A Writer’s Insight: Ryan Teitman

Ryan Teitman’s poem “An Essay on Criticism” appears in the winter 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Ryan read the poem in our audio gallery here, and read more about his thoughts on defying, and defining, genre below.


Kathleen Boland: What inspired you to write “An Essay on Criticism”?

Ryan Teitman: The inspiration for this poem came from working as an editor at a community weekly newspaper after I graduated college, and then as an editor for Indiana Review when I was in graduate school. At the Indiana Review, we got hundreds of review copies of books in the mail, even though we were only able to review about a dozen in every issue. I thought a lot about the books that just sat on the office shelf, just like I thought about the hundred or so nonnewsworthy faxes—destined for recycling bin—that we’d get each day at the newspaper.

KB: The poem’s title implies that the poem is also an essay, and the content of the poem is a commentary on criticism. Could you explain why or how this poem took its form? What is the commentary, if any, of a prose poem about criticism?

RT: For a while now, I’ve been exploring the question of what makes a prose poem a prose poem—as opposed to a piece of flash fiction or a short lyric essay. I don’t know that I have an answer to that question, but I do like to see what happens when you start blurring the lines between these boundaries. This particular piece is a poem, but maybe that’s only because I called it a poem when I sent it out. The boy in the poem does the same thing with his “reviews.” They’re reviews because he calls them that—he doesn’t know the conventions of the form, so that lets him do something completely different.

KB: The book reviewer likes the boy’s reviews because “they’re honest”; he also lets the boy keep the books because they “belong to the boy now.” What’s the definition of honesty in this poem?

RT: I think the honesty in this poem is the boy following his artistic impulse. He doesn’t know what he’s really supposed to do, but he manages to make something surprising, and funny, and even a little bit beautiful. The old editor sees that, and even though he’s not going to run the boy’s reviews, he knows the books will fuel the boy’s creativity.

KB: In your opinion, what would the most honest book review have to include or describe?

RT: First off, I think an honest review should understand what the book is trying to do, as opposed to what the reviewer would rather it do. Second, a review should appreciate that it’s also a piece of art. I read criticism by writers like Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal, Kathryn Schulz, and Wesley Morris because I value their insights about culture, but also because I love their writing as literature.


Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City. His poems have appeared in New England Review, The Threepenny Review, and The Yale Review, and his awards include a Stegner Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.

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AWP in Washington, D.C., and the Winter 2017 Issue

With the holidays seeming a distant memory at this point, we are making final preparations for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference in Washington, D.C., February 8–11. All of us from The Southern Review will be at the conference, eager to talk with both old and future friends, so we encourage you to stop by bookfair booths 608 and 610, where the journal and LSU Press will be. There you can browse our publications and show your support for great literature by taking advantage of the special offers we will have on subscriptions and individual issues. Coeditor and prose editor Emily Nemens, business manager Leslie Green, graduate assistant Kathleen Boland, and I will be at the booth throughout the conference if you’d like to talk shop or just say hello.

Emily and I both have additional events at the conference. Emily will be reading her fiction along with seven other writers as part of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop event at Upshur Street Books (827 Upshur Street NW) on Friday, February 10 at 5:00 pm. I will join journal editors Sumita Chakraborty, George David Clark, and James Smith on the panel, “The Craft of Editing Poetry: Practices and Perspectives from Literary Magazine Editors,” which is moderated by Anna Lena Phillips Bell on Thursday at 9:00 am in room 209ABC, Washington Convention Center, Level Two. I’m looking forward to hearing how other journals work with submissions, edit poetry, and generally shape their publications.

More than anything, though, I enjoy being at AWP because it provides the opportunity to talk with so many writers and readers about literature and what we are doing here at The Southern Review. Our latest issue will be available for sale, as will some recent back issues, and all are filled with great writing. The winter issue shines with a story from previous contributor James Lee Burke. Set primarily in South Louisiana, “The Wild Side of Life” is replete with infidelity, murder, corruption, and oil field workers, all wrapped in snappy dialogue and vivid detail of the Atchafalaya Basin and Gulf Coast. We also have a story from new contributor Qais Akbar Omar that is set in northern Afghanistan. “The Small Statue of Lenin’s Head,” takes place while the town awaits the arrival of the Taliban, and the story brims with the tension of mistrust and fear both among and between neighbors. In addition to these and other stories, we have essays about running, the refugee crisis in Europe, and, from Nicole Cooley, a love she shared with her grandmother for clothes.

And, of course, there is plenty of poetry from writers who are new to our pages as well as previous contributors. Jessica Goodfellow makes her The Southern Review debut and opens the winter issue with three poems from her series about an uncle who died while climbing Denali and whose body was never recovered. Another newcomer to the journal, Joelle Biele, has two poems from her forthcoming book from LSU Press, Tramp, about female hoboes along the rail lines in the early twentieth century. And in “Twelve Pieces of a Concubine,” first-time The Southern Review contributor Aza Pace revisits a tale from Judges, in which a concubine is raped and, as punishment to the men who raped her, is cut into pieces by her owner and distributed throughout Israel. The poem presents retribution: “While the men slept, we sewed her back together,” so that she could return to the living and “haunt / their shattered sleep,” and stresses the importance of telling “her story” so that “she may never die.”

As always, it’s a pleasure to have familiar names return. This season we have poems from David St. John, Wendy Barker, Chloe Honum, Joe Wilkins, Charles Simic, and many others. All of this fine writing is accompanied by Sally Mann’s photographs of Cy Twombly’s studio. Finally, I’ll note, for a midwinter treat that is sure to warm you, visit our audio gallery to hear contributors read their works. I hope you enjoy this season’s offerings and that, if you are attending, we will see you at AWP.

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A Writer’s Insight: Gbolahan Adeola

gbolahan-adeolaGbolahan Adeola’s short story, “The Neighbor Woman Who Knew Things” appears in the autumn 2016 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Adeola read an excerpt of his story in our audio gallery here; read more about his process of crafting the story, as well as his own frightening neighbor nightmare, below.

 Kathleen Boland: What inspired you to write “The Neighbor Woman Who Knew Things”?

Gbolahan Adeola: I came up with Antar’s character in a cycle of stories about death and grieving. My intention was to write several pieces from the points of view of family and friends who knew Antar prior to his death. In one story, his younger son Femi, now in his early twenties, reflects on his father’s death and the rituals that surround the funeral. Femi is five when Antar dies; when he recalls the role that Mama Ibeji played following the tragedy, he thinks of her as “a woman who knew things.” I don’t know that I’d planned to write a story about the neighbor woman before that, but I became interested in this characterization of her as a seemingly omniscient (and somewhat meddlesome) presence. It seemed like a good opportunity to tell a story about the unique ways that neighbors can know (and not know) one another. I found that her “knowingness” had unexpected ramifications as the story took shape.

KB: In this story, Mama Ibeji is referred to as “the neighbor woman” by the narrator; similarly, Samuel becomes “my husband.” How does naming operate in this story? What do these names, or titles, signify for these characters and the narration?

GA: Names and naming are really important in Yoruba culture. I’ll refrain from giving an entire lecture on how some names are thought to be “brought from heaven” so that babies born in certain circumstances get predetermined names. The names we choose (or are permitted) to call a person are strictly guided by status, age, or familiarity. Like all things preoccupied with status or position, naming can often have a relegating effect. For the neighbor woman, there was a sense of equality to call her husband by his first name, Samuel. Having then to refer to him as “my husband,” a “respectful” indication of his status, eliminated that degree of closeness. The narrative’s insistence on referring to Mama Ibeji as “the neighbor woman” functions in a similar way, I think. The refusal to address her by a name or title is a small act of marginalization, a reminder that, despite the influence that she would come to have on Antar’s family, she is still merely “the neighbor woman.” Hopefully this also highlights how bizarre it is that she should be so important in their lives at all.

KB: Both the narrator and the characters have various expectations that are upended by the close of the story. Did you always plan for this inversion in the story, or did it come naturally while writing and exploring these characters?

GA: A lot of it was unplanned. In my earliest conception of the story, Patricia was just as vacuous as Mama Ibeji believed her to be. But the story felt unfair to Patricia, and her character demanded more complexity. I was glad to see how a more nuanced exploration of Patricia forced the other characters in more interesting directions as well.

KB: What’s the strangest or most memorable thing you have ever witnessed a neighbor do?

GA: When I was a child I lived across from a huge duplex with an upstairs balcony that was visible from my house. One night, probably after eating too much sugar or watching some television show I shouldn’t have, I had this really strange nightmare in which there was a white-clad ghost sitting in that balcony. At some point in the nightmare, the neighborhood gets invaded by a horde of machine gun–wielding men who get into a fight with the ghost. I have this lingering image in my head from the nightmare of the ghost sitting in the balcony, bleeding, long after the men have left. I never actually met the people who lived in that house—they were probably perfectly nice people—and I suppose this doesn’t quite answer your question. But, if I’ve had any kind of odd neighbor experience that might account for my fascination and mistrust of neighbors, it’s that nightmare and the feelings the duplex evoked afterward.

Gbolahan Adeola is an MFA candidate in fiction at Brown University. His work has appeared in Transition Magazine and The Common. He was born in Ibadan, Nigeria.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.

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A Writer’s Insight: Julia B. Levine

Julia B. Levine’s poems “Ordinary Psalm in the October ER” and “Ordinary Psalm with Seizure” appear in the autumn 2016 issue of The Southern Review. In her conversation with The Southern Review/LSU Press marketing intern Megan Feifer, she discusses the works’ origins, structure, and the role of nature in her poetry.


Megan Feifer: Both of your poems share the words “Ordinary Psalm.” Why did you choose to name these poems as such? Does a psalm lose its reverence when it becomes ordinary? Is that the point?

Julia B. Levine: I am currently at work on a (hopefully) book-length collection of Ordinary Psalms. In these poems I am interested in the idea that the ordinary, if deeply lived and carefully attended to, are valid entryways into sacred or reverent experience. As a child I attended a Reform Jewish synagogue and always disliked the prayer books, though I loved the Torah. The difference, it seemed, had to do with the formal and vague language of prayer as contrasted with the heroic, vivid, and oftentimes earthy details of the weekly Torah readings. On reflection, this tonal difference in language may be the primary reason I don’t feel any sense of reverence toward an Old Testament God, but I do believe in the transcendent power of myth and stories. So, in contrast to psalms that rely on a formal address to an anthropomorphic God, I wanted to create a kind of personal prayer book that uses the living language of everyday details and experience to name and praise those aspects of this world that, for me, embody divinity.


 MF: The concluding lines in “Ordinary Psalm in the October ER” are achingly beautiful. For anyone who intimately knows loss, they read as a sort of balm for thinking about some sort of final transition. These lines also appear to bookend the opening, in that “the argument the body goes on having” finally stops repeating. Why wrap up the poem in this way?

JL: Oh! That is a lovely observation. I wish I could take conscious credit for the “bookending” of the opening and closing lines, but I can’t. However, I can say that often I am completely awestruck by the kindness and social urgency of living creatures that, for me, embodies one facet of divinity. Watching the footage of elephants working together to save their youngest member was so moving to me, as are all the ways we give of ourselves to those we love because of, and despite, our helplessness. It is a reminder to me of the idea that together we are a wholeness; separated, we long for that original completion.

I did work a very long time on the ending of this poem. It was important to me that this was not just another poem about one individual’s illness, because I was more interested in the reverent pull we can feel toward one another as a recognition of our shared beingness. I wasn’t entirely certain of this ending, but it was the closest I could come. (You know that old saying that the poem is never finished, just abandoned?)


MF: In both poems, you draw a relationship between the natural world and the physical body. The descriptions of the seasons thread into those of the body in pain—be it animal or human. Tell us more about the relationships between meteorology and the corporeal.

 JL: This is a hard question for me to answer, but if I am honest, I’d have to say that I experience the physical/natural world as not only a living body, but it is something I feel connected to on a visceral level. And in terms of text, I think all religions rely on the map that the natural world provides to help us understand our own progression through time.

On a more personal level, I grew up in Michigan, but have lived my adult life in a primarily agricultural area in Northern California. Especially intriguing to me, is that here in the Central Valley, the mythic sense of fall/winter as a dying back and spring/summer as a resurrection, is somewhat reversed. Winter means rain, and rain is life in this valley. Summer means months of fierce sun and punishing heat. Maybe this, too, has contributed to an intense awareness of a multiplicity of particular details and possible meanings related to the seasons and weather in the natural world.

Finally, because I am a fervent nature-worshiper, the relentless advance of global climate change (and what it might mean for our one and only planet), is never far from my mind. As a child, seasons and weather felt far more predictable. Now it feels less so and, therefore, I think I am attuned to weather as a sign of disease/distress in the dynamic, living expression of the world’s corporeal body.


MF: The way in which the majority of a person’s days are described in “Ordinary Psalm with Seizure” as “a devotional on surrender” is fascinating to me. It’s almost a relief in some way. Why is the act of surrender so important in this poem?

 JL: In this poem, I used the many meanings of the word seizure to understand love and loss. The word seizure contains definitions that account both for the act of being taken possession of, as well as the act of taking possession of another, an object, etc. I think this is always at work in love and loss—you take possession of another as they take possession of you, and yet it is transitory: it will end. This realization, in itself, can lead either to a kind of frenetic reaching to hold on, or to a surrender. Neither is easy or consistently attained; it is a kind of practice to move back and forth between these extremes. But we can be sure the world will insist we repeatedly grapple with this profound tenet of being.

There is also an invisible story underlying this poem. I grew up with a father that was both cruel and loving. At times, he would seem possessed by a demonic rage and often would abuse me physically and verbally. As a child, I, of course, believed him that his treatment of me was my fault. He was also a neurologist who treated epileptics, among many others, so I was keenly aware of the medical meaning of seizure. When my beloved lab died of a brain tumor, it was made abundantly clear to me that we are not to blame for the suffering we endure in this world—but, in fact, that suffering is an essential aspect of walking consciously through this world.

Julia B. Levine has won numerous awards for her work, including the Northern California Book Award in Poetry for Small Disasters Seen in Sunlight, which inaugurated LSU Press’s Barataria Poetry Series in 2014. She received a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and lives and works in Davis,California.

 Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society.

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November newsletter

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