My Jewish question is more of an answer to a question that needn’t be asked.

One of my co-editors is especially keen on soliciting and publishing poetry in translation. Another person, who presents as an ally, once told me, straight in the face, that the reason for this poetic proclivity can be explained away by the fact that said co-editor is a bleeding heart from South Africa.

This is not because of the diversity of languages regularly spoken there. Of which, by the way, there are 11, officially—Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.

I was left to infer something about Apartheid and white guilt, I suppose, an inference that insults my co-editor’s agency over his own preferences, and emits acrid wafts of tokenism towards the works we’d accepted. It was tacitly saying that, had a different editor been chosen, with a different background, the journal would be taking other pieces, more “mainstream” or “normal” poems maybe.

Again, “normal” is to be inferred from this verbal legerdemain. As an academic in 23rd grade, I’ve been trained that “mainstream” poets are defined as those who win awards, are white males, and operate in a lyrical or narrative mode.

I’m not sure I agree with that estimate entirely, but I was left to fill the negative space, so I did the best I could. I’ve seen plenty of terrible award-winning experimental poetry by white people. In fact, I’ve seen all kinds of poetry in many permutations. My ear and presumably other body parts lead me in my own taste.

Must there be a reason for the work we choose as editors? If one doesn’t have a stated ethos, evidently one will be named for you.

Here is where I place an enormous hedge of neighborly privacy. I’m a poet, and while I devour think-pieces and all manner of nonfiction on this and others topics, I’m uncomfortable staking a claim that reflects my own preferences and that of the journal generally. Yes, I’m in the academy, which coaches students to make a claim. As a comp teacher, I coach my students to make a claim. Maybe I’m a wuss, hiding beyond the ambiguity and velocity of my poems. So be it.

But I understand that editing is a public practice. It’s an act of gatekeeping. Furthermore, it is one way to consider literary activism, not necessarily as an overt gesture, but with a stake in institutionalized power. We are experiencing tumult in this country—the indiscriminate slaying of people of color by the police, weapons essentially invited to college campuses, hijab-ophobia, reckless legislature on women’s healthcare, the astounding privilege of a so-called liberal activist referring to HRC as a “bucket of vomit” and propagating reasons to vote for you-know-who instead.

I’m not saying these will be solved by literature. But a journal can present a collective of differences. And not just the much maligned, 1980’s, culture war idea of diverse “voices.” I think the LANGUAGE vs lyric debate has tidily been put to bed by now. A journal can provide different representations of meditations, outside the clamor of social media.

I decided to embark on a thought experiment. As an editor, I prioritize diversity—aesthetically, linguistically, and culturally—and energy, and an Altmanesque overlapping of voices. If pressed to make an analogy, I would explain that I typically choose poems that sound like a stroll down a street in New York, which is where I’m from and which I consider the best city in the world. It has shaped my poetic sensibilities, through its music and sense of performance.

Compelled to dig even deeper, I hit against the root of my Judaism. My Judaism indeed, because it is a very old religion, subject to waves of diaspora, and espoused idiosyncratically—and often secularly—across the world. Many tribe members cannot read our formative texts in their original languages, and, because of that and other natural progressions, have wandered entirely from its practices and rituals.

Because we can’t read the original language, some feel disenfranchised from accessing the text. The religion seems stewarded by other people. But the culture, or the sense that I identify with it, is politically vibrant, radical, full of longing.

See saudade: Portuguese for profound nostalgia for a permanent absence; tizita: Ethiopian for a blend of memory and mourning, loss and longing, an apostrophized personification; or Sehnsucht: German for intense pining mixed with the knowledge of unattainability.

I’ve wrestled (cue Jacob and the angel) with my love for certain literary underdogs. Think Dorothy Parker, Kenneth Koch, and Grace Paley, who I didn’t know when I was reading then, but know now, identified in some way as Jewish. Parker, especially, a renowned wit, highly responsive to her time, generous in her melancholy. I was not shocked, but moved that a man named Abel Meeropol wrote the song “Strange Fruit.”

When I spent a week at the Yiddish Book Center last June, it dawned on me that that gallows’ humor, that survivor’s dirge, that balls-out, ironic twisty wistfulness might be an answer to my Jewish question.

The disclaimer hardly seems necessary: I’m not suggesting that there is a Jewish-American aesthetic. Adrienne Rich’s essay about her crypto-Jewish identity, “Split at the Root,” bears no resemblance to stand-up bits of borsht belt humor. Furthermore, there are different definitions of a Jew, which stretch from secular Israeli solders to Hassids, cultish, anachronistic, soldiers of a different order.

Nor am I saying, by negation, that goyim are locked outside of the magical wit factory for life, by pain of conversion. (A Jewish conversion seems like a particularly painfully searching experience.) Edna St. Vincent Millay’s candle burning at both ends is one of my favorite economically charming and bittersweet quatrains.

As a contemporary sanctioned poetry aesthetic, humor is in a minority position. I don’t mean the diffused third-generation New York School frenzy of the unexpected, but real wit. It is often overlooked, excluded by the canon, dismissed and mislabeled as light verse.

I’m not often made aware of my own religious minority status. Racially, I am coded within the dominant culture and I benefit from this privileged position. (Let’s revisit the hows and whys of the strong Jewish-American presence in certain literary and entertainment industries in a different essay. I’ll say briefly that the most convincing theory of Jews flocking to these particular creative industries, for me, is the idea of creating parallel universes in fantasy.)

I’m reminded of my otherness in ways that catch my breath. The almost-twee cuteness in my gut response of mazel tov in response to announcements of pregnancies, promotions, moves, and marriages. My abhorrence when U.S. presidential candidates perform their Christian faith by design, as if it’s an authentic testament to character. (See Donald Trump’s reverence to “two Corinthians,” and beyond.) I find liturgical passages at weddings boring beyond belief, and not infrequently unsettling.

On a read trip last summer, my husband and I had to stop at a filling station in northern Alabama. It was plastered with red, white, and blue bumper stickers, pro-gun and anti-Muslim, and I was triggered with a Semitic ancestral fear.

I used the bathroom, bought peanut m&m’s as deliberate compensation for this service, and tried not to talk, for fear that my Jewishness might somehow surface and endanger me. It is irrational, but so are most feelings, especially ancestral ones.

Jews are a diasporatic people but “pass.” Consequently, there is a certain self-othering that occurs, bordering at times on xenophilia or a creepy automatic affinity for other others. How much relational attachments can one be expected to feel? Are American Jews distinctly intersectional?

Aren’t I personally proud of the Jewish traditions of socialism, sexual liberties, the hundred year-odd books written in Yiddish about Buddhist theology? What sort of interventions are asked of us by Hashem?

But these questions smack of exceptionalism. There are revolutionaries in China, Muslim feminists, dark humor in Chile, the ambiguity between nation, culture, and religion in desperate places, like Kashmir and South Sudan. Furthermore, literary activism is poorly defined, somewhere closer to the armchair than a downtown protest.

Which circles back to my first scruple. The personal does not dictate reader response, nor does politics. Consider the contrasting notions of essentialist representative voice and the supposed democracy of experimental writing. I’m not saying that age, gender, geography, sexual orientation, educational background, nationality, class, etc, etc, do not bear any relevance in the engagement of literature or aesthetic affiliations. I’m saying that it seems to me to be a dystopian nightmare if there’s a one-to-one relationship, barring any empathy through imagination. The infrastructure as it stands would just spawn more of the same—and that is unacceptable.

Sitting on religious-themed panel once, Leonard Cohen let out his own barbaric yawp, exhorting people who identify as Jews to abandon empty practices and instead “break their minds on the universe.” That is the task of the editor. Not paternalism, not reciprocity or anything of the sort. Just a mind, breaking through a patch of the darkness that surrounds us.


Erika Jo Brown is the author of the poetry collection I’m Your Huckleberry (Brooklyn Arts Press). A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she’s currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Houston where she’s the reading series curator and poetry editor for Gulf Coast. 

Reading Colorfully: Traveling Through the World’s Literature

By Nichole L. Reber



Six of us writer/expatriates had just sat down to another stop in our culinary tour of Lima, Peru. It was still early enough in the restaurant this Friday night for conversation with friends. Garlic wafted through the air from the kitchen at our backs and purple, pink, and gold cocktails sparkled in the lumens of the sconce lighting. Someone broached the topic of Mario Vargas Llosa, that country’s Nobel-winning author, and tension shot through the table like a backfire.

Finally Canadian Paul spoke up: “I just couldn’t make it through the damn book. I tried– I really did– but it was just … I finally had to just give up.”

Our collective sigh deflated the tension like a whoopie cushion. At last, someone else who didn’t like Llosa, Peru’s demi-god. Back then I assumed I’d appreciate— love even— any literary prizewinner’s work. I’ve learned since that that is certainly not so; prizes are just as subjective as any and every other art form. I had yet to realize, as I have through this Year of Colorful Reading, that my problems with South American literature wouldn’t stop at Llosa. Why? Could it be just another form of subjectivity? After all we can’t like everything. Continue reading

Reading Colorfully: Traveling through the World’s Literature



By Nichole L. Reber


confession_2.inddIt’d be hard to deny Mia Couto’s sparse detail and simple (though stunningly gorgeous) prose echo that of Papa Hemingway’s. But the fissure between hunter and writer in Couto’s novel, Confessions of the Lioness, makes me wish the two authors could have a public discussion over tea or, more likely, beers. Here’s a line that gets me wondering what Hemingway would have thought:

“There’s a time to love and there’s a time to hunt. The two never mix. If I were to give in, I would be betraying an age-old tradition: when one is hunting, one cannot have sex.” Continue reading

Reading Colorfully: Traveling through the World’s Literature


–by Nichole Reber


Ask for names like Basharat Peer or Tashi Dawa at your local or chain bookstore and the clerks look at you like you’ve got seven heads. I was the one confused, though, by the lack of easy access to international authors upon repatriating back to the States. Sure, I no longer had daily access to ramshackle book vendors beside Mumbai train stations, Peruvian favorites in Lima’s bookstores, or expat bar bookshelves in China, but need that put an end to my colorful reading? So join me in this journey between crisp white pages of new literary titles and soft yellowed pages of older books.

Acts of Worship cover

Kodansha International, Publisher Date of Publication: 1965

Literary Acts of Worship Terrifies

Yukio Mishima’s Temple of Dawn gave me nightmares. It’s not a frightening novel, not a thriller or suspense, a crime drama or any other form of genre fiction, though it does contain some magical realism elements that prove the literary technique does not lie solely in the hands of Latin American writers. What stole my sleep for two nights, what has me in a terrified yet excited fix to watch The Criterion Collection’s two-disc account of the Japanese author, is his ethereal darkness.

Just a couple of days after opening my first of his books, I put down the novel and started on something else entirely. The next time he came around I stuck with him, opening the pages of Acts of Worship with excited terror like seeing the Blair Witch Project for the first time in a 1999 theatre. This collection of short stories made a better entrée into the troubled writer’s oeuvre. Continue reading


There’s nothing more obnoxious than that writing teacher who loves to talk about their own work in class. It smacks of something desperate, but in the creative writing for new media course I teach at the University of Iowa I confess I do share some of my work with my students, shamelessly. Yes: I’m that guy. My intention is never to show off the bells and whistles of my new media thesis (though I confess I do derive some joy from showing them the possibilities of the form. Look, kids, music! Text effects! Interaction!) but rather to investigate intimately, critically, and honestly, the still-nascent craft issues that one runs into when diving into the deep end of new media writing for the first time, an experience I attest can quickly become overwhelming.

It’s useful to approach the production of my first online project, IN SEARCH OF: A SANDBOX NOVEL together with my students first – speaking as a traditional writer with no coding skills and very little new media know-how – in order to give them a crash course in the problems that may arise in their own work very soon. I’m able to articulate precisely the kind of things that most traditional writers need never concern themselves with, for with new media not only are you dealing with the traditional trappings of storytelling (dialogue, setting, scene, point of view, etc.), there is an entirely new galaxy of problems: visual, kinetic, and aural components to consider.

So, consider this your crash course. If you’d like to play along, visit Click on the ‘first time reading’ link at the top. Take some time to explore, or don’t. When you’re done, come back here. All the myriad problems on the checklist will soon make sense, and in the end either you’ll be won over by the potential of new media lit, supremely frustrated, or just plain unimpressed. In any case, here are some problems you may or may not encounter when it comes to new media writing. (Here are the problems I definitely encountered while writing IN SEARCH OF.) Continue reading

Reading Colorfully: Traveling through the World’s Literature

–by Nichole Reber

Ask for names like Basharat Peer or Tashi Dawa at your local or chain bookstore and the clerks look at you like you’ve got seven heads. I was the one confused, though, by the lack of easy access to international authors upon repatriating back to the States. Sure, I no longer had daily access to ramshackle book vendors beside Mumbai train stations, Peruvian favorites in Lima’s bookstores, or expat bar bookshelves in China, but need that put an end to my colorful reading? So join me in this journey between crisp white pages of new literary titles and soft yellowed pages of older books.

“Heartbreaker on a Quest”

Writer Pham Thi Hoai knows how to tick off the Vietnamese powers that be. Her homeland’s government accuses her of disregarding social taboos, disrespecting traditions, having a pessimistic view of their country, and worse— abusing the “sacred mission of a writer.”

DCF 1.0

Pham Thi Hoai

In the book that introduced me to her work, Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam, edited by Linh Dinh and published by Seven Stories in 1996, Dinh describes that “sacred mission.” Writers throughout East Asian history were considered public servants, he explains. Their task “was to steer the masses toward righteousness. Writing that is irreverent, playful or morally ambivalent,” he writes, “was seen by the ruling class as either frivolous or subversive.” By 1978, Dinh writes, more than 160 South Vietnamese writers were detained in re-education camps (which my experience living in China taught me to interpret as brainwashing camps, a newfangled Cultural Revolution practice). About a decade later Vietnam’s political climate appeared to have changed. Secretary General Nguyen Van Linh encouraged writers to “’Speak the truth… No matter what happens, Comrades, don’t curb your pen.’” That was, however, not entirely true.

Hoai is just one author whose work, such as her first novel The Crystal Messenger, was banned. She now lives in Berlin where she founded and writes in an apparently incendiary online journal in Vietnamese, which has also been banned in Vietnam. Her work, fortunately for us on this side of the planet, has been translated into English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Finnish. Continue reading

CAREFULLY CURATED CATASTROPHES (a hypothetical pitch), by Matthew Burnside

Dear Publisher,

This pitch, if you even want to call it that, started out as (& being about) many different things.

In the end, I decided it couldn’t be (about) one thing without being (about) everything.


What the hell even is a story if not the simple saga of someone trying?


If I wanted to impress you, here are the things I would tell you about myself: I recently graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently teach creative writing for new media there. I was recipient of a Truman Capote Fellowship. I am author of five chapbooks, one of them interactive, two of them for charity. My stories, poems, and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Experimental Writing 2015, The Iowa Review, The Los Angeles Review, DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Passages North, PANK, Hobart, kill author, Pear Noir!, Gargoyle, NAP, OmniVerse, and more. I am co-founder of an experimental literary magazine called Cloud Rodeo, managing editor of Mixed Fruit, and have been a reader for PANK, The Iowa Review, and NPR’s 3 Minute Fiction. In addition, I write a monthly column for Ploughshares on storytelling and intersections between new media and literature and serve as interviews editor for BOAAT press.

The manuscript that I’m submitting, Bestiary and Other Tales of Monsters, was recently finalist in a few contests, including The Lit Pub’s Prose Contest, the Santa Fe Writers’ Market Literary Awards, and the Willow Springs Editions Spokane Prize in Short Fiction.


If I wanted to be honest with you, here are the things I would tell you about myself: At 32, I’ve applied to 32 academic jobs & received 0 interview requests. (The future’s so bright I’ve gotta wear one of those miner helmets with an industrial flashlight on it.) I only got into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop after 50 other programs cordially disinvited me to attend their programs over a period of 3 years. The manuscript I’m sending you has been rejected over 25 times now. In workshop sometimes at Iowa, my head would hurt because I didn’t understand what the fuck anyone was talking about. I would say something like, “I like the fact that this story has a pony in it. It’s very axiomatic I think,” and hope no one would ask me if I even knew what the word axiomatic meant. Continue reading

#AWP15: On Firsts


–by Chelsea Kindred


First AWP.

First plane ride where passengers are reading The Paris Review instead of US Weekly.

First snow rain in April, first city split in two and stretched across the Mississippi. The same river that crawls across the country, curving in and out of the words of writers past, present and future.

First panel, first page of notes, first inky smudge from tip of pinky to bottom of wrist on my left hand. That tell tale sign that I’ve been writing. Continue reading

#AWP15: Listen Up

–by Shannon Reed

mini apple 2

In the weeks leading up to my first AWP conference, I heard a great deal of advice. Although much of it turned out to be helpful, the words “strategize” and “survive” were so often included, I began to think of my trip to Minneapolis as a minor campaign in a small, bloodless war. Get in. Get free bookmarks. If the battlefield is clear, maybe snag a free tote bag. Avoid the panels. And then, get out. As it turned out, I enjoyed the conference a great deal more than I expected – the free tote bags guy at the London Review of Books was really nice! – but I also came away more concerned about the inclusivity of the world that AWP gathers together.

Much has been written about the representation (or lack thereof) of writers of color and LGBTQ writers at AWP, and, from my limited perspective, the concern seems justified. Here, though, I want to point to another area I worry about, one that I am better equipped to speak to: the way the conference actually unfolds, which leads to a prioritizing of one kind of communication and learning over all others. Continue reading

MÉNAGE À TRIOLETS, by Heidi Czerwiec

A [PANK] Blog guest series for National Poetry Month



I. Dear Mr. Grey:

All new lovers need to learn restraint.
Unless it’s sexy fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Your Red Room of Pain may make me faint
with desire: all lovers could use some restraint,
someone to show the ropes, the cuffs, the quaint
trappings of bondage, to come on strong.
But while all lovers need to learn some restraint,
your controlling lack of fun is doing it wrong. Continue reading