Trump Unfriendings by Danusha V. Goska


John was tall but straight-limbed thin and his baggy Catholic school uniform – blue slacks, white shirt, tie – hid no Darwinian strategy in or appetite for the survival of the fittest. The mob surrounding John moved according to an ancient choreography, as does a murmuration of starlings, but ugly. The other boys had never been trained in fighting, either. They were small-town, bottom-of-the-barrel, poor students in a school with no music, no art, no gym, no air conditioning. Just elaborately costumed nuns wielding long rulers on fifty-five baby boomers per room. But the attackers’ genes skilled them in skinning a fellow human. Smaller boys skipped up ahead to cut off John’s escape – just as wolves corner deer. Others, lackadaisical, languidly brought up the rear. With the same movements, they could have been the tail end of a church procession or a walk to the corner for cigarettes. A more definable scrum of first-stringers ringed John tightly. He’d never escape, even if he tried, but he wasn’t even trying. The alpha delivered direct blows. Over and over. Short, sharp punches, shot out erratically, timed by sadism’s metronome. Blows to John’s arm, his temple, his neck, his cheek. Beta males, not allowed the privilege of striking blows, squealed the worst words at John. Spat on him. With their thumbs and forefingers, pecked at the edges of his clothing. Distracting John, confusing him. Bash: another punch landed.

John, feebly, weirdly, laughed. John was miming, “Please like me. Please allow me to be just one of the guys.”

The playground was a square of macadam surrounded by a chain link fence. Through the fence we could see the gardens, clotheslines, and swing sets of our neighbors. Over the school roof rose the church spire.

I just attempted to google John. I want to know that he recovered and prospered and triumphed over what these monsters did to him. I couldn’t find him. His name really was “John” and his last name was almost as common.

God, people suck.

But there is a world where people are noble, attractive, rational, and kind. An onscreen world. To reach it, all I had to do was walk home from school and switch on our family’s one black-and-white TV. Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, John Ford, Preston Sturges, Victor Fleming, Sam Goldwyn and other filmmakers concocted wit, repartee, romance and adventure.

We all have to come to terms with the dark side in human nature. Me? I have felt best alone. I’m just not equipped. I don’t have the moves, the appetites, or the instincts to be a wolf in a pack. And so I watch a lot of movies. And I struggle with loneliness.


And along came the internet. Alleluia. I need never be lonely again.

I thought that the internet would mean, to human relations, what the industrial revolution meant to labor. I thought that much suffering had been caused by misunderstandings. The internet’s means of interaction, typed words on a screen, eliminated that problem. How could we misunderstand each other if our words were right there? Struggle for resources caused problems between people: “Get off my lawn.” But there were no material resources on the internet. Anyone could type in whatever anyone wanted. Finally, we were all equal. Differences in physical appearance aroused hatred and discrimination. Ugly women, black people, white people, people wearing expensive clothing or rags: all these tension-causing differences disappeared. Finally, we connected soul to soul.

I was so naïve.


Over twenty years ago I was part of a pioneering internet discussion group. Finally I could write and actually be read. Finally my ugliness and poverty didn’t matter. I could connect with nerds like myself living hundreds or thousands of miles away. Charlie in LA loved films and literature as much as I. We went on for weeks about Brief Encounter.

Humans find the snake under the apple tree no matter what Eden they inhabit.

One day, Larry called Anne fat. Anne asked her allies to denounce Larry. Within a day, there were thousands of posts attacking Larry. This was a virtual feeding frenzy, a lynch mob, a show trial. Bystanders drafted alliances as ironclad as those dominoes that fell into the shape of the First World War – “You are with the Hapsburgs and I am with the Romanovs so I must burn your fields!” Posts meant to be about movies or politics or opera contained hidden references only combatants could decipher that settled this or that score.

I wanted to talk about opera. I wanted to talk about film. I wanted to talk about the history of the Albigensian Crusade. That users hijacked these conversations to settle scores was an abomination to me. A frequently repeated truism never made more sense: great conversations focus on ideas. Average conversations focus on events. Small conversations focus on people.

There were other problems in paradise. I realized that the internet, with its distance communication, was inviting me to commit a great sin: to dehumanize others.

I recognized that I had to practice discipline: I had to constantly remind myself that there was a human at the receiving end of my words. I made it my practice to call people by name, to look at their headshot. To consider how the person would feel if I said this or that to them in person.

The internet grabbed my hand and lured me into the cave of narcissism. I had to stop my ears with wax and smack the siren’s hand away. I committed to focusing on other people’s posts, not just my own.

I looked at photographs of other people’s kids. I care less about few things than photographs of other people’s kids. I don’t have kids and feel some sadness about that (and some relief). It’s not easy for me to look at other people’s kids, especially the adult children of people I went to high school with. Not having had kids, I experience passing time differently. I feel that *I* am the adult, in the prime of life. Other people’s kids tell me I am not, that I am on my way out, and I have let life pass me by.

Looking at photos of other people’s kids is painful but I do it because I want to give back. I do it not because these kids are important to me; they are not. The person posting the photo is important to me. I do it for that person.

But the internet seemed to tear us further away from each other, in inscrutable ways we could not anticipate, name, or penetrate. The intimacy we experienced when typing into and reading content from those little boxes rarely extended beyond those little boxes.

I know Belle better than I know most of my relatives. Belle’s posts are short-story length; she has produced them without pause for over a decade. Her output rivals Charles Dickens. Her topic: her own life. She gave us virtual walking tours of her childhood home. We learned that she was not pretty, overweight, and nerdy. She married an abusive drunk. Divorced him. Yearned for a child. Later in life – and nothing is as rewarding to the reader as late-arriving joy – Belle, through the internet, found Mr. Right, a man as nerdy as she. Marriage. Pregnancy. We clapped our hands! Miscarriage. A devastating medical diagnosis. Abandonment. Belle alone again. We wept.

The strange thing is, after years of reading and responding, with all of my heart, to Belle, I met her. And she treated me as if I were a stranger. Further, when I took a break from our shared internet environment, she and I had no contact at all. No phone calls. Nothing. But when I showed up again on Belle’s internet stage, her presence was a like firehose: “Here I am! Receive me!” She, again, responded to my posts, as if we were best friends forever. She, weirdly, would type things like, “I wish I could see you.” Thing is, she had seen me. And when we were in the same room, she was distant.

That’s not intimacy. I’m not really sure what it is. I don’t think we have yet developed the word for that internet-dependent phenomenon.

I couldn’t take the politics in this internet environment. I feared that something unhealthy and invasive was distorting my spirit. I left. Wary, I didn’t join any other internet groups till Facebook, a few years ago.


Being a writer is like being the girl with big boobs. Men want access to the boobs. Many don’t care about the woman behind the boobs.

Sometimes people read something I have written and they feel that my words express what they themselves feel but cannot articulate. They confuse that sense of appreciating a piece of writing with love. They send me a message saying that they love me, but if they had more self-awareness what they would say is, “I love what you wrote.”

I do receive “I love what you wrote” notes from sophisticated readers. These folks address me as “Dr. Goska” and voice their recognition that we don’t know each other and never will. They request no further contact.

The people who say, “I love you” in response to my writing make unspoken demands on me. They want me to continue to voice their unarticulated thoughts. If they read, and liked, something by me that reflects a conservative point of view, they want me to continue to voice, exclusively, a conservative point of view. If I say something that they interpret as liberal, they feel betrayed and they send me hate mail, excoriating me as a “crazy” “bitch.” Always those words, spelled out or insinuated. I am a woman. I speak. I said something they don’t like. I am crazy. I am a bitch. This has happened to me more times than I can count.

No matter how many times a woman is used for her boobs, she gets hurt. No matter how many times a reader says he or she “loves” me because they appreciated something I wrote, and then turns on me because I am not what they wanted me to be – their puppet and mouthpiece – it reaffirms for me my long held conclusion that people suck, and that I don’t have the skills to triumph at that game, and that that which is good in people is as hard to access as any pearl of great price.


Which brings me to Dusty, Kristie, Lott, Don, Marty, Zale, Bill and Edna – some of the dozens of Facebook friends who unfriended me because I said critical things about Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Kristie is an upper middle class professional. Like me, she tended to post early in the morning, so I always saw her posts first. I valued her posts because in them I encountered white supremacy such as I had never seen in real life – in fact I didn’t know it existed to that degree in real life. Kristie’s friends, upper middle class professionals like herself, posted images of black people as monkeys; they threw around the n-word as if it were the canned olives in their iceberg lettuce. My anthropological curiosity inspired me to read all of Kristie’s posts.

I made my first anti-Trump comments over a year ago. After I did so, Kristie, without informing me, unfriended me. Given the abundance, the shock value, and the early hour of her posts, I noticed the unfriending immediately. My reaction: “Well, I have one Facebook friend who gives every sign of being a white supremacist and she supports Donald Trump so much that she feels compelled to unfriend someone she never talks to and who never talks to her. Duly noted.”

Zale’s departure was harder to take. The long, slow bleed of former Trump critics crossing over to supporting Trump has been unnerving. Even Senator Ted Cruz took this walk of shame. During the Republican primaries, when they were rivals, Trump insinuated that Cruz’s father played a role in the JFK assassination. Trump called Cruz’s wife ugly and called Cruz “lying Ted.” In a breathtaking move, Cruz stood up to Trump at the July, 2016 Republican National Convention. And then, in September, Cruz caved and endorsed Trump.

Watching former Trump critics succumb to Trump reminded me of a superbly orchestrated scene from the 1956, Cold-War era science fiction classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Those who have surrendered to the selfhood-erasing space pods try to convince two holdouts to give up their individuality and join the collective.

Facebook friend Zale had been right there with me on the frontlines, trying to convince Republican primary voters that Trump was, as Zale passionately argued, the menace the Founding Fathers envisioned as the potential destroyer of the Republic. In more recent days, Zale has been zealously pronouncing his own vote for Trump and the unspeakable possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Zale, without telling me, unfriended me.

I had done a significant favor for Bill. I advanced his career and put money in his pocket. After I made clear that I would never vote Trump, Bill unfriended me.

Dusty and I had exchanged thousands of public and private messages. There was laughing, crying, hugging, spatting, over everything from Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to comparisons of Chet Baker and Miles Davis. I am phone-phobic but when Dusty dialed my little-used number, I picked up, and did my best to entertain.

I feel I know Dusty’s father, who, like my dad, had spent time in a Catholic institution as a boy. I knew of his war-bride mother, and his brother who, like my brothers, had died young and tragically. I did not read these posts because Dusty’s family members were important to me; they are not. I read them because Dusty was important to me.

One night I logged on and found several lengthy posts by Dusty raging against me for my anti-Trump stance. He kept saying things like “You are supposed to be an ‘intelligent’ woman” With “intelligent” in scare quotes. He called me a liar. When I tried to reply, I found that he had not only unfriended me, he had blocked me.

Lott, Edna, Marty and Don had used the “l” word with me. I saved those posts: “I love you Danusha.” Lott called me his mentor – I had helped with his writing. My anti-Trump stance earned this from Lott immediately before he unfriended and blocked me: “You eat shit as if it were chocolate pudding.”

Marty’s photos of elegant dinners and travel by private boat informed me that the internet had allowed me contact with someone with whom I would never, otherwise, rub elbows. My writings critical of Islam pleased Marty. He cozied up to me. “May I call you Dannie?” I have a foreign name; I let people call me whatever approximation of it that is the least intimidating to them. Marty told me I was “smart and on the ball … just too funny.” He said – I’ve still got the post – “I love you.” After his Trump-related unfriending, I saw Marty say to Melinda, one who, like him, is anti-Hillary, “May I call you Melly?”

Edna sent me multiple private messages telling me to leave Facebook altogether, pray for guidance, and stop “bashing Trump.” If I did not, she promised me a lifetime of loneliness.

They had all praised my verbal skills when I was expressing thoughts that reflected their own. When I said something that they disagreed with – that I would not vote for Trump – my verbal skills became the very thing they hated most about me.


You are alone in a room behind the keyboard. You are anonymous behind a pseudonym. You will never encounter those at whom your words are directed. You conclude that you have entered a world beyond morality, because it is beyond any consequence you will ever feel.

So you bully a teenager till she kills herself. Or you immerse yourself in porn. Or you post death threats.

The nuns used to tell us that we should leave room for the Holy Spirit between ourselves and our partners when we danced. I’m never alone in a room.

I want to use old-fashioned words to talk about Dusty and Marty, Edna, Don and Lott. Words that carried great weight a century ago, before rapid transportation could remove you from the consequences of your actions. This is what you are: insincere, inconstant, disloyal, fickle, traitors. These are the kind of expired crimes our ancestors fought duels over.

You said you “loved” me. You lied. You have no idea who I am. You think a writer is a Trump. Someone who calculates how to flatter the gullible and market to fear. In fact a writer is someone so hungry for truth she will risk everything to get at it, and to express it. That, you could not love. That you labeled “crazy” and “bitch.”

Oh, and Edna. The older, Midwestern woman who had previously seemed so maternal. You condemned me to a lifetime of loneliness for speaking my mind about Trump. Edna, I’m not lonely because Trump supporters like you are no longer in my life. I’m lonely because so many people are like you. I’m lonely for a different kind of person – someone who values truth.


Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, and The Fortune Cookie let light into my rough childhood. Wilder’s Polish-Jewish mother, stepfather and grandmother were all murdered during the Holocaust. Wilder penned the script for the frothy 1941 romantic comedy Ball of Fire the same year that Nazi Hans Frank said, “I ask nothing of the Jews except that they should disappear.”

Frank Capra, director of It Happened One Night and Mr Deeds Goes to Town, struggled with depression. Watch his films often enough and you can’t help but notice how many characters attempt suicide.

The movies that gave me hope also taught me, even if only through osmosis, that life, as Louis Adamic said, is a process of “licking honey off a thorn.”

Honey: I have two Facebook friends, Sandy and Susan, with whom I agree on nothing. I am a devout Catholic; Sandy mocks my faith. Susan – I forget the word for her religion but it involves nature and folklore. We fight like cats and dogs. They have never unfriended me.

I had hoped that words, visible onscreen, would eliminate misunderstanding; that the screen itself would break down barriers. I just took a break from writing this essay and saw a Facebook message. Lyle had posted something on my wall and I had not yet responded. He was convinced that his post angered me. I have yet to read it. I had said nothing and that nothing was misunderstood.

I scroll past posts alleging that anyone who votes for Hillary Clinton – as I plan to do – is an anti-American slug.

I could unfriend. I could unfollow. I could erase people I once accepted as friends. I don’t. My reasons for not doing so are rooted in my Christianity and the Middle Ages.

Benedictine monks and nuns vow to stability. In addition to being cloistered in Spartan conditions, they inhabit the same space with the same humans for their entire careers. How else to learn the Christian skills of forgiveness, patience, and real love, except from each other’s foibles and failings? Not by erasing. Not by running. But by being next to someone who pisses the hell out of you.

If the Trump supporters posting misogynist hate-Hillary memes and inflammatory conspiracy theories have a moment of awareness, I want to be there when it happens.

As I hope they will be there for me.


Danusha V. Goska‘s essay “Political Paralysis” appears in the book “The Impossible Will Take a Little While.” Her memoir “Save Send Delete” tells the true story of her debate about God, and relationship, with a prominent atheist. Julie Davis named “Save Send Delete” one of the ten best books of the year. Goska outlines her reasons for not voting for Donald Trump here

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Mary Biddinger and Matthew Cheney in Conversation



Mary Biddinger and Matthew Cheney have both published books with Black Lawrence Press, in Mary’s case five books of poetry and in Matthew’s a collection of short stories. Both are also ensconced in academia: Mary is a professor of English at the University of Akron, where she also edits the Akron Series in Poetry, and Matthew is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Hampshire, where he studies modernist prose and its legacies.***


MATTHEW CHENEY: First, maybe we can start with the most important question: Do you have any pets? Dogs? Cats?

MARY BIDDINGER: Matt, this is my favorite kind of question. When at home I’m surrounded by pets: four cats, and one dog. Sure, they can be pesky (try sequencing a poetry manuscript on a hardwood floor with an overzealous tabby who wants to give her input on section breaks), but they are also a great comfort and inspiration. The cats make a particularly good audience if trying out new poems for a reading: patient, fairly stationary, unafraid to purr if a metaphor is especially dazzling. My dog, on the other hand, barks when he hears “poet voice” emanating from behind a closed door. I won’t attempt to interpret that.

CHENEY: At what point do you read your poetry aloud? How much of it for you is an oral art?

BIDDINGER: Maybe this is a poet thing, but I read my work aloud as I write, and I beg my creative writing students to do the same. Come to think of it, I do this with recommendation letters, too, but it’s different with a poem. One of the most difficult aspects of writing a poem is finding where to end, and reading aloud helps with that a lot. Sometimes you’ve already nailed your dismount from the balance beam, but you nonetheless go ahead and attempt another few handsprings because you aren’t sure. biddinger-author-photo-the-czarReading aloud also helps me craft my line breaks. It’s vital to the process.

In terms of public events, I always want to read my newest stuff and that can be a problem when I am trying to promote a book. Dear Audience, allow me to read five new poems and then remember what you came here to hear, and then shift gears, before ending with something I wrote this morning. I think as much about the arc and sequence of the poems as I do about what pieces to read. But I also tend to be spontaneous, and have been known to shuffle poems around at the podium. It’s definitely art for me, especially when I read poems with narratives that explore vulnerability on the part of the speaker.

Speaking of readings, I had the pleasure of hearing you read at the CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles during AWP 2015, and felt that experiencing your fiction aloud amplified my appreciation of your work. I’m a devout reader of fiction, but often public readings of prose fail to replicate the experience of discovery and engagement that I have with the page. What advice do you have for fellow fiction writers who are going to read their work aloud?

CHENEY: I have a theatre background, though I haven’t done any performing for a few years, so reading aloud is a way for me to indulge my performance side. But there’s also the fact that, as multiple people have told me, I write short stories as you’d probably expect a playwright to. Even if they’re not dialogue-heavy, as many are, the voice or voicescheney-author-photo-for-book in the narrative are my base. Before anything else, a story is something I hear in my head. I can’t write without an angle on the rhythms and tones of the sentences.

As for advice for writers giving readings, I always think of it as performing a role, with whatever I’m reading as the script. I’m generally quite introverted, and I have absolutely no talent for small talk. For that reason, scripts and rehearsals are things I love. I don’t have any desire to be in front of an audience as myself; in fact, I’m terrified of it. Instead, I’m there as The Writer. That’s a role I can perform.

One of the biggest problems I see even with experienced readers is that they fall into very narrow vocal patterns and rhythms. It happens to all of us. We get into a rhythm, and then stick to it, so the sound of the next sentence becomes very predictable. That’s a recipe for making an audience’s attention drift. Actors know this, and so have developed ways to counter the habit, because for most of us, you really do have to pay attention to it if you want to avoid it. Different styles of acting and theatre have different approaches, of course, but generally I’d say one of the most helpful techniques you can learn in the theatre is script analysis, which is basically close reading combined with performance notes. Mark accents, emphases, changes in voice, beat changes, etc. This will also help with developing confidence, because you’ll have this wonderful score for your reading to fall back on.

With poetry, you’ve already got something of a score in the shape of the poem on the page. As a prose writer, the things that I find most fascinating and alienating (in a good way) about poetry are line breaks and stanza shapes. I’m familiar with your most recent collections of poetry, Mary, and in each I’ve been struck by their stanzas. Beyond the individual poems, there’s a rhythm to the books as books because, for instance, you’ll have a lot of two- and three-stanza poems, then just as we readers are getting settled, there’s a poem that’s completely differently shaped. And then of course, there are the prose poems, which are different as well. I don’t really have a question here, I just have a curiosity, so I wonder if you might be able to talk about how you think and feel your way through line breaks and stanza shapes…

BIDDINGER: I’m kind of a “when in doubt, try couplets” poet, but I can say that prose poems come from a different place for me. With the conventionally lineated poems, I am often working line by line, reading aloud several times before proceeding to the next line. When writing prose poems, I am all about the momentum. I usually know that it’s going to be a prose poem by the end of the first line. However, even when writing a prose poem I try to break up the work into stanzagraphs, or prose verse paragraphs.

One tendency I have is to write poems in stanzas with one long line, and one slightly shorter line. I’m not sure why I do this, but it’s helpful as a generative device. Sometimes I switch things up and start with the shorter line, and other times I begin with the long line. I like giving myself a space to fill up. I tell my students that having some sort of form can offer structure, and use the analogy of a bunch of paired socks waiting to be stored. If you let them hang out on top of the dresser, they’ll get knocked down or mixed in with other things, but if you confine them to a tidy drawer, all the sock chaos will conform itself to that sized container. That’s exactly how I feel about stanzas. I give myself a box (of whatever shape), and then fill it again and again.

CHENEY: It strikes me that all but one of your books from Black Lawrence have images of places on their covers. One of the things that first attracted me to your work, in fact, was some ineffable feeling of, for lack of a better word, placeness in your Small Enterprise poems. Which might just be my own projection. But I wonder. Do you feel placed?

BIDDINGER: Hang on a minute, Matt. I’m going to go write about thirty new poems about the notion of being placed. What an excellent query, and something I’m not entirely aware of when writing, but I’m sure it’s among my main motivations. Growing up, my family relocated frequently, so I believe I had a sense of preemptive loss whenever I would move to a new place. Often when I’m writing a poem I wonder, is this poem addressed to a person, or to a city? I like blurring that line sometimes, as I did in my book O Holy Insurgency.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite activities was just staring out the window of a car or a train. I loved looking into windows (even if they were boarded up or broken) and imagining what secrets they held. I try to go to that place in my mind when I’m writing, and it’s always a place, not a concept or an object. It’s no surprise that I get a lot of my ideas when driving these days. It’s hard to remember them without writing them down (I am not savvy enough to record myself while on the go), but sometimes I’ll repeat something as I’m driving on the highway, half mantra, half pre-poem.

I’m so thankful for having landed in a place that’s truly right for me, after a life of moving every few years. Akron has the perfect balance of lively spirit and Midwestern grit; it’s a place where I finally feel at home.

CHENEY: I’ve had very much the opposite experience — I lived in the same house in rural New Hampshire until I went to college, and I’ve not only spent the majority of my life in New Hampshire, but in that house, since I inherited it when my father died and it’s cheaper for me to live in it than almost anywhere else right now. Without ever planning to be, I ended up very rooted. For a while, that meant I traveled a lot — Europe, Nicaragua, Mexico, Kenya, all over the U.S. — but I usually came home to the place that has most usually been home. I’m only now beginning to see how this affects my writing, and I’ve really grown weary of travel.

BIDDINGER: I entered your essay “Why I Am Not A Poet” with mild trepidation (we poets are always on the lookout for division by genre), and was thrilled to see the connection to O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not A Painter.” In the essay you said, “When I teach writing, I try to teach the students to think like poets, even if they don’t write like poets, even if they write the prosiest prose.” I’m interested in hearing about how this works with your students. What aspects of their writing are sloughed off in response to the idea of thinking like a poet? PS: This quote is amazing: “Poetry is great for my iconoclastic intentions, because even students who have had wonderful, innovative teachers of poetry in the past may still hold on to an idea that poems are things that sound like Hallmark cards and work like cryptography.”

CHENEY: Fundamentally, I try to get students to play around. We take writing so seriously! And it is serious, deadly serious, but I wouldn’t keep doing it if it weren’t also play, because there aren’t enough extrinsic rewards to make writing short stories a worthwhile activity otherwise. So I try to help students see the pleasure in the sound of language, the pleasure in playing around with form and structure. I use a lot of Gertrude Stein whenever I can — I challenge the students to try to write like her, which at first seems easy, but is actually really hard because it’s hard to give up on denotative meaning and look at the words as shapes and sounds. I encourage students to write badly, as badly as they can, because generally their idea of “bad writing” is something free and weird, something their high school English teacher would scowl at. The results can be illuminating and liberating. I also steal a lot from Lynda Barry’s books What It Is and Syllabus — for instance, I bring crayons to class and we write with them. To find what is serious about writing, we have to first get away from all the assumptions of seriousness we bring to the task. And then maybe we’ll find the real seriousness along the way.

This brings me to a question I have about teaching poetry — what do you do? How do you bring students into poetry, how do you get them thinking about it deeply, engaging with it deeply?

BIDDINGER: I tell students that I consider myself to be an ambassador for poetry, and often I find myself locating and undoing the students’ negative past experiences with poems. There are, of course, exceptions (sometimes students had a great high school teacher who exposed them to various poets, or didn’t force them to write a sonnet about autumn under duress). But generally, I try to convey to students the idea that poetry belongs to all of us; it stems from the oral tradition, and shares similarities with the music in everybody’s headphones as they’re walking across campus.

Speaking of music, I would love to hear more about your process in compiling a playlist for your short story collection Blood, which was featured at Largehearted Boy. Any playlist that kicks off with The The is a winner in my book. How is your writing influenced by music? Is it part of your process? And are there any current artists or songs that you would recommend to writers as inspiration?

CHENEY: I’m always happy to meet another The The listener! (I wrote at length about The The for Kelly Baker’s website, Cold Takes, as part of a series on music, memory, and emotion.)

I put the Largehearted Boy playlist together as a kind of pedaogical tool — I wanted to propose songs that would help readers find a way into the stories, into their tones and weirdnesses. This becomes especially important later on, because the stories toward the end of the book shift into a kind of surrealism that I’ve discovered can be really alienating to readers. So, for instance, what happens if we think of the song “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” by Bascom Lamar Lunsford as a companion to the story “Walk in the Light While There Is Light”? There are few recordings I find as powerful as that song. I have no idea what the song is “about”, and yet all the brief images, those moments, somehow together add up to something overwhelmingly powerful, ineffable — an effect beyond words, despite being created by words.

If I’ve discovered anything by having this book published, its just how much some readers resist and, in fact, are angered by the weird turns a lot of my stories take. The teacher in me of course wants to fix this, to create pedagogies to make my work more pleasurable or at least accessible for readers, and the Largehearted Boy playlist is one such attempt.

You’ve had your own encounters with readers who reject the weirder moments of your work — the moments I really love in your work — and I wonder how you’ve dealt with that over the years.

BIDDINGER: Matt, I feel a “kinship of the strange” with you, and I’m so glad to talk about weird moments in our work. I’ve always been attracted to oddness in literature and music, film, art, and so on. Thankfully my parents cultivated this in me, and it was only when discussing movies or records with friends that I became aware of my non-mainstream tendencies. Something unusual about me is that I grew up watching very little television (except for the news, and of course Twin Peaks), so maybe that time spent reading Camus and listening to Laibach had an effect.

When I started taking creative writing classes as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, my strangeness set me apart without alienating me from classmates and professors. Looking back, in some instances they were very forgiving of my overt weirdness, but the most important thing that they did was support me even it my poems made “no sense.” Later, in graduate programs, I encountered more peers and professors who would call me out on the strange. I became self conscious. Sometimes I would write a fake poem to bring to workshop, an accessible narrative with crowd-pleasing concrete details, rather than the weird thing I was working on at home and keeping to myself.

I struggled with this until my first book came out, and then I purged myself of all those voices that said things like This poem needs a topic sentence, or I just don’t get it. I think that’s one advantage of writing beyond a writing program. You finally come into your own, and become responsible for making your own decisions. Allowing myself to return to my strange roots was liberating, and I was glad to be able to truly surprise myself in my work again.

CHENEY: How have those experiences as a student shaped your own pedagogy? What do you do with the weird writers?

BIDDINGER: I try to be an advocate for my student writers who write the weird. First I share with them the work of fellow writers of the strange. Next we talk about reaching audiences and making them feel, without compromising the experiments of the poem. Often all readers need is a sense of setting, or a feeling of kinship with a speaker, and then they are able to make the necessary leaps. I am also very open about my own struggles as a writer, including workshop experiences where a weird poem was a huge flop, and I think this helps create a dialogue. Finally, I try to get all of my students to at least dabble in strangeness, whether it’s writing a poem without a linear narrative, or really pushing imagery into surreal territory. Even if the writers don’t continue their trajectories of weirdness, they nonetheless have a new appreciation for it as a craft decision.

CHENEY:  In the introduction to The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, which you edited with John Gallaher, you write that you sought out essays “that are investigating poetry and the situation of poetry as something important, with something at stake.” It’s now more than five years since you put that book together, and I wonder how you see the importance of poetry — your own or others’ — now. What’s at stake these days for poetry and the situation of poetry?

BIDDINGER: Something that has struck me lately is how we’ve created better access to poems about social justice. This, of course, is due to necessity. But I believe we are in a moment where people are finding that they need poems, and perhaps those people aren’t ordinarily poetry readers. Thinking about poems like Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” or Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact,” both of which I have shared with friends and students, and how they have been passed around so often lately to the point of becoming “viral,” suggests an increased demand for poetry of this nature. A new readership is seeking poems about racial injustice, about the struggle for LGBTQ rights, about economic disparities, and my hope is that this will further make a case for poetry’s relevance, and for its ability to articulate truths about the human condition in a way that only poetry can.

Responding to this question makes me wonder if you, too, have a report from the field. Have you noticed recent changes in the world of fiction, or any noteworthy trends?

CHENEY: I don’t keep up with contemporary fiction as much as I used to because I’ve got this whole Ph.D. thing going on that keeps me reading piles of stuff in very specific areas, leaving little time or, more importantly, brain capacity for other reading. At this point, I could tell you more about what was going on with 1930s British fiction than current U.S. fiction. But of course, even somebody who only reads occasionally in new work would notice a couple of trends, particularly the popularity of dystopian writing and the growing shelves of a certain type of eco-conscious writing, writing that is somehow grappling with what some philosophers and scientists have come to call the anthropocene. Roy Scranton’s New York Times essay (and later book) “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene” is one entry into this idea. Jeff VanderMeer’s recent books are the most interesting fictional exploration of these concepts that I know. (Some people have taken to calling such stuff cli-fi, a term I deeply dislike because it sounds really silly, and I don’t think a term for basically the most important global issue facing us should sound silly. Anthropocene is an ugly word, but not silly, and ugliness is appropriate to the horrors the future holds for life on this planet.)

Maybe writers tend to be especially attracted to doom and gloom by temperament, and certainly it’s true that the world has always been ending, that apocalypticism is as close to a historical universal as anything is … but given the state of the world economy, with a tiny number of people controlling the majority of the world’s wealth; and given the tenacity of racism and sexism and nationalism all the other awful -isms that plague us; and given the state of the world’s ecology, which is wracked and wrecked by ever more chaos, destruction, disaster, misery, and extinction — given all this, it’s not entirely a surprise that writers are drawn to gloomy and doomy ideas. A lot, and maybe even most, of what gets written about this stuff in novels and stories is kitsch, with, it seems to me, an underlying agenda to make us feel better, but it’s hard to sell work that doesn’t to some extent or another try to flatter the reader. Maybe kitsch is better than nothing.

And I may be too pessimistic, too resigned, myself, to doom. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to literature from between the two world wars: with those writings, at least, we know what happened next, and we know who was accurate in their ideas, and who was too optimistic, and who was just full of themselves.

At a reading recently, I said that though I’ve tried to write science fiction, especially when I was younger, I’ve never succeeded at writing what I think of as actual science fiction — as opposed to a story like “Expositions” that uses science fictional tropes for non-science-fictional purposes — because to write science fiction, one must believe in the future, and I don’t. (The audience laughed. I laughed. What else could we do?)

Perhaps we should finish with something lighter. One of the things, actually, I like about your poetry is that it is often infused and enlivened with moments of lightness, sometimes absurd, sometimes touching, sometimes both. Do you have a favorite poem of lightness, or a poem that lightens you? (For me, it’s Olena Kalytiak Davis’s “sweet reader, flanneled and tulled”, which I can read at any time  — preferably aloud — and feel better. I’ve been known occasionally, even randomly, to just blurt out: “And I, Reader, I am but the daughter/ of a tinker.”)

BIDDINGER: Oh, that is a magnificent poem by OKD! And thanks so much for picking up on the humor in my poems. It’s always the worst when I read something that’s intended to be comical, and audiences look at me like I’m trying to be depressing or poignant or something other than funny. So much of my poetry comes from misunderstandings, typos, overheard and misheard phrases, and other potentially comical things. Humor is really at the heart of my work.

When I’m looking for a poem to fill me with lightness, or humorous joy, or to remind me of poetry’s performative properties, I turn to Matthew Guenette, who manages to be hilarious while also making a powerful social commentary. I offer you a video of Guenette reading his poem “Sestina Aguilera” here at the University of Akron. The quality isn’t great, because it was taken back before smart phone video, and because we couldn’t stop laughing. Wordplay, popular culture, improvisation, and humor come together in this performance, which is a joy to share.

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A Review of Jordan Rothacker’s And Wind Will Wash Away 


A Review of Jordan Rothacker’s And Wind Will Wash Away

By Nate Ragolia

Like James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon before him, Jordan A. Rothacker takes on the epic novel in his masterful debut, And Wind Will Wash Away (hereafter referred to as AWWWA). AWWWA tells the story of Atlanta Police Detective Jonathan Wind, an observant, intellectual, no-nonsense sleuth cut from the same cloth as Sherlock Holmes and Joe Friday.

In Rothacker’s own words, Jonathan Wind is “A dash of one friend, a dollop of another, fold in some traits from Philip Marlowe, a little zest of Agent Dale Cooper, a pinch of K. from Kafka’s The Castle, two cups of Faust, and then stir and forget all of that as I start to see the new creation congealing out of the mess.” And Wind is all of these ingredients and more, fully-realized and alive.

Set in 2003, we follow Wind after a fight with his girlfriend Monica that leaves him frustrated and seeking the affection of his mistress, Flora. Typical of the noir genre, Wind’s future hinges on the power of the phone call. Two calls set up his coming journey: the first, to his mistress, that ends when another man answers the phone; the second, from his partner, calling him to the scene of a murder where the victim just happens to be that same mistress.

Rothacker ups the ante and the energy, revealing that Flora died mysteriously in a hyper-localized fire. While his partner and the police force disagree, Jonathan Wind suspects foul play. At this point, AWWWA makes a powerful leap from crime noir to postmodern exploration. Rothacker’s adeptness at this switch is impressive. He carefully blends philosophy, myth, and religion into his protagonist’s forward-charging pursuit of the truth behind his lover’s death. What results is a mystery on par with Twin Peaks that embraces spiritualism and madness, blurring the lines between superficial realities and those beneath that we’ve trampled through cycles of colonialism, war, law, and order.

Truly, AWWWA is a unique reading experience. Rothacker imbues his book with Tarantino-like dialogue spoken by deep, lively characters. The setting, Atlanta, Georgia, is  a surging, breathing entity, with its twisting spaghetti of roadways tangled up in its own complicated history that is as much Detective Wind’s partner as his home. History, philosophy, and religion are their own characters in AWWWA. Rothacker–who prefaces the novel with his background in Religious Studies–infuses Wind’s twisting mystery with figures from Aztec, Mayan, Catholic, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and other backgrounds. Case interviews result in deep, revelatory conversations that are as instructional as they are entertaining. In short, this novel is deep and rewarding, influenced by the great works that preceded it.

“[Joyce] was my first really profound literary love,” Rothacker said in an interview. “At 17 I was a member of the International James Joyce Foundation. Other than lots of linguistic puns and ‘larding’ the text for my own amusement, what I used from Joyce is that device in Ulysses where every chapter has it’s own theme and governing principle.” Rothacker paces the entire book so one never feels as though they’re waiting in the back row of a comparative religion classroom, watching the clock. Instead, each page commands to be turned, captivating you–and Detective Wind–with Flora’s mysterious death. The result is an engaging story that blends the ordered cleverness of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe with the worldly, thoughtful interactions of My Dinner With Andre. Readers will pursue Jonathan Wind on his search for real answers amid the degrees of unknowable throughout Atlanta and beyond.

This is a story as much about the case of a dead lover as of secret lives, of dark magic or strange rituals. And Wind Will Wash Away is a story about the self and the shrouded mysteries within. Jordan Rothacker is one of the most masterful writers I have ever read, and this novel is an opportunity to enter into a conversation with him that will surely be longer, grow more personal and complex. Treat yourself by reading And Wind Will Wash Away immediately, and take your own journey toward truth.

Jordan A. Rothacker, And Wind Will Wash Away, Deeds Publishing, 2016: $24.95


Nate Ragolia is the author of the novella, There You Feel Free; creator of the Illiterate Badger and Lark & Robin webcomics; and occasional chatterer on music, film, &c on Medium. He is also editor-in-chief of Boned: a collection of skeletal fiction, poetry, essays, and more.

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By Sarah Sarai

When he lumbered in the way of men
who use their hands to till earth,
he knocked rough doorway
to sob at unfairness and
the slaying. Dull, trembling,
he threw down three pelts against
a desert night, and feared heaven’s
white stars. We’ve all killed our brother.
The dead roam through us.
We toss beneath old gods’ blazing navigation.
Cain? It’s morning. He bites a sweet seedy fig.

Today’s poem originally appeared in the and appears here today with permission from the poet.

Sarah Sarai’s second collection, Geographies of Soul and Taffeta, was published this year by Indolent Books. Poet Melissa Studdard called Sarai’s first collection, The Future Is Happy, “a poetry of luminous, brave transparency” (American Book Review). Journals include Painted Bride Quarterly, Barrow Street, The Collagist, Boston Review, Threepenny Review, Ascent. After teaching English at a Catholic girls’ school in Los Angeles, Sarai received an NEH fellowship and used extra monies to move to Seattle where she began writing poetry. She has been Lecturer in comp and lit, editor-in-chief, file clerk for warrant officers, and, currently, freelance editor in poetry, fiction, and pharmaceutical advertising. Sarai has an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. A native of Long Island, she lives in Manhattan.

Editor’s Note: Today’s poem is a vivid and moving reflection upon the slaying of Cain by his brother Able. The Bible’s first brothers, and already one slays the other. But then, as the poet points out, “We’ve all killed our brother.” And while “The dead roam through us,” life–and the poem–insists that we go on. For although in the night Cain “threw down three pelts against / a desert night, and feared heaven’s // white stars,” in the morning light life looks sweeter, even for the damned.

Want to see more from Sarah Sarai?
Geographies of Soul and Taffeta
Poems in Posit
Poem in The Collagist
Poem in Ascent
Poems in Yew

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“Languages” by David Ishaya Osu



i do not chew fruits
that i cannot pronounce


whoever made

my body, first
drank a moon


it is open & close
to fire, it will body
along midnight’s
time you will
cry, she replied


it is written on bodies
that clocks will
not age nor


& shadows
in the attic
are sisters


changes every
body from
lines to
a quiet family


David Ishaya Osu (b. 1991) is an Afo native from Onda. His poetry appears in: Vinyl, Chiron Review, Cutbank, The Lampeter Review, The Nottingham Review, Spillway, Juked, RædLeaf Poetry: The African Diaspora Folio, A Thousand Voices Rising: An Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry, among others. David is a board member of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, and was selected for the 2016 USA Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. He was poetry editor for The James Franco Review. David is currently polishing his debut poetry book.

[The above poem originally appeared in Numero Cinq and is reprinted here with permission of the author.]

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By Sandra L. Faulkner

                   for Sylvia Plath (after “The Applicant”)

Can you separate lights from darks,
gabardine from linen?
Too much bother? I cannot care

if your hands are
warm like Georgia hot springs
capable of sparing my feet

the Sisyphean walk over broken
crayons and wine glasses,
the laundry room of dog and dust.

Do you know how to make coffee,
float a river of cream
in my capacious cup?

Forget the sugar and call
my name with an accent auf Deutsch?
But speak only ein bisschen,

patch the noise of domestic bliss
with a steady pour and two clinks of ice.
Will you wait for the repairs,

bury the hamster with the holey
blanket, behind the dying Holly?
Never mind if you dig too shallow,
I want a wife, too.

Today’s poem originally appeared in the Pine Hills Review and appears here today with permission from the poet.

Sandra L. Faulkner is Professor of Communication at BGSU. Her poetry appears in places such as Gravel, Literary Mama, Rat’s Ass Review, and damselfly. She authored three chapbooks, Hello Kitty Goes to College (dancing girl press, 2012), Knit Four, Make One (Kattywompus, 2015), and Postkarten aus Deutschland. Sense published her memoir in poetry, Knit Four, Frog One (2014). She researches, teaches, and writes about relationships in NW Ohio where she lives with her partner, their warrior girl, a hamster, and two rescue mutts.

Editor’s Note: Today’s poem invites us in for coffee and contemplation. Welcomes us to a life–a real life replete with a “walk over broken / crayons and wine glasses, / the laundry room of dog and dust.” Lets us in on the secret desires and realities of the speaker, that a “steady pour and two clinks of ice” and a willingness to “wait for the repairs” trumps–or perhaps is–domestic bliss. Imperfection is expected–welcome, even–in this refreshingly honest portrayal of an interview for the role of wife.

Want to see more from Sandra L. Faulkner?
Carpe Noctum Chapbook Interview
A collection of Sandra L Faulkner’s work via Bowling Green State University
Buy Family Stories, Poetry, and Women’s Work: Knit Four, Frog One from Sense Publishers
Buy Writing the Personal: Getting Your Stories onto the Page from Sense Publishers
Buy Knit Four, Make One from Kattywompus Press
Buy Hello Kitty Goes to College from dancing girl press

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A Review of Mary McMyne’s Wolf Skin

A Review of Mary McMyne’s Wolf Skin

By Jennifer Dane Clements

We remember best that which haunts us. The memories or fears that we carry, percolate in our bloodstreams. As children, the unknown and unknowable facets of the world succumb to dreamscapes of mythical proportions, allowing us to be haunted by things ordinary and alive: the toothy jags of a broken window, an attic portrait with a traveling gaze, the gnarled witch and her warty moral to the story. As children, we await their instruction, understanding that which haunts us to have a strange and beguiling power.

It is with this in mind that Mary McMyne frames Wolf Skin, a chapbook of poems from the voice of a woman whose own childhood was steeped in the twists and vines of the old German fairy tales. Now, grown, the echoes of the tales return to her as commentary to her daily life and reminders from long ago.

The most harrowing of these echoes advises the woman to “Be not girl . . . but wolf.” Those who do not become wolves, speaks the memory of her mother, are little more than dolls, “dumb as porcelain.” As though one’s evolution through personhood is a journey built on unpleasant binaries: vicious or inert, brave or in need of rescue.

In the titular poem, we come to understand the huntsman from “Little Red Riding Hood” embellished his tale of heroism from something more closely approximating a sad act of butchery, his liberated victims still reeling from shock and too disoriented to mutter more than a few words. There were no great thanks or praise, no ceremonies, and the trophy he claimed to have taken from his heroic deed. The “wolf skin” of the poem and of the collection’s title speaks to the assumed persona, the larger-than-life fiction we cloak ourselves in to satisfy some notion of bravery, of gender, of morality.

Childhoods are fascinated with dark spaces and mystery, and lean with curiosity towards danger. In McMyne’s retelling of these familiar tales, we’re reminded of the darker themes lurking behind characters we’ve come to associate with youthful innocence: death, isolation, pain. And so we encounter the wolf lurking at the doorstep where a girl laps at her popsicle, the prince who’s been cursed to live as a hedgehog, the pregnant and yearning princess captive in her tower.

Indeed these reminders often deal in fierceness–how it can be assumed or appropriated, how growth and heroism seem intertwined. And, perhaps most importantly, how these values and lessons transcend and permeate into our time, today, where still we find what’s necessary at odds with what makes for a compelling hero’s tale.

The collection begins and ends with the image of a moth, from the mother’s collection, perfect and asphyxiated, pinned to a corkboard. As an expression of both the fairy tales she illustrates and of the book itself, this image carries acute resonance: delicate, inquisitive, and a tinge darker than people might expect.

Mary McMyne, Wolf Skin. Dancing Girl Press, 2014: $7.00


Jennifer Clements is a writer of all sorts based in Washington, D.C. Her work has been featured in publications including Barrelhouse, Hippocampus, WordRiot, Psychopomp, and on stages in DC and New York. She is a prose editor of ink&coda and writes regularly for Luna Luna Magazine and DC Theatre Scene. She holds an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University. Visit her online at

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