a lot of people, some might be influences—Ashbery, whom you cite, Bob Hicok’s playful cruelty, or Richard Brautigan’s poetry of grime and dirt also comes to mind. Can you talk about how this formalist yet absurdist voice, which at once treats the narrative as tragedy and farce, came into being?

Kell: Thanks so much for mentioning these writers and for drawing attention to the “formalist yet absurdist voice.” I care deeply for narrative poetry but get bored after too many narrative, story-like poems. I love the absurd more than anything. Words can’t express how much writers like Tomaž Šalamun, Charles Simic, James Tate, Dara Wier mean to me. When I was putting Cage together, I would order those poems with a more narrative bent followed by an absurdist poem; I wanted a mix. For me, an entire book of (my own) absurdist poems would never get off the ground; in a similar vein, if the book consisted of 60-70-80 pages of narrative poetry, it would be nauseating to me. Ashbery is a God, especially Shadow Train (1981), A Wave (1984), but all of his work, everything. Hicok and Brautigan are wonderful too! Hicok’s “Killing” from The Legend of Light (1995) in one hell of a beginning! I love the rigor, the structure, the physical nature of formal poetry but I struggle writing it myself. To me, the very reality of existence is complete and absolute absurdity. For one, we have these bodies that are rotting, these excreting masses that are breaking down no matter what we do. And I’m luckier than I can say, for being healthy, free of pain. I’m an able-bodied individual, the world is designed for me. I know people well who are in constant and chronic pain. I had back pain in the summer of 2013 and was diagnosed with spinal stenosis and bulging discs; it was horrible but it went away for the most part. My wife, Carrie, is suffering back pain and is having difficulty diagnosing it, going from doctor to doctor, and it’s hell. She has chronic arthritis. And that’s just for starters. The socio-political things so many folks are going through that I care about, that I sympathize with but can’t completely empathize with; I have no register about what it feels like to be a marginalized individual and never will. I can go to marches, donate money, vote for certain candidates who are lesser monsters than the truly monstrous candidates, and try and be kind to others as much as possible; I try to practice these aspects mostly through teaching. For me, the absurdist voice comes from not-knowing—the miniscule amount of knowledge I have no matter how many experiences I have or how many books I read. It’s one of the reasons I love people so much; that people—and I’m grossly generalizing here—mostly strive for and desire similar things: we want to be loved and take care of loved ones; we want a job that will pay our bills; we want to try to lead a fulfilling life (defined differently by everyone); however, each individual is so uniquely different that one can never really know another person;  no matter how “open” or how much one shares with another, there will always remain a hidden aspect. That’s the double-bind. It always goes back, for me, to Keats’s “Negative Capability”; to pursue a vision even though it might lead to intellectual confusion and uncertainty. To try to learn to be comfortable amidst chaos is how I apply it. 

Purushothaman: Might be my bias, but I saw Cage of Lit Glass to follow a similar arc as Crime and Punishment. Except here, maybe because you’re writing poetry, the experience of incarceration isn’t a clear-cut period that has a beginning-middle-end; it seems as if the prison experience is a continuum that has crept into the before and after—for example, it’s unclear if a poem such as “Locked in the Attic” is a fever dream about an experience during childhood, or if it’s adult you in prison. Did you intentionally get at this arc or did you chance upon it? Also talk about the suffusion of being “locked up” into your language itself, regardless of whether you’re writing about it.

Kell: I recently watched Nina Menkes’s Dissolution (2010), loosely based on Crime and Punishment, and I can’t say enough how much that film affected me—it’s stunning! Dostoevsky’s work has had such a profound influence on me. I was hoping Cage followed some loose sequence or trajectory, but there is no teleological end or aim; nothing is settled or necessarily arrived at. I guess one never “leaves” confinement, and I might argue that it doesn’t matter how much time one has spent “away”; however, obviously, the longer incarcerations have so much more of a profound effect; I’m not speaking from personal experience. Longer incarcerations change every aspect of the individual—the brain, the chemical makeup of a person. Every day I think of how lucky I am, how I “escaped” somehow; how if I did any more time I wouldn’t be me, I would be a completely different person. Many writers (and people)—both past and contemporary— have spent so much more time, have much more horrible experiences. One of my favorite poets is Etheridge Knight; we have nothing in common. Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet I love; he spent years in solitary, I believe, right? I spent 23 hours a day in a cell (with a cellmate) in Lorain for only a few months, waiting to go to minimum security. It’s different. Plus, I’m white—another layer of difference. I haven’t been through what most of these folks have and never claimed to. Similarly, it’s unbelievable how one gets used to things; one thinks one can’t do something, but one does. For example, a week in jail seems unimaginable to a lot of folks, but once one is in there, one gets adjusted, the body and mind adjust and take on the contours, and then a month goes by, two months, three months. It’s all Beckett, right? “I Can’t go on, I’ll go on.” So, it eventually ends—and for me it seemed just a breath, like it didn’t even happen—but it never really “ends,” because I think about it. It makes life easier, in many ways; I constantly think: “hell, at least I’m not back there,” and no matter what is going on it doesn’t seem so bad. The poem you mention has nothing to do with direct, physical experience, but more with thought and philosophy. The negotiation the speaker has with the self, with time, is real: how does one negotiate time? It’s beautifully tricky; it’s a thing in life that each person must face. I have always felt “locked” in language and that comes from class and education. I’m a first-generation college student from a working-class background. I’m state school all the way, not so much by choice but necessity. One of the first markers of class is speech, how one talks, how one writes. I’ve always wanted to write sentences like Henry James but can’t. There’s this struggle with speech, with writing, with sounding educated that I will have forever. My deep dive into college and academia seemed one way to run from these thoughts, but we can never run away from ourselves.

Purushothaman: I presume these poems are recollections rather than ones you wrote while in prison. If you had written them during, do you think the language, topics and conceptual treatment would be similar? Can you tell me how you think Charles going through the experience would have approached the book of poems, and how it would compare with the way you wrote these poems in hindsight?

Kell: I wouldn’t have written these poems; I couldn’t articulate and conceptualize. I don’t have the ability to illustrate an experience while I’m going through it. I wrote horrible love poems during that time and tried to write fiction but it was all awful; I did, though, keep a journal each day and wrote down all my dreams and haven’t looked at it. It’s banal—what I was reading, my thoughts; it’s probably claustrophobic. However, what I did write down was each man’s name I talked to, knew, came into contact with. Once, I was reading Dante, and in minimum security it’s general population, all the beds and bunks are out in the open, and a guy who was walking by (I was lying on the top bunk) casually remarked: “Hey, what is Dante.” I loved that: “what is Dante,” not “who is Dante,” but Dante is actually a person and a thing, right? A way of thinking. This man heard the name but didn’t know who or what Dante was. And we talked for a while. These names and these moments are what is important to me. Writing the poems in hindsight was not difficult other than trying to write decent poems, which is so damn difficult. I owe Peter Covino this: I learned to write what I didn’t want to write or in a style that I didn’t want to initially practice. This is everything. To write what makes me completely uncomfortable; not that writing the actual poems makes me uncomfortable, but sharing them. I’m not a prison poet, a jail poet. I’m first and foremost an aesthete who cares about style, craft, form—making an object. Even though I come from a working-class background, I have aestheticized my entire life, looked at life as a work of art, an ongoing artistic text. The whole prison thing now (and at the time) is (and was) an aesthetic experience. I feel (and felt like) multiple people; I was hovering to the side of this person with my name, taking down notation, making it into what I thought was art. Thinking about Genet, Dostoevsky, thinking about and philosophizing my experience. It’s like I wasn’t there to some extent—was I?    

Purushothaman: I like that you named your dick Longfellow and that you describe him growing a beard. For describing the most lonesome experience imaginable, Cage of Lit Glass is populated with a village of friends and kinfolk, real and imaginary. Which ones are real, and which ones imaginary? Especially more intellectual ones such as Longfellow, Rimbaud, etc.—how do you feel about their contributions to your language when you’ve been to hell and back?

Kell: A peer of mine from URI did not like that poem, said the language was too extreme, the physical component too much; however, it’s my wife’s favorite poem from the collection. I think about people all the time even though I spend most of my time either with my wife, or completely alone. I’m a lone wolf. My friends and people I’ve known, though, have played such a monumental role in who I am and how I view life. In many ways the book is not so much about the various speakers, or “Charles Kell”; the book swirls around a wreck my friends were in in July of 1999. My close friend, one of my best friends, Marcus Tirabasso, was driving a Jeep Cherokee (and had been drinking) and he ran head-on into a tree on Vair Road, in Freedom, Ohio. My friend, our friend, Mark Kettler was killed instantly; another close friend, Raymond Oliver, had a brother, David Vizer, who was visiting from Chicago for a few weeks and he was in the Jeep as well; he fell into a coma and his mother had to fly in from Chicago and take him off life support. I was working third shift on a rip and crosscut saw at Kraftmaid Cabinetry in Middlefield, Ohio during the wreck. Most of the book deals with that, with the fallout and trying to make sense. A few people who read the book before publication said the whole “Marc” and “Mark” characters were confusing and hard to follow. I didn’t give a damn; it always had to be Marc and Mark. In many ways this book was written for ten to twelve people, some of whom are dead; the rest do not read poetry. Another close friend, Tim, is in there, and he suffers from Pseudobulbar Affect, a condition with symptoms that include sudden fits of crying and/or laughing; he has a lesion on his brain probably caused from alcohol, from the effects of forty plus years of hard drinking. I love all these people but some I don’t talk with much anymore; our relationships have changed. In many ways it sickens me that I take their lives and try to make poems from them—like, who the fuck am I? “Empty Specter” I tried to write through Marc’s eyes, and thinking back about it, the audacity, how could I? The villanelle illustrates the reoccurring thoughts, how Marc is forever locked away in this experience, how it will never go away, how he obsesses over it every day almost 21 years later. He did four years in prison but those years are nothing compared to the anguish he feels on a daily basis. These are love poems, in a way, for my friends. I love these people and I can’t do anything for them. I talk to Marc about once a week over the phone. I see him twice a year in Ohio, when I drive back to visit my mother. We hang out and talk about nothing but after we’re together for some time, when the sun goes down, we always start talking about the wreck. I honestly don’t know how close we are anymore, though. But this is a story almost anyone can relate to. Every person has loved ones taken away from horrible accidents and sicknesses. This situation is not unique. All the other writers I love beyond words. Many of the poems steal titles from Kafka novels and short stories. Kafka, my favorite writer, Beckett, Thomas Bernard, Toni Morrison, Melville and James Baldwin. All are interlocutors, they frame my way of thinking, my thought process. They all provide philosophies. I wish that I could write like them; I want to physically consume their books and eat their words. My favorite novel is Don Quixote; I love Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo.    

Purushothaman: Arguably one of the “cages of lit glass” is the Lincoln Town Car, which I believe was the vehicle involved in the crash, and you buy it again after you get out? Do you still drive the same car? I recently had the epiphany that since trauma and joy are associated with flesh memory, intimacy and existential fear are two sides of the same coin, or the carrot is tied to the stick, if you will. As a writer from a marginalized identity, I struggle with re-traumatizing language. How do you ensure, both in life and writing, that your art doesn’t keep you in the cage?

Kell: I think I am glad that the book is hard to follow, that it might be difficult to piece everything together. It’s not a puzzle or riddle. I hope the poems might still resonate even if folks don’t know what’s going on, or if the parts don’t add up to a whole. A line from my new manuscript reads: “If you are looking for meaning / you won’t find it here” (this line will probably soon be cut, however). I had two Lincoln Town Cars. The first one in the book (from the first “Lincoln Town Car” poem) was a friend’s whose name is Craig, and the events in that poem happened word-for-word. The second car (from the second “Lincoln Town Car” poem, and all the events in that poem are true) was mine; I bought it a few months after the wreck, and I spent so much time driving around in that car, down all the back roads, listening to cassettes and thinking. The way I view life comes from a place of privilege; I come from a solidly working-class background, and, like I said earlier, I’m a first-generation college student, but I have the ultimate privilege to view and aestheticize my life exactly how I want. People do not force labels and try to stick me in a box; I don’t have to put up with anything that many writers from marginalized identities must contend with. Subjectively, I can aestheticize any experience and not have the weight of incarceration on my back. I have different, alternative freedoms. It’s a privileged, different existence. I am not a prison / jail writer, and the majority of my poems illustrate this. For one thing, I am nobody. No one cares about my poetry or anything I have to say, and that is actually a great feeling. I can also honestly say that I have never had a “traumatic” experience as I define it. And if this is not privilege, I don’t know what is. I’ve lived a charmed life in more ways than I can explain. I get to try to write; I get to teach college for a living; I have an amazing wife and a few friends; my mother and sister and niece; I have mountains of books; I am creatively and intellectually curious—I can ask for nothing more.

I wrote Cage of Lit Glass thinking it might be the only book I ever do, and who knows, this might be true. There are no guarantees. I have a manuscript I’m working on, and there are two “prison” poems; one, though, takes a look at a favorite writer, Pierre Guyotat and his book, Eden Eden Eden. It’s a manuscript that I hope is completely different from Cage, concerned with practicing different things, although I have no idea if that’s true. Personally, I don’t want to tread the same experiences over and over; I have other things to say and interact with; I’m not stuck with labels because I choose not to be. An ultimate privilege, I argue.   

Purushothaman: Poverty and death are increasingly becoming enmeshed with white male American identity and experience, and I say this not to lump you into a category, but more to recognize the larger solidarity that Cage of Lit Glass could achieve. Not just from ex-felons, but rather from the larger group impacted by post-industrial decline, what has the reception to Cage of Lit Glass been like? How do your old friends from such milieus engage with the work?

Kell: I have no idea how Cage fits into any larger milieu. It doesn’t, I believe; in many ways it’s a niche book. I don’t think many folks have read it; there are only two reviews, I think. It’s not trying to make any grand statements; I don’t know if it’s in solidarity with anything other than art and poetry, the writers I love and reference. Kimiko Hahn liked it—that means the world to me. Peter Covino likes it; I hope beyond hope that Timothy Liu likes it and is proud of it. A friend of mine, the poet Miguel Murphy, wrote me a beautiful letter expressing his admiration for the book. That letter means more than any review or award could.  I sent it to Rosmarie Waldrop (along with my dissertation chapter on her work), and she sent me a lovely note. Pamela Alexander likes it; Kathleen Ossip likes it. What more can I want? I don’t know if there are such things as “ex-felons” and/or “ex-convicts.” Once one is a felon or convicted one is always this, unless the conviction is overturned, but this never really happens. I guess one could only be an “ex-prisoner,” but I don’t know if that’s the case either. My friends love it, for the most part. They have been supportive. None of them read poetry, though. When I drove to visit my mother in December of 2019, I popped over a friend’s house just to say “hey” and he pulled out the book and was pointing out different moments, familiar markers that only my old friends would know, “Sciosophy,” for example—he said, “well, this one’s about Mike Bufano,” a mutual friend who died in a motorcycle accident. No one other than my friends would pick up on certain things, landmarks, people, time, and I wrote it without thinking no one would ever read it. I gave it to Lucas Morrison, a friend; he was fifteen when the wreck happened; it happened down the road—Vair Rd.—from his house. He ran down the road because there were ambulances, cop cars, a life-flight. He had to identify Mark’s body…. I remember being nervous when I gave it to Marc; he hadn’t read any of the poems, and I gave him the book and he flipped through and read a couple and started crying. He recently told me he can’t really read it anymore, but he loves it. He said it’s real.

Purushothaman: Now for probably the most difficult question than even the stuff about prison—you’re an academic and editor, which are positions that gatekeep both creativity and public intellectualism. Since I earlier likened your work to New York School poetry, I sense that you’d hold less of a gatekeeping view of poetics as an editor and scholar. What are the ivory tower tendencies of poetry in the present day, which you observe as the outsider of all outsiders having lived outside society, and what ways in which you counteract them in your writing, editing and teaching?

Kell: I find myself still outside in so many ways. I’m not really in academia; I am so far from academia. I’m an Assistant Professor at the Community College of Rhode Island. I teach a lot of classes. I’m teaching, now, a class on paragraph development, how to write paragraphs—that’s the whole semester. I love these classes, though. So many of my students are ESL, and they’re brilliant, hardworking, hungry. I don’t know if one can ever teach hunger or hard work. But a lot of students are new to the U.S.; many have moved here in the last few years or so; many work full-time and part-time and have families to take care of. So, it’s a completely different demographic from the University of Rhode Island where I did my PhD work. Our talks and the work we do, in many ways, seem more nuanced. We can talk about “work,” about working jobs. Many students who I had at the University of Rhode Island never had a job or never worked other than to have some pocket money, etc. There are so many “nontraditional” students, older students. We talk a lot about opportunity and ability, that, we argue, everyone for the most part has the same ability, but the opportunities can be quite different. We start with work and class and move on toward other aspects. I can relate to this; I worked full-time and part-time throughout my undergrad; I paid for my college myself (or I’m trying to…). There’s some solidarity there. I didn’t attend college after high school; I waited a few years. But not a complete solidarity: I chose to do a PhD in literary criticism and poetry, to try to dedicate my life to writing. To the majority of people this sounds absurd, silly. So many of my peers at URI are panicking, freaked out by the job market, by the money. I sympathize but at the same time I always say, “we chose this absurd path”; we’re all masochists, in a sense. I don’t have kids; I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to buy a house, and I’m lucky—I got a job! I can pay my bills! I can afford to submit my poetry and writing! I can buy books! So many of my students struggle with paying bills, with working, etc., and they want to go to school, they are working toward something. I’m teaching an introduction to poetry class now and offered extra credit to students who turn in their own poems along with the first critical assignment—and so many did! People are hungry for poetry, for creative expression. It contextualizes my concerns and obsessions with poetry and literature and writing. On one hand, these are the most important things in my life; they define who I am, and writing, fiction, poetry, and art have saved my life many times over; on the other hand, they are utterly meaningless. But I feel like I’m painting a rosy picture of community college. I just taught my paragraph class and seven out of fifteen students showed up (I teach these classes synchronously); there is a big absentee problem at community college that is different from the university. I started teaching as an adjunct (to make extra money while working on my PhD) in 2014 at Three Rivers Community College in Connecticut. And my best students are as wonderful as any students I have had at a university, but the absenteeism, students just not coming to class and doing work, was (and is) a huge problem. There are many factors: most of these students must work to pay bills; they must care for family members, whereas a good number of students who live on campus at university have their college paid for, their cars and phones paid for, etc. It’s a different life. I’m thankful beyond measure to have this job where I can make enough money to pay Rhode Island rent and work on my writing when I’m not grading a mountain of composition papers, but I’m wondering if I’m truly helping at all.I wonder if the seven or eight out of fifteen students, or the 29 out of 30 in my literature class, would simply succeed without me, that they have the determination and drive to do it no matter what, and the students who are absent and struggle, no matter what I do, have too much going on. It can be easy to lapse into cynicism but I try like hell not to. I try to do anything I can for anyone who struggles. I go easy; I take late work; if a student blows off half the semester, I let the student make it up; I don’t know if I’m helping or hurting, though.

One way I try to counteract hegemony, perhaps, is by teaching texts by different people. Again, I don’t know what the ultimate effect of this is. For example, I’m teaching Wanda Coleman, I love her “Off Bonnet Sonnets,” her American sonnets and poetry so much. In a famous anthology of sonnets that came out, probably 20 years ago, there isn’t a Wanda Coleman sonnet in it. It’s a travesty because it’s not like she’s not famous as far as poets go. I had never read Wanda Coleman or June Jordan in any college classes—undergrad, master’s, or PhD—so I think it’s good that in my first-year poetry class students at least know these names and read this work. But I still teach “Prufrock,” and stuff that has always been taught. In my literature class we begin with short fiction like May-Lee Chai’s “Saving Sourdi”—a text I care for deeply—Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Edward P. Jones’s “The First Day” and “The Store,” Z.Z. Packer’s “Geese,” Xu Xi’s “Famine,” and Dagoberto Gilb’s “Romero’s Shirt,” which the students really love. Romero is wonderful. I also teach “Bartleby,” a story I had a much harder time teaching at university because so many students had never worked a horrible job whereas at the community college almost every student is working a mind-destroying job. My best reading of “Bartleby” came from a student from the Dominican Republic who was working two jobs and trying to go to school; she “got” Bartleby completely. But I’m never outside of the so-called system; I’m an Assistant Professor of English at a college—I can’t pretend to be radical, etc. It’s a strange happenstance that I have this job, that I was hired.

Working as an editor for the Ocean State Review is trickier. Luckily, we fly under the radar, so to speak. We don’t have a team, really, just a handful of people—me and Elizabeth Foulke mostly, with a little help from others. Peter Covino started the journal ten years ago and he plays a huge role, obviously, but he has Barrow Street and so many other things going on. But there is no journal without him. We’re trying to do everything—read submissions, solicit, deal with social media, mail out journals—we each wear all hats. It’s exhausting but we love it. As far as “ivory tower” tendencies I’m not too sure. I solicit writers. For example, Susan Stewart’s book The Forest (1995) is one of my favorite poetry books. So, I emailed her and asked for poems. But we try to take as many submissions from Submittable as possible. I don’t know that many poets and writers intimately, a handful. I like poetry Twitter for its entertainment; if someone mentions a poem, a writer, a book I’m not familiar with I check it out and immediately order the book. I guess a group of folks think the MFA is ruining writing; I’m not sure what that means; I don’t agree. I don’t have an MFA and didn’t study creative writing as one does in an MFA program; I’ve only had a handful of workshops. As the editor of the Ocean State Review I always try to incorporate as many diverse voices as possible. Our newest issue—out now!—is the most diverse yet. However, I always hope to have the best work. But I have solicited many famous writers that I love dearly: I’ve solicited Michael Palmer, Medbh McGuckian, Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop; I emailed and received art from Kara Walker. So, it’s a mix. I love to juxtapose these voices with other voices no one knows. We have been the first publication for some writers. This is illustrated on our website as well. I have profiles of many writers without full-length books; we close read a poem and talk about process. On the other hand, I’m working on an interview with Nikki Wallschlaeger about her new book, Waterbaby (2021); I think she’s one of the best poets writing today. When we first started charging a Submittable fee in 2017, I was against this but I’m not now. We used to receive such a glut of work that was clearly not ready; it wasn’t readable, really. With that said, there’s a note on our website that if folks have trouble with the fee, we’ll waive it, etc. I don’t know if there’s a way to avoid any “ivory-tower” stuff while one is working on a journal, or teaching, or trying to write. Obviously, people would argue that there is but I honestly wonder how.

I have no idea about “gate-keeping” or “ivory tower” stuff in my own writing. I basically write what I feel like, what intrigues and obsesses me. My new manuscript deals a lot with Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852); I love Book XVII: Young America in Literature; I’ve taken that chapter as a guide. But no one is clamoring for this book. However, it’s what I’m obsessed with and what I’ve chosen to spend my time on. It may never see the light of day—oh well.        

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