Sunday, August 7, 2022

Annie Newcomber interviews J. Kahn

Kansas City has a lively arts scene, including literary arts, and one of the most compelling voices is that of
Jemshen Khan. Poet Annie Newcomer interviews him about his recent book at  Flapper Press Poetry Cafe. He tells about his mission in writing poetry: Resistance writing, especially, is a path of one's own making. Devoting writing energy to beliefs that run contrary to established interests is a step toward a specific type of freedom, waking a few readers from the trance of mainstream propaganda." His chapbook Speech in an Age of Certainty is available from Finishing Line Press. The interview also has a preview of his next book, The Popol Vuh: An Illustrated Epic, based on a Mayan creation narrative. I interviewed him also for this blog, Denise Low Interviews Jemshed Khan. Khan is a poet working from his experience donating medical assistance to Guatemalan people, his experience as an immigrant, and his experience as a person of conscience. Please enjoy his humanity and grace in this interview, and thanks to Newcomer for bringing this to the literary community! Her chapbook Comets: Relationships That Wander is from Finishing Line Press. Viva Kansas City! 

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Poetry Unbound discovers blood messages in Denise Low's poetry

I so appreciate the close reading of my poem "Walking with My Delaware Grandfather" in

their Poetry Unbound series. Their commentator 
Pádraig Ó Tuama says, "This poem has a deep knowledge about what it means for your own body to bear witness to your past, to your generations past. The grandfather in this poem is one of the four generations being evoked, because we hear of Denise, we hear of her mother, of her grandfather, and that man’s mother, also. And he’s walking, and he doesn’t seem unsettled, but he seems to be looking for a home to be found in the body and life and experiences of his granddaughter. And an invitation from this is to consider, what are the ways within my past generations are looking for a home, maybe a resolution, maybe an opportunity for change, maybe an opportunity for defiance, maybe an opportunity to say: 'I’m still here'?" Read or listen to the poem here:

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

DENISE LOW interviews Twin Cities writer KATHRYN KYSAR

Kathryn Kysar is the author of the poetry books Dark Lake and Pretend the World, and she edited Riding Shotgun: Women Write about Their Mothers. We attended graduate school together at Wichita State University, one of the oldest MFA programs in the country, and we have remained friends. Kysar writes passionately and cares passionately about participating in literary communities. She founded the creative writing program at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, and she has been active as a board member of major literary organizations (AWP, Rain Taxi) as a behind-the-scenes booster. She’s recently published poetry in The Mollyhouse and Sleet (forthcoming)Links to recent poems are “After You Leave” in Voicemail Poems; “Photograph: Little League Practice” in The Under Review; “Lake Superior: Three Scenes of Summer” in About Place Journal. This email interview takes place May 10, 2022. 

Denise Low: You are one of the most socially committed people I know. How does this affect your choices in writing?

Kathryn Kysar: I am in a constant state of growth and self-correction in my struggle with internalized racism. I am a product of our patriarchal capitalist society that is based on genocide and slavery, and I continue to learn about this history and how my privilege warps my perceptions. I am currently writing a travelogue about a driving trip I took with my son last summer that examines our family’s settler colonialist past and the false stories conveyed through the generations.

DL: Writing about your second book of poetry Pretend the World (Holy Cow! Press), Rigoberto González writes, “Kysar's ability to politicize parenting and gender offer a gripping but blunt way of seeing the lives we create, the wars we wage, the things we consume, and the connections we make without overbearing sentimentality or righteousness.” (Poetry Foundation). How has being a parent informed your writing subject matter and your writing process?

KK: Gender inequities continue to be a central focus of my writing. As the parent of a transgender child, I have closely witnessed the horrors of transphobia and the deep harm of daily microaggressions. Is the personal political? Of course. Our lives, including the act of raising children, take place within our racist, sexist, and classist society. To ignore the context of within which we parent would be ignoring these truths. One function of poetry is to unveil the truth, to say the unsaid, hopefully “without overbearing sentimentality or righteousness.”

DL: Collaboration is one of the ways you work with community. I remember for Pretend the World that you collaborated with visual artists to create a show of artworks that responded to individual poems. What was that like for you, to see your poems re-envisioned in another genre? What other collaborations have you been involved in recently?

KK: Thanks for asking about collaboration! The visual art shows that accompanied Pretend the World were astounding to me. I was in awe that my humble poems could trigger such engaging and varied pieces. I invited five artists who work in different mediums to respond to the poems in the book with their artwork. Some pieces, like Jan Elftmann’s sculptural white horse, referenced a single line in a poem. Philip Noyed’s “Dresses Everywhere” is a hanging globe of little dresses that echoed an entire poem as well as the book’s title. The show was presented in several galleries, and Jes Lee’s poetry videos are available on YouTube. It was a joyously fun project.  I am currently writing poems in response to a series of Angela Spencer’s tarot card paintings, and we have upcoming shows scheduled for 2022-2023. My last big project was a collaborative recording of the poems from Pretend the World. I invited guest poets, musicians, and singers to record a poem. One of the happiest moments of my life was sitting in the studio sound booth and hearing how others understood and expressed my work so eloquently. 

DL: In an interview for Write On Door County (2017), you wrote: “I deeply enjoy collaborative creation across the arts: I have had several shows with visual artists, written poems to pre-recorded music, and regularly perform with an improvisational poetry/music group called the Sonoglyph Collective. A sample Sonoglyph performance is “Escape from Paradise Iowa.”  The musicians in this group are dynamite! What have you learned from this project?

KK:  Since our graduation reading when I read my poems accompanied by a musician, I have been striving to take poetry off the page. The Sonoglyph Collective is an improvisational jazz/poetry group featuring four poets and three musicians: Sean Egan on clarinet, Jonathan Townsend on drums, Aaron Kerr on bass, with poets Lynette Rein-Grandell, Hawona Sullivan Janzen, Ibe Kaba, and myself.  We blend the spoken word with music in improvisational ways. Our performances bring my poetry into the bliss of making meaningful sound with others. I have always been deeply connected with music—I worked in the music business for five years before starting my present job—and had always longed to be in a band. There is a connection, a creative energy, in the process of musical performance that I do not gain any other way. 

DL:  I notice you have video poems on YouTube, “Hand Sisters” and “Love Poem.” In addition to poetry, you have written essays and travel writing. What are some of your current writing projects?

KK: I am always, of course, writing poems, but my recent focus has been writing creative nonfiction. My lyric essays are constructed much like poems and weave dense imagery with insights and observations, often about the past. You can read some of my recent CNF work in Slag Glass City and The Mollyhouse.

DL: Is there anything else you would like to add?

KK: Thanks so much for this conversation!

Kathryn Kysar is the author of two books of poetry, Dark Lake and Pretend the World, and she edited the anthology Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers. She has received fellowships and residencies from the Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Tofte Lake Center, and the Oberholtzer Foundation. Her poems have appeared in anthologies such as To Sing Along the Way and Good Poems, American Places. Kysar has served on the board of directors for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) and Rain Taxi Review. She is the founder of the creative writing program at Anoka-Ramsey Community College and offers manuscript consultations through The Loft Literary Center. Twitter: @darklake Instagram: @Pretendtheworld

Thursday, April 14, 2022

DaMaris B. Hill brings power to BREATH BETTER SPEND: Living Black Girlhood


Be prepared to rage, sing, cry, and learn from this new hybrid collection Breath Better Spent (Bloomsbury) from one of the most powerful voices in the USA today. Dr. Damaris B. Hill writes about unspeakable atrocities as in "Kamille 'Cupcake' McKinney," a Black child stolen at a birthday party, and the complicity of local law enforcement, ending with "judge slapping his knees has a pocket full/ of opiates and promises for the young girl/ kneeling under his dinner napkin" (p. 87). Hill pulls together stories of Black womanhood, from the opening inscription to Zora Neale Hurston to Whitney Houston to Aretha Franklin ("What You Talkin' Bout") to her own younger self. The result is a book-length tour-de-force. This book deserves a wide audience, especially in times when the Senate hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson expose the blatant racism of some of the highest USA elected representatives. Thank you, Dr. Hill, for this testament to strength.

DaMaris B. Hill, PhD, is the author of A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing, an NAACP Image Award Finalist; The Fluid Boundaries of Suffrage and Jim Crow: Staking Claims in the American Heartland; and a collection of poetry, \Vi-ze-bel\ \Teks-chers\(Visible Textures). As with her creative process, Hill’s scholarly research is interdisciplinary. An Associate professor of Creative Writing at the University of Kentucky and a former service member of the United States Air Force, she lives in Kentucky. Advertising & PromotionsTOC0

Sunday, March 13, 2022


Thanks to Kim Tedrow of Lincoln, Nebraska for her modeling a poem after my "Two Gates." This is part of her 30-day commitment to write a poem a day for Tupelo Press's 30/30 Project, a fundraiser: "Each month, volunteer poets run the equivalent of a "poetry marathon," writing 30 poems in 30 days, while the rest of us sponsor and encourage them every step of the way.

Here is my poem:


I look through glass and see a young woman
of twenty, washing dishes, and the window
turns into a painting. She is myself thirty years ago.
She holds the same blue bowls and brass teapot
I still own. I see her outline against lamplight;
she knows only her side of the pane. The porch
where I stand is empty. Sunlight fades. I hear
water run in the sink as she lowers her head,
blind to the future. She does not imagine I exist.

I step forward for a better look and she dissolves
into lumber and paint. A gate I passed through
to the next life loses shape. Once more I stand
squared into the present, among maple trees
and scissor-tailed birds, in a garden, almost
a mother to that faint, distant woman.

And here is Kim Tedrow's poem "after" this one: Zoom Meeting / Kim Tedrow

after Denise Low

I look at myself on the screen

and I see myself at twenty,
hair straight and long, parted
down the middle for the first time
since before I knew myself,
except now I’m paying attention.
I see her loneliness as a quarry
from which she mines men
to whom she is disposable.
She wakes in someone’s home
and leaves without her shoes
so as not to wake him.
She wants to be a secret.
Her apartment overlooks a lot
where musicians park by the bar.
Later she goes there to dance.
Gladiolas grow next to the stairs.
Her father stops by
when she is not there
and tucks a picture of himself
into the door frame. She writes
“I could not bear to lose him.”
I see her and bring her back
to myself. She does not want to come
here–she cannot imagine the life
we live now–alone and happy.
In the meeting when it’s my turn
I speak up, I make myself known.

Kim Tedrow works as a Science Writer in Lincoln, Nebraska. She has a Master of Arts in creative writing from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She’s been published in Prairie Schooner and several anthologies, including Nasty Women Poets: an Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse, edited by Grace Bauer and Julie Kane. She lives in a cute little granny house with three cats.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Denise Low comments on William Stafford's "Listening"

Remarks presented at the Watkins Museum celebration of William Stafford's birthday, January 15,

I am so honored to have known William Stafford, born January 17, 1914, at the beginning of my writing life. His person and his poetry influenced me to strive for reflective engagement with natural and human surroundings. He uses poetry for play, for surprises in language, for folding the outside patterns of nature into my inner life, comingling the two. He fit his poetics to align with the unique grasslands ecology of the region where he grew up, from Liberal to Hutchinson to Lawrence—where he received his BA and MA. The sparse landscape of horizontals with gentle angles of ridges creates a backdrop where any vertical, like a watermill or steeple or horse, becomes dramatic. Human experience is set against an enormous sweep of sky.

 The most important aspect of Stafford’s poetics is his humility, which gives him the ability to step aside from the role of master over the wilderness, which was the biblical tradition. Instead, he took the pose of one who listens and learns, as in this favorite of mine, which suggests his Indigenous background:

         Listening by William Stafford:

My father could hear a little animal step,

or a moth in the dark against the screen,

and every far sound called the listening out

into places where the rest of us had never been.


More spoke to him from the soft wild night

than came to our porch for us on the wind;

we would watch him look up and his face go keen

till the walls of the world flared, widened.


My father heard so much that we still stand

inviting the quiet by turning the face,

waiting for a time when something in the night

will touch us too from that other place.

 He mixes the human and natural worlds, with the “moth in the dark against the screen” and the portal between the two realms, the “porch.” The porch becomes the interface between mortality and immortality.

 A second point about Stafford’s poetics: his discussion of ethics. “Traveling Through the Dark” is the most well-known example of this, where he pauses and could “hear the wilderness listen.” He reverses the role of judge and makes readers aware that their actions, like his, have moral consequences.  And finally, the language is subtle, like the landscape, with deep images that continue to build layers throughout the years. The dead deer by the side of the rode is singular and memorable. Not many details appear in the verse, and the image of the deer is the point, not the poet’s acrobatic use of vocabulary and rhetorical devices. Here is the poem “Traveling Through the Dark by Willilam Stafford:

My poem responds to “Listening.”

Variations on Keening by Denise Low

We would watch him look up and his face go keen. William Stafford

My father’s face goes keen. Cicadas drone as

darkness walls us in. His eyes are echoes


on fire. He speaks kennings. His wise eyes

turn blue fire. His prophet’s sight pierces night


with keen perception. Agate rings lie buried

in river mud. His eyes see their spirals.


A sunfish rouges under a keen-bladed knife.

Sequin scales flake. Its eyes darken into a stare


beyond ken. I keen. My father’s twin-star eyes

gaze equally into and out of the dark.

                                                            Wings (Red Mountain Press, 2021)

 My play on “ken” and “keen” emphasizes my wonder at the same cosmos that Stafford knew in the grasslands of Kansas. I conflate him with my father, born a few moths after Stafford and twenty miles away. Stafford is my poetic father. His example of self-effacement, images, and focus on a few key words—these I try to follow.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Denise Low interviews Jemshed Khan about Speech in an Age of Certainty

The Colonised Mind by Jemshed Khan
               What any colonial system does: impose its tongue on the subject races.
        ―Ngugi wa Thiong'o,  Decolonising the Mind

For me, it is already done:
my parents' ghazals shushed and mute;
their language siphoned away
by force of nursery rhyme, church choirs,

by various baptismal schemes.

Colonial garrisons occupy
the language centers of my brain―
my thinking circuits click the Anglo way.
Something traded once for wampum, 
Venetian beads, cowrie shells...
my tongue twists but it cannot say.

DNA still drives my bones and skin
but I am tongue-tied, beset historically.
Far from nest or clan or den,
my diaspora brain adapts as best it can―
colonised because language can.

from Speech in an Age of Certainty by J. Khan (Finishing Line Press, $14.99, 36 pages) 

Email Interview 8.31.2021:
Denise Low: Your title of this book of passionate involvement with social justice is Speech in
an Age of Certainty, based on a poem’s title. What led you to choose this as the book title?
Jemshed Khan: Great question. We live in a time when many people seem so certain and so vocal that their viewpoint is correct. Our leaders, on the other hand, give lip service to social justice but will not vote for any real change in military spending, healthcare, or housing because it will anger their corporate donors. Yet we cling so fervently to what little leadership we have left to believe in! It is this misplaced certainty that I am trying to disassemble in the reader’s mind. Of course, this is a Quixotic goal, but this is the nature of activist writing: to illustrate a counter-narrative in the face of overwhelming corporate and government power, media bias, and censorship. 
D.Low: The cover art of your book is striking—a blindfolded man holding an image of a single

eye as a political sign, and a row of eight figures dressed in black. Why did you choose this image? What does it signify to you?
J. Khan: The blindfolded prophet holding up an eye is symbolic of the act of purporting to have a truth.  The ominous crowd is vaguely sinister. A Matrix-like background implies contemporary digital relevance. All of these elements, for me, represent the false portrayals of reality that Americans navigate on a daily basis. The cover is designed to create a suspicion that some manipulation lurks beneath the surface.
D. Low: The poem “Dead Boys” begins with reference to a camera’s point of view: “The camera pans hillside jungle / zooms to our hero / body splayed, face up, / and stubbed by a missing limb” (18). Media play important roles in your book as source material and as models for structure. Can you discuss your relationship to media and how you work with them?
J. Khan: First off, I am not on FB, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, etc. As a writer hoping for an audience this is hugely disadvantageous, but I am opposed to the financial mining of personal data.  Second, I try to demonstrate how mass media and entertainment are the primary methods of programming the US population to accept “forever wars.”  Noam Chomsky pointed this out in Manufacturing Consent. 
     First-person shooter video games, multi-player online combat games, and Hollywood thrillers are developed with military input: the so-called Military-entertainment complex has its own Wikipedia page.  I am not saying that military input is bad, but the failure to openly communicate this to the public is emblematic of the extent to which the ruling elite manipulate the public, even children, without any pretense of transparency. We live in an age where much of our reality and our children’s reality is manufactured by the media in concert with institutions that are no longer subject to moral hazard or constitutional restraint. This is so pervasive that we don’t even question it. The net result is that the public treasury supports wealthy and wasteful private sector corporate interests at the expense of the overall public good, for example, billionaire wealth increased 44% during COVID, a time of serious unemployment and homelessness.
     My relationship with the mainstream media is one of caution. I do not want to be labelled a troublemaker and have my travel rights restricted as has happened to several Western journalists who write outside the accepted establishment guidelines. While the reach of poetry is limited, the arbitrariness with which our government can and will imprison individuals is not widely appreciated. Still, I wish my work to have impact as a counter-narrative. I am exceedingly grateful for the rights afforded to me as an immigrant and US citizen: to be accepted in US society and engage in passionate free speech of the type that is not tolerated in most countries. When I criticize the misuse of power, I am exercising my right to do so. Free speech!
D. Low: How does your experience as an immigrant writer inform your writing?
J. Khan: Well, I love the good in America. Like many readers I have a safe home, leisure time to read, travel activities, three meals a day, healthcare, a rewarding career. Indeed, from a personal perspective, I have no complaint. What little racism I have encountered in the US over the last 40 years was of trivial emotional or physical consequence compared to the overwhelming generosity that is the norm. America has been an awesome privilege for me and my parents in our immigration and journey.
     Therefore, what I have to say about the shortcomings of America relates to the disadvantage of others more than to me. One of my poems, “Maryville High School,” explores this. There are many wrongs. Writing through and about them has helped me come to terms with the limited impact an individual has on addressing the failings of society. 
D. Low: What is your recent work like? How does it relate to the poetry in this book?
J. Khan: I am in the midst of an epic poem collaboration with artist Leonard Greco where we follow the Mayan Hero Twins’ journey into the underworld. This project overlaps my current book in terms of subversive undertones and populist sentiment. 
     The conquest of the Mayans by the Spaniards was driven by pure colonialism and exploitive greed only matched at the time by the North American genocide against the First Peoples and subsequent North American slavery.  Leonard and I know we must acknowledge this history and deal with it in our revisiting of the myth. There is a line between accessing another culture’s mythology versus appropriating. This is difficult terrain as it strikes at the motives of the writer and requires appropriate distance, deferential tone, and sensitive treatment of subject matter. I am reading on how other poets have dealt with this; Derek Walcott in Omeros, Edward Kamau Braithwaite in Masks, and Michael Bazzett in recent translation. It is a great time to be writing. We will find our path.

Jemshed Khan lives and works in Kansas and Missouri. He has published in diverse magazines including Unlikely Stories, Rigorous, Rat's Ass Review, Chiron Review, Clockwise Cat, shufPoetry, Barzakh, pureSlush, Fifth Estate, I-70 Review, califragile, Coal City Review, San Pedro River Review, and Writers Resist. He has served as a guest editor for Glass: Poets Resist, was nominated for The Pushcart Prize XLIV, has completed a chapbook, and is mulling a book-length collection.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Poet Bill Sheldon publishes "What I Know Today" online with Coop: Poetry Cooperative

The Kansas group poetry site, 150 Kansas Poets, has revamped and is now Coop, 

March is my month to curate, and here is this week's poem by William Sheldon of Hutchinson. He is a Mammoth Publications author, website:

What I Know Today
The opposite of life is…
Well, death’s opposite is hunger
“Love and death,” the poet
says, “love and death.” Horsetail
clouds framed by a window tease
dying leaves, red in setting sun.
All preamble to my saying again,
how much I love this graveyard
we tread daily. Let me walk thigh-
deep in the river, sit under winter’s
red skies.  We can be friends, but dirt
is my only lover.  We will lie together,
rise in each other’s clothes.

Here are submission guidelines for this now national cooperative poetry project: Theme: “I’m Speaking: Renewal and Change.”  We hope poems that respond to this theme are far-seeing and diverse. We welcome feminist work.  We welcome anti-racist work.  We hope to support many communities by sharing voices from varied experiences.  Work need not be overtly political, and may speak to either renewal or change in its themes. In a time of pandemic, global warming, attacks on truth, and the pillars of democracy, change may feel both necessary and terrifying; we look for poems that help navigate challenging times.

Quality: Please send us your strongest work aiming for the most powerful poems you can write.  We prefer imagistic poems that surprise and challenge.  We look for poems that move us.  We want lines we can quote.  Poems to recite.  Poems to hold close to our hearts.

Submission: Send us no more than five poems and a 50-word third person bio note in a single Word or RTF document to KSPoetryCoop at  Your single document must be formatted in this way: Your name at top left of the document (not in the header) followed by your email address, a list of the titles of the poems included in the document (also flush left), bionote, and then the poems exactly as you hope they will be printed.  In your bio note of no more than fifty words, feel free to include hyperlinks to your appropriate websites or books.  Please include italics as usual for magazines and books.  Please do not use page breaks but instead just leave about 4-5 lines between poems.

Here is the story of Coop from their website: "This site owes its inception to Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg who started the site as part of her duties as Kansas Poet Laureate with the intention of collecting poems to celebrate the state sesquicentennial. By 2013 Mirriam-Goldberg had created a site where a community of poets curated poems to speak to themes vital to many of us in and beyond Kansas and the heartland. The site changes themes periodically while collecting and publishing the poems from the previous theme. This evolution has lead us to the current name, The Coop: A Poetry Cooperative.

Laura Lee Washburn has worked as Editor-in-Chief or Chief Curator since 2020, after serving as a help to Mirriam-Goldberg’s site management.  In 2020, Laura Lee Washburn was joined by Katelyn Roth and Morgan O.H. McCune as additional site managers and editors.  Throughout the coming months, Poetry Cooperative will continue the tradition of monthly rotating ed

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Denise Low interviews Eileen R. Tabios; Neil Leadbeater reviews PAGPAG by Eileen R. Tabios

Eileen R. Tabios has developed a following as a writer, blogger, book collector, artist, and reviewer. Here is an interview with her, and scroll down for a review of her book PAGPAG by Neil Leadbeater. I first heard her name from my poetry friends and then saw her poetry review online journal GALATEA RESURRECTS (A POETRY ENGAGEMENT), an important commentary on contemporary verse. After relocating to northern California, I looked her up, and we have enjoyed an ongoing dialogue about our writing, her small book library, her fostered dogs, and
more. We exchanged questions and answers for this interview in 
early October, 2020, as she and her family were displaced by the Glass Fire.

 DL You have a large body of published work, and the listing of publications is available on your website.  How does this new book of short stories PAGPAG: The Dictator’s Aftermath in the Diaspora (Paloma Press) relate to your themes in previous work?

ERT That is a good question, because this book is an interruption of the writing styles I was exploring. These stories (except for one I added to cohere the collection) were published from 1995-2000; they represent me as a newbie creative writer, and I do not write the way I wrote back then. But I decided to re-issue them as a book in protest against the cruel policies of current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte as well as his complicity in rehabilitating the reputation of the family of Martial Law dictator Ferdinand Marcos. I thought it important to remind people that Martial Law occurred, was damaging, and offers a legacy wherein junior-Marcos-type politicians undeservedly thrive to the detriment of the Filipino people they are supposed to serve.

Having said that, I am calling *interruption* only as regards writing style. PAGPAG’s stories are not that far from a consistent root cause to my poetry, which is addressing injustice. In my case, injustice helped create me as a diasporic. But it’s okay that I present from the diaspora because, as I say in my introduction, the effects of a dictatorship go beyond the obvious killings and torture of political rebels; the effect continues for generations and beyond national borders, and one result is the growth of diaspora. The growth in diasporic movement is not just from opposition politicians fleeing the dictator but also the population going overseas for work and other opportunities not available domestically, due to insufficient domestic development policies.

One aggravating—though not the most important—result of injustice is how it interrupts Beauty. I am very interested in exploring the many facets of Beauty (much of my poetry attests to that), but addressing injustice is of course a worthy diversion. For PAGPAG, the proverbial straw that caused me to release this book—and it was a very swift process from that decision to publication, thanks to Paloma Press publisher Aileen Cassinetto, who empathized and saw exactly what I was trying to do—was when I learned how the word “pagpag” had turned from its original definition of “dusting off” objects to be one of when poor people recover food dumped into trash landfills before attempting to clean them for re-cooking into new meals (you can see, and be offended as I was by, this video: ).

While PAGPAG is a short story collection, it also offers poems (inevitably so since I am a poet), including its ending poem from which I excerpt about the choice-that-is-a-non-choice faced by the poor:

          How to choose between          malnutrition versus Hepatitis A

                                                           malnutrition versus typhoid

                                                           malnutrition versus diarrhea

                                                           malnutrition versus cholera

A Filipino scholar I respect noted that the pagpag practice can exemplify the resilience of a people who otherwise might starve. Far be it for me to criticize actions by the hungry and malnourished, but all of those diseases mentioned in my poem can result from eating food scavenged from trash. So I was enraged at how the political leadership allowed this fate for poor people. I truly feel a nation must be judged, too, by how well (or not) it treats its weakest constituents. The poor are not given enough support, so the least I can do is remind with a book, even though inevitably I must write from the position of one who was able to leave and is outside the country. I do say in my Introduction:

"The aftermath [of a dictator’s actions] is not always obvious like the imprisoned, the tortured, or the salvaged (murdered); the aftermath goes deep to affect even future generations in a diaspora facilitated by corruption, incompetence, and venality."

DL  What did you hope to accomplish with writing this book?

ERT  My voice from the diaspora is not as important as those (in the Philippines) directly helping the poor and working for political change. But I suppose I just wanted to add my voice, which perhaps can add another element to illustrating the effects of a dictatorship, as I describe above. The stories all maintain a “from the diaspora” point of view but they are from the fictionalized children of the anti-Marcos opposition that had to leave the Philippines while Marcos was in power. I am just adding a modest voice to the clamor protesting against those failing in their public duties.

DL  What differences do you find between writing poetry and writing fiction? Any similarities?

ERT  I find I am more didactic when writing fictional prose—that the about-ness is more privileged than if I was writing a poem. This, by the way, is why I feel that in terms of effectiveness, the poems in PAGPAG are not as good as the short stories. The poems elide too much of the specifics that need to be shared full-frontally about the nature of political abuse and dictatorship. The poems, thus, are in support of the fiction which do a better job in communication because of their didacticism that offers specifics.

This is not to say that political poems cannot do justice to what they are addressing. I am only talking about me, and how I prefer in poetry to address Beauty than non-Beauty, knowing I can go to other forms like fiction when I want to do something else.

DL  Often people note that United States poets fail to write many good lyric poems that are political statements overtly, as the didacticism detracts from the lyricism. Perhaps here you say the elision of lyric poetry also makes political poetry more difficult. Thank you for that insight. You and I have talked about my good fortune in meeting Bienvenido Santos when he was a professor in my MFA program. He first made me aware of the political and personal tragedies in his and your homeland. What else would you like to share about your book or its impetus?

ERT  I would not go so far as to say lyricism makes political poetry more difficult. I only know that part of my position is not having to be constrained by only writing poems. I can write prose, too.

As for what else I would like to share about the book, the (abusive) effects due to the extremes of rich vs. poor and elite vs. disenfranchised are well-known and stretch back over much of human history. But as a person of my/our time, I notice what seems to me more drastic gulfs caused by wealth spurred by technology and financially leveraged products, among others. In the past, we certainly had the Rockefeller wealth due to oil and J.P. Morgan’s wealth due to finance, and these wealths, proportionately, may not be significantly different from those of today's Gates, Bezos, or Musk. But it seems to me that we have more such gazillionaires today. I speculate that the more you have of such people, the more they are able to create a culture such as a financial wealth-created bubble; such a bubble creates thicker borders because there are enough people with whom to socialize within that bubble.

Then, I suspect that from that bubble—and economic elite of course can translate to political

and other types of elitists—you start seeing politicians with decreasing empathy for the weakest among their constituencies. For they are not as in touch with them, or they recognize the suffering of other people as theoretical versus lived. In the Philippines, for example, there is a group of families that usually control economic and political standing. In the U.S., well, how much empathy has the President shown for people who live in various margins?

In my Introduction to PAGPAG, I insist that “it’s not okay. Pagpag is never okay—especially in a land where others spend 15 million pesos on a handbag’” when a serving of a pagpag meal can cost "as little as 20 pesos hard-earned by the poor.”

I do not know if my book PAGPAG offers any benefit. But as I write in PAGPAG, “A writer writes and here I write in protest—I know writing by itself is not adequate… But I do believe in the ultimate power of the written word and this book would be among those I’d send back from the diaspora to the Philippines.”

Consequently, too, I am glad to share that PAGPAG will have a Philippine edition released by the end of this year. It will be published and distributed in the Philippines by Wesleyan University Philippines. I could not have expected this result when I first put together the book. But I am glad because it is fitting that this facet of my writings return to the homeland. Not everything should remain in exile. And/or, I do not need to remain exiled.

DL  This is almost a note of optimism. Thank you so much for your reflections.


NEIL LEADBEATER reviews Pagpag:

The Dictator’s Aftermath In The Diaspora
by Eileen R. Tabios (Paloma Press, 2020, available at

 “Pagpag” is a Tagalog word meaning “to shake off dust or dirt” in the sense of fluffing up bedding to get rid of dust or shaking off crumbs that have landed in your lap. More recently it has come to refer to the scavenging of leftover food from garbage cans. Beggars or scavengers shake the food to remove the dirt that may have become attached to it. People who scavenge for leftovers in the Philippines will frequently cook what they find to make it less dangerous to eat.

In this collection of eleven protest stories, written between 1995 and 2001, Eileen Tabios rakes through the debris of “the continuing past” of a ruthless dictatorship to register her offence at having been forced to join the Philippine diaspora. For her, “pagpag” “heart-wrenchingly symbolizes like no other the effects of a corrupt government unable to take care of – indeed, abusing – its people.”

In her introduction she says, “A writer writes, and here I write in protest – I know writing by itself is not adequate, even as I humbly offer this collection to readers. But I do believe in the ultimate power of the written word and this book would be among those I’d send back from the diaspora to the Philippines.”

Throughout this collection, poverty is described in all its forms and not just in terms of a lack of money. It is also seen with reference to a lack of opportunity and, more importantly, a lack of being able to make one’s voice heard and a lack of being able to do anything about it. There are old men and women sleeping on hard surfaces, small farmers forced out of business, companies stripped of their assets and a displaced population from Calauit who end up dying of starvation.

There are also many things that have been discarded, broken or inadvertently left behind: a diamond ring and a pair of earrings, halved coconut husks, the broken fragments of a crystal vase, the mountainous trash heaps of wasted food in the foothills of Manila. All of these have consequences for the poor.

There is plenty of variety too, ranging from the politically charged “Force Majeure” and “Redeeming Memory” to the politically correct “Homeland” and the comic “Pork” and “Tapey.” Ghosts are present in at least three of these stories, but there is a sense in which they haunt every one of them as Tabios confronts her past.

The cover image, Self-Contained (2009) by Rea Lynn de Guzman—an interdisciplinary artist working in painting, print media, and sculpture—is the perfect fit to this collection since, like Tabios, she also immigrated from the Philippines to the United States at an early age, sharing that common bond of displacement and exile. This is a powerful collection of stories that illustrates the extent to which the legacy of dictatorship is still being felt today within the Filipino diaspora.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet, and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017), Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019).  His work has been translated into several languages.

             Eileen R. Tabios loves books and has released over 60  collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in ten countries and cyberspace. Publications include form-based Selected Poems, The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets (1996-2019), THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL: Selected Visual Poetry (2001-2019)INVENT(ST)ORY: Selected Catalog Poems & New (1996-2015), and THE THORN ROSARY: Selected Prose Poems & New (1998-2010); the first book-length haybun collection, 147 MILLION ORPHANS (MMXI-MML); a collection of 7-chapter novels, SILK EGG; an experimental autobiography AGAINST MISANTHROPY; as well as two  bilingual and one trilingual editions involving English, Spanish, and Romanian. Her award-winning body of work includes invention of the hay(na)ku poetic form as well as a first poetry book, Beyond Life Sentences (1998), which received the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry (Manila Critics Circle). Her poems have been translated into 11  languages as well as computer-generated hybrid languages, paintings, video, drawings, visual poetry, mixed media collages, Kali martial arts, music, modern dance, sculpture and a sweatshirt. Additionally, she has edited, co-edited or conceptualized 15 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays as well as exhibited visual art and visual poetry in the United States, Asia and Serbia.


Saturday, September 26, 2020

Nomadic Coffee "publishes" poet Denise Low, with audio

Nomadic Coffee of Berkely pairs coffee beans with poets plus provides a call-in line for the poet's commentary plus a reading. Thank you Nomadic Coffee! This is my poem currently tucked into coffee bags and available for call-in. Kim Shuck, Poet Laureate of San Francisco, is the curator for this quarter, and thanks mucho, Kim! Thank you to Arthur Johnstone for the featured portrait. Thank you Nomadic Coffee. Denise Low


“We look at the world once in childhood.

The rest is memory.” Louise Gluck


In my first house of cut-up puzzles

Mother disappears behind jumbled

heights, walls, gravity windowpanes—


a domain of no lullabies

but instead, pauses.

In the upstairs room under elms


stars pelt the glass.

Hunger returns. Under my chin

white ruffles loop endlessly.


I remember to this day

the curved bassinet, dusty pink,

how I lived within its wicker.


Later she stored it on the back porch

where even now, generations later,

it calls me to return.


 Nomadic Coffee broadside and Dial-a-Poet, 415-484-7919, ext. 730