We’ve been sprawled on the old wood bridge for hours.
Our young palms are splintered now by twisted boards and the tops
of our feet sting,
from the biting chill whipping our bare skin.

I’m more scared than you are.
You’re more scared than anything.

Icy gray clouds shift endlessly above our sweet warm breaths:
mine wasted on childish trivialities
and yours blessed with provocative profundities.

We wade in half-frozen water in the woods by where we are grow-
ing up.

This is the place I will stagnate
and it is almost winter
and our world is still big.

Emmett Till

Based on the painting “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz, 2016

Inside the open casket lies a Black boy
Whose face tells his-story
An innocent Black boy who was supposed to—
Live a sweet childhood
Yet, there it lies
His mutilated face
Upon the pillow of grief
All hopes of tomorrow
Lost in his Black suit of sorrow
His torso buttoned up
By the whiteness of his killers
His pants carrying the blood
Of a flower that had yet to grow
His name was Emmett
Till – one day two men
The same color as his bed of flowers
Wanted him dead
Because the color of his Skin
Screamed unworthy kin.
May you rest well, Black boy,
And please say hello for us to Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin,
Along with the rest of the Emmett Tills that society has killed—
If you will, Emmett Till.

Dirty Water

And with my own eyes I see her,
breast teasing the orange creek,
head cocked backwards,
anchoring it softly
into the water
that Sam calls shit water,
that my dad calls golden river.
Toes pressed against the rusting dock,
little moles sitting on her legs like flies,
she hums.
I shake,
tossing gravel into the empty ginger ale can beside me,
knees in the wet dirt.
I steady myself
to the rhythm of the train.
She can not feel it
the throbbing beat
pulsating underneath,
balancing on the tracks that once carried
Franklin D Roosevelt
and Billy, whose needle went too far up his arm
so they took him to Earnshaw,
no more spots in the yard.
They sit in leather seats
that smell like pink erasers and cigarettes
and stare out those windows
with uneasy eyes and packed lunches,
thanking god they don’t have to stop
and stay in Littleton, West Virginia.
But they don’t get to watch her
with their own eyes,
this heaven at 6pm,
this dying, bird like creature, kicking,
teaching herself to swim
in the dirty water.

An Interview with Ed Ochester

Ed Ochester grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He is the longtime editor of the
 Pitt Poetry Series (University of Pittsburgh Press), and the founding editor of the journal SAM. His own collections of poetry include We Like it Here (1967), Dancing on the Edge of Knives (1973), Miracle Mile (1984), Allegheny (1995), Snow White Horses: Selected Poems 1973-1988 (1988), The Land of Cockaigne (2001), Unreconstruced Poems Selected and New (2007), and Sugar Run Road (2015). Ochester is professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh and is on the faculty of the Bennington College MFA Writing Seminars.

Interviewers: In the poem “Having Built the Coop,” and many others, you mention prominent postmodernist figures such as Jacques Derrida and Bernard-Henri Levy. Do you ascribe to the postmodernist philosophy and if so, why?

Ed Ocherster: Note that the “Levy” mentioned in the epigraph
is the poet D.A. Levy. I don’t ascribe to most of the views of Derrida et al, and think that the prominence of them in American English Literature departments has been a disaster—English Lit. used to be one of the largest majors in colleges of arts & sciences, but in the past couple of decades its numbers have shrunk dramatically—mainly because of the “theory” people . . . In this poem, the drone of cicadas (background noise) is derrida derrida derrida. I make a comment about “theory” in this poem from my most recent book:

Ross Gay

sent an e-mail to Ross Gay:

congratulations on the Times’ review

of Bringing the Shovel Down

though even in a good review of poetry

there’s almost always a snotty little quibble

unless the poet’s dead or English

(this reviewer hates “shimmering labia”)

“yeah” said Ross “I laughed about that too”

maybe it started when the horde

“theory” ph.d.’s rose over the horizon

and poisoned all the books they landed on– luckily then they

started to kill each other off (we can use split infinitives now) —

but around that time American poets

began to write about John Clare

the mad sweet nature poet lost

in an unjust world one of the theory people

I worked with wrote a novel (unpublished)

so bad cats and dogs might double over

which deepened her hatred of her

irrational colleagues publishing

poetry and fiction–perhaps Yogi Berra

explained it best (note that “Yogi”

like the poet we call “Homer” is growing

by incremental repetition and now

has an enormous oeuvre) Yogi said

“in theory there’s no difference

between theory and practice but

in practice there is”

I: You seem to mention Greek and Roman figures from History and Literature quite often in your work. Does this particular period of history interest you more than most others and why?

EO: I mention Greek and Roman figures often because they’re important to me (and our culture) — the founding fathers based our Constitution on what they learned from Greek and Roman experience, and that experience informs not just our literature but our science, religion, philosophy and historiography. On the other hand, I make a lot more contemporary references than classical ones.

I: In your poem “Poetry” you talk about the private life. How do you believe the meaning or value attached to the private life has changed? How does your poetry show this?

EO: “The private life” isn’t as private for most people as it used to be because of our electronic interconnectedness, and our compulsion to “share” personal experience. That’s not all bad, obviousy, but it can/does lead to a lot of blabbing. And much of what concerns us as individuals is not important to others (see the kind of gossip about TV and movie stars on the web). And people who spend all their time on trivial stuff have trivial lives. I don’t want to sound snotty about this — I love to gossip and talk baseball/ football as much as the next person — BUT many people I know are reduced to that. There’s more to life.

I: How does the area in which you live, outside Pittsburgh, inspire and influence you? What specific aspects of the place in which you live, if any, inspire you?

EO: The rural area in which my wife and I live forces us to depend more on ourselves. We like that. We’re not a-social, but we don’t enjoy the population density of cities. And we love to garden, like clean air, lots of trees, etc. etc. We have a very simple house and simple tastes in accessories — we don’t usually want “the latest” this or that. My wife, Britt, is a bird lover and has attracted well over a hundred species to our property over the years. Our main form of entertainment is reading (not movies, TV, and
so on). Lest all this seems too primitive: I spend a fair amount of time each week working on the net.

I: Along with writing, based upon your poem, “My First Teaching Job, Boston University Night School ‘Intro to Lit ’” you also spend some time in the classroom. How do you feel working as a writer influenced your effectiveness as a teacher?

EO: I started my academic life as a teacher of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but was one of two people to organize the MFA in writing at the Univ. of Pittsburgh and spent 20 years as the director of the program. I took early retirement from Pitt in the late 90’s and since then have been teaching at the Bennington low- res MFA. A part of my usefulness as a teacher is that I know how things are put together (I’ve also worked as the editor of the Univ. of Pittsburgh Press Poetry Series for many years). I have very eclectic tastes in poetry (as evidenced by the books I publish in the Poetry Series), and that’s useful also for students: there isn’t just one-way of doing a poem. And I’m very proud of my students. The best known of them are Li-Young Lee, Terrance Hayes and Michael Chabon (you can find an essay by him online which de- scribes me and his undergraduate days at Pitt), but literally dozens of them have published books, and many more have remained poetry fans.

I: At the reading you performed at Providence College, you shared a couple pieces of political poetry. What inspired you to incorporate politics in your written work?

EO: Two of the greatest poets of the last century—Pablo Neruda and Bert Brecht—wrote many political poems. In most countries political poems are not unusual. But in the U.S., we have an old (and spurious) academic tradition that views political poems with disfavor. I think ANY human concern (including politics) is a possible subject for poetry.

I: More specifically, you read and referred to a number of poems about President Trump. We would be interested to know what effect you think the current presidency will have on the content, tone, and volume of art in the coming years, particularly written work such as poetry. President Trump has proved to be more polarizing than many administrations have been in a long time, do you think this will come through in the nature of art, either in protest or support? Do you think it will generally have a positive or negative effect on literary art and culture?

EO: Well, don’t get me started on Mr. Trump. I grew up in the same area of Queens County that he did, and most New Yorkers know that he’s a con man (but he’s a good con artist and took in many good Americans). He is “polarizing” but he’s also the most ignorant, vulgar, self-contradicting, lying person who’s ever occupied the office of the presidency. Also, a sex criminal. (What’s not to like?). There’s already a good body of writing in all genres contra Trump, including work by many prominent conservatives. It will grow.

I: Are we then to expect a change in the tone of your future publications?

EO: I’ve had fun writing a group of Trump poems. I suspect
the tone of my poems won’t change much if at all. On the other hand, who knows? I’ve always been interested in seeing what hap- pens, seeing what surprises my unconscious sends me. You plan out poems after, not before, those messages.

An Interview with Ruth Gilligan

Ruth Gillligan was born and raised in Co. Dublin, Ireland. When she was 18 years old, she moved to the UK, just one month after she had published her first novel Forget, which became a number one bestseller. She works as a full-time lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. She writes regular literary reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, Guardian, LA Review of Books, and Irish Independent.

Interviewers: When do you find inspiration to write? How do you find the time to write while having to balance your time as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham?

RG: Since I work full-time as a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham, I tell myself every semester that I’m going to be better at carving out a day or two a week to focus on my writing. But there is always a student who needs help; always some admin that requires attention, so I find I get very little done during term time. Thankfully, we get holidays, so I always try to make a real dent in the writing at those moments.

I: In what ways does your latest novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, differ from your first published novels other than its content? What challenges did you face while writing this historical novel?

RG: Because my three previous books were almost entirely in- spired by personal experience, writing a historical novel was a new challenge for me. I did too much research, so trying to find the balance between fact and fiction was tricky. However, I had to remind myself that although I like the idea of readers learning something new, the thing that matters most has to be the story.

I: Having studied at the University of Cambridge and Yale University, what would you say are the major differences in UK vs US university teaching and/ or grading styles, particularly in regards to English and Creative Writing?

RG: I studied English — as opposed to CW – at Cambridge and Yale, so I can only really comment on that. To be honest, the biggest difference I found is that in the Cambridge school of English, the author is essentially dead — their personality, their background, their literary or family connections are irrelevant. The work must be taken and examined and appreciated in isolation, with a particularly close attention paid to details and formal decisions via close reading. In Yale, however, context was everything — we would spend weeks on historical background; on the author’s life and connections; on the book’s wider influences and implications. Close reading was nowhere near as valued, and the whole thing took a more macro- rather than micro-level view. To be honest, I much preferred the Cambridge style — I find it far more interesting (and important) to think about why an author has chosen a certain recurring image, or to notice their unorthodox use of punctuation, rather than to have to put together an entire presentation on the fashion trends of the time, or to figure out how they might or might not have known Virginia Woolf. Who cares! But that is just personal preference, I suppose.

I: What difficulties do you find in writing a story about an experience or setting you are unfamiliar with as you do in Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan? Does it take notably more time to research/prepare?

RG: My first 3 novels were very autobiographical. As a young writer, I had of course been taught about the whole ‘write what you know’ approach. However, increasingly I realized how limiting that was, and also how so many of the writers I admired went directly against that, and actually wrote far outside of their own immediate experience. I think ultimately that is the beauty and power of fiction — to make imaginative leaps into other worlds — both as a writer and a reader. It is, ultimately, about empathy. That’s not to say this doesn’t present its own issues – from misappropriation and ventriloquism, to inaccuracies and misrepresentations — but I would rather take on those challenges than just churn out novel after novel about my own, rather non-interesting world.

I: Whilst marking or reviewing literary fiction, what is a common mistake or drawback you often tend to find in other people’s’ works? This can either be
a macro (e.g. having a clichéd idea) or micro (e.g. formatting/presenting their piece undesirably on the page) issue.

RG: Formatting may seem like a minor thing, but it is SO import- ant. If a student submits a piece of work that is incorrectly for- matted, it suggests two things to me — 1) they have never actually read a book in their life, and 2) they are lazy and don’t really care. Needless to say these are not good things to suggest! More broadly, I find a real tendency amongst students towards the melodramatic; the over the-top. I was the same when I started out — I wanted to force my ideas down the reader’s throat — so I used dramatic language and repetition to HAMMER. EVERYTHING. HOME. But if the ideas are strong enough they will speak for themselves, so the writing needs to ease up and not appear over- worked.

I: As someone with a MFA in Creative Writing, what advice would you offer to any student wishing to pursue creative writing as a way of making a living?

RG: Find a day job! Seriously — there are only a tiny tiny number of writers in this world who can make a living just from writing fiction. I work full-time as a lecturer; many of my writer friends work in journalism or publishing or teaching; some work in tech or media or something totally unrelated — anything that will pay the bills! But really, it is an unreliable career, so the trick is to have something stable to support it. Luckily I find my lecturing work feeds directly into my obsession with reading and writing, so it all feels part of the same process — the conversations with my students and colleagues are integral to my own development as a writer — so I’m very lucky in that regard.

I: What process do you take to find editors that will help push your work forward upon reviewing it?

RG: When I finish a book, my agent sends it out to various editors at various publishing houses. Then, depending on what they say — and how much money they offer! — I sign with one of them, and begin editing the book together. It’s always a really enjoyable process, especially when you find someone who really gets the book (and indeed someone who, often, gets certain aspects of the book even better than you do).

I: To what extent does the family of the Greenburgs, within your 2016 novel Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, resemble your upbringing as a child in Ireland?

RG: The Greenbergs lived in early 20th Century Cork, so there aren’t a lot of similarities I’m afraid! That said, Ruth Greenberg, like me, is the youngest child, and very eager to please. However, in Nine Folds, the present-day character of Aisling is much more autobiographical — like me she is from Dublin, now living in London, and has fallen in love with an English boy. She has to deal with questions of identity, homesickness, belonging, religion, familial ties, so a lot of my own experience is in there.

I: Are there any particular themes or ideas you wish were better presented in literature? (Either commercially or just generally)

RG: I think in Irish fiction there is still a real lack of diversity in terms of people of colour or minority groups being represented. This is slowly starting to improve, although only really amongst certain small presses, so the bigger houses really need to get on board with this.

I: In what ways do you believe the American and European literary markets differ?

RG: The American publishing industry is just HUGE! Which is quite intimidating for an outsider. However, luckily I found a US agent, who then found me a wonderful indie publishing house who really took Nine Folds under their wing and pushed it as much as they could, so I felt a lot more nurtured than I might have if I had been at one of the huge US publishing houses.

An Interview with Phillip B. Williams

Phillip B. Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois and earned his MFA from Washington Uni- versity, where he was a Chancellor’s Graduate fellow. He is the author of Bruised Gospels (Arts in Bloom Inc., 2011), Burn (YesYes Books, 2013), and Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books, 2016), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. His poetry has appeared in Callaloo, Kenyon Review Online, The Southern Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, West Branch, Blackbird and others.

Williams is a Cave Canem graduate and the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award and teaches at Bennington College.

Interviewers: Our group found your poem, “Witness”, in Thief in the Interior, to be interesting in terms of the content and style. We’re wondering if you might be able to speak about what you were hoping to achieve stylistically, given the variety of writing styles and forms that were used, and how you thought this complemented the content?

Phillip B. Williams: For me, I just wanted to write a poem that interrogated the space of the page, the possibilities of form, in order to get across the difficulties of relying on anything at all to communicate how I felt while looking at my life through this story. I wanted to match all of the feelings moving through me but no form seemed reliable. I didn’t have any hopes per se, just a vision, and that vision was to keep attempting a thing until exhausted, to keep moving through my fear and anger until I just couldn’t anymore. The original poem is, I believe, 20 sections. I edited it down for the book (it was also what was best for the poem).

I: In reading “He Loved Him Madly,” (Thief in the Interior), we found it to be something like a tapestry of different aspects of what we suspect to be your environment in Chicago. We were wondering if you could perhaps explain or elaborate on how you weaved the different perspectives, voices, and references together to make this work; and how you think this work should be read?

PBW: The form is something I got from Terrance Hayes. He has a few pecha kuchas in his book Lighthead, one in particular called “Arbor for Butch,” which I really enjoy. He thinks about his father in that poem and it made me think about my own and how hard it must’ve been coming up in Chicago during the crack epidemic. But in my mind there is one voice, not many, thinking about Chicago as a place that has failed its residents, particular the working class Black residents in my neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods. The work should be read straight through but one could read all the odd sections together then all the even sections together if they wanted to. I just wanted to make sure that the community had an eye on it as well as my relationship with my father.

I: The final poem in the your collection, “Birth of the Doppleganger,” we felt, to be one of most surreal of the bunch. It feels like a very dark and ominous vision of a rebirth from the body of the wolf into something else; when combined with the title we suspect that it’s describing how a new ‘you’ has come into being. We were wondering, if this work is about you, how you see this transformation: what were you before, what are you now, and what caused this change?

PBW: This poem is closely related, in my mind at least, to the opening poem “Bound,” where the question is asked “Can I be more than one thing at once?” I consider “Birth of the Doppelganger” to be an answer to this question in some way. It’s neither a yes nor a no. More like a “Well, there is always transformation, but this is not to say that this other part of you wasn’t always in you to begin with.” It’s not really about me. Most of my poems are from a speaker that is merely an aspect of me. There are a few where the I is reflective of me, such as “Eleggua and Eshu Ain’t the Same.” That is a poem absolutely pulled from my life but also with exaggerations.

I: As an editor for Vinyl and a writer yourself, what kind of things do you look for when reading other people’s submissions? How do you determine if a work should be published or not?

PBW: I look for a poet who knows what they are capable of. So many poets come to us at Vinyl without and idea as to what they are doing and how to better achieve their aesthetic goals. Every poem has an aesthetic personality, and it is often times easy to see when a poet is still figuring things out, when a poet has not been reading widely or enough, and when a poet accidentally happened upon something cool instead of intentionally working with that cool idea to create something surprising, yes, but also cohesive. I look for work that somehow proves to me that it is different than things I’ve read before. We get a lot of poems that, if names were removed, I wouldn’t be able to say they were written from different people. I also look for poems that take chances with language, think about common tropes with unique vision, and are not ashamed of being beautiful, however that may look.

I: How does your role as an editor for Vinyl compare with your role as a writer? Do you feel your role as an editor strengthens your writing or at times interferes with your creative freedom?

PBW: It’s a mix of both but mostly editing interferes. I try to get one out of my system before doing the other. If I am writing,
I will not look at poems and vice versa. Reading other people’s poems absolutely makes for a difficult writing experience. It takes me out of my creative mind. I do enjoy that I see what seems to be fads happening in poetry and can build up a resistance to them as I write my own work. Analyzing a poem to see if the writer has written something that if shared, could make people think differently about the world is different than wanting to be on the creator’s side of thing, making the work that is unfamiliar and maybe even frightening for me and hopefully for the reader as well. I cannot wear the editor hat and the writer hat simultaneously, but I do learn a lot from reading the great submissions and finding those poems that are utterly generous and thought-provoking.

I: After reading your poem “Do-rag” (Poetry Magazine) we were curious to know your inspiration behind writing it? It appears you poke fun at a modern drunken love story, but we’d love to know if there is any deeper meaning to this poem.

PBW: This poem is less about a drunken love story and more about a love story where someone who is pretty open about their sexuality navigates, tries to navigate, a romance with someone who is in the closet, who participates in toxic masculinity in order to feel some sense of false comfort in a world that does not accept them, rather it accepts a shadow of them. The speaker is willing to keep this secret, though, but not without making it clear that the world is not going anywhere; it can merely be hidden, temporarily, and regardless of what the world says or thinks, in order for the closeted lover to be with the speaker, he has to make himself vulnerable. Vulnerability comes at a price. Both the speaker and the lover pay it.


I was six, or seven. It was a scalding Dominican summer day that began with a hurried packing of bare-essentials— underwear and shorts—as my aunt prepared me for a visit to my grandmother’s in the campo. It was basically out in the wilderness, some miles away from the city. Whilst I was inside, saying goodbye to my cousins, readying myself for the journey ahead, the guagua seemed to appear out of thin air, blasting its horn outside my aunt’s door in a frenzy. I peered outside to see a rusted chassis with a navy-blue coat of paint that was one rain away from peeling off. The four tires seemed about ready to melt in the noon time sun. Each one in a different phase of their lives, three in their respective winters, while one had seemingly just been reborn in the spring. I couldn’t see inside past the tinted windows, but I knew the driver had to be a disheveled old fella of some sort, impatiently tapping his foot wanting to be on his merry-lacking way. Those drivers were always miserable guys and I’m sure the equatorial summer had plenty to do with it. Though somehow, through the rusted disrepair of the bus and the likely irritable driver, I imagined a Magic School Bus adventure with a male Ms. Frizzle at the helm of it all. Needless to say, it was nothing of the sort.

I arrived what felt like days later to my adolescent mind. I was cramped next to my aunt the entire time, who was dropping me off at a stop where one of my uncles would pick me up on his scooter. She held my hand most of the way there, I don’t know whether it was to reassure me she was there or whether it was to reassure herself I was. Everyone worries a little too much in a Dominican family, especially if you come from the States. They always think you somehow reek of New York, even if you’re from Rhode Island and not the famous “Nueva Yor,” the state that encompasses most of North America to everyone there. Caribbean families always think you’re going to get robbed or kidnapped and held for ransom or something. To this day, as an adult, they expect me to take off any jewelry just to be safe. They thought if they got rid of any physical indication that I was from the States that they could protect me, that I could pass for any other island native, but my broken ass Spanish would forever be a dead giveaway of where I came from.

The ride to my grandma’s house on my uncle’s scooter was almost five hours with the midafternoon sun on my neck and back, or at least that’s what it felt like then; it was probably less than thirty minutes in real-time. The scenery shifted from close knit buildings reminiscent of old 1950s sepia pictures to all fields and woods. Eerie little bundles of houses gave way to outpost like buildings, and past that to nothing but dirt road and tropical trees. When we reached another huddle of shabby houses painted in classic Caribbean greens and pinks we stopped; we had reached as far back as my maternal ancestry went.

It was a modest little setup, everyone had just enough room to be ok but not quite enough to be fully comfortable. The community itself stared into the distance at an African grassland. The stalks of grass in front of my grandmother’s house were that tall, giant even. Every strand a part of a place that laid the stepping stones to my existence.

Bendición mami,” I said with excitement laced in my blessing. Her sun beaten arms wrapped themselves around me like lush brown earth, ready to nourish a seed. Una negra hermosa. She was the color of a warm cup of coffee on a wintry night in the States, with just a subtle hint of cream giving her a chocolatey complexion. Over the years, I grew to associate that color with her warm hugs and her tender forehead kisses.

Que Dios te bendiga, mi amor,” her cinnamon scented voice whispered down to me. She hugged me tightly, not wanting to let go of her small grandchild the color of caramel coffee with extra cream—the result of her falling in love with a half Italian half Dominican breed of arrogance who thought he could bypass fertility even though he didn’t even use a condom. That visit was one that would forever change me for the better. During my time with her I realized that I am la sangre de mi sangre, the blood of my blood, coming from both conquerors and the conquered of  a New World, like all Caribbeans are. It was she who taught me to love the skin of our ancestors, the ebony-ivory tomes of our collective pasts—the pages of our history. And it was she who taught me that love extends beyond what we can see through the flesh. Shit, I wish my grandmother had shown America how to love.

An Interview with Jane Lunin Perel

Professor emerita Jane Lunin Perel ’15 Hon. arrived to teach English and creative writing at Providence College in 1971. She has stretched students’ creative capacities ever since. She also led the initiative to establish the College’s Women’s Studies Program in 1994, serving as its first director, and was devoted to it and the Department of English until her retirement in 2014. She is the author of five books of poetry: Red Radio Heart: Prose Poems, The Lone Ranger and the Neo American Church, The Fishes: A Graphic Poetic Essay with Artist James Baker, Blowing Kisses to the Sharks, and The Sea is Not Full.

Interviewers: The PC community is eternally grateful to you for all the amazing changes you helped usher in during your time at Providence College, be it the development of the Creative Writing Program, Women’s Studies Program, the Poetry and Fiction Series, etc. What changes would you like to see going forward as the college enters its second century?

Jane Lunin Perel: I would like to see the Humanities revived and more emphasis placed on interdisciplinarity. It’s like cross-pollination when you, David, major in Poli Sci, but take Dr. Ye’s Literary Journalism. You have the ability to apply your creative instincts with what you are studying in Poli Sci. More panels, more papers, more poems integrating your knowledge and creativity enrich the individual student and the entire college. Poetry is for everyone, not just poets. It encourages diversity
of taste and curiosity about all subjects in the curriculum. It integrates the spiritual with the literal. This means I would like to see less segregation of disciplines and more interplay within interdisciplinarity that will encourage not just diversity of thought but also of social networking within the college.

I: Providence College is fortunate to have such a long-standing literary journal, The Alembic, to which you were the faculty advisor for a number of years. How do you think The Alembic contributes to fostering a literary- minded student body?

JLP: Obviously, The Alembic fosters a “literary-mined student body” only when it’s read and appreciated. I would like to see the work in it read and evaluated not just in Creative Writing courses, but also in Intro to Lit. courses, other English courses in which the subjects of the poems are pertinent, in the American Studies, Black Studies, and Women’s Studies programs, Global Studies, Political Science, Education, Religious Studies, Sociology, and even DWC. We need to sweep the net wider in not having the editors only create the journal, but also personally direct works
in it to departments, programs, and organizations that would appreciate the subject matter and style of said work. This could be achieved by having a reading with these aims in mind. It has to be an on-going intensification of sharing the work with the whole PC Community. It’s a wonderful journal, but it needs far more exposure and use on campus.

I: Some of the poems in your book, Blowing Kisses to the Sharks, reveal the tension between men and women. How does this tension manifest in poems such as “Mozart’s Sister” and “Breakfast”?

JLP: In “Breakfast,” the speaker has a frightening, surreal dream in which she says, “I beat/my breasts, which became huge/white eggs/and yolk flowed/everywhere.” The other in the poem is “already up, organizing/your correspondences.” The dream life of the speaker centers on her “breasts” and “bleeding yolk.”  It’s obvious she is terrified by her own body parts and some aspect
of her sexuality. This symbolizes the fear of her unknowable capacities and perhaps the huge emphasis placed on breasts by women and men. It is mysterious that “she bleeds yolk.” She fears perhaps she is an anomaly and her body form is an anomaly. So, while the speaker is horrified and afraid “alone, bleeding yolk,” her partner lives in a world or order, “organizing correspondences, eating breakfast alone.” Their worlds are separate, and there is no sharing of her psychic pain, except the poem itselfIt sounds like alienation to me.

“Mozart’s Sister,” on the other hand finds a female speaker fascinated with Mozart’s literal sister and the lack of appreciation and recognition of her talent during her lifetime, and now the speaker gives us her name “Nannerl.” Also, the poem is a series
of juxtapositions from my own life. I was reading about Nannerl Mozart and considering how restrictive gender roles of her life made it impossible for her to study and become famous despite her musical talent. I imagined her dreams and massive frustration, “Jesus with her brother’s face.” I imagined Nannerl and I fighting against Nazis, the ultimate patriarchal destroyers and oppressors. Then, I juxtaposed that thought stream to my real life, in which
I had to bring my car to a male mechanic whose garage was on Admiral Street. I then compare the “lifting up of the car” during its exam to a gynecological exam on a woman by a male doctor. Many women are extremely anxious about these examinations, and they in a way return to the insecurity of Nannerl. My car at that point symbolizes me being invaded by the mechanic so, of course, it is the symbol of my body. And I bring in Freud whose theory
of penis envy has always seemed totally absurd and ridiculously male centered to me. Then, I have Mozart’s Sister return and comment on my imagining how she couldn’t even “touch herself.” I then state, “her quiet death makes me speak out.” And I ask my readers to invoke her name in the face of oppressive and sexist behavior and to “speak out,” which is what I literally did. I told the mechanic that his fee was ridiculous, “Go rip off somebody else.” And he literally came down on his price because I stood
up to him. I then end on a positive note that, “though things are weird, they are getting better.” We have taken for granted so often the limitation of learned gendered behavior, the assumption that
a woman should be polite and accept whatever male authority expects of her. So, my small victory of not paying a high price pleased me, and the poem also asks that we honor the silent, talented, disadvantaged women who have been oppressed
by patriarchal dominance. If we honor them, we also honor ourselves. Men, Women, and Trans are aspiring to experience self- expression and justice. But, the poem is not an essay. I think in its way it’s droll and sardonic, and I still consider myself forty years later, “Mozart’s Sister.”

I: The form of “Lorenzo” from Blowing Kisses to the Sharks is quite eye-catching. When the poem displays the motion of the “diver,” why are the words formatted in a zig-zag pattern? What is the significance of this form?

JLP: This question makes me think of the wonderful essay by
the poet Charles Olson, named “Projected/Projective Verse,”
in which he states that “form is the extension of content.” So since these poems are in free verse, and this one describes, enacts Lorenzo, a real cliff diver in Acapulco, Mexico while he is diving, I endeavor to use this form to emulate the act of diving and in the next stanza his rising back up and breaking the water’s surface. And also, I wish to project how startling he was. I guess looking back I found him quite attractive. Please do read the Olson essay and experiment!

I: “There Will Be a Poem You Can Lie Down In” and “Making a Poem” seem to describe some intense feelings when creating a poem. The poems show that it can be a long, difficult process, but it is somehow worth it in the end. How do these poems reveal your feelings towards developing?

JLP: I am not sure how to answer this question. “There Will Be a Poem You Can Lie Down In” is a metaphor comparing dying to writing a poem. My feelings about imagery best describe my feeling toward developing poetry. Each image that amazes us, such as “you waterfall, you cleft of rock,” has the capacity to
be all there is for a moment. I am imagining this is what we’ve become and in doing so find, as the poet William Baker states, “eternity is a grain of sand.” This brings up spirituality, the belief in the intensity of beauty in nature as a gift of the Creator: “The glove of the moon/writes the poem and you lie/down for the
last time.” Imagining your own death not as torture or slaughter, but as an extension of nature gives wonder and respect for the dazzling imagery we experience on Earth. I think this is where poetry comes from, not from personality or intellect, but from how we know what a gift life is, and how the world is Holy, even though so much of how so many treat it is destructive. I have always been fascinated by the ocean. It assures me that the God who created all wonders and creatures is generous beyond wonder and part of the human soul.

So, this poem is an homage, a song, to that generosity and to our realizing we are gifted with wonder which will continue for those who are grateful for life, even after they die. Now, “Making a Poem” again uses the metaphor of comparing “making the poem” to mining with all the physical arduousness of mining.
It is a metaphor for the creative process which requires fierce concentration and an actual digging at the core of language to find that imagery the equates with the ferocity of a poem’s own core. It is difficult to find, to hone, language. It is a lonely process and frustrating. But again, it is the gift of discovery and song. Frankly, those who live with poets, but are not poets, have little understanding to why “it took so long to offer it.” Yet, despite the tremendous energy required to write and revise heavily a poem one is satisfied with, there is always a terrible fear the poet will lose the gift and no more poems will come.

I: “Carnelia Doesn’t Get Relief from Acupuncture but She Gets This List:” certainly breaks the form of the prose poems that surrounds it. Is this meant to draw attention to the poem among the collection or merely is it an anomaly among the collection?

JLP: The form of “Carnelia Doesn’t Get Relief from Acupuncture but She Gets This List:” is exactly how the
poem with its mythic equations came to me one by one on the acupuncturist’s table with the needles hanging out of me. So, in complete contrast to “Making a Poem,” here I was given this poem as a gift, although I did not get any relief from the back pain. Also, I did tinker a bit with what was given to me. I created an echo to each line which imbued it with certain morbidity. An example of this, each of the last words of each line of the first four lines ends in a morbid word and image, but the last words of the last line, “let go,” suggest a demand for freedom. So, you may start with what literally comes to you, but you may also play with it and change it completely. That is my justification for the form, that these words came to me as lists whose changes I made only on the last word of every line.

A Theory of Whiteness

I had a theory about white walls. White is a sterile color, unfeeling and void of emotion but not meaningless. The hospital walls were strategically colorless because memories don’t stick to something so bland. It is a mechanism to help ease the healing process, to try and alleviate the grief and mourning of the families who had lost so much. It is a futile but understandable technique. No one should be tormented by the memories of the aseptic rooms and hallways that were paced as the results of life altering diagnoses were awaited, the ghastly silence of the waiting room, or the last breath of the person who had once been filled with so much life. But not even the bleached walls can prevent the inevitable pain and vivid memories.

White is intended to be crisp and soothing. Maybe the white walls do help the healing process, their lackluster appearance ensuring that the memories of sickness and pain do not stick so forcefully. Maybe it does bring some peace to those who are awaiting God’s divine hand to release them from their suffering. But for me, I am blinded by the aggressive white walls. My mum thinks I’ve turned into a cynic, but these walls mark my time spent secluded from the world a twenty- one year old should be living in. I don’t find peace here. These walls that surround me only serve as a reminder of what my life has turned into—a medically induced existential crisis. I had been a college student approaching the end of her junior year, and now I was death’s ambassador, representing the fate that was hanging delicately before me. It was a fate my parents tried to ignore, or rather a fate they tried desperately to change through faithful prayer, as if their bartering could save me from the threads of human destiny. We already knew my thread was probably going to be cut before I reached my twenty-second year; the Fates had already decided my destiny.

** *

I was in little pain the first day I met him, a miracle in itself. I had just finished my weekly meeting with my doctor and was waiting in a hard-plastic chair while my parents had their turn. It was the beginning of August, so a soft wave of heat caressed my face every time the automatic doors slid open, infiltrating the cool interior of the hospital. I was absorbed
in the tangle of headphones sitting in my lap when a little boy whizzed through the doors. His small hand was clamped around a wooden plane that he was flying animatedly over his head as he wound his way around the waiting room.

“Ronan, please sit for a couple of minutes while I talk to the lady at the front desk.” A woman with dark hair coiled into a knot at the nape of her neck was pointing at the chair next to mine.

“Mummy, but I need to fly my plane,” the little boy pleaded, rocking up onto his toes.

“Not right now, here take this.” She gently directed him toward the chair and handed him a small bag. “Daddy will take you to the park later to fly your big plane, okay?”

With a pout, he folded his arms across his chest and let the bag fall from the chair. A half dozen books slid across the floor around my feet. I could see the mother turning back towards her son as I leaned down to retrieve the books.

“Ronan.” Her voice was firm but tired.

With a little huff, Ronan jumped off his seat and joined me in picking up the books. His hair was a soft brown color and curled neatly at his neck. I grabbed Amelia Bedelia Hits the Trail and smiled

“I used to read these when I was little,” I told him, gathering the bag and placing the book inside.

“Amelia Bedelia? How old are you?” He glanced up at me as he swept the rest of the books into the bag and returned to his seat.


“Wow,” His brown eyes widened significantly. “You’re four whole hands.”

“Plus one finger.” I laughed, holding up my index finger. “How many hands are you?”

With a quiet nod to himself he counted his fingers out before holding them out towards me proudly. “One hand and one finger. I’m six! Daddy got me a real plane for my birthday. It flies so high I have to be careful it doesn’t touch the sun.”

“Woah, it must fly pretty high. Are you a good pilot?” I leaned back in the chair, resting my head against the wall.

Ronan’s face lit up and he smiled, revealing a gap where his front teeth were supposed to be. “Daddy says I am the bestest pilot he’s ever seen, and he flies all over the world.”

I smiled to myself and let my eyes close as Ronan reached into the bag to grab a book. My body was heavy with exhaustion. There was no chance that I was going to make it the whole twenty-five minute ride home without falling asleep. I let the sounds of the hospital lull me into a half-sleep.

I felt a soft poke on my shoulder and rolled my head towards Ronan.

“Are you sleeping?” He peered up at me innocently with his wide brown eyes.

“No, just resting my eyes.”

“That’s funny my mummy rests her eyes sometimes too, especially when she’s watching the football game with us.” Ronan imitated his mother, closing his eyes and folding his hands across his chest as he leaned back against the chair.

I shifted the hospital bracelet down my arm. “I bet that’s what I looked like, too.”

Ronan’s eyes flickered down to my wrist. “Are you sick? Why do you have that bracelet?”

“I am sick.” I laughed as he grimaced and slid to the far side of his chair. “Not that kind of sick, you won’t catch it. The bracelet just lets the doctors know who I am.”

He looked fairly skeptical but inched a little closer to the center of the seat. “Will I get one? Mummy says I have to get a kitty scan for my head. Have you had a kitty scan?”

I chewed the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. “A CAT scan? I have had one before, it’s not scary I promise. If you’re extra brave they might even give you a lollipop.”

Ronan tipped his head towards me as if about to tell a secret. “A red one?” His voice, though soft, emanated excitement.

“If you ask nicely, I bet they will give you a red one.” I poked his cheek.

“Ronan, honey, come with me please. We’re going to go meet your doctor.” We both looked up at the sound of his mother’s voice. She was standing next to the front desk, a handful of paperwork held to her chest and a hand extended outwards towards her son.

“Okay, Mummy, I’m coming.” He gathered his bag and airplane and slid off the chair, his feet landing with a small slap on the linoleum floor. “It was nice to meet you, Mrs.—”

“I’m not that old,” I teased, handing him the forgotten book. “Its just Elsie. Good luck today, I bet you’ll be brave.”

His little chest puffed out as he marched over to his mother, pausing once to turn around and wave at me. I waved back, and his mother smiled at me.

“Elsie told me that if I’m good the kitt—CAT scan workers will give me a red lollipop.” His excited chatter tapered off as they stepped into the elevator.

** *

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that I saw Ronan again. My mum and I had just gotten into an argument about whether or not it was overly optimistic to plan a family vacation to the seaside for the following summer. She said it would be something to look forward to. I told her it would be a waste
of money because the chances were high that I wouldn’t be
in attendance. She had burst into tears. I went for a walk to clear my head, swallowing the egg-sized lump in my throat as
I closed the door to Room 416 behind me. I had a hard time dealing with my parents’ grief, not because I was cold-hearted but because I felt so personally responsible. What they don’t tell you about being terminally ill is the guilt that eats away at your heart as you watch your parents die with you.

I was still blinking back the sting of tears when I reached the hospital’s food court three floors below. Untucking my journal from underneath my arm, I flicked through the worn pages until I reached my bucket list. I didn’t like to
dwell on all the unchecked boxes (like graduating college and skydiving), rather I tried to focus on everything that I had done. I was determined to pick one of the activities off my list to bring back to my mum, offering the chance to do something together as a forlorn apology for what I was putting her through.

“Mummy, look—Mummy! It’s Elsie, my friend who told me all about the red lollipop.”

It was Ronan and his mother. I peeked up from the pag- es of my notebook and gave him a small wave. He was wearing corduroy overalls and a bright red t-shirt that matched the small plane clutched in his left hand. His mother looked more tired than she had the last time I saw them, I felt a pang of recognition in my chest. I knew that look; I had seen it so many times on my parents’ faces when they thought I wasn’t looking.

“Mummy, can I sit with Elsie while you get our lunch?”

“Honey, I’m not sure she wants company.” She looked at me apologetically, her hand moving to Ronan’s shoulder.

I was about to apologize and say I was just on my way out when I caught the utterly dejected look on his face that had replaced his huge smile. “I don’t mind, really! It’s always nice to have someone to talk to.”

His mother introduced herself as Elena Grey and thanked me for humoring her son’s request as Ronan pulled a chair up next to mine and placed his plane on my notebook. His legs swung freely above the ground and his hands were clasped neatly on the tabletop as he waited for our conversation to end.

“I was really brave, and the doctors gave me two lollipops, but there was only one red so I had to have a purple one too,” Ronan stated proudly as his mother left.

“Two? You must have been extra brave if they gave you two.”

“I was.” He nodded his head fiercely. “Mr. Doctor told me that my brain has a bee-nine thing on it and that was why my head hurts so bad all the time.”

I felt my stomach tighten instinctively. “Benign is the nicer kind.”

“I know that, Mr. Doctor told me. What is that?” His attention had quickly turned to my journal.

“It’s a bucket list,” I told him, pulling it out from underneath his plane so that I could show him.

After explaining the premise of a bucket list (and convincing him that it had nothing to do with actual buckets), Ronan decided that he wanted to make one of his own. We ripped a page out of the back of my notebook and got started, me as the scribe and him as the spokesman. He decided it
was of utmost importance that he try each chip flavor in the vending machine, so thus was our first entry. I ended up sitting at the table while Ronan and Elena ate their lunch, the three of us adding to the list until it was rather extensive.

In the months leading up to the surgery to remove Ronan’s benign tumor, we began to pick away at our list. Our visits to the hospital overlapped more often than not, and
on the days that it didn’t, I would occasionally get pictures (both real from Elena and hand drawn from Ronan) of the “real world” bucket list activities Ronan and his parents were doing (i.e. going to a plane showing a couple towns over from their house, an absolute out of body experience for Ronan). But most days we fulfilled the pursuits that could be easily accomplished in the white walled hospital

4. The ultimate slip and slide

Hospital life meant that our supplies were limited and that actual slip and slides were strictly prohibited. So, we made do. The ramp outside of the food court was exceptionally long and slightly steeper than normal, and when the floors were freshly waxed it was slippery as hell. Armed with a fresh supply of hospital socks and the permission of the hospital staff (as it was a rather quiet morning), Ronan and I made our way down to the first floor, Ronan holding his little plane and me holding the socks.

“I bet I’ll be as fast as my plane,” Ronan spoke quickly, the excitement building in his voice as he spoke.

“You might be even faster,” I offered, holding the elevator open as Ronan shuffled out.

“You think so?” He tipped his face up towards me with a smile.

I lifted my eyebrows. “We’ll have to see, right?”

The hallway leading to the food court was empty with the exception of the occasional doctor or nurse. As we approached the ramp I handed Ronan his pair of socks. With a giggle he plopped himself onto the floor, his plane placed gently to his right, and pulled off his sneakers. I watched as he tugged the oversized socks over his feet.

“Hang on a second, bud.” I stopped him as he bounded up to his feet. “The sticky part on the bottom will keep you from sliding. You have to put the tops on the bottom, like this.” I fixed the socks so that the patterned grips faced the ceiling rather than the floor.

“You know everything, Elsie, don’t you?”

“I don’t even know half of everything.” I laughed as I replaced my shoes with socks.

I made him hold my hand as we carefully made out way up to the top of the ramp. At twenty-one it was little more than a ramp, but for Ronan it was an adventure. The slope of the ramp was like a mountain just waiting for him to slide down.

“You promise to be careful?” I asked, looking down at Ronan as we reached the top. “I told your mum that I’d bring you back in tip top shape.”

He nodded eagerly, pulling at my hand until I let go. “I’ll do it just like you showed me upstairs.”

Small hands knotted into fists, he did a little jog before letting the momentum pull him forward. He didn’t move very fast but you would never have known that from the peals
of laughter that bounced off the walls. His happiness was infectious, something that I had learned in the short time that I had known him.

After doing a few slides of my own, I opted into pulling Ronan down the ramp. He held my hands tightly and leaned back so that his body was slightly angled. With my back to the base of the ramp, I maneuvered with a cautious quickness that made him squeal as his feet slipped and slid beneath him. Some of the nurses would smile as they walked past, watching the way his face lit up each time we made the trip. When I stopped to rest my hand gently against the white walls, steadying my uneven breath, he would lean his head against my legs and squeeze my hand in time with my breathing.

One of the many beautiful things about Ronan was that he never asked about my illness. I was his friend, and
as far as he was concerned that was all that mattered. He knew, of course, but it was only in his small gestures that
he acknowledged that I was sick too. There was something relieving about the fact that I didn’t have to talk about it. It wasn’t that I was getting significantly worse because I wasn’t, but I also wasn’t getting any better. I was frozen in a medical standstill whose outcome I already knew the answer to. Each day was gifted to me by the tiny pills that sat by my breakfast each morning, but there was going to come a time where not even they could delay my fate any longer.

7. Beach day

“What about that one?” Ronan’s hand was lifted towards the sky, his index finger indicating the small fluff of clouds that circled ominously close to the sun.

It was late October and our “beach” was the small playground by the parking lot. We were both bundled in warm clothes and swaddled in a thick blanket, at the insistence of both of our parents. My mum and I had brought two beach chairs from home, so it was in those that Ronan and I were reclined on the edge of the grass and mulch.

“A pirate ship,” I told him after observing the cloud for a couple of seconds. “What about that one?”

I watched as his eyes followed my hand. “That one’s Mr. Doctor!”

“You know, you’re right. It does look like him.”

“What is he doing up in the clouds?” Ronan giggled, his pink cheeks rising above the edge of the blanket that was tucked beneath his nose.

I reached over to fix his blanket. “On his lunch break, I would think.”

He sniffled quietly. “I like Mr. Doctor. That one looks like your car.”

“Hey, Ro. We should probably head back inside before the tide comes up and washes us away with the sea,” I stated, noting his runny nose.

“Aw, but Elsie…”

“What would our parents do if we floated out to sea? Huh?” I tickled his side, smiling as his laughter filled the crisp fall air.

1. The Chip-capade

A couple of days after Ronan’s surgery—a very successful surgery, might I add—I came to visit him in his hospital room, laden with an overly packed grocery bag. He smiled as I opened the door. His parents, who were seated next to his bed, looked exhausted but happy. They had made it to the other side so long as the tumor stayed gone, which the doctor said was highly probable. It was a side some families never got to see.

“Elsie!” Ronan clapped his hands together as I pulled a chair up to the bed opposite his parents.

“Look at you, you little mummy!” I joked, referring to the bandages wrapped around his head.

“It’s not even Halloween, but I have the best costume! I bet I’d scare Gigi and Papa, don’t you think, Daddy?”

His father laughed and agreed that he would. At his insistence, I helped him pose for a picture to send to his grandparents who were on their way from New Hampshire to see him.

“I brought you a treat,” I told Ronan after he had settled back against his pillows.

In a quick motion I dumped the contents of the bag onto the bed. A dozen bags of chips scattered across the blankets, slipping down the slope of his legs and onto the mattress.

“Our list!” His eyes were as wide as saucers as moved his legs, the movement sending some of the bags cascading onto the floor.

We spent the better part of an hour trying every chip from the vending machine. Some Ronan liked and some he spat out into his mother’s hand. I had saved his first choice for a special occasion. I stayed with him after the last of the chips had been discarded of, his parents moving downstairs to pick up dinner.

“You’re the bravest person I know, did you know that?”

I told him, my elbows sinking into the mattress as I leaned forward until I was at his level.

His eyes crinkled as he smiled, his cheeks pink with pride. “What’s going to happen to you now that I’m better?” The edge of his bandage slipped over his eyes as he spoke.

“I’ll still be here, promise you won’t forget about me?” I teased as I lifted the bandage away from his face so that I could see his eyes.

“Pinky promise, I’ll come visit every day when I’m better,” he said solemnly, hooking his pinky onto mine.

Ronan didn’t visit every day, not that I imagined he would (even pinky promises are broken sometimes), but his checkups were often enough that I still got to see him. A few months after his surgery his visits became more frequent, and then, one day, I became the visitor. The blurry blob had returned to the CAT scans, but this time it wasn’t the nice kind. Our delicate hope had turned to ash. On the last day I saw him, he was sitting up in his bed, his brown eyes tired but alert. He still smiled when he saw me, though his diagnosis was slowly taking its toll. I left a small piece of my heart behind each time I looked into those beautiful brown eyes.

With my head on his pillow we watched the clouds outside his window, murmuring softly as we picked out our favorite shapes. Even in pain his happiness shone through, though dimmer than it once was. I was staring out into the sky, a heaviness weighing in my chest, when he squeezed my hand.

“Elsie, will you keep my plane safe until I can go home?” Ronan asked me, his voice was soft and his hand cold in mine.

“Of course I will, Ro.” My voice was barely audible, but he must have heard me because he nuzzled his soft curls into my neck and squeezed my hand again.

I was right about the walls, they don’t make you forget. I see him everywhere. He’s in the clouds that float listlessly above my head, the hospital socks on my feet, and the little red plane that sits on my nightstand. But I’ve found that I don’t want to forget because he brought life to the white walls that surround me.