“Dominate Your Submissions” with CHIPRC and Virginia Bell | May 14, 2pm

May 14 @ 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM
$25 Early Bird Registration
Email chicagoprc@gmail.com for more information and to register.

“The Chicago Publishers Resource Center (CHIPRC) writing workshop Wasted Pages is teaming up with RHINO Poetry for this special event about submitting your work for publication. Learn about preparing your writing, the submissions process, and the dreaded cover letter with our guest speaker, RHINO Editor Virginia Bell. The event will be hosted by writer and CHIPRC Literary Coordinator Elizabeth O’Connell Thompson.”

The workshop fee will include a free back issue of RHINO!


April 30, 2016 — RHINO at The Bookstall Celebration of National Independent Bookstores Day

the book stall
We’re so pleased to celebrate National Independent Bookstores Day at The Book Stall.  From their website: “Please join us for a day of prizes and surprises including give-aways, author conversations, snacks and games….in short something for readers of all ages.”


811 Elm Street, Winnetka, IL

3-4:00 RHINO Booth

RHINO Writes! Poems To Go. Three RHINO editors will be on hand to write poems on demand for a small donation of $5! Also, pick up your fresh copy of RHINO 2016, along with free RHINO swag, buttons, and bookmarks. Learn more about our ongoing events join our email list.


4:00-4:30  Reading from RHINO 2016 contributors and RHINO editors
RHINO Reads! Book Stall

J. Max Barry is an Evanston native currently working, writing, and folding origami in Chicago. A poem of his was included in the anthology, A Writers’ Congress: Chicago Poets on Barack Obama’s Inauguration. He has recently written a critical analysis of hand imagery in Emily Dickinson’s poems.


Virginia Bell is the author of From the Belly (Sibling Rivalry Press 2012).  Her poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and have appeared in Fifth Wednesday, Rogue Agent, Gargoyle, Cider Press ReviewSpoon River Poetry ReviewPoet Lore, and other journals and anthologies.  She was a finalist for the 2016 Lamar York Prize in Creative Nonfiction and she is a Senior Editor with Rhino Poetry, an adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago and DePaul University, and the recipient of a Ragdale Foundation residency. 


Gail Goepfert – Gail Goepfert is a poet, amateur photographer, and teacher.  Currently, she is an associate editor of RHINO Poetry and teaches online English courses for Rasmussen College.  Her first chapbook, A Mind on Pain, was released by Finishing Line Press in early in 2015.   Twice she’s received Pushcart nominations.  Recent publications include Blue Lyra, Crab Orchard and Jet Fuel Reviews, Florida English, Examined Life Journal, and Room Magazine.  Her photographs appear online at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Olentangy Review, 3Elements Review and on the cover of February 2015 Rattle.  She lives, writes, and snaps photos in the Chicagoland area.  


Ann Hudson‘s first book, The Armillary Sphere, was chosen by Mary Kinzie for the Hollis Summers Prize and was published by Ohio University Press. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Chautauqua, Cider Press Review, Crab Orchard Review, North American Review, Orion, Rhino, Spoon River Poetry Review, Seattle Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Evanston, and teaches at Chiaravalle Montessori School.


Dipika Mukherjee’s poetry publications include “The Third Glass of Wine” (Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop, 2015) and “The Palimpsest of Exile” (Edmonton: Rubicon Press, 2009). Her work appears in publications around the world including Asia Literary Review, World Literature Today, Rhino, Chicago Quarterly Review, Postcolonial Text and South Asian Review. She has won multiple awards for her fiction, including the Virginia Prize for Fiction for her second novel “Shambala Junction” (UK, 2016), The Gayatri GaMarsh Award for Literary Excellence (USA, 2015), and the Platform Flash Fiction Prize (India, 2009).  She is Contributing Editor for Chicago Quarterly Review and Jaggery and curates an Asian/American Reading Series in Chicago.


Angela Narciso Torres’s first book, Blood Orange, won the Willow Books Literature Award for Poetry. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in Kyoto Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Colorado Review, and Drunken Boat. A graduate of Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Angela has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Illinois Arts Council, and Ragdale Foundation. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Manila, she serves as a senior poetry editor for RHINO, a publicity coordinator for Woman Made Gallery Literary Events, and a reader for New England Review.

RHINO at First Night Evanston: 9pm 12-31-15 with J. Max Barry, Virginia Bell, Tina Boyer Brown, Greg Grummer, Ralph Hamilton, Anthony Madrid, Pam Miller, Pablo Otavalo, Jacob Saenz

We’re delighted to join the fabulous entertainment, venues, and revelry
Bring in the new year with RHINO poets & readers at 9pm, December 31, 2015
First Presbyterian Church
1427 Chicago Avenue – Walker Chapel
Featured readers

J. Max Barry

Virginia Bell

Tina Boyer Brown

Greg Grummer

Ralph Hamilton

Anthony Madrid

Pam Miller

Pablo Otavalo

Jacob Saenz

RHINO at Evanston Lit Fest! May 16 and 17, 2015


We’re thrilled to be a featured event (2 events) at the inaugural Evanston Lit Fest!

Saturday, May 16
RHINO 2015 issue reading – featuring poets & editors from RHINO 2015
John McCarthy
Ruth Goring
Lisa Croneberg
Heather Cox
Bill Yarrow
Virginia Bell
Helen Degen Cohen
Angela Narciso Torres
with Dina Elenbogen (RHINO 2010)
3 – 4:30 pm 
Creative Coworking
922 Davis Street
Sunday, May 17
Workshop and critique, with Jenene Ravesloot and Tom Roby IV
Evanston Public Library
Church & Orrington
1:30-4:30 — ROOM 108 – Small Meeting Room


RHINO 2015 Launch Party and more at AWP!

Minneapolis, MN – April 8 – 11, 2015
Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference (AWP)

RHINO’s Bookfair table number is 1529


Join us for our 

RHINO 2015 Issue Launch Party!

Thursday April 9, 2015

1200 Nicollet Mall S, Minneapolis

6-minute walk from the AWP Convention Center!

Map & Directions

Doors open at 7pm!

Featuring poets from RHINO 2015

Julia Bouwsma

Julia Bouwsma

Joe Eldridge

Joe Eldridge

Sara Henning

Sara Henning

Amorak Huey

Amorak Huey

dawn longsinger

dawn longsinger

Cintia Santana

Cintia Santana

Brian Simoneau

Brian Simoneau

Rachel Slotnick

Rachel Slotnick

Paul Tran

Paul Tran

Keith Wilson

Keith Wilson

In addition, you’ll find editors these AWP events at the Minneapolis Convention Center:

Virginia Bell:
Friday, April 10
4:30-5:45 pm
Room M100, D&E

“Teaching Experimentation: The Freedom in Constraints”

Virginia Bell, Shailen Mishra, Ryan Clark, and Michelle Naka Pierce

Kenyatta Rogers:
Saturday, April 11
3:00-4:15 pm
Room 205 A&B
S242. Speculating Darkly: A Poetry Reading.

(Bianca Spriggs ,  Keith Wilson,  Kenyatta Rogers ,  Ladan Osman,  Airea Matthews) Taking its title and spirit from a series of essays written by poet Roger Reeves (published on the Poetry Foundation’s “Harriet the Blog”), and subsequent reading series curated by poet and visual artist Krista Franklin, “Speculating Darkly, or The Folk Surreal Future,” is a poetry reading that features some of the Midwest’s emerging African Diaspora writers who focus on the Black Fantastic, the Grotesque, the Afro-Surreal, the Gothic, the speculative, and science fiction.


 Angela Narciso Torres
Thursday, April 9, 10pm
Friday, April 10 from 10-noon

Signing copies of her book “Blood Orange” at the Willow Books table



#RHINO events at the #AWP14 Conference & Bookfair in Seattle, Washington

images-3 Unknown-1 Unknown awp-writer images
Seattle, WA – February 27-March 1, 2014
Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference (AWP)

RHINO’s Bookfair table number is: BB14

PANEL Friday, Feb. 28, 1:45 to 2:45 pm – RHINO – 37 Years of Charging Forward

Room 2B, Washington State Convention Center, Level 2.

Eclectic, edgy, and fiercely independent, RHINO boasts a vibrant community of readers, writers, and donors, plus a table of volunteer editors who’ve developed a unique collaborative process that works. From its roots as a writers’ group forum, RHINO has grown into a nationally-known print journal with a strong online presence. Our lively panel of editors will share what we’ve learned and how we do it, with frank discussion of the sometimes risky steps we’ve taken to showcase the work we love.

Virginia Bell is a senior editor with RHINO Poetry and an adjunct professor of English at Loyola University Chicago. She is the author of From the Belly, and her poems have appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet LoreCalyxPebble Lake ReviewWicked Alice, and in anthologies.

Janice Bottiglieri is a managing editor of RHINO. She recently published a chapbook, Where Gravity Pools the Sugar.

Ralph Hamilton (Moderator) is editor of RHINO. His poems have appeared in Court Green,CutBank, and Blackbird. His first book, Subtle Knot, will be published in 2015. He serves on the Ragdale Foundation’s board and is Fifth Wednesday’s 2013 poetry prize judge.

Jacob Saenz’s poetry has been published in Poetry, Great River Review, and OCHO. He has been recipient of a Letras Latinas Residency and a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. He currently serves as an associate editor for RHINO and works at a library in Chicago.

Angela Narciso Torres’s book, Blood Orange, won the Willow Books Lit Award in poetry. Recent work appears in Cimarron, Colorado, and Cream City Reviews. A senior editor for RHINO, she has received fellowships from Ragdale and the Illinois Arts Council.

In addition, you’ll find editors signing their books at our table BB14 and reading at these off-site events:


Thursday, February 27

1:30-2:30  pm. Angela Narciso Torres – book signing (Blood

        Orange) – AWP Bookfair, RHINO table BB14.
5:00-9:00 pm.  Angela Narciso Torres – reading with  Willow Books Authors, Seattle Public Library.
blue_cover_rhino_2009Friday, February 28, 2014
10-12 Andrea Witzke Slot – book signing (To Find a New Beauty) – Gold Wake Press table K28
4:30 to 5:45 pm Calyx: Tribute to Margarita Donnelly
 Angela Narciso Torres, Panelist
Room 302, Level 3, Western New England MFA Annex, at the Seattle Convention Center


6:30 pm to 8:30 pm Everyone and Their Mother: SRP at the Nitelite Lounge
Nitelite Lounge, 1920 2nd Ave. Seattle, WA 98101Cost: No cover. Food/Drinks are Cash Only.
Bryan Borland & Seth Pennington host multiple Sibling Rivalry Press authors and launch SRP’s Spring 2014 lineup in this cash only dive bar. Featuring RHINO editors and poets Virginia Bell, Ralph Hamilton, and other writers from Sibling Rivalry Press

7-9 pm   Andrea Witzke Slot at Gold Wake Press reading at Cafe Fonte

Saturday, March 1
1:30-2:30 Jan Bottiglieri – book signing (Where Gravity Pools the Sugar) – table BB14

Poetry Forum Workshop Led by Virginia Bell – Fourth Sunday 9-22-13



Evanston Public Library
Church & Orrington
1:30-4:30 — Room 108


Virginia Bell is the author of From the Belly (Sibling Rivalry Press 2012)Her poems are also forthcoming in Cloudbank and Gargoyle, and have appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet Lore, Calyx, Pebble Lake Review, Wicked Alice, Ekphrasis, and other journals and anthologies.  She is a Senior Editor with Rhino Poetry and an adjunct professor of English at Loyola University Chicago.


Topic:   If you’re a flower, I’m your zombie gardener. In this workshop, we’ll explore the art of translating poetry from English-to-English.  Same language translation is a revelatory approach to reading and appreciating poetry, but can also lead to the production of new poems that are wonderful and startling in their own right.  Some examples include Harryette Mullen’s “Dim Lady,”  a loose translation of William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130,” and Paul Legault’s collection The Emily Dickinson Reader.  As one of Legault’s translations reminds us, earlier poets are the “zombie gardeners” of all the “flowers” we write today (or is it the other way around?).


Bring 17 or more copies (2 page limit) of a poem you want critiqued.*$5 – $10 donation appreciated.

This project is partially supported by grants from:   Poets & Writers, the Illinois Arts Council and The MacArthur Fund for Arts and Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.



“I brush away the poem’s landscape. . .” – Interview with Ocean Vuong

Earlier this year, RHINO Senior Editor Virginia Bell interviewed poet Ocean Vuong, whose poem “Pedicures” appears in RHINO 2012.

photo by Peter Bienkowski

VB: We published your poem “Pedicures” in RHINO 2012, so I’d like to begin with a couple of questions about it. We love the sensuous and sensory language in this poem, and the deeply respectful—even reverent—portrait of the speaker’s aunt as she gives yet another pedicure to a perfect stranger: “Her fingers slide along each lathered / and tortured vein. […] She scrubs and scrubs. / She shines—until the foot gleams / immaculate”.


Can you speak a bit about what or who inspired you to write this poem? And about your favorite language used to describe her in the poem?

OV: The speaker’s aunt is my own. But she is also my mother, grandmother, uncle, cousin, and father. For many Vietnamese living in America, the nail salon is often the vital backbone behind each family. Thousands of lawyers, doctors, musicians, scholars, and writers can trace their achievements directly back to the humble little nail salon. However, the salon is also a lifeline for Vietnam as well: many salon workers send money back to the motherland, often supporting multiple families on a salary of as little as $12,000.00 a year.

photos by Ocean Vuong

This poem was initially written as an homage to these workers. And although the language can be described as lush and sensual, I found it impossible to beautify their difficult work. I think I used the language more as a vessel, chartering me through the work and its images. The last thing I want to imply with my work is that suffering, even that as minute as arduous labor, can be justified by rendering it beautiful—or worse, a writer adorning it with “poetic” language.

As for favorite words: I regret to say I don’t have favorite words. To me, language is a means to an end, and often a cumbersome and limiting one. I write the poem knowing that language will ultimately fail the work’s intent. This doesn’t mean that language (as well as the mastering of language) is not important, but as a craftsman is most skilled when he knows the limitations of his tools, the writer should know the depths of his words.

VB: It also seems to me that the poem makes a sort of argument that the aunt is an artist, even though her work is not appreciated as such and is cheapened by the exchange of money: “What artistry isn’t reduced / to the sound of money being counted? […] my aunt’s face / is swallowed / by clouds of sloughed skin.” Could you elaborate a little on the question of what counts as “art” and who counts (no pun intended) as an “artist”?


OV: This is a tough question and one I have been asking myself since I began writing. I don’t think I will ever have a precise answer because I think the answer changes; it’s a moving target. But I think it’s more of a personal question, one in which every artist should perpetually be asking herself: what do I want my work to do and how will my work reward me? If the answer to the latter is “fame,””wealth,” or even “happiness,” then perhaps it would be better to choose another vocation. This is not to say that an artist should have any one particular goal, but at the very least she should engage her artistic efforts with the hopes of capturing something greater than physical, financial comfort, or even mental comfort.

As for me, I have never considered poetry to be a means of living. I have lived below the poverty line all of my brief 24 years on earth—so the little money there is in poetry never disappointed me. In fact, any money I do get from lectures or readings or awards is treated as a bonus: a gift. But you’re asking of whether I think money deludes art. And in which case I would say—yes. But that doesn’t mean we have to be starving artists, and it surely doesn’t mean that the only legitimate artists are ones who live in poverty. Because we live in a capitalist society (world?), art must often operate within economic confines in order to survive. And an artist, regardless of the number in his bank account, can only benefit by confronting money and myriad ways it changes him.

VB: In your book Burnings (Sibling Rivalry Press 2010), there is a thread of poems about the Vietnam War that remind me—not just in content, but also instyle—of Yusef Komunyakaa’s work. However, where YK’s work is sort of a soldier’s testimonial, your poems often call attention to later generations’ difficulty with knowing and representing the War at all.

For instance, “”The Photo” ends with a reminder that what might be outside the frame, outside the graphic photograph of “a yellow face” and “a yellow hand” “gripping the pistol,” is equally important: “Like where the bullet / entered his skull” or “a white man / was lighting a cigarette.”

How do you see the relationship between your poetry and the cultural memory of the Vietnam War?

OV: Whether one is writing about Vietnam—or any traumatic event in our collective past, it’s important to avoid a sentimental approach towards nostalgia, particularly that of place—which is what I appreciate most about Komunyakaa’s work: it seeks truth without the anxiety to force convenient conclusions to historic trauma. I think a lot of younger writers, especially those who were not born or lived in Vietnam, are more susceptible to depicting Vietnam as a convenient and often limiting trope, replete with palm trees, rice patties, buffaloes, the one-legged farmer hobbling along a dirt road, etc. The problem with this approach is not that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s very reductive, offering little to the reading experience. What’s more is that Vietnam becomes less of a real, lived country and more of a collection of icons of which the poet uses to mend whatever personal and political agenda he’s negotiating. In this way, Vietnam is reduced to a tool used to resolve one’s own afflictions—or even worse, the poem’s rhetoric. I guess this is where the important question of “artist responsibility” is most relevant: as poets, we literally have the world in our hands; a few strokes of the pen and a city can rise or fall, the temperature and climate of a nation changes, a history is created or forgotten. With such great power demands greater awareness. It’s tempting to look for the end of the page or the last stanza as a space to answer some of our most impossible questions—but sometimes a poem is most powerful when it admits defeat, admits that it, too, is human.

VB: Many of your poems are also startling and achingly beautiful in their representations of sexuality and human intimacy. In “Revelation,” the speaker reveals that “fig leaves lay torn by our feet.” In “Moonless,” we find that “the ceiling has dissolved” and “the walls are crumbling.” In “More than Sex,” the speaker stops to note, “How quickly the animal empties,” and concludes by confessing, “I find what I came for: / a sea of lilacs / unfurling / their withered petals.”

Where do you find these gorgeous images? How do you arrive at a balance between literal narrative and imagism in these poems?

OV: Before I started writing I was practicing Zen meditation (Zazen)–which encourages one to approach the world as “a blind man approaches an elephant.” As he touches each part of the animal, he names a separate object: the trunk is drainage pipe, the leg the base of a great oak tree, the ears a dried, cool banana leaf. This is to say that by removing the word “elephant” we can actually see the elephant in its purer nature, freed from the connotative shackles we use to enslave the animal. We can see, after all, that the actual elephant is only “big” when it’s next to something small. Drop the creature into the ocean and it’s suddenly reduced to a minuscule grey dot. Of course, the elephant has never changed—the world has only shifted around it. I try to apply this principal to the majority of things I see, and the images come naturally from this perceptive. Although they do arrive at the strangest times: I would be doing something quite mundane: cooking or washing the dishes, sitting on the train, or singing in the shower and the image comes, wrapped in this precious language. I’d leap out of the tub soaking wet, rush to my little notebook to write it down, and then thank the poetry gods.

How do I find a balance between literal and narrative? I don’t think I have enough awareness of my own technique to answer this question properly. Maybe when I am older this will be clearer to me. But perhaps this is difficult to answer because, for me, the composition feels more organic than cerebral. I write the poem less as an architect and more an explorer, crawling on hands and knees through a dark and newly discovered world. I take the pen and brush away the poem’s landscape until something takes shape.

VB: The titles alone speak to a project focused on refusing conventional and heteronormative conceptions of sexuality and the body: “The Masturbation of Men, “The Touch,” “Self-Fellatio as Prayer,” etc. In “Song on the Subway”—a poem that echoes the voices of Walt Whitman and Mark Doty—the speaker is observing a musician during rush hour on the A Train. By the end, the speaker tells us, “I want nothing / but to put my fingers inside his mouth, / let that prayer hum through my veins. / I want to crawl into the hole in his violin.”

Could you speak about the importance of “desire” in your work?

OV: To speak of desire in my work is to speak of my devout Buddhist practice, which, in regards to poetry, is quite contradictory. For Buddhists, the root of all suffering is desire itself. I accept the fact that I’m not a monk, that my life is too often dictated by even the most basic desires: a job, a house for my mother, so and so’s new book, a man’s body, quiet, open spaces. What I find nearly impossible to accept, however, is being both a Buddhist and a poet at the same time. Yes, other Buddhist poets like Jane Hirshfield and Gary Snyder, both of whose work I admire, have pulled it off. But for me, what’s most problematic is the very desire to make poems at all. I feel, well, sort of guilty—dirty even, when writing. As I write this, hundreds of monks in Tibet are being beaten, killed, and persecuted by the Chinese government. How can my poem make a difference there? Poems take a lot of time to write (at least for me) and I just can’t help thinking that that time could be better used elsewhere. I already volunteer at Tibet Liberation centers but I catch myself, in the middle of a poem saying: “is there something more useful I can do with my hands, at this moment?” It’s hard to come to terms with my writing when the world’s on fire and here I am, obsessing over a handful of paper.

Like this very body I possess, the act of writing is, to me, just a means of translation, a place to store the soul. What’s more is that I have to face the fact that the poem will never be what I intended it to be—I can only get very close (if I’m lucky). I have to accept the fact that the very material I work with will ultimately fail me. Jack Gilbert perhaps said it most poignantly: “Love, we say, 
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words 
get it wrong.” They do, they get it wrong, and still we get up, we try to love each other, to resist our incredible ability to be cruel, and we try, we work and we mine language until it satisfies our need to make something meaningful. But the trying is what I fear. I pick up the pen and think: “could I be doing something better with these hands?” As I fix the flaws of the poem, the flaws of a man stack up around me, often times unnoticed. This scares me more than anything: the idea that I will end up using this precious time on earth making poems very few people will read, while there is still so much I can do with this body I am given.

But this, of course, is not to say that poetry does not change lives. It does. I know this. I posses one of those lives. In fact, there are many writers whose work hold that special capability. The problem, I think, is a lack of readership. I empathize with Whitman’s desire to make his Leaves of Grass a household book, a poetic bible of sorts. And I think it’s okay to not be completely satisfied until we achieve that feat, regardless if it’s with our own work or someone else’s.

VB: We also want to wish you congratulations on being awarded the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize for Younger Poets for “Prayer for the Newly Damned” (featured in The American Poetry Review September/October). In addition to this poem, what other work do we have to look forward to? What styles and topics are you working on? What are your current obsessions?

OV: Thank you. The award meant a lot to me and I thank the American Poetry Review for their selection and for running the contest in the memory of such a fine and important poet.

I have just spent the entire summer in Vietnam helping my aunt immigrate to America, and right now my focus is helping her and my family settle in to their new lives. Right now, I am focusing on planning my move to Iceland (which I plan to do within the next 4-5 years) and eventually obtaining an Icelandic citizenship.

I hope my answers are helpful to you and your readers. I apologize for not being more eloquent in my responses. Thank you for your questions—they were very illuminating and provocative. May peace and poetry and be with you always.


Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Ocean Vuong is the author of the chapbook BURNINGS (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2010) and is a recent graduate from Brooklyn College with a B.A. In English. A Kundiman fellow, he was a finalist for the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Other honors include a 2012 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize for Younger Poets, an Academy of American Poets award, the Connecticut Poetry Society’s Al Savard Award, as well as four Pushcart Prize nominations. Poems appear in The American Poetry Review, Verse Daily, RHINO, diode, Guernica, Drunken Boat, South Dakota Review, and The Collagist, amongst others. http://oceanvuong.tumblr.com/

RHINO Reads! Open Mic & Featured Readers Bryan Borland and Virginia Bell 9-28-12

Open Mike        6:00 pm – 6:30 pm

Featured Poets        6:45 pm – 7:30 pm

Brothers K

500 Main St.

Evanston, IL


Bryan Borland is a multi-time Pushcart nominee and the owner of Sibling Rivalry Press, a small publishing house based just outside of Little Rock, Arkansas. His first book, “My Life as Adam, was one of only five collections of poetry included on the American Library Association’s inaugural “Over the Rainbow” list of noteworthy LGBT publications of 2010. He is also editor of Assaracus, the only print journal in the world dedicated to the poetry of gay men. Bryan will be reading from his new book, “Less Fortunate Pirates: Poems from the First Year without My Father”.

Virginia Bell’s first collection of poetry, “From the Belly”, has just been released from Sibling Rivalry Press. Her poetry has also appeared in such journals as CALYX, The Mom Egg, Poet Lore, Pebble Lake Review, Wicked Alice, Ekphrasis, Woman Made Gallery’s Her Mark, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly, as well as in the anthologies Brute Neighbors: Urban Nature Poetry, Prose and Photography and A Writers’ Congress: Chicago Poets on Barack Obama’s Inauguration. Virginia is an adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago and an Associate Editor with RHINO.

“Inventing a hybrid tongue” – Interview with Abby Paige

RHINO Associate Editor Virginia Bell interviewed poet and actor Abby Paige, winner of the 2011 Founders’ Prize for “The Undefended Border” in late June, 2011.

VB: One of the things I love about your poem “The Undefended Border” is its deft use of bilingualism.  The poem is written primarily in English, but interrupted by words, phrases, sentences and stanzas in French (or Quebecois?).   Why did you decide to write the poem bilingually?  What is the process like?  How do you go about inventing a hybrid tongue?

AP: I learned to speak Spanish when I was younger, and when I moved to Quebec a few years ago, I started to learn French. I’ve learned so much about language from those experiences. When you’re learning a new language, before you gain fluency, your personality is lost for a while. You lose subtext. Part of becoming fluent is discovering your personality in the new language, and I didn’t have a personality in French. I still don’t, really. But at the time it got me thinking about poetic voice. I was reading a bunch of Quebec poets (A.M. Klein and Erin Mouré especially come to mind) who mix both of Canada’s official languages in their work, and asking myself, does one’s poetic voice always need to be the same? Can poets take on personas, and if so, how different can those personas sound from one another? I was also working on a play, and so I suppose that also contributed to my thinking about creating voices.

So the poem began from that idea: I wanted to create something where many voices were speaking. But as tends to happen, that idea became less important as I revised. In the earlier drafts there were three or four other sections where I tried to create something like a chorus. There were lots of voices but, while I had fun creating that much cacophony, it wasn’t very rewarding to read. So it got scaled back, and the bilingualism became more important.

I think “inventing a hybrid tongue” comes very naturally to a bilingual speaker — and even to someone who’s not fluently bilingual but who’s trying to straddle that territory between languages. Not because your command of the languages is imperfect, but because the difference between the two starts to seem more fluid as your brain learns to listen to both at the same time.

VB: For me, this poem weaves together beautifully personal history and regional history.  I come away with the idea that geographic borders, temporal borders, and the borders of individual identity are much more messy, challenging and dynamic than our maps and national labels allow.

In the process, the poem uses a lot of “white space”—often mid line and mid sentence.   For example, there’s significant white space after “My eye wanders,” after the word “la frontière” and  in the following line:


“there             turns into                  here. With every crossing               I become”


Why did you use so much strategic white space in the poem?  What does the “white space” represent?

AP: I’m really glad that’s the idea you came away with! Those are boundaries I’m definitely interested in erasing — or smudging, anyway. I’m really impatient with borders, or at least with our reverence toward them, so I wanted to avoid line or stanza breaks to keep phrases connected. So that was how it became a prose poem, and one of the things that I found really attractive about the form is that it made it possible to use white space a bit more assertively, to really draw attention to the places where there are breaks, where as sometimes the eye can just glide over line breaks.

So I have this impatience with borders, but on the other hand, while they are softer and less defined than we act like they are, they do exist. We can tell one place from another. That’s why we feel homesick, isn’t it? Because somehow “here” and “there” do exist. So I wanted some way to represent that in the poem, too, that there is a pause or a silence between two places, or two times, as between thoughts. It’s not a line so much as a space of transition, which is what I think a border really is: a space for connection rather than separation. A zone where things happen — hesitation or realization or apology. I suppose in acting it would be everything that happens that isn’t in the dialogue.

VB:  As I read it, the poem is also an appropriation of forms we associate with historical archive: the linear chronicle with cursory entries but little narrative.  In your radical use of this form, however, you imply narrative(s) and explore causality and you infuse events with mystery and emotion.  Was this a conscious strategy on your part?   How did you arrive at the form of the poem?

AP: I didn’t consciously intend to comment on the historical archive as a form, but I suppose some kind of comment is implicit, because I wanted the piece to feel documentary or in some sense bureaucratic. I could make it all sound very intentional in retrospect, but I think it’s more a product of my interest in genealogy and history and those interests being influences.

Mostly I was imagining a collaboration between me and my great-grandparents. What if the three of us wrote a poem together? They immigrated from Quebec to Vermont in the 1910s, and I immigrated back in the opposite direction about one-hundred years later. I was imagining how their crossings and their thoughts about the border might have been similar to and different

Photo By Barbara Leslie

from mine. Also, when I first started working on the poem I was doing interviews for my solo show “Piecework: When We Were French,” and I was thinking a lot about how people structure their own life story when they’re asked to tell it, what’s omitted, what’s implied. I’m very interested in how much we discover through speaking, or telling our own stories.

VB: Would you mind sharing with us some of the personal and family history that informs the poem?

AP: Well, the poem is autobiographical; I’m right there in the third section, speaking my terrible French. And as I’ve said already, it also imagines the immigration experiences of my great-grandparents, and how those compared to my own immigration experience.

Probably like a lot of descendants of immigrants to the US, I was raised with a certain sense of displacement, a sense that the ancestral home is somewhere else. But that sense is different for Franco-Americans, especially in New England, because our ancestral home is so close. I’ve lived forty minutes from the border for most of my life; it’s very close, and when you cross it, things look mostly the same. Also, in Vermont and other places in Northern New England, there are towns that literally straddle the border, where the town is half in one country and half in the other, and those towns right now are driving Janet Napolitano and the Department of Homeland Security completely bananas, because they defy this fiction that they’re trying to impose that the two places are separate, when they’re not. They’re completely intertwined. So, it’s both as a Vermonter and as a Franco-American that I feel this skepticism toward the border. I feel that I have more in common with the Quebecoises than I have with Californians.

And yet, of course there are clear differences between Quebec and New England, language probably being the most significant, but there are major differences between Canadian and U.S. culture, too, and there the language difference doesn’t exist. I’m fortunate to be able to live between these cultures. It’s very fertile territory. Also, this is probably a bit of a tangent, but while my immigration experience is atypical (I’m less then 100 miles from home in my new country), I feel really fortunate to have experienced life as an immigrant at this particular historical moment when immigration is such a hot topic in both the U.S. and Canada. I can hear how much of the discussion is really about race, because as a white North American, the rhetoric isn’t directed at me, even though I’m an immigrant. So much of the North American ethos — on both sides of the border — is so ahistorical; we all act like we’ve always been here. But this is really a place with a short history. You only have to go back ten or so generations, and no Europeans were here. Only a hundred years ago, most of my family was French-speaking, and now I’m struggling to learn French.

VB: Does your work as an actor and performer draw on a similar history?  Could you describe your solo show “Piecework: When We Were French”?

AP: It hasn’t always, but recently is does very much. My solo show was commissioned for a festival in Burlington, Vermont a couple of summers ago that commemorated that 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s arrival on Lake Champlain. My piece was supposed to honor the influence of French-Canadians in the area. The area was originally part of New France, so that influence has been substantial.

Bilodeau family picnic, St. Lazare-de-Bellechasse, Quebec

The chance to develop the show came after my first year in Quebec, and I was sorting out my identity as an American and a Franco- American and an immigrant. I decided to base the show on interviews with Franco-Americans, and for me that process was an opportunity to talk with other people about how their heritage has influenced them, or not influenced them, what they’ve lost or preserved of French-Canada culture. And as I’ve said, a big part of it was just listening to how people express themselves, how we tell our own stories or try to represent the stories of our lives. And also what happens when we’re given the opportunity, even by a stranger for a couple of hours, to reflect on our lives. I wonder, if people had the opportunity to do that more often, how it would change how we think about the past.

VB: Are you writing other poems that arise from the liminal cultural world along the Canada/U.S. border?  Or that arise from other sorts of liminal worlds? How would you describe your collaborative epistolary project with Leah Souffrant?

AP: “The Undefended Border” is the title poem of a collection of poems (unpublished) that looks at how the borders between places and people shift and sometimes disappear. Once I had sort of settled on an order for that manuscript, I decided to move on to other themes, but whenever I sit down to write, I always end up looking at that kind of thing. I guess it’s always going to be one of the themes I circle around as a writer. I’m always interested in the third point of view — or the fourth or fifth, for that matter. Dichotomies are so seductive, and I’m always trying to see what gets lost when we give in to that seduction. You start to see that most dichotomies are false. They’re conveniences, but convenience always has a price. In Quebec the dominant dichotomy is between francophones and anglophones, and those two words are used in a way that obscures that there is enormous overlap between those two groups and also that there are lots of lots of other languages floating around that people feel allegiance to. In the U.S., we talk about black and white as race categories as though those are discrete groups, which masks a much more complex ethnic landscape and a long history of interracial couplings.

My more recent poems are also about borders in a way, but not political borders. It’s early days with these poems, so I don’t really know how to talk about them yet, but they’re sort of devotional poems — skeptically devotional — looking at whether the body and the soul are separate. When I was younger I always saw my body as a container — almost literally, like Tupperware — for my soul. But now I think it’s more complicated. If there is something about us that is spiritual, I think it’s deeply dependent on the physical.

The project with Leah is an ongoing experiment, and I think it also has a lot to do with voice. We’re developing this poem together, but we don’t revise one other. Sometimes our voices are very different, and at other times it’s hard to tell who’s speaking. So it’s also a study in friendship or love, how two people who know each other communicate. So maybe that’s about borders in a way, too.

I’m also doing reading right now for a new play that will be about mental illness and eugenics. I want to look at how both mental illness and poverty runs in families, what’s hereditary and what’s passed on through other means, and who defines what’s normal and what’s sick. I’m really interested in how, during the eugenics movement, wealthy people were trying to regulate poor people’s behavior. I mean, the movement was much more complex than that, but I’m interested in that part of it. To me that has something to do with borders, too — who has the power to pronounce certain things out of bounds. It’s sort of how I feel about the U.S./Canada border. Who gets to decide that that line means something? And why do I have to believe them?


Read more about Abby Paige at http://abbypaige.com/