Poetry, Review, Spring

But There is a Cost: on Victoria Chang’s The Boss

TheBoss

By Leah Silvieus

Victoria Chang’s The Boss (McSweeney’s 2013) is a virtuosic and intimate meditation on power in its many forms. The Boss, winner of the PEN Center Literary Award as well as a California Book Award, is as polished and self-assured as a third book should be. While there are many fine poems worth discussing in this collection, I would like to focus on the poems titled after the paintings of American artist Edward Hopper (1882 – 1962), which make up nearly a quarter of the collection and comprise a significant part of its structural frame.

Hopper’s Office at Night appears in the title of three poems; the New York Office, Office in a Small City and Automat all appear twice. Chang also includes poems titled after Conference at Night and Chair Car. Much of Hopper’s oeuvre reveals figures gazing out windows – or gazing at each other unable to connect emotionally, which is solitude of a different kind. These paintings often place us as viewers into position of voyeurs who are happening upon Hopper’s figures just before or after something important occurs. We feel the tension between these individuals and the outside world that they gaze upon; we are not invited to engage fully, but at the same time, we are tempted to linger. The brilliance of Chang’s poems, however, lies in how they return the painting’s gaze, thus inviting the reader from the position of voyeur to witness:

 

“[…] from the front the building looks

like a giant spreadsheet there would be

thousands of rectangles

 

thousands of workers staring out like

little numbers waiting to be shifted up

shifted down summed up averaged

deleted” (“Edward Hopper’s Office in a Small City” p. 37)

 

The readers become those gazing back at the spreadsheet of office windows, alongside the speaker, as if it were in our power to sum the workers up, average them – delete them. “They are waiting on us – what will we do?” the poem seems to ask.

Chang also invites the reader into the position of witness as she transposes the figures in Hopper’s paintings into scenes of the speaker’s history, as she does in her second “Edward Hopper’s Office at Night.” The end of the poem segues into an intimate and personal discussion of the legacy of power: “I hear my two-year-old fighting / with someone in her crib she is bossing // someone around no no no bad that’s mine you don’t take / mine […]”, and later in the same poem, “[…] I hear her singing happy birthday to / me happy birthday to me she is already celebrating / herself she will be the perfect boss.”

Chang’s deft use of enjambment, slant rhymes and plays on words embody the tension between the figures in the poems, between interior and public life, between the individual and her relationship to structures of power. She walks courageously into the difficult terrain of the tension between power’s effects on others and our own desire for it: “my four-year-old daughter still / listens to me I am the boss and I like it I / see why the boss likes it,” she writes in “The Boss Wears a White Vest.” Later, in “The Boss Rises,” she comments: “we / can be bosses too can hold the cross but / there is a cost.”

Then, Chang reminds us, there are some powers that we are helpless to control altogether, which she captures in “I Once Was a Child”: “my father lost his words to a stroke / a stroke of bad luck stuck his words / used to be so worldly […]” Little, if anything, is lastingly ours:

 

“[…] my blood has nowhere to go trapped in this

cavity circling and reassuring itself chasing

itself until one day it will rush out and

never look back” (“Some Days One Day”)

 

The landscape of power that Chang presents in The Boss is, at times, quite grim; however, her playfulness and prosodic virtuosity reminds us that we need not live quietly desperate. While Hopper may have given us windows from which to gaze out, Chang’s poems give us the hammer to break through.

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leah1

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her athttp://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

 

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Poetry, Review, Uncategorized

“Safekeeping the Stories We Cannot Turn Out into the Night”: On Michelle Peñaloza’s Landscape/Heartbreak

landscape

By Leah Silvieus

Some years ago, the Scientific American[1] published a piece on a study that showed that music has the ability to affect the human heartbeat. Like a Verdi aria that causes the heartbeat to synchronize with the music, Michelle Peñaloza’s Landscape/Heartbreak (Two Sylvias Press 2015) walks beside us through journeys of loss across the city of Seattle. As she writes in the opening essay of the collection:

And what happens to words when walking with someone? Walking changes the quality of conversation. Your bodies have something to do: the distance you traverse together, the observations you make, fill any silence, and yet—silence becomes more acceptable. Even comfortable. Walking side by side for miles, your breath and stride fall in time together. Your heart works in tandem with the other heart walking beside you.

Peñaloza’s idea for the project began simply enough, as she writes on her website: “my heart broke and I went on a very long walk.” What has followed is a frank and tender meditation on trauma, memory, and the relationship between inner and outer landscapes:

What kind of story can a city tell if this isn’t just the corner of Broadway and John, but the corner where X learned that Y never really loved him? Or if this isn’t just the hospital across the street, but the place where Z told her mother she loved her for the very last time? How does access to the narratives of the people in a city change the way we experience that city’s physical landscape?[2]

During the year Peñaloza worked on the project, she accompanied 22 friends, friends of friends and strangers as they retraced the paths across Seattle where their hearts had been broken. All of the walks began at the Hugo House in the Central Capitol Hill neighborhood and covered almost 120 miles.

Throughout this collection, Peñaloza walks alongside her readers, encouraging them to listen – not only to what did happen, but also to what did not: “The plot is over but still we mull / the coulda, woulda, shoulda / even as the oceans rise and the petals fall. You might have stayed with him forever.” There are myriad traumas ghosting behind these poems: “people who’d lost children and mothers and fathers and lovers, who’d been traumatized by the hate of others, who’d been cheated on and lied to, who’d cheated and lied, who’d been fearful and brave.” (“Notes from the Field”) Landscape/Heartbreak also addresses those heartbreaks we cannot name: “Of course I pray to you. Bending low my head / silently pleading for what I can’t ever seem to find: / the few, right words, the ones that could be enough,” she writes in “Prayer to the Patron Saint of All Lost.”

The beauty and raw precision of the language in Peñaloza’s collection evokes the feeling that one is physically and emotionally walking beside her and her fellow heartbreak walkers. “We touch the Scotch broom and lilacs / erupted in spring, notice the renegade ferns / growing upon the stumps of old docks,” she writes in “We Walk a Heart Around Lake Union.” The cadence and clarity of Peñaloza’s images carry an almost palpable weight: “Because of the lentils in jars, the hydrangeas drunk on pennies, the grafted apple trees, the Italian plums, and Rainier cherries,” she writes in a prose poem, “A Strange Constellation of Desires,” “Because he told me he loved me. Because I believed him.”

We can never feel the losses of Landscape/Heartbreak as acutely as those people who suffered them firsthand. Peñaloza, however, gives us these sorrows in the form of hydrangeas, neon signs and rusted nails and asks us to hold them, to sit with them, to feel the weight of their stories – even, or especially, if we aren’t sure what to say in response. As she says in her introduction: “Don’t say you understand. Don’t say everything is going to be okay. Do not ever say that things happen for a reason. Say nothing. Listen.”  Reading this collection is as heartbreaking as its title promises, but it is also a prayer of intercession for lost things and for the aspects of ourselves that we lose along heartbreak’s journey. Everything might not be okay. We might never understand. We might not find a reason behind our suffering. Landscape/Heartbreak knows all of this and still accompanies us along the difficult way, assuring us that we need never walk alone.

 

[1] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/music-therapy-heart-cardiovascular/

[2] http://www.michellepenaloza.com/theidea/

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leah1

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her athttp://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

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Fall, Poetry, Review

“Between a Season of Desire and a Season of Dust” : Suzanne Bottelli’s The Feltville Formation

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By Leah Silvieus

Suzanne Bottelli’s The Feltville Formation (Finishing Line Press 2015) is ambitious. Within the chapbook’s slim 26 pages, Bottelli, who was born and raised in New Jersey, reaches from the state’s geologic history in the first poem, “To a Rogue Boulder in Sunlight,” into the present day. While tracing the industrial and cultural history of the area, Bottelli deftly unwinds the genealogy of what has made not only New Jersey, but also the country as a whole, “go and grow”– and its consequences. In collection’s title poem, we glimpse a billboard: “[…] a white man in a cap  / pours the milky bucketful above a rooftop: / PAINT WITH EAGLE PURE WHITE LEAD.” The image conjures a “milky” and superficially wholesome, vision of American industry, but one that is also heavy with connotations of literal whitewashing and its poisonous aftermath.

In the collection’s second poem, “Ironbound,” Bottelli walks the reader backward through a complex litany of industrial and environmental development: before “the waterfront renewal project / with its green playfields and jumpsuit orange boardwalk,” before “the days when reactor boil-over / was hosed down the old blood troughs and into the river,” there was the founding of Lister Agricultural Chemical works, whose purpose was “to grind up bones for glue and grease (to make things go), / and for feeding the soil, to make things grow.” Bottelli reminds us that the visions of the past often fuel the present – literally, in this case.

Bottelli’s infusion of childhood memories makes the collection as intimate as it is ambitious, and that is perhaps the chapbook’s greatest strength as it vitalizes the links between past and present. One of the most striking poems in the collection is “Fort Lee, NJ: July 4, 1976,” in which the child narrator presents New Jersey in a surreal and cinematic flash: cash “fluttering like green birds from above,” “the summer air jubilant with sirens,” “[s]chooners plying the destroyed river,” “a woman with a frosted swoop of hair / perched on the bench of her very own Wurlitzer.” “What a party,” Bottelli writes, “Two hundred years / in the blink of an eye.” Toward the end of the collection, Bottelli invites the reader to appreciate the present moment through the immediacy that often only a child can have:

 

“As when the mind starts sifting,
like a kid with a lifted window screen,
for the glints and grains that might give

delight before the whole show
is over – […]”

 

How quickly the present moment is over; how quickly we move through time. While awareness of the present moment may not necessarily be a remedy for the oversights and errors of the past, The Feltville Formation seems to suggest that such awareness may be a small step toward creating a livable future – as our present inevitably becomes our past.

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leah1

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her athttp://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

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Poetry, Review, Summer

On Jay Nebel’s Neighbors

jaynebel

Reviewed by Leah Silvieus

If you were to find yourself chatting with Jay Nebel’s Neighbors (Saturnalia Books, 2014) at a BBQ, it wouldn’t be too long before you’d get the feeling that these are the kinds of poems that have seen a lot. Maybe it’s because they’ve actually experienced a lot, or maybe it’s just that they’ve learned how to pay attention. Maybe it’s both. The poems in this collection are raw and heartbreaking, in great part because they’ve learned to cut the bullshit. Nebel writes with a kind of worldly vulnerability that seems to be a result of chasing cynicism to its limits and then returning from the edge:

[…] I want the faith
of the blind hamster who sniffs over the edge
of the kitchen table and pushes off,
to believe as some of my friends believe,
in jumbo neon crosses and radio stations,
in the palm against your forehead,
falling backwards and underwater
revival, in the cleaniness of porn stars […]

(“The Cleanliness of Porn Stars”)

            Neighbors deals with the desire to be seen as well as the loneliness and shame that often accompanies that desire. In “Shopping at Macy’s,” Nebel describes a speaker “surrounded by young bodies, twenty-year old whips,” who realizes he is “nothing to these women, / just a middle-aged married man with tattoos.” Nebel lays these confessions out nakedly and with little comment, thus eliding the temptation to descend into self-pity. He concludes that poem with this striking line: “I am waiting for someone to arrest me.” Perhaps shame hangs heaviest if we get away with our fantasies, if, worst of all, we confess and no one cares or even notices. This risk of emotional exposure is one of the collection’s greatest vulnerabilities and one of its greatest strengths.

It’s not only in the back rooms and dark alleys that we witness the struggle for survival, Nebel’s poems demonstrate, but also in the lawns and malls and Home Depot parking lots where people waver between two seemingly irreconcilable extremes: quiet desperation on one end, recklessness on the other. “We’re at war and the world’s at war,” he writes in “Lawns”: “Every day I’m more like a beached / whale waiting for someone / to pull out his fishing knife and open me up.” We struggle to matter and to mean – to tell those stories that make us feel that we have an audience and are therefore a little less alone: “I’m working on the right finale,” he writes in “Fast, Hard, and Rated R” and continues later in the poem: “I refuse to be remembered as the mangy dog that crawled back under the porch / to die […] Give me heavy / metal and a long-haired guitar.”

The Old English roots of the word “neighbor” come from words meaning “near” and “dweller” or “inhabitant.” Like the title of the book, Nebel’s poems remind us that there is someone on the other side of that wall, across the lawn, down the street – others who are with us in our shame and desire and risk. In reading the collection, Nebel’s poems become kinds of neighbors to the reader, offering us “the awkward high five of reincarnation,” and with their own vulnerability dare us to be more vulnerable, dare us to be seen.

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Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her athttp://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

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Poetry, Review, Spring

To Attend to the Fleeting Moment: Judy Halebsky’s Tree Line

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Reviewed by Leah Silvieus

Judy Halebsky’s newest poetry collection, Tree Line (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2014), evokes the sense of a moving meditation on the possibilities of distance. As a tree line inhabits the liminal zone of climate, Halebsky’s poems move within liminal zones of nature, language and human relationships. Drawing on traditions of Japanese literature and modern collage, Halebsky uses juxtaposition to reveal connections among seemingly disparate ideas, time periods and languages.

“This contrast or juxtaposition is central to the art of haiku. It allows for a space between what is written in the poem and what is evoked by the poem,” Halebsky says in an interview with Dominican University of California where she currently teaches. “With the season marker and nature-based images of the poem, the haiku address the human condition of fragility in a transient world. We are subject to the natural world, the forces of nature, and the ever-fleeting condition of life. A haiku calls us to attend to this fleeting moment.”[1]

Or, as Halebsky writes in In “Motel 6”: “haiku isn’t 5-7-5 / it’s two images that crash together / to make a third.” Halebsky remains keenly observant of the living world while acknowledging its brevity with sensitive detachment. In a poem written after Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying,” she writes, “we lie so close your heart beats through my ribs / we walk scarred / we love only with what we can bear to lose.” Gilbert’s original poem weaves together a meditation on a fading relationship and the Icarus and Daedalus myth. In the stunning last line of “Failing and Flying,” Gilbert writes, “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.” Like Gilbert, Halebsky explores moments of sorrow, grief and separation by slowing down their collisions and divisions to reveal the beauty inherent in their juxtapositions and negative spaces.

She writes, for example, in “Li Po Loved Two Things”: “Basho looking down over the falls / in another country / hundreds of years later / picking flowers for Li Po.” In this image, we are aware of both the distance and the kinship between these two poets who are unified across languages and geography by the simple gesture of picking flowers, of gift giving. It is the chronological, geographic, and linguistic distance between the two poets that makes possible this gift, Halebsky seems to suggest, and perhaps distance that makes connection possible at all.

In “Space, Gap, Interval, Distance” she writes:

        間ma
        written as the sun
        coming through the gate

as what we leave open
between us
so the spirits    when they come
will have a place to land.

Yo-Yo Ma, quoting the violinist Isaac Stern, once said in an interview [2] that music happens between the notes. The same effect is present here in Halebsky’s work. It is Halebsky’s delicate handling of the inherent brevity of life, connection, and language that lends her work its profundity. Tree Line rewards multiple readings as each continues to reveal more expansively the music that lives within the poems’, and our own, fleeting moments.

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[1] Halebsky, Judy. “Judy Halebsky.” Dominican University of California. Dominican.edu, n.d. Web.1 May 2015.

[2] Ma, Yo-Yo. “Music Happens Between the Notes,” Interview by Krista Tippett. On Being.org. On Being, 4 September 2014.Web. 1 May 2015.

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Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her athttp://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

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Poetry, Review, Spring

Modern Geographies and Other Intimate Objects: Feliz Lucia Molina’s Undercastle

undercastle_cover 

Reviewed by Feliz Molina

For those in search of celebrated 90s nostalgia, imitation Elvis, karaoke, and intimacy of touchscreens, Feliz Lucia Molina’s Undercastle provides a dedicated homage to the collective static of a transient life that hops from “palm tree electric/ post-heart” California to Manila of “mega mall hording leftovers from America” (redacted), accumulating these object-memories. For as much as the collection lingers on memory, it is also as much about the obstructions and possibilities of technology and reference in the present—the self that cannot untangle itself from time, space, and distortions. This resonant effect is preempted with a trifold of postmodern wisdom in the forms of Emmanuel Hocquard, Hélène Cixous, and Alice Notley whose gathered presence suggests that linguistic static is significant to this work and that its poems will try anyway to “enter that world” despite interference.

Though this opening sets us up for obstruction, the subtle humor and conversational engagement of the ensuing poems establish an arc that welcomes a reader like a fellow passenger onboard a flight that makes pit-stops at “Strip Mall Heaven” with “Saint Lucia patron saint of contact lenses” and the “Hologram Lover Hotel” of the titular poem, “Undercastle.” For a collection that deals so thoughtfully with place, these landmarks serve as points of hyperreal observation in which the literal and the metaphorical become indistinguishable manifestations of anxiety and desire. If anxiety is provoked by the relentless capitalist and consumer-driven culture that makes the Sunglass Hut feel suspect in “Dear Jean Baudrillard,” then surely there must be longing for that which makes the world bearable. Molina names desire as the impulse that cuts through the interferences and what makes this particular brand of longing unique is its inextricability from interference. In “Marginalia as Balcony or Swimming,” Molina writes, “We were users and swimmers and lovers,” lending credence to all forms of labor that make up a life or living.

While desire is a strong impulse throughout the collection, what prevents Undercastle from falling into the trappings of the overly sanguine is the occasional lightness with which it imbues its deep longing. In “Teddy Ruxpin,” a young girl is perturbed to find that a sibling has put an MC Hammer tape into her stuffed teddy bear. What ensue are a girl’s quietly funny and unexpectedly sweet attempts to reconcile her upset with a moment of sexual awakening, culminating with her masturbating to MC Hammer’s “Turn This Mutha Out” as it blares from her beloved bear. This admission is no simple corruption of the famed childhood toy of the ‘90s, not when its tender prose seems to logically point us to the inevitability of this gesture. Similarly, “Instant Ramen Instant Message” expresses such deadpan humor in its description of “Skype nannying,” which includes one hundred and seven nationalities of children and showing off a fourth tallest TV tower in Europe located in Berlin. It’s a poem that’s very much about how a community or home forms despite the challenges of distance, which is the twinned difficulty of globalization and spotty internet connection. For as grand as these problems may seem, Molina offers us the final words “a small red heart,” a gentle offering for a patchwork life.

In addition to the charged sincerity of the text, there is also the strikingly eerie yet gorgeous cover photograph of Undercastle taken by Japanese photographer Haruhiko Kawaguchi, which features the poet and her partner in an entangled embrace wrapped in a plastic bag with the air suctioned out of it. It’s a concept that might make a claustrophobic heart queasy, but its gesture is also resonant with the collection’s brave tenderness. It takes a great leap of faith to give one’s body to stillness and the terrifying enclosures of plastic. We too need to be this bold and strange and intimate.

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Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung is a multimedia poet and former teaching artist from Queens, NY. Her poetry and essays can be found or is forthcoming in Coconut, TENDE RLOIN, Bone Bouquet, Dark Phrases, and RE/VISIONIST. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship. Currently, she is a MFA candidate in poetry at Louisiana State University where she also serves as the Assistant Editor of New Delta Review.

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Fall, Poetry

Episode #110: Oliver de la Paz, author of POST SUBJECT, and a review of Sheryl Luna’s SEVEN

Episode #110!  Featuring an interview with Oliver de la Paz, author of POST SUBJECT, and a review by David Campos of Sheryl Luna‘s SEVEN!

Oliver de la Paz, author of POST SUBJECT

Oliver de la Paz, author of POST SUBJECT

Oliver de la Paz is the author of four collections of poetry, Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby (SIU Press 2001, 2007), and Requiem for the Orchard (U. of Akron Press 2010), winner of the Akron Prize for poetry chosen by Martìn Espada, and Post Subject: A Fable (U. of Akron Press 2014).  He is the co-editor with Stacey Lynn Brown of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (U. of Akron Press 2012)He co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry and serves on the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Board.  A recipient of a NYFA Fellowship Award and a GAP Grant from Artist Trust, his work has appeared in journals like Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, Tin House, Chattahoochee Review, and in anthologies such as Asian American Poetry:  The Next Generation. He is the music editor for At Length Magazine and he teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University.

The book trailer for POST SUBJECT:

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seven

Sheryl Luna earned a PhD in contemporary literature from the University of North Texas and an MFA from University of Texas, El Paso. Her first collection, Pity the Drowned Horses, received the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Notre Dame Press. It was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Colorado Book Award. Her second collection, Seven, was published by 3: A Taos Press in 2013

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