Issue 89: A Conversation with Ada Limón

Ada Limón
Willow Springs 89

Found in Willow Springs 89




Ada Limón


WEAVING NATURAL IMAGERY with memories of the past and moments of the present, Ada Limón’s work explores both gender and race while incorporating elements of the surreal. The Los Angeles Review describes her work as being filled with “discovery, and rediscovery of self and world.” Limón’s poems guide her reader through her speaker’s self-exploration and encourage them to find beauty in the unconventional—in the way a neighbor mows his farm, in an 8-pound female horse heart, in a lady groundhog eating a tomato.

Ada Limón is the author of The Carrying (2018), the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry; Bright Dead Things (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award; Sharks in the Rivers (2010); Lucky Wreck (2006); and This Big Fake World (2006). Her new book, The Hurting Kind, is expected from Milkweed Editions in May of 2022. Limón was a recent recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, and she teaches remotely from Lexington, Kentucky, where she also hosts The Slowdown, a poetry-focused podcast.

Ada Limón agreed to meet with us over Zoom during the winter of 2020. Amid a year of isolation, our conversation surrounding the importance of underrepresented voices in literature, poetic process, and the evolution of poetic style provided a much-needed sense of togetherness. Limón was candid, encouraging, and realistically hopeful while she allowed us into her world for a few hours on a chilly afternoon.



Something that I love about your collections is the variety of form. I read in a past interview of yours that breath is really important when writing poetry. Does the incorporation of breath in your poetry determine the form of each poem or is that a different process for you?


No, they’re completely aligned. Breath, for me, determines how the poem is read, where we want the reader to breathe, where we as the writer breathe. Allowing for the line breaks, caesuras in the middle of the line, stanza breaks, all of that, where the white space is, is always allowing for breath. In some ways, they operate like stage directions. Once I’ve actually completed the poem, when I hand it to a reader, they should be able to read it in a similar manner to how I’ve placed it on the page and how I intend it to be read.


In Lucky Wreck, there were a lot of shorter, haiku-like poems. How does breath operate in those?


I love that you asked about Lucky Wreck. It’s coming up on its 15th anniversary. Which is crazy because I feel like I’m not that old, right? Those little poems were meant to be like Post-It notes within the book, notes to myself on some level, moments to stop, especially after a longer poem or maybe a more complex poem or a poem that had a heavy subject matter. They were like little breaths, little breaks throughout the book, a place to land after a longer journey—the psychological journey of a poem.

The last poem, “Thirteen Feral Cats,” which is all one poem in thirteen sections, needed to be the ending, the reason for the book. It’s almost backwards in some ways, like it’s built to have some lightness, some cleverness, some joy of living, but that last section confronts mortality in a larger way.

Lucky Wreck was the first manuscript I put together as a manuscript; I would type into one word document. I wrote each poem individually, but I started to see them as a collection right off the bat. I started putting them together, and then “Thirteen Feral Cats” came at the end, and it felt like, “Oh right, it’s supposed be this journey I’m working through, and then here is the reason. My stepmother was diagnosed with cancer. How do I live with this information? And how do these thirteen feral cats play into what it is to want something, to live and also want to tame something?”


Have you ordered your books since then in that way, or do you say, “I have enough. I’m going make a book”?


It’s a combination. Bright Dead Things, Lucky Wreck and Sharks in the Rivers all started as one poem at a time. Then I start to see them talking to each other, and I start to lay them next to each other and  I think, “If this is a manuscript, what am I missing?” It felt like Lucky Wreck was actually missing some of that real straightforward conversation about death.

Now when I build a manuscript, I think, “Okay, if this is a book and these poems are connected, what are the parts I’m leaving out? What are the things I’m scared to say? What are the things I need to push myself into, whether it be scary or hard or maybe even joyful?” The hardest poem to write is a joyful poem or a contented poem. I mean, what does a contented poem look like? There are times when I start to put together a manuscript and I think, “Oh, this needs more contentment. I’m content. I have joy. I look to see what parts are missing, and then I start to fill in those gaps and create a book that has a sense of wholeness to it. I’ve never wanted my books to be just a collection of poems. They’ve always felt like they needed a heart, that they needed a core, and that there was some sort of, for lack of a better word, narrative arc for the reader.


You have that thirteen-part poem in Lucky Wreck, and you also have a fifteen-part poem in Sharks in the Rivers called “Fifteen Balls of Feathers.” How do you decide when to include section breaks in poems and when to use stanza breaks?


In both of those poems, each section acts as if it’s an individual poem, but it’s going to be more kinetic and vibrant if it’s part of the whole. It’s sort of about whether or not it can actually exist outside of the poem. Whereas with a stanza break, there’s no question that it needs to be connected, and so it’s giving into the leaps the brain makes. The section breaks feel more like that sort of pinging, where the brain goes over here then over here, whereas the stanzas, there might be a little pause, but the brain is still on track.


You’ve talked a lot about silence in your poems, and we were talking earlier about those smaller poems with a lot of space around them. I thought of Lorca, who you mention in The Carrying. I wonder if you could speak to his influence.


Yeah, Lorca has been a big influence on me, and one part of that is those leaps. That’s one thing Lorca has always been really wonderful at, trusting the reader to go with him when he goes into a new realm. It’s no wonder that Salvador Dalí and Federico Lorca were partners and friends, or whatever their relationship was. That giving into the reality has always been a big influence on my work. When I allow my brain to go, “Okay, this is just where it’s going,” instead of stopping myself and going, “This is too weird,” the Lorca mentor in my mind says, “Go with it. Go with it.” I don’t know if it’s always about the silence or the breath, but more about trusting the weirdness of the self. The weirdness of the self might lead you to some place that might not be factual, but it might be truthful.


Could you speak to sectioning in your collections?


With The Carrying, I started reading it as all one section. I was going through fertility treatments, but that wasn’t necessarily the entire thrust of the book. I needed there to be a place where you could close the door on that and talk about a poem like “A New National Anthem” or “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to Be Bilingual.” Even though our emotional state as we’re writing any manuscript is going to color an entire manuscript, I still felt that there were moments where I wasn’t thinking about my own fertility. I needed those moments of breaking. Even though that was the big impulse for the book, I didn’t want it to be the only engine. Those sections became a safe place for me to not always talk about the exact thing that was troubling me.

In the first section of Bright Dead Things, I’m in Kentucky. Why am I here? Why am I writing? And then the second section is dealing with what came before, which was the death of my stepmother, and I probably would not have been in Kentucky if it wasn’t for that. Then the third section feels like a return to the past, all the things and all the people we carry with us. There’s moments of talking about the exes, talking about past loves. Who are we when we enter a new relationship? Do we bring all the people who have been in a relationship with us behind us? We do. Sometimes you notice it. Sometimes you wish you didn’t. Then the fourth section was like, “What is it to be in a relationship?” and having that complicated. It ends in love poems. They’re less than smooth; they’re a little distressed in a way that I hope is truthful. Once I saw the organization for that manuscript happening, I was like, “Oh, this is exactly what it means, what it needs to be.” Also, once I realized there were poems about what the ex would bring to the relationship, I thought, “That person’s going to need a poem,” and I allowed myself to explore that. Sometimes the sections allow me to do what I was talking about earlier, which is to give myself prompts to explore something that I haven’t thought about or maybe haven’t even thought was worthy of a poetic impulse until I’ve seen what’s already there.


You mentioned that the first section of Bright Dead Things is a lot about your move to Kentucky. I was wondering how place and physical space influence your poems and if you set out to write poems about Kentucky, or did those happen without intention?


Landscape is really important in my work. If I were to say that there are themes in my work, in general, it would be the natural world and animals. Bright Dead Things is the first book that was written entirely outside of New York, so it does have a certain amount of greenness and the natural world, whereas with Sharks in the Rivers, there’s the natural world—the mention of the Stillaguamish, and my family lived in Stanwood, Washington—but, at the same time, the rivers and the animals felt almost metaphorical. In Bright Dead Things they become more real, partly because I was living among them. It’s a different experience to talk about a horse when you’re in a high-rise office in the middle of Times Square than it is to talk about a horse while you’re actually looking out the window at a horse.

There were two things that moving to Kentucky gave me that I didn’t have in New York. One was that greenness and that true interaction with the natural world and the second one was the time to interact with it. Because when you live in a big city, especially in New York, most of your time is spent working to pay to live in that city. I had huge jobs. I was the creative services director for Travel + Leisure Magazine, and I left my house at 7:30 a.m. and came home at 7:30 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. When I moved out and started freelancing, my relationship to nature changed because I was out in it almost daily. The landscape became much more of my home. It went away from metaphor and became real.


Do you think it’s necessary or beneficial for any poet or writer to put themselves into the natural world?


If I were to say what is good for writers, I would say, no matter where you are, recognize the bioregional area you’re in. I actually think that you could live in Brooklyn and have an incredible relationship with trees and plants and animals. I don’t think I had that because I was so distant in terms of time, but if you have time to walk in the botanical gardens, to walk in the parks—all of those things—you can have an incredible relationship with it. It’s really important, as human beings, for all of us to be in nature. We can talk about ecopoetics or nature poetry, but it’s really important just to recognize the plants and animals that surround us and are part of our community, the non-human animals.


What I love about your work is that odd combination between the Spanish surrealist vein and that gritty I’m-gonna-take-control-of-things voice, which is also a more narrative strain. I noticed it in The Carrying. Would you speak to those two competing voices?


There are times where I’m in control and there needs to be a talking back, like the time you insert yourself into the world and you almost have a dominance because you need to for survival. You need to for rebellion. You need to for resistance. And then there are times where you need to receive the world, sit back and actually soak it in. You need to let the world be bigger than you. What a gift to let it be bigger than you. And then there are times you think, “No, I’m going to stand against this, and I will be the hummingbird in the hurricane.”

Those two voices exist within myself, and they very much existed in Lorca’s work, too. When can we be just the human animal, soft and receptive and listening and quiet and let the world happen to us? And then when do we need to say, “No, I need to be in this world, and I need to be using my voice in order to honor people maybe who don’t have the voice”? Those two things are not just necessary for my own poetics, but I think they’re necessary for my humanity.


Your imagery seems so connected to the Spanish surrealists. Some contemporary poets I can think of, Alberto Ríos and Sharon Olds, also have that striking and wild imagery within a more narrative structure. I wonder if you would speak to imagery and how you see it, where it’s coming from, what writers influence you in terms of imagery.


I think imagery is key to how poems are made. I don’t think they can be made successfully without it, but there’s also a level at which we edit our own imagery, often outside of our poetic life. We don’t generally talk about the way we’re creating metaphors, or seeing things, or describing something, because maybe how we see it is a little strange. Sharon Olds was my teacher at NYU. I never studied with Alberto Ríos, but I love his work. “Rabbits and Fire” is one of my favorite all time poems. There’s a permission granted with both of those poets to follow the weirdness. I mean, Sharon is really weird. And I also lean into that idiosyncratic self that sees things differently than other people.


All of the collection titles are just breathtaking. Sharks in the Rivers represents exploring the unexpected—you don’t expect there to be sharks in a river. And Bright Dead Things explores finding the beauty in unconventional places. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your process of selecting a title for each collection.


I love that question. Anyone who works with me always says, “You love titles.” I love titling poems. Why would I want a poem called poem? I don’t want that. I love Frank O’Hara, I love Alan Dugan, I love people who can get away with it, but for me the title does work. It sums up or contains everything that’s in the book. I will continue to be obsessed with titles. This Big Fake World is like a novel in verse—so it’s almost all fiction. And in Lucky Wreck, the idea is, “I’m a disaster but I’m also so happy to be here.” Once I found that title, I could put together the rest of the collection—it was dealing with mortality and the recognition of death as well as joy, and those two things are consistently balanced across all five collections. For Sharks in the Rivers, there needed to be something scary underneath it all; that was the first time really dealing with where my stepmother’s cancer was going. There was a recognition of the fact that the world started to feel a little more haunted, and I felt less and less comfortable living in the city. There was a pull for me going into that book, like a pulsing dark forest of the mind. I retreated into that as much as I could while living in the city. In Bright Dead Things, almost all of the poems deal with the idea of containing living and dying in the same breath. Sharks in the Rivers is the mortality underneath it, and then Bright Dead Things is the idea that we’re both living and dying at the same time. The Carrying is similar; it’s what we carry to be in the world. I feel compelled to say that I’ve always liked hard k sounds; the only book that doesn’t have that is Bright Dead Things, but it still has this brightness. I love a spondee. I tend to like how these sonics hit.


Are titles something you start with, or are they something you finish a poem or a collection with?


It happens both ways, but for the most part they come at the end. Sometimes I think, “What’s this poem doing?” If I give it this title, suddenly it all connects, and I realize what the poem is about. Sometimes I ask myself, “What is this poem trying to teach me, what is it trying to tell me?” As we write, we don’t always know where the poem is going. If we did, the poems would be terrible for the most part. We have to not have any idea what we’re writing. The title also comes from the question, what is working?


Earlier you mentioned how The Carrying occasionally focuses on fertility. I also noticed a lot of the expectation for women to have children. I was wondering if this expectation is as common in literary circles as it is in the rest of society?


I think it is. I think you’d be surprised if a man wrote about being a father. People would be like, “Oh, the sensitivity, the bravery, the courage.” But then if women write about being a mother, it’s like, “Oh, it’s sentimental.” It’s very strange. It’s very gendered and, like most of all our culture, hetero-maniacal—not just heteronormative, but hetero-maniacal. There’s something about white-predominant culture that’s constantly saying, “Okay, once you have a partner. . . .” That was one of the things about Bright Dead Things I started with. The line “People were nicer to me once I was partnered” has always stuck with me as if I was a problem that had been fixed. Like, “Oh, you’re now more human than you were before when you were single.”

The literary culture is very much also the predominant culture. The one thing I will say is that you do find more of us who have chosen not to have kids. We’ve leaned into a child-free life. You’d probably find that across the board in creative cultures. We’re making something that fulfills us. There’s also a little bit of a selfishness to being an artist. We’re selfish with our time, and that’s important. There’s an enoughness that we feel. People will say, “Oh, I didn’t feel complete until I had a child,” but as artists, there’s a completeness when we create something that non-artists don’t experience.


In The Carrying there’s this focus on the body, but then going back to Lucky Wreck, the focus is on the inner self. Is there a distinction between the body and the self? Or are they codependent or independent of each other?


I’m really glad you pointed that out to me because I don’t think I would have noticed that. The body is essential in The Carrying because I was also dealing with vertigo and chronic illness. It also might have had to do with fertility treatments. It felt like my pain levels were almost always sixes, sevens, and eights while I was writing the book. So, the body was not just with me, but it was with me in a painful way. And I was very aware of it all the time. It was hard not to write about it. Whereas when I wrote Lucky Wreck, I was younger. I didn’t have the chronic illness. I had scoliosis, but the pain levels were not anywhere near what they were when I was writing The Carrying. I love the fact that I was able to not consider the body as much in Lucky Wreck because there’s a youthfulness to it.

We think what we are is our minds or hearts, but if our bodies betray us in any way, if we are having a chronic illness or if we are not able in the way that we were once able, the body becomes a deeper consideration. The body and mind are absolutely connected, but I sometimes wish I could only think about the inner self. I was laughing just the other day at someone asking if I liked teaching on Zoom and I said, “Yes.” Partly because it’s freedom. As someone who has had vertigo and had trouble walking and literally trying to get around, I said, “It’s really nice not to have to worry about falling while getting to a classroom.” There’s a freedom in just entering a space without my body, and my body has become much more of a consideration as I’ve dealt with some severe health issues.


Earlier you mentioned that This Big Fake World was a collection more fictional than personal. Is that something you plan to return to?


There are times I really like to write fiction, and I particularly like to do it in poems. About a year ago, I wrote a project of twenty poems for the Art for Justice Fund grant that was about what it was like to be in a relationship with an incarcerated person. It was all fictional. A lot of things were pulled from real life and real experiences, my own and others, and they’re all in a different perspective. The poems were gifts; it was really fun to get out of myself for a little while. They were heavy poems, but it also felt like, “How can I explore this in a real way?” It felt like the only way to do it was to speak from someone who was not the incarcerated person but the person who was left; I kept thinking about how we grieve people when they’re not gone but they’re caged. That felt like a really important project. But now I have these twenty poems that I adore, but I’m not sure if they’ll fit because my sixth manuscript is more like Bright Dead Things than The Carrying. It’s dealing much more with the self. And I wonder if I should put them in a section or if they’ll be in something else at some point.


We’d love to hear about the new book.


I’m sure you guys totally relate to this: I don’t want it to be pandemic poems. I don’t mind if there are some, but I don’t want this to be my pandemic collection. I want it to have a sense of ongoingness and timelessness, though there are poems that deal with the pandemic and that deal with politics in the last four years. But it’s still quite a personal collection. There are a lot of animals in it; it feels like a very alive animal book. It’s slowly coming together, and I’m excited about it.


A lot of your work is somewhat autobiographical. How much do you find yourself embellishing to fit the poem or the themes?


I’m pretty factual. I stay close to what has happened in my own life, but I’ll always bow down to sound. If something sounds better for the musicality or muscularity of the line, I’ll always choose that sound whether it’s true or not. For the most part, the autobiographical thrust of the poem is true, but specifics will be changed, and almost always because of sound.


“How to Triumph Like a Girl” is one of my favorite poems in Bright Dead Things. It’s a new take on the phrase “fight like a girl.” Could you speak to the importance of writing about the female body and female characteristics in today’s society and what that means to you?


I always say my two favorite F-words are forgiveness and feminism. I feel very drawn to writing feminist work because it’s important to me to recognize what it is to be in a gendered body in a society that privileges one gender. That poem came out of a moment where I was interested in what it was that made me root for those particular horses, what it was to feel a bond to a female animal, and how that felt different than the bond to a male animal. What is it that I’m connected with? I also think that when horses come into my work, they symbolize power. They’re enormous, beautiful beasts. They’re not like the dog or the cat. It wasn’t really about celebrating my own power, but about trying to get power. You write yourself into something you want to believe. I want that huge beating genius machine in my body. What would it be like to have an eight-pound heart?


In The Carrying, there is a reoccurrence of suppression of anger versus accepting anger. How do you showcase that in poems about race or gender or politics?


It’s not only about how I balance it in my own writing, but how I balance it in my life. That’s partly the reason those poems have those moments that lift away from anger, because I don’t want to live there. I can live there, but I don’t want to. I know what anger does. I know what it does to my body. Anger can be useful—it has brought me to the page, rage has brought me to the page before, isolation and otherness have brought me to the page. But when I’m stepping away from the poems or when I’m ending the poems, I do need some sort of acceptance or recognition that I won’t let this eat me alive. That to me is also rebellion, like how Audre Lorde talks about self-care as a radical act. I sometimes write so I can say, “You stay here now, you get to stay on the page, and I get to go walk my dog and have a beautiful day.” I get to have that. I’m not going to live in a place where I’m feeling that fear and anger and torment all the time. It’s a lot about laying it down. I need to put it somewhere. I’ll put it in poems and explore it in poems so that I can also walk away from it.


I was thinking about “Dead Stars,” which embodies what you’re saying. It’s a political poem with that really nice moment where we “bargain for the safety of others.” How do you see politics in your poetry?


Yeah, politics are there. You can’t separate them out. You can’t separate who I am out of my poems, and that includes my political beliefs. Who I’m writing for is part of my politics, who I feel seen by is part of my politics. “Dead Stars” is a political poem. It’s an eco-political poem. It’s asking, “What is it to not only use our bodies to bargain for others but also to speak to the animal and to speak to the trees?” There’s so much giving up, and sometimes I want to give up, too. Sometimes it’s all too much, and it’s all too hard.

There are so many topics, we almost become a circular firing squad with each other because we think, “Oh, well if you’re working on women’s rights, are you making sure to include trans rights? Are you making sure to include the intersectionality of race relations? And, if you’re talking about BIPOC, are you making sure that you’re talking about Latinx folks? Are you using the Latinx term or should we say Mexican—because I’m Mexican?” I’m very aware sometimes that it can be overwhelming, and I just want to be like, “No, I don’t want to think about it.” And yet, I’m always thinking about it.

I’m thinking about my ancestors, I’m thinking about my connection to the earth. My connection to the earth is a political act as is knowing where I come from, writing for ancestors who did not have a chance to write because they were crossing a border and living in a chicken coop and not having a chance to actually be an artist. I think, “Okay, I’m going to be an artist because my grandfather, who was very much an artist, didn’t have that opportunity.”

But I also don’t want to write a polemic. I don’t necessarily get a lot from poems that are just telling me what to do. I don’t have the answers. I have a lot of questions, even of myself. I interrogate myself: What can I do more of? When have I done enough service? When do I get to say no? When do I get to say, “I don’t have to be the loudest person in the room right now. Someone else can do that on my behalf.” All of those things are active in my work.

There’s also a leaning into beauty that I feel is very important, especially for writers of color. It’s important that we get to have beauty. We all read nature poems, but it’s primarily white men who write nature poems—or the poems that we know, at least. But then you look at Camille Dungy’s amazing anthology Black Nature, and you realize that’s actually not the case. It’s an incredible anthology, a game changer. It came out in 2009. It’s great also if you’re teaching. It blows people’s minds because it really is like, “Oh wait, I didn’t know how segregated even poems about trees were.” We’ve celebrated those nature poems by white men, but people of color have been writing about nature forever. It’s just that we haven’t read them. We haven’t celebrated them. We haven’t published them. We’re not aware of that legacy. It’s important politically to show that writers of color can write about a groundhog or a butterfly if one needs to do that, if one feels like that’s the pulsing energy within them. We do sometimes have an expectation of and on writers of color that they need to write about their identity—you need to write about your identity in order to be published. I find it a huge disservice to us as writers and as creative people because I didn’t sign up for anything limited. I want an endless opportunity to write about whatever I want to write about. I maintain that I will do that forever.

When we get that pressure from within and outside of our communities to write about certain topics, every part of me is all elbows. Within my community, there are people who are like, “Why do you say Latinx? Why don’t you say Mexican? Do you ever write about your ancestry? Do you ever write about your identity?” All my work is about my identity, but my identity may not be the identity you want me to write about. Of course, there’s also pressure from outside of my community which is like, “Oh, in order for us to sort of fill a quota in this magazine, we would like to have a poem that represents the Mexican-American experience in Lexington.” And I’m like, “Well, I don’t think that’s me actually. I would prefer to write about a bird. Or I’d write it like a love poem.” That to me is a huge permission I don’t feel like we’re always granted. I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no. I want to write what I want to write.” Leaning in towards beauty feels like a political act.


We know that there’s this push for diversity in poetry, which has been historically very white and heterosexual, and I totally agree that there are negative side effects. But do you think there are more benefits to pushing diversity in the poetry world? Or do you think it comes with a cost for both the reader and the writer?


I think one hundred percent pushing for diversity outweighs any of the pitfalls of it, but I just want to point out that there are pitfalls. If I were an editor of a magazine and I wanted to make sure that I had a diverse array of voices, I would also look for diverse range, like formally, but I would want to make sure that I was also asking, “Okay, am I publishing a Black man out of Detroit because he’s writing about guns in Detroit, and that’s my own stereotypical perception?” I feel like some of these editors don’t quite have the self-awareness to recognize that what they’re doing is not just diversifying their pages, but actually doubling down on their own stereotypes about who can write what. If you want to diversify—which we do, and it’s a huge, beautiful thing to push for diversity in the pages, a great, necessary thing—we need to have our poetic community look like America, but at the same time, we need to make sure that we’re also not perpetuating stereotypes about who can write what and allowing for people to write whatever they want. Like Wanda Coleman can write a poem about a bird, but then also can write a poem about identity. The poems should get praised equally, and that’s also the hard part. I love the more political work, the overt work about identity. I’m all on board for it. But I also want to make sure that young poets coming up see that they can do that work, but then they can also lean towards joy, even as a way of self-preservation. Doing that heavy lifting all the time is not always good for us. There are times where we need to protect ourselves and write about our friends and about some things that have actually gotten us through, to write about survival. I want to make sure that young writers of color coming up in that world know that the world is open to them and that they don’t have to fall into one category. They can write whatever they want.


I’m curious how writing during this time, during this pandemic, during this political era looks for you and how that differs from normal life.


I miss life. This is what keeps coming out of my head: I miss life and there is also life. I really, really miss my family. For the most part, I get to see them often, and I’m very close to my mother and my stepfather and my father and his wife and my brothers. I haven’t been able to travel to see them, and that has been the hardest thing. I’ve also been feeling like, “How can a poem matter right now?” I really have to convince myself that it can. Some days I’m like, “It matters!” and I can really feel it, and then sometimes I’m like, “Does it?” Like, what would be more important? A vaccine. A new president. As artists, we’re always asking, “How do I write? How do I find my voice? How do I even allow myself to think that this counts for anything? That this matters?” That has increased a hundredfold during the pandemic. How can I even write when so many people are grieving? When we’ve lost so many people? I try to remember that writing is not just a connection to other people, but a connection to myself. During the pandemic, it’s become more of a discipline, like taking my dog for a walk. This is part of what I need to do to survive. It’s very easy to think, “What good am I doing? Shouldn’t I be volunteering? Shouldn’t I be doing something different?” But this is part of my survival technique, and I need to continue.

I’m also very interested in how our bodies carry grief. It’s important right now, and we’re not even talking about it. When I’m teaching, I’m always asking, “How are you? Are you okay? How’s your mental health? How are you doing?” Students are so used to it now, they’re just like, “Yeah, I’m fine. Just moving on.” And yet, I just read a study that our workday has increased by 48 minutes during the pandemic. Suddenly, people aren’t taking breaks. And then we’re asking, “Why are we so stressed?” Remember when it first started? It was like, “Just take your time, I know we’re going through so much.” And now everything is, “Can I have that ASAP?” It’s completely shifted. I don’t know if that’s just a North American thing, but it feels like we’re all distracting ourselves from grief with our work, and we’re also all trying to make money. We need money, but I’m worried that we’re not paying attention, we’re not grieving, we’re not leaving space to recognize what’s happening because it’s too much. We’ve lost our daily life and then we think, “Oh, who am I to complain that I can’t go get ice cream with my friends? Or I can’t whatever when someone is dying? How does my grief about what’s gone even matter?” I’m worried we’re not processing. The act of writing poems can help us heal. It can help us process some of the things we’re not saying in our Zoom conversations. It seems like this spring people are—for the lack of a better word—feeling harder. What we’re going to start to miss is our softness, the parts of us that can be vulnerable to the world. We put on masks to leave the house. We put on masks to be with each other. Everything now has doubled down on armor, and it’s hard for sensitive people. It’s hard on artists because we create from a vulnerable, soft place, but the world is requiring a much harder exoskeleton.


You mentioned in your interview with American Literary Review a few years ago that writing poems that reach outward and inward at the same time was the project of your life. Do you think this will always be important in your poetry?


I think so, yeah. The idea is that I want to connect, but oftentimes, who I’m trying to connect with first is myself. It’s important to connect with the self and if the poem connects with anyone outside of that, that’s a gift. I don’t sit down thinking, “I’m going to write a poem that someone else will like.” I’m trying to write a poem that will help me or that will remind me about my own connection to the world.


So Bright Dead Things was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award; you mentioned in a previous interview how you felt the pressure was on after it got so much attention. I was wondering if the popularity of this collection influenced your writing process for The Carrying, and how does the increased attention to your work affect your revision process for your poems now?


Bright Dead Things has sold more copies than I could have imagined. I was really having a hard time trying to figure out what to write, how to write, and how to not consider the success of the book. I never considered success as part of poetry. So I thought, “I don’t want to consider it now because it’s never influenced me in any way.” You never sit down being like, “This poem’s going to make me some money.” It’s just not what we think. With The Carrying, I had to write poems for myself that I thought I might never publish. I got through it by not thinking about the audience, whereas normally I consider it. I pushed the audience away so that I could write as authentically as possible. Then, once I started to put the manuscript together, I let the audience in. It was big, surrendering to composing and creating poems without the expectation of even sending them out, maybe not even publishing them at all. I also had to let go of The Carrying’s success itself—maybe nothing would happen to it, maybe people wouldn’t like it. I just didn’t know. It’s a very different book than Bright Dead Things. They talk a lot to each other, but Bright Dead Things gets read a lot in undergraduate poetry workshops and The Carrying is a little more mature. It tends to get taught more in graduate school. I was really pleased that The Carrying had a nice reception. I was even told by a friend who loved The Carrying and thinks The Carrying is my best book, “I’m so sorry no one’s going to read this.” He’s like, “Your last book was so successful—usually after the success the follow-up isn’t really lauded or read as much.” So I was prepared for it to underperform, and that hasn’t happened, which is nice.


How do you feel knowing that there are hundreds of students out there reading your work versus how you feel about family members reading your work or friends?


It’s super hard sometimes. We’re okay with the strangers. We could tell the strangers our deepest secrets. And then you see your aunt reading it. I don’t think I will ever get over that gut-wrenching fear of family members reading a book, or even just a poem. And I’m really lucky because I have a super supportive family who not only reads my work but praises it and comes to readings. When I was nominated for the National Book Award, they all showed up; we had a whole table. But still there are moments of, “Alright, how will they receive it?” I feel a need to do right by them: to write them well, to write them truthfully, but also, to honor them. That kind of obligation doesn’t come into play when you’re thinking about strangers reading your work.


Can you turn us on to any poets? Who are you loving right now?


There are so many great books out right now. Victoria Chang’s Obit is fantastic. It’s heavy, but the way she starts with truth in every single poem and then ends with sort of a magical realism—something strange happens—it’s really marvelous. Jericho Brown’s The Tradition is fantastic and of course it won the Pulitzer Prize so maybe I don’t need to mention it. John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry is really great work. I’m literally looking at my books now. Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz is phenomenal. Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees without the Blood is a beautiful book. Eduardo C. Corral’s new book Guillotine is crushing, but wonderful. Jennifer L. Knox’s Crushing It—bizarrely surreal and funny and just very weird and wonderful. I’m currently reading and re-reading this book by Alejandra Pizarnik, she’s Argentinian, from Buenos Aires, and it’s phenomenal. It’s a new translation called Extracting the Stone of Madness.


Who was the poet that made you fall in love with poetry or your first favorite poet?


It was kind of a combo, but it was one poem in particular that I was like, “What is this doing?” Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” I read it when I was fifteen. I had read poetry before that, but it felt like, “This is amazing.” Also Sharon Olds, “Connoisseuse of Slugs.” I was like, “What’s happening here, this kind of feels dirty.” Lucille Clifton was a huge influence on me, still is a huge influence; her collected is one of my favorite books. Pablo Neruda, even simply the love sonnets. When I was sixteen, I thought, “These are phenomenal.”


Do you think it’s important for people to explore international writers as much as, or even more than, American writers?


Yeah, I mean we’re in a global conversation and all of these things are connected. I don’t think Merwin would be writing the way that Merwin was writing if he wasn’t translating these Spanish poets, and I don’t think Robert Bly would be writing the way he was writing if he wasn’t translating Lorca. There’s all of these conversations happening. We often get stuck in this idea that the father and mother of poetry are Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. I just don’t believe that. There’s more to it. We’re seeing a bigger recognition even with the wonderful Native poetry collections that have just come out, like the Joy Harjo book When the Light of the World Was Subdued Our Songs Came Through, the brand new Native American Anthology from Norton. It’s fantastic. There are a lot of limitations to the western poetry traditions. When we talk about Neruda, who was before Neruda? Gabriela Mistral. And Mistral was phenomenal, but we don’t know a lot about her. She influenced Neruda, and yet he got all the credit. We kind of stop at the greats—and I love Whitman, I love Dickinson, it’s just that I feel like sometimes it’s a false dichotomy. There’s much more of an international influence. Poetry doesn’t really pay attention to borders. When we talk about great poets, we don’t talk about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz of Mexico writing in the 1600s. We have limits, and I get that, but it’s a kind of exciting time where we can break some of those limits.


Where do you see your own work in that line of Spanish and Latin poets?


It’s funny because in the last five or six years I’ve done a lot of traveling to South America and it really brought me an understanding of what I was doing, like, “Oh, I’ve been doing that because of Lorca or the Spanish poets,” or, “I’m interested in duende in a way that I don’t think I was ever taught to talk about.” Even in the sixth book I call on Mistral and Pizarnik and Borges, and it starts to feel like there’s more of an international legacy to the Spanish language poets that I don’t think I had because, honestly, I had to teach myself. I had to do that work myself. I’ve been lucky that I was able to travel to South America and then teach a class on Latin American poetry. Of course, any time you have to teach a class, you have to learn the stuff and explore it. It made me recognize how much Latin American poetry is in my own work.


What has the role of teaching been on your work and on you as a writer?


It’s interesting because, for the most part, I don’t teach that much; I’m still what I call a “rogue poet.” I quit my job in New York City in 2010 and have been primarily working from home as a freelancer—on the road as a poet since then, which is kind of crazy to me. I haven’t had a full-time job, which has been really good for my work, not always for my bank account but sometimes that’s okay, I took a risk. It’s been important to have a sense of freedom as an artist. I’ve been curious as to what it would be like to work full time for a university, and maybe someday, down the line, that’s something that would interest me more. Right now, I really love doing visiting positions. I teach for a low-residency program, so I get to teach for like two weeks. I do these visiting writer things, and I can bring a lot of energy. I can also maybe not get as bogged down by administration and the political work of a creative writing department. In some ways, I still am leaning towards my freedom.

Teaching also keeps me reading. I’m reading and I’m re-reading things, and I get excited—“Oh right, I really love this Marianne Moore poem.” Or you get to say these marvelous things like, “It turns out Elizabeth Bishop was amazing.” A lot of times, if we’re not teaching, we may not revisit things. You may not actually think about reading all of Neruda or all of Mistral, but if you’re teaching it you think, “I’m going to do it.” That’s the big gift, revisiting texts. Right now, I’m the Mohr visiting poet at Stanford and I’ve been loving it. Amazing undergraduates. And it feels like a deep conversation. Especially during this pandemic, it felt really nice to have a sense of community, to feel like we’re in this together as poets. But teaching hasn’t been my identity as a writer like it has for a lot of my friends. I like to do it and I enjoy it and I want to keep it that way. I feel like I always want to bring my best self to teaching, and I don’t know if that would be the case if I was doing it all the time.


What would you say to the young poet unsure about pursuing their talent in poetry, or writing in general? Because the United States is dominated by Hollywood and the music industry, and then all the other arts are pushed aside as useless. What would you say to that young writer in today’s world unsure of writing on a daily basis, unsure if it’s going to get anywhere?


One of the things I would say is that it’s not about making a career, it’s about making a life. When you choose poetry, you’re choosing to pay deeper attention to the world, and you’re choosing really to lean into silence and beauty that could sustain you for the entire length of your years. It’s not about necessarily making an income. I’ve always joked that there’s that saying, “Find what you love and the money will follow.” And poetry, it’s like, “Find what you love and then also get another job that you don’t hate too much.” Poetry, for the most part, won’t make you a lot of money and maybe that’s a beautiful thing. Maybe that’s what keeps it pure. No one’s sitting down like, “I want to write myself a million-dollar poem.” Even Amanda Gorman—she wrote an incredible poem and did an amazing thing, an incredible performance, but she knows that this is a crazy lucky thing that’s happening. She’s very aware, “Okay, this is a moment and I’m going to write it and I’m going love it and enjoy it, but this is a moment.” If you really are interested in being an authentic artist, a lot of what you’re doing is focusing on what it is to create things, and the best joy you will ever have is when you’ve made something that you like, when you’ve created something that you actually recognize is good. The rest of that stuff, publication or recognition, if you keep at it, those things will come.

This is actually a really wonderful time to be a poet. I would encourage young poets to recognize that we’re at a time where we’re the most diverse—there are books coming out all the time, a plethora of books, from all over the world. Internationally, globally, poetry is having a little shine on it right now. It’s partly because the gatekeepers are different now. They’re like dams that got overflowed. But still, publications come slowly. They come far and few between. The thing you can rely on the most is creation itself. There’s a great quote from Richard Hugo: writing is a way of saying you have a chance in the world. I have a chance and the world has a chance and we have a chance together. That’s survival skills right there. I was listening to a Ten Percent Happier podcast. This wonderful Stanford professor, Jenny Odell, was talking about all the things people can do to recommit themselves to the world during the pandemic. She was talking about making time for silence, making time for recognizing the birds out the window, staring at trees. Every exercise, I was like, “Poets do that.” All the skills she was talking about for non-artists are what artists do all the time. You may not make a living out of poetry, but poetry can and will save your life.

Willow Springs 88

Willow Springs 88

Willow Springs 88

Fall 2021




To the Cleveland-Born Woman Who Disguised Herself As a Walk through

Summer in New Jersey









Charles, Delete This Voicemail



October Honey







Last Changes

Have I Come to the Wrong Door?




The Return of Martin Guerre

Immortal Beloved



The Week of Moving Glass

The Willow Path

Searching for the Glasses You Dropped in the Creek

Rereading Dion Fortune's Psychic Self-Defense

An Ascetic Impulse Surfaces, Tears Leaves from Their Stems



Even in June



Simple Science

Portraits in My Room



The Smallest Jar of Mayo in the Known Universe



Preserved Lemons



from Yum and War

Yum appears

making up the enemy

hiding together

how Yum was born



"Last night I fell asleep"

"Each moment blossoms"





Darling Frauke



Waking Hours







When Hamburger Station is Busy



A Mental Map of Eastern Europe



The Crack



Willow Springs 88

Willow Springs 88 features prose and poetry from David Kirby, Melissa Kwasny, Gary Young, Sandra McPherson, Lyuba Yakimchuk, Kevin McIlvoy, and more.

“Princess Mononoke Hits Differently Now” by Anne Barngrover

Willow Springs 89
Willow Springs 89

Found in Willow Springs 89

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The first time I watched it, I remember being floored

that Iron Town’s ruler, Lady Eboshi—who I actually

kind of liked, even though I maybe wasn’t supposed

to, because she wanted what she could name—

really shoots off the Forest Spirit’s head. I didn’t believe

she’d follow through with it once she sees him

with her own eyes. Now I’m like, Seems about right.

I suppose we all want to show everyone we know

how to kill a god of life and death. We can all be

short-sighted sometimes, and we’ll do anything

to feel in control. I thought about the Night-Walker,

the Forest Spirit’s nocturnal form, the other evening

when my boyfriend and I went a little wayward

on a nature trail after we lost track of time. The sky

was violaceous. The sky was amaranthine and studded

with bats flying more like moths than any bird until

it darkened suddenly as though from under a spilled glass

of wine. Neither of us cared. My legs ached pleasantly.

Sweat drizzled between my breasts. We were alone

in our own minds, in the memories we translate

to each other that’ll always remain slightly mythological,

as in both a solace and a warning. The whole point

of stories. I thought about why the Forest Spirit changes.

When I was young I perceived him as the night sky

within a body that reflects and guards. He was the God

I believed in, watching over us, and I felt righteous

and secure. Now I wonder if he wasn’t doing anything,

just walking around. During the day plants burst

fern-like from his steps. His body, a deer’s with a great

furred chest. Instead of antlers, his head’s a tree

with many branches. His face, a mask with direct eyes

and an omniscient smile. His blood cures wounds

but won’t lift curses. Some acts even a god can’t amend.

Lady Eboshi, I’ve been meaning to ask you for years

now: What did you think was going to happen?

How do you really kill a god? Dark on darkness

surrounding us almost makes us light. A rabbit sounds

larger than it is. Lavender wildflowers glow against

their eclipsed field. I believe a god is every generation.

Like people, his search destroys everything he touches

until they give him back his head. I thought about

how the forest grows again but is never going to be his.

Are we supposed to feel comforted? Are we supposed

to feel afraid? Maybe the whole point is to feel

neither, to surrender to the story’s end. Movement

even within shadows. We watch deer leaping into night.


Issue 89: Anne Barngrover

thumbnail_Barngrover Author Photo B&W

About Anne Barngrover

Anne Barngrover's third book of poetry, Everwhen, is forthcoming with University of Akron Press in 2023. Her poems and creative nonfiction have been published in journals such as Arts & Letters, Guernica, and Ecotone, among others. She is currently an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Saint Leo University, where she is on faculty for the low-residency MA program in Creative Writing. She lives in Tampa, Florida.


Twitter: @Anne_Barngrover



A Profile of the Author

Notes on "Princess Mononoke Hits Differently Now"

I barely remember the summer of 2020. We couldn’t travel, of course, and my usual week-long teaching programs switched to Zoom, so the normal markers of summertime just don’t exist in my memory. But I remember my routine—watery, tropical Florida days that consisted of writing poem after poem, baking lemon poppy seed cakes that kept sticking to the pan no matter what I did, and taking sweaty evening walks with my partner around our neighborhood. On those walks, we’d discuss which movie we were going to watch that night; we were going through some Top 100 list. In that first pandemic summer, I was never alone, which surprised me. The trajectory of my life has bent towards solitude, but ironically, in a summer of great aloneness, I was not isolated, I was not lonely. Still, my world felt very interior. Time seemed slippery, untethered. Or maybe it didn’t, and that’s just how I remember it feeling.

One night, we watched Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke—the first time I’d seen it since viewing it as a teenager, when my high school boyfriend and I also went through some Top 100 list one summer. Even though the film is animated, I remember being shocked by the physical violence that first time around. The gore didn’t really affect me the second time (maybe I’ve been desensitized by Game of Thrones) and yet, all I felt was loss. How could the forest regrow when the people had killed their gods? How do you reconcile hope with the point of no return? Maybe what’s surprised me most about this poem, and about that summer, is that I still don’t know how to feel about the time when a story leaves us. I don’t know if “end” is the right word.

Music, Food, Booze, Tattoos, Kittens, etc.

Ok, seriously though—why do some cakes lift up from the pan and some just won’t? Sometimes I feel like there isn’t enough PAM or parchment paper in the world; I suppose that, sometimes, things just get stuck. You learn and try again. It’s cliché, but I’ve gotten really into baking during the pandemic, especially cakes. I’ve been making my way through Yossy Arefi’s pragmatically decadent Snaking Cakes and cycling through every season of The Great British Bake-off. I admire the creativity and imagination of these bakers and how they find inspiration for colors, textures, sculptures, and flavors from unlikely sources in the world around them. A few months ago, I was hiking on a cold, marshy island off the coast of Provincetown, Massachusetts. I couldn’t get over the bog’s combination of colors and textures—the sponge-like, mint-green moss crossed with snake-like, cranberry-red vines. If I were on GBBO, I thought to myself, and if I actually knew what I was doing, I’d make a cake that looked like this landscape. I say all this because I just love how creation—whether it’s writing poems, film-making, or baking cakes—can allow one world to easily transcend into another.

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“Hat Yai, 1979” by Sik Chuan Pua

Willow Springs 89
Willow Springs 89

Found in Willow Springs 89

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Do you like this river, Superman? Mama comes here to wash our clothes. Today, Uncle came to our house. I have not seen him before.

-Go to the river. Swim there with the other children.

-I want to play with you, Mama.

-Come home when it’s dark.

I don’t like this river anymore. A ghost lives here at night. But we must go this way to reach the dump. Mahmood says poisonous snakes are there waiting for me.

You can tie up the snakes. I must find some tins and bottles. You can help me find them. I’ll sell them for 50¢. Mama will say, what a clever boy! Then I’ll buy two seeds and grow two banana trees. Mama will sell the bananas for $2. With $2, I can buy eight more seeds and grow eight trees. Mama will sell all the bananas. After one year, we’ll have enough money to pay a man to bring us to the land far, far away. Mama wants to go there.

If a ghost comes now, you’ll scare him with your laser ray, OK?

Last year, Mama took me to the city. We sat in the bus for two hours. In the city we met White Uncle. He came home with us. He bought us many lotus dumplings from the street stall.

Do you know White Uncle was very rich? His hair was gold. If he were poor he can cut it off and sell it. His eyes were not black like Mama’s or my eyes. His eyes were like the sea. White Uncle also had a funny smell. Like a lamb. He talked funny. I didn’t understand. Mama also didn’t understand. Mama nodded her head—like this—and said, yes OK.

I can say those words too, yes OK.

When White Uncle lived in our house, I slept in the small bed. Mama didn’t play with me. Mama only told me stories at night to help me sleep.

-In the land far away, they have big houses. Not like this one.

-Are the houses made from wood? I asked.

-No, they are stone houses built from a special blue marble.

-Are they three times bigger?

-They’re ten times bigger! Each house has twelve rooms.


-The carpets are so pretty they run across the floor like paintings.

-Do they have a cinema house? Like in the city?

Mama laughed.

-Many cinemas. Too many cinemas. Lots of Superman shows.

-What about a river?

-You can read the sky when you look at the river. There are no muddy rivers like ours.

-What about dogs?

-The dogs have shiny, beautiful coats like velvet. There are no smelly dogs with fleas scratching all day long. The dogs are so clever. They are trained to use the toilet.

-No, they’re not.

Mama smiled. She kissed me. Whoo. Whoo. She blew out the candle.

So dark.


Superman is more powerful than Batman, yes? You can fly and shoot laser rays from your eyes, yes? Batman has no superpowers. Batman throws the weapon, it smacks the bad guy and flies back to him.

-Say “Boomerang.”


White Uncle gave me a weapon. A Batman weapon.

-Say thank you, Mama said.

-Thank you, Uncle.

-Go play with the other children, Mama said.

I ran to the field. The old slide sat in the burning sun. Its ladder was broken. To get to the top, we climbed up the slide.

Crack crack crack! Mahmood and his younger brothers stomped on the snails crawling along the slide.

-What’s that? Mahmood asked.

I whistled, pretending I didn’t hear him. Mahmood followed me. I walked across the field. Weeds scratched my legs making red lines like glow worms.

-What are you looking for? Mahmood asked.

I picked up the tin with both hands. Mama said I’ll die if I got a sting from a rusty tin. I put it on top of the fence. I aimed the Batman weapon.


-Wah. Can we play? Please? Please? asked Mahmood’s brothers. They had never seen a Batman weapon before.

Suhaimi and Raja found more tins. They made a tin pyramid. Bang! All the tins fell. The crows on the trees flew away. Suhaimi and Raja cheered. They picked up the tins and built a taller pyramid. What fun!

But Mahmood acted like a spoilt baby. He squatted below the pyramid. He pretended rain clouds were coming.

-Let’s go home. It’ll rain soon.

-If you want to play, Mahmood, you must help arrange the tins.

-I don’t want to play with your stupid Batman weapon.

I let his brothers play with it. The three of us took turns. Mahmood started jumping up and down.

-If it hits me, I’ll break it, said Mahmood.

-Then go away. It’ll slice you in half.

It was my turn to throw the Batman weapon.

-I’ll stand anywhere I want.

Mahmood stomped on my toes and snatched the Batman weapon. He ran across the field towards the forest.


I chased him. I pulled his singlet. It tore. He struggled to break free. I pinched his ear.

-Ahhh, he cried.

He flung the Batman weapon. It flew higher and higher until it landed on Mount Everest.

-Heehaw, heehaw. Mahmood laughed like a donkey.

I punched his nose.

He cried.

Mount Everest was the tallest coconut tree in the field, too tall to climb. I shook it. The Batman weapon sat still. I looked for a pole to poke the tree. I didn’t find one. I became sad. Then scared.

What if White Uncle saw it?

I went home. I didn’t tell them I lost the Batman weapon.


I slept beside Mama in the big bed. I smelt the lamb smell. I missed my Batman weapon. Will White Uncle bring me another one next time?

-When is White Uncle coming back?

-Soon. He will bring us to the land far away. He comes from there.

The other uncles don’t give me presents. They always call me, hey, little boy. Sometimes they ordered me to pour them tea.

Mama would say go and play outside.


Mama was sick.

-Go away. Please!

Mahmood and his brothers didn’t let me play with them. I didn’t have my Batman weapon anymore. That’s when I called you, Superman. You have supersonic hearing. You heard me and came to play with me.

-Where’s White Uncle?

Mama whipped me with a cane. I wanted to cry but I didn’t. Then she whipped the air.




Mama whipped the vase, a present from White Uncle. It fell to the floor and smashed into many pieces. Mama called me a lazy boy. I wasn’t lazy. Mama was lazy. She got fat. She screamed she couldn’t go to the land far away because of me.

White Uncle! He saw the Batman weapon hanging from Mount Everest. I looked at the pieces of rainbow patterns on the floor. Afterwards, I swept them into a dustpan. I kept all the glass in a box. One day, I’ll invent a magic glue. Anything broken will become new again.


Last night, Mama was too sick. I was scared. I ran to the doctor’s house.

-Doctor, please! Come quickly.

Nenek Zurina had snow white hair. A bowl of hair had fallen out from the middle of her head. She wore a teeth and garlic necklace.

The doctor followed me home. I wanted to go into Mama’s room. She was crying.

-Fetch me a pail of hot water, Nenek Zurina said.

I lit the charcoal in the stove with a match. I boiled two pots of water.

I fell asleep near the bedroom door. I dreamt that Nenek Zurina left our house with a bundle. Pushing inside the bundle was the disease that made Mama sick.


Superman, are there ghosts?

Mahmood, Suhaimi, and Raja used to swim here. They liked to dive from the rocks.

-What are you all playing? I asked.

-Cat Catch Mouse. I’m the swimming cat, said Mahmood.

He threw a stone. It flew past my head. He was still angry I pulled his ear that time he stole the Batman weapon.

-Can I play?

Mahmood looked at me. He folded his arms like a gangster. His brothers paddled behind him. They splashed water at each other.

-You cannot play with us. You came from a rotten egg. We came from good eggs. My mama said so.

Mahmood was only one year older but he was so dumb.

-I didn’t come from an egg, stupid. Chickens come from eggs. Are you a chicken?

Suhaimi and Raja laughed. Mahmood’s face turned into a storm cloud.

-Then where did you come from?

I shook my head.

-Where do you think? My mama found me at the dump.

This is true, Superman. This is why I don’t have a papa. You came from another planet too. Your mama and papa found you in a field.

-Also cats can’t swim, I said.

-Yes, they can.

-No, they can’t.

-Yes! Yes! YES!

Mahmood swam to the bank. He was clumsy and slow like a water buffalo. He jumped into his wet sandals.

Flip flap flip flap flip flap flip flap

He ran home. Hah! I played Cat Chase Mouse with his brothers. I was the mouse that escaped each time.

Mahmood raced back, huffing and puffing. His tummy bounced up and down. He cuddled Comel, his pet. A white fat cat. Fat like Mahmood.

-Gentlemen, clear the river.

He tried to speak like a prime minister. With a deep voice. We climbed up the rocks. We squatted. Mahmood walked to the middle of the river.

-Gentlemen, I’m present here today to teach you a lesson. Watch and learn.

Mahmood lifted Comel and pointed her paw at me. He whispered to Comel. He stroked her. She shivered and meowed.

Was he that dumb?

He talked some more to Comel but before we could say No! No! Stop! Mahmood flipped Comel in the air like a magic trick. Comel spun and clawed. We yelled. She couldn’t catch hold of anything.

For a second Comel floated in the water.

-Haha. See, I told you. Haha, see, Comel can. . . .


The river washed Comel downstream. Mahmood screamed.

-Swim! Swim back up!

Now, Mahmood’s voice squeaked so high he sounded like a girl.

-Comel, swim back to me.

Mahmood waded downstream. He sobbed.

-What is Mahmood eating tonight? asked Suhaimi.

-Tonight, Mahmood will have Mama’s special cane pudding, said Raja.

-What else is on the menu? Let’s see. Mama will serve him cane soup, cane pie and cane cream. Mmmm, so yummy.

His brothers made smacking sounds. I turned away to hide my laughter. It wanted to blast out like a cannonball.

-You! You’re an evil boy. You killed Comel!

Mahmood spat at me. It hit me on the chin. He chased after Comel along the bank. His brothers followed him. Before he ran off, Mahmood gave me this warning.

-Comel will turn into a ghost. She’ll come back and haunt you. You killed her.

I’m not a bad person. If Mahmood listened to me, Comel wouldn’t have disappeared. I think Comel didn’t like him. When she reached the sea, she became a goldfish and swam away.


Are there ghosts, Superman?

We must hurry up. It’s getting dark. Please use your X-ray vision to find the tins and bottles. Tell me where to look.

What? Here?

I think so.

What’s over there? It’s . . . so white. It’s floating. What evil eyes. It has a long tail. Are those claws?

It’s flying to us.

Quick! I have a stick. I’ll beat it up.




Did it scare you?

Yes, you got scared, Superman. Scared of an old plastic bag. I won’t tell anybody.

Let’s put the tins in the plastic bag. Good. We must fill up the bag. I can sell them for 50¢. Just a few more.

Issue 89: Sik Chuan Pua


About Sik Chuan Pua

Born in Malaysia, Sik Chuan Pua completed his high school in Singapore, and moved to pursue his tertiary education in Sydney, Australia where he has lived ever since. He studied playwriting at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. His plays have been nominated for the Patrick White Playwrights’ Award and the Griffin Award, the two major national playwriting prizes in Australia. His short fiction has appeared in Washington Square Review and is forthcoming in Gargoyle. He is working on a novel entitled, Jaws; or The Lucky Country.

A Profile of the Author

Notes on "Hat Yai, 1979"

Several years ago, I watched a 60 minutes-type report about sex tourism in South-East Asia. One of the interviewees bragged that for several dollars a week, he could “live like a king”.

That stayed with me.

I chose a child’s point-of-view as it enabled me to explore this world at a slant. I wanted to capture his flight of thoughts, without him necessarily realizing what he has seen or felt contained deeper truths. The guilt haunting his mother is sensed by the child but attributed to an entirely different set of circumstances. I think a lot of childhood happens in the in between of knowing and not knowing.

When I wrote the story, I had left my native Malaysia for a number of years. By then, I felt it was the right time to dive back into my memories of growing up in that region.

Music, Food, Booze, Tattoos, Kittens, etc.

To combat the disorientation and all other ill effects brought upon by the pandemic, I have relied on various recordings of J.S. Bach’s The Goldberg Variations, in particular, those by Angela Hewitt and Zhu Xiao Mei.

The strict border closure here in Australia led to my happy discovery of 4K walking tour videos on YouTube. Basically, your guide films his or her walk, without commentary, so it feels as if you’re on the journey yourself. This travel-by-proxy has taken me back to familiar places such as the flamingo house along the Venice Canals in Los Angeles, the ivory sands of South Beach, and the various levels of the Strand Bookstore in NYC. My favorite of these would be the snow-covered neighborhoods gleaming with Christmas decorations. (Americans really know how to celebrate Christmas.) I hope to visit Alaska one day.

Over the last two years, I have developed a strange aversion to alcohol. It’s like I now have organic Antabuse coursing through my veins. I am a tattoo removalist amongst other things. I never enquire who Brad, Jacintha or Richard 4ever is. Some narratives are meant to be erased. As I write this, there has been a tragic shark attack in Sydney, the first fatality in sixty years.

I dream of better days ahead for all of us. Peaceful as a stroll over the pristine snow on December evenings, the air suffused with goodwill.


Willow Springs 89

“Hat Yai, 1979” by Sik Chuan Pua

Found in Willow Springs 89 Back to Author Profile   Do you like this river, Superman? Mama comes here to wash our clothes. Today, Uncle came to our house. I have … Read more

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“Poems in Winter” by Tom Wayman

Willow Springs 89
Willow Springs 89

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Darkness permeates these poems

as though each constituent word

was derived or descended from

the Latin or Old Norse for


death, grief, loss,

discouragement. No matter how beautiful

the poem’s subject

—early twilight with chimney smoke rising


vertically into crystalline air,

or at first light along the river,

birch and aspen branches sketched

in hoarfrost—a bleakness


is subsumed: the perilous layer of ice

created by a freeze/thaw cycle

hidden beneath

the snow covering the road.




Despite the glacial air, and windchill,

the poems spend much time outside:

snow must be removed


from the laneway to the house

that shelters these words, to ensure a connection

to highway and town. Paths



to shed and barn need to be excavated

through the drifts. Wood used for the furnace

that heats the poems’ dwelling


must be wheelbarrowed into the basement

from tarped stacks. Ski and snowshoe trails

can be followed across meadows and


forested slopes. Yards can be flooded

or ponds found on which

skating rinks are fashioned.


Indoors, as the day starts to falter

before the afternoon has hardly settled in,


the slow descent of the minutes

the poems experience


matches the steady deliberate snowfall

which accompanies evening’s arrival.


Each moment within these rooms

weighs more than an instant’s size


would suggest: its mass,

dense as a neutron star,


contains a particle of solidified time

at its core. For a poem to speak amid


such heaviness is wearying. Also, the warmth

that buffers the poems against


the night beyond the walls

is soporific. Even desk and chair


urge the poems to sleep, sleep.

The book falls from the hand



to the blanket, the light

goes out.




The poems know much about

their season: how snow

vanishes from the boughs of spruce and pine

at two degrees above freezing. How smoke

streaming southward from the houses

means deeper cold is coming.

How a stretch of asphalt

shadowed by cutbank or thick grove of cedar and fir

is most prone to be slippery.


How an austere beauty

is difficulty’s true reward.


How to live

as though spring will never reappear.




Whatever the poems say,

chickadee and pine siskin within them

mob the suspended bird feeder.


Ravens complain as they

flap strenuously above the house

or a summit ridge.


An eagle perches

just below the top of a hemlock

and thinks


or floats high over the white forest

of a valley wall. At dawn

or when dusk begins to infiltrate the afternoon,


wisps of fog

lift from the river’s surface.

Mist can also fill the day:


behind the closest fir and spruce,

flat jagged tops of other evergreens

recede in rows to invisibility.




After the tumult of dreams:

the bedroom calmed by

morning snowlight.


After the tumult of spring,

summer, fall:





These poems’ subtext

is a valley that twists between range after range

of cedars and firs, each green bough

bearing the white mark of the season.

Rock faces are scored by

columns of frozen water

alongside ledges that support

mounds or skiffs of snow.


This landscape utters a single trumpet’s

wail—plaintive, dreamy, lingering—

a sound that threads through

the myriad notes of gently lowering



Yet anything done in winter

mars snow’s perfection.


Sound of the plow truck

scraping the night; tracks of a rabbit


that skirts the house unseen.

Roof shingles exposed


closest to the chimney; icicles

daggering down from the eaves.


Sand mixed with salt on the roads

so a world built for


the absence of snow

can continue, can pass by.




The poems are convinced

winter is poetry’s season.


Soon poems will take shape, however,

that have never known a winter.

Willow Springs 89

Willow Springs 89

Willow Springs 89

Winter 2022




We Waited for a Voice



Getting Along For Long



Princess Mononoke Hits Differently Now






Guatemala in a Time During Which I Still Loved Her



Poem of Frisco the Cat



Capturing Sky









First Human Head Transplant



Lie Back Down



Molly, Sleepwalking



School Night



Darwin’s Finches



Have we met before and before and before then?



In Winter: Move and Countermove






Family History



Soon We’ll Sell Ourselves for Parts



Poems in Winter




Beneficial Creatures



Zero Nothing Null



Hat Yai, 1979



Chasing Giants





Polly Pocket Strip Poker



Scavenger Panorama






Willow Springs 89

Willow Springs 89 features prose and poetry from David Dodd Lee, Nickalus Rupert, Anne Bangrover, Dan Albergotti, and more.

Cairene Sloth Song by Khaled Mattawa

Willow Springs 33
Willow Springs 33

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By the time basil grew on my shoulders

I had become a sloth

Listening to the gold beaked-angel

Fight it out with the cuckoo bird.


Brooding nights followed translucent afternoons.


Forgive my pigeons, and the tree climbers

Who never stop wailing about the liquid age.

What else is there but to live

The nightmares of eminent seers?


I say unto you my people

This is a time assailed by a traveler,

Rocked to sleep by the pulse of his thoughts.

The princess waited for centuries.

The king died on his ox.


My hands spin a blue dres for you, Lucinda,

A thread pulled from frostbitten gardens

And calcified dunes. I follow

Soldiers and evening bells.

I feel the absent fear return

Bearing an address inscribed on the corner

Of the eye, chicken hearts.


This will always remain

An October swindled from the lower notes

Of the flute, from clay drippings

And ears of corn. I'm writing

The silent diary of a lantern

Fueled by a plum. Here are the hands

Of a peasant singing the protocols

Of basement rats.


I take to the river.

I tend to my punctured fur.

Damned arrows of stimuli!

I crossbreed the vernacular

With howling wolves. Then

The dying stumps bring about

A change of wind. Flocks of eunuchs

Begin picking cotton. I hide

In the trench of the button hole.

In the box there are broken

Urinals and vials of perfume.

My pocket is full of rapture and excess.

Three Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa

Willow Springs 21
Willow Springs 21

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The Cops Call Him Charlie


An olive grove's heavy greenness

remains his only country & flag.

Without family or friends, fifty

years after the woman on the wharf

waved to him & the roots of acacia

embraced her, this old greek's

moored in the Tropic of Capricorn.

Digging in a sandpile street workers

left for Monday morning,

he glances at the faces of women

trying to dodge confusion & wet cement.

They spin away from the weight of his eyes

pulling them into his soft torture.

His dirty clothes & grimy hands

flag down three petty officials

who write in their notebooks

& leave him talking to a lamppost.

Smudged eyeglasses

posed cockily on an orange beanie,

he's barefoot,

speaking to someone in a different world.

He stands in the middle of the street,

leaning on a shovel, surveying the scene

like a foreman, as cars screech & burn

rubber around him. I walk away, afraid,

wondering if we suffer the same illness:

Seeing without having to see.


protection of Movable Cultural Heritage


Time-polished skulls of Yagan & Pemulwy

sit in a glass cage wired to a burglar alarm

in Britain, but the jaws of these two

resistance leaders haven't been broken

into a lasting grin for the Empire.


Under fluorescent lamps they are crystal balls

into which one can gaze & see the past.

With eyes reflected into empty sockets

through the glass, I read repeatedly

an upside down newspaper


headlining Klaus Barbie & Karl Linnas

& Bernhard Goetz. The skulls sit

like wax moulds for Fear & Anger­-

beheaded body-songs lament &

recall how mindy grass once sang to feet.


Now, staring from their display case,

they still govern a few broken hearts

wandering across the Nullarbor Plain.

Killed fighting for love of birthplace

under a sky ablaze with flying foxes


& shiny crows, they remember the weight

of chains inherited from the fathers

of bushrangers, how hatred runs into

the soul like red veins in the eye

or thin copper threads through money.


February in Sydney


Dexter Gordon's tenor sax

plays ''April in Paris"

inside my head all the way back

on the bus from Double Bay.

Round Midnight, the '50's,

cool cobblestone streets

resound footsteps of Bebop

musicians with whiskey-laced voices

from a boundless dream in French.

Bud, Prez, Webster & The Hawk,

their names run together

like mellifluous riffs.

Painful gods jive talk through

bloodstained reeds & shiny brass

where music is an anesthetic.

Unreadable faces from the human void

float like torn pages across the bus

windows. An old anger drips into my throat,

& I try thinking something good,

letting the precious bad

settle to the salty bottom.

Another scene keeps repeating itself:

I emerge from the dark theatre,

passing a woman who grabs her red purse

& hugs it to her like a heart attack.

Tremolo. Dexter comes back to rest

behind my eyelids. A loneliness

lingers like a silver needle

under my black skin,

as I try to feel how it is

to scream for help through a horn.