Volume 68, Number 2 · Spring 2019

Behind the Poems

▴ ▴ ▴

D. M. SpratleyI started “The Road Over Catawba Mountain” in the backseat of a friend’s car while driving from Virginia into West Virginia. It was nighttime and it was raining, and we realized we’d made a mistake taking the state road instead of doubling back for the highway, but too late—we’d passed any exits miles ago.

If you’ve lived in the mountains, maybe you know this kind of road. Two narrow lanes: one curved tight around the land, and the other—our lane—open to the drop down the mountainside. No guardrails, no lights. I thought about how little care had been given to making the road convenient, safe, anything more than functional. If the road showed us such little care in return, we could end up on the side of the mountain forever.

Even if our historical record disappeared, future generations could map some of our values based on how and where we invested in infrastructure. Where most of us congregated, of course. But also where we provided safety, and where we didn’t. Which places we decided were worth getting to quickly. Where we put our shoulder to nature and pushed, forcing our way through, and where we didn’t—or couldn’t, at the time. And why it was worth it to us. And why it wasn’t.

With this poem, I wanted to invert the lens these decisions are made through—imagining that the road, seeing us, could understand its position in our world and still provide us with more grace than we often show ourselves.

—D. M. Spratley

▴ ▴ ▴

Kaveh Bassiri

Writing Persian” confronts my experience of writing in a second language. I had stopped writing poetry after a teacher told me it was impossible to write a great poem in English if English wasn’t my native language. This was a pity, because one should always be encouraged to explore, share, and learn. I took his idea seriously because I knew my poems weren’t good but I didn’t know why. Ultimately, I needed to write, yet I didn’t believe in my poems and didn’t share them. Writing poetry became my personal journey and a way to wander in language. Years later, when I applied for an MFA, I had overcome my anxiety and shame. I had things I wanted to share, and I wanted to learn from others. I also realized I appreciated and loved English in special ways. People do and say amazing things in languages that are not their own, and I am not only thinking of writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad. The perspective of an outsider and knowing other languages can even be an asset. I wanted to write about that experience.

In my revisions, “Writing Persian” also moved from expressing shame to considering pride. The tone changed. The earliest drafts were darker, yet humor that started to appear made the poem possible. Previous versions were also more elliptical, but I didn’t want to hide behind a veil. I chose a more prose-like and narrative style. Later, the poem evolved beyond a prose poem. The use of lines opened new readings, and the empty space on the page allowed the sentences to breathe. The list of words at the end is drawn from an earlier series, in which the title of each poem is an English word with Persian roots.

—Kaveh Bassiri

▴ ▴ ▴

Michael Brooks Cryer

I met a doctor in a bar several years ago who had escorted one of her patients to Juarez, Mexico to have his leg amputated. He had a form of body dysmorphia called apotemnophilia that made him attracted to people with amputations. Nobody in the States would touch the leg. For reasons beyond my psychoanalytical abilities, he thought if he amputated one of his legs, it would make sex even better. With himself? Unclear. For me, the real groovy psychological stuff was going on with the doc though. I couldn’t tell if she actually thought she was “treating” this guy, or if she thought it would be a cool story to tell at the bar afterward. Well, I’m still retelling it… This was a long time ago now—I don’t meet people like this much anymore.

What does this have to do with my poems? The poems started as fiction. I really wanted to include the stuff about the leg in a short story collection, but every time I try to write fiction it becomes overly autobiographical—I don’t have that problem with poetry, thank god—and what originally came out read like reportage or really bad confessional nonfiction.

In an early draft of the story I tried to write, the amputee ended up in El Pastor’s lunatic asylum in Juarez that is overlooked by a giant white horse inscribed on a mountain. While I had him in there, I made him write daily diary entries, which would later turn into the series of poems collected here. For some reason, I started to use voice-recognition software to write these diary entries, but at that time the software couldn’t keep up all that well, so the entries actually sounded a little crazy and, happily for me, very paranoid—a happenstance that would later prove inspirational.

In one entry in particular, I started to free-associate about music and technology. I then imagined all the daily entries as Pandora radio stations—each diary entry was represented by a different artist: John Prine, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings—as you can tell, I was on a country kick. Maybe because I was writing so close to Texas.

In case you’ve never examined the options associated with individual Pandora radio stations, you can click an option called “Why was this track chosen?” and Pandora will then give you a breakdown of the song’s musical genealogy. I basically stole the voice of Pandora’s auto-generated song descriptions for these poems, modifying it, of course, by creating a kind of omniscient, salesmany voice that lends really creepy advice about the reader’s inner life. These poems are a continuation of that experiment. (You’re going to like these poems, you really are. They’re just what you need.)

By the way, I got the chance to meet the amputee some months after the operation. He was having difficulty walking because surgeons performed the amputation well above his knee. He had two of those crutches with the cuffs that go around each forearm and a prosthetic leg hidden beneath his linen slacks. He was beaming from ear to ear.

—Michael Brooks Cryer

▴ ▴ ▴

Night sky with stars

In the wilderness of my poem “Altarpiece With Wolf at Door,” the earliest drafts were figures of wolf and self—a lost body, searching for definition in wild grasses. Then the draft got its oxygen in a prompt from the brilliant poet Jennifer Givhan, who asked for a poem that was an altarpiece—possibly a triptych. Suddenly, the poem needed to unfold, open out. As I entered the holy space it created, it asked for more: a breaking open, a getting down on my knees.

With the move from one to three panels, I found the poem could extend from just self to self, father, and mother (and mother, and mother). It swelled to reveal not only a wolf, but a horse and a fox—inviting in questions of hunger and magic. In this way, a poem about one body opened to include other possibilities; the poem found a kind of prayer and revealed a sapphire door.

In terms of its form, the altarpiece got me thinking about knowing the body on, and across, the page. This stretching put me to work with repetition and interruption (“pretty,” and the widening scope of “stars and stars”). It also made me wonder how a body might search for itself and make room for that search on the line. I thought about suspension, and the poems of Mina Loy, whose spaces between words enact visceral experience. Across the text’s fields and meadows, I tried to use space to engage breath—finding the inhale and exhale, and also (I hope, at times), a gasp.

—Sally Rosen Kindred

▴ ▴ ▴

Roy White

My poem “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” is mostly invented (do they really even make narwhal codpieces?), but one of its weirder elements is quite historical. On his third voyage, as he approached the mouth of the Orinoco, Christopher Columbus took some anomalous measurements of the North Star and concluded, not that his technique was flawed, but that he must be sailing uphill, and therefore the world is not round after all. Columbus was not the last man on a road trip who moved heaven and earth to avoid admitting that he had misread the map, but his report back to his royal patrons framed this in a unique way: the far side of the earth, he said, is shaped like a woman’s breast, complete with nipple. When I read this, it seemed to say so much about gender and entitlement, conquest and exploitation, that it stayed in the back of my head for months.

Then one day I awoke with the poem’s first lines running through my head. Aqua-man was inspired by a man we saw in a pub in County Kerry, standing and chatting at the bar in a wetsuit on Easter Sunday. The fear of dishwater I owe to a long-ago girlfriend, the fear of the garbage disposal…well, who among us does not fear garbage disposals?

But where to go from here? It occurred to me then that Columbus and his geo-nipple had the same combination of ludicrous and appalling masculinity as the man with the narwhal codpiece. My task from that point was to go as long as I could without mentioning the President.

—Roy White

▴ ▴ ▴

Joseph Grimaldi

When Poetry released their February 2009 issue, I was nine months out of grad school. In that issue, they ran a series of manifestos. Ange Mlinko’s ends with: “I will not be writing any ‘book-length projects.’” That claim always stuck with me, the way some random insult from third grade hovers over me when I feel like I’ve talked too much (Matt Miller called me an idiot on the bus because I didn’t know how to not talk).

Mlinko’s claim influenced my aesthetic for years, because I, too, saw a move toward “projects,” which I read as a move away from highly-focused, interesting poems. In other words, the projects became more significant than the individual poem, or so it seemed at the time. Now, I write mainly projects. The change happened because, I think, change happens, and change is good. Mlinko’s claim still haunts me, but now, I think of it more as a challenge to write solid poems within a longer project.

So, Clownface, this book-length project, follows the Clown as he uses the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi as a sortes secularaem, trying to find some purpose by following the First Great Joe.

Regarding the genesis of the project: I read Grimaldi’s biography one summer, and I loved the narrative, loved the idea that he chose to spend his life being laughed at by strangers. I wanted to explore the necessity of being liked, which seems fundamental to our twenty-first-century cultural aesthetic.

Granted, maybe that’s all ridiculous, because, sure, the world probably doesn’t need clown poems right now.

But, here I am, writing them.

—Patrick Whitfill

Unveiling Her Glorious Share: An Interview with Rainie Oet and Alice Blank

Rainie Oet and Alice Blank’s collaborative comic, “Wanting to Erase Her Share of the Darkness,” appears in Shenandoah Volume 68, Number 2. Chris Gavaler, our Comics Editor, talked to them about working together to create it.

Chris: Traditionally, multi-author comics have followed several production norms. Sometimes a writer develops and finalizes a script, including not just dialogue and captioned narration but also panel-by-panel descriptions of image content, and then the artist executes that script, deciding layout arrangement and other visual elements but remaining within the parameters of the script; if there are multiple artists, the penciller defines the page before handing it off to the inker, colorist, and letterer. Other collaborations place artists in lead creative roles. Stan Lee’s so-called “Marvel Method” required pencillers to do almost all of the narrative writing, leaving talk balloons and caption boxes empty for Lee or another “writer” to fill-in afterward based on the story content implied by the images. Still other collaborations are more fluid, with story, word, and image content developing together. How would each of you describe your collaborative process?

Alice: Well—the words are entirely Rainie’s. I think maybe once or twice there’s a slight grammatical shift just to account for where the word boxes will go, what they’ll be shaped like. Rainie showed me an early draft of the story, and we almost immediately started thinking of ideas for how I could translate it to the visual page. Our collaboration, I would say, is oriented around my initial sketches for what a page’s layout could look like, and often I’m explaining how that fits in with what I perceive to be the “message” or “point” of the poem. We try to work both on a textual level and a metatextual level, so we’re not just concerned with the contents of the panel, but the structure and ordering of the panels, how it relates to the reader’s experience and visual journey, and how that constructs the page. I’m often very wrong in my initial proposals. Rainie is supremely kind in deferring to my suggestions pretty often, but there are definitely moments where I’ve completely missed the point or misconstrued the narrative.

Rainie: When I wrote the book, or sometimes even before the actual writing of each section, I held a vision of what it looks like. When planning a collaboration on each section with Alice, I am trying to negotiate my visual ideas with her sophisticated visual imagination. It’s an amazing give-and-take, where I’ll suggest an image, then she’ll sketch out what the panels could look like, or suggest something that seems better, and we’ll come to an agreement about what the best result will look like. I am almost always inclined to take Alice’s suggestions, which are numerous and bold. She has a brilliant brain for graphic storytelling.

Alice: So, basically: before we work on a page based on Rainie’s script, we have a long, involved conversation where I provide the foundations for what I think will look good, and Rainie alters them based on their vision. We need the whole thing outlined before I can even start, so we can make sure the pacing works and the visuals cohere.

Chris: So you’ve referred to “poems,” “sections,” “narrative,” and “the book.” It’s interesting how those are synonyms and how they’re not. I would probably call “Wanting to Erase Her Share of the Darkness” a poetry comic, a term I find to be a wonderfully and intentionally under-defined category that encompasses a range of image–text sequences, including formally traditional comics with gridded panels and word containers, but that explore untraditional content in untraditional ways. Do you have a preferred category for you work—comic, poetry comic, sequential art, etc.—and to what degree do you consciously engage with traditions and genres as you collaborate?

Rainie: It’s a funny bunch of classifications. Poetry comic and graphic narrative are interchangeable to me for this work because I see the writing as simultaneously poetry and fiction. The book, Glorious Veils of Diane, as a whole, is a novel-in-verse or a book of poems. The in-progress illustrated counterpart is a graphic novel or a graphic poetry book. The way I think of the project as a whole is like my favorite card from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies: “What are the sections sections of? (Imagine a caterpillar moving).” “Wanting to Erase Her Share of the Darkness” is one such section. In both my noncollaborative writing and my collaborative work, I try consciously to disengage traditions and genres. It’s an interesting and tricky thing, the idea of unlearning, of being free from. I think the best way to do this is to become as aware as possible of the traditions and genres that we absorb just by being in the world, and then to try to hold that awareness while writing. When I do that I feel like I’m able to bring new ideas to a project.

Alice: I could definitely see talking about this work as a “poetry” comic, but I traditionally just describe my work as comics. I worry about differentiating distinct kinds of writing as different kinds of comics—there are plenty of abstract narratives that I think would blur the line between poetry and prose (and indeed the poem from which this is derived is an example), and I wonder at the sort of comics that get left behind when labels like “poetry” are added to the name. American comics are still burdened with the image crisis brought on by the Comics Code Authority. Bringing in the poetry label might differentiate this work from a colloquially understood superhero punch-fest, but I want to abstain from adopting terms that suggest my work is in any way separate from or superior to those forbearers. I want to play a part in the ongoing cultural project to elevate “comics” as a label past its Marvel-or-DC connotations, so I try to eschew words that shift my work away from the base term.

Chris: At Shenandoah, we’ve intentionally not defined what we mean by “comic,” partly in the hopes of attracting a diverse range of interpretations—and certainly “Wanting to Erase Her Share of the Darkness” raises the term above both the content and artistic norms of superhero comics. We were also excited by its inexplicableness, the way your comic begins mid-action and the dream-like logic of its events. Much of that effect is achieved by internal style and tone, but it’s intriguing to think of this piece as part of a larger work too. I was pleasantly surprised to hear you reference Eno’s 1975 system for music composition, but of course it’s all about collaboration and the creative process, including fitting smaller units into larger wholes. Can you describe the book script and how this section fits into that bigger picture? How much of the project is complete?

Rainie: Glorious Veils of Diane is about a child named Diane who, at some point in her life, disappears from the people around her, becomes a ghost in her own life. Prior to this, she projects herself onto and is deified by all the people in her life: her mother, the girl who lives across the street and is never allowed out of the house, her grandmother, her father, and others. She is obsessed with blood and the grotesque. She is ripping veils away trying to discover what’s behind the veils, only to discover that the veils are the thing the veils were hiding. This book is also very important to me because, though it started out as a reimagining of Diane Arbus’s childhood, it quickly transformed into a reimagining of my own childhood. Being nonbinary, and having been assigned male at birth, this book is a way for me to reinterpret the weirdnesses and terrors and divinities of childhood through a queer-gendered lens.

Alice: As I understand the book, it is very much invested in maintaining the mystique seen in “Wanting to Erase Her Share of the Darkness.” Even as a whole, the story rarely pierces the hazy, dream-like skin its wrapped in. But isn’t that just the way we remember our formative years? Anything else seems like wishful thinking.

Rainie: Glorious Veils of Diane (the un-illustrated version) is forthcoming from Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2021. The full illustrated version is in progress, but is being completed, section by section. This section, “Wanting to Erase Her Share of the Darkness,” is full-on Diane. Her obsession with blood and the grotesque doubles back on herself. She hurts and is hurt. She hides from who she is, then realizes she doesn’t know. It comes early in the book, and has lasting reverberations.

Chris: Would it be okay to see the script as you originally wrote it? It would be interesting to see how these comics pages actually began.

Rainie: Here’s the original script:


October 31, 1998

Diane’s Dracula cape catches fire as she dances round the bonfire holding hands with the boy she likes, and the boy tries to run and people are trying to tell her, but she doesn’t notice: she’s grabbed his arm, pulls him close to lift off his glittering venetian mask. He pushes his palm into her neck. She spins him around and he trips into the burning end of her long cape, and he used hairspray so runs into the trees with his head on fire, screaming—Diane watches him diminishing through a photo-square of her fingers. A kid throws a bucket of apple water on Diane, her grandmother’s black shirt sticks to her body, she crosses her arms over her chest. Two kids push her back and forth, ripping at her arms. Drenched, barefoot, she jumps through the side of the fire with a loud hiss, escapes through the woods.

          Home, she microwaves a soaked towel, wraps her face in it, stumbles up the stairs to draw a bath. Tracking mud, she knows—she can hear her soles’ sticking slap on the carpet and tile. She undoes her grandmother’s shirt, button by button, peels everything off except the towel on her face and sits in the tub. Shivering, she waits for it to fill. She hears her mother calling her name, as if moving from room to room before each guttural “Diane!…” Diane takes off the towel and sees she’s on her period, sees it slipping, mixing into the muddy water. She shudders (Diane!… Diane!…) and folds herself down, over her outstretched legs, as low as she can go, so her eyes are under the water, open. She waits for the water to cover her ears. She knows how to hold her breath for a long time. It’s almost there. And, there. She can’t hear a thing but her heartbeat pounding the water, and the roar of the water itself, like the roar of the fire. Diane’s pulled up by her hair, her mother crouching at eye level, the bathroom door off its hinges, light spilling in. “Diane,” her mother says, “who are you?”

Naira, Fiercely: Remembering the Life and Work of Naira Kuzmich

Naira Kuzmich, whose essay “My Evil Grandmother Wakes” was part of Shenandoah’s relaunch in December, was an incredibly gifted writer and storyteller. Born in Armenia and raised in the Los Angeles enclave of Little Armenia, her work often explores complex familial histories—women’s relationships to one another, to religious and cultural traditions, and to the collision of cultural and personal priorities. It is honest, nuanced, passionate—her voice was completely her own and utterly necessary. Naira passed away in 2017, at the age of twenty-nine, from lung cancer. Her death was deeply felt by those who knew her, both in person and through her work. Her fiction and nonfiction appear widely in journals, so we thankfully still have access to some measure of her heart and intellect. And her words deserve a wider audience, the widest; we hope this retrospective will bring her voice to new readers. You’ll find links to her work online and notes from some of the editors who had the pleasure of working with her. But first, this beautiful remembrance from Josie Sigler Sibara, Naira’s mentor.

—Beth Staples

▴ ▴ ▴

I have no children of my own, but I imagine that upon giving birth a mother both recognizes her child as if they’ve always known each other and is shocked, too: the child is a mystery unfolding, belongs to herself as we all do. Naira was seventeen and in her first semester of college when she was randomly assigned to the rote and archaic composition course on topics in sociology for which I was, as I know now, lucky enough to be the teaching assistant. Naira revealed herself right away to be an exceptional student, the kind where you think: What am I going to do with her?

But it wasn’t until the final assignment, in which students presented essays on a subject of their choice, that I truly understood what I’d been given. When Naira began reading her piece about her mother’s hands, my breath caught in my throat, and I could feel the others holding theirs as well, stunned: we had been all along in the presence of someone whose power to evoke character and mood, whose ability to use language, was on the level of magic or miracle, a thing you believe only if you encounter it yourself.

I told Naira she had a gift. Perhaps she should take a creative writing course second semester. She was skeptical, did not quite believe me. I recommended a few novels that might help her along the way, let her take them home with her. A few weeks later, we met at a coffee shop near campus, and she asked if I would teach her to write the kind of stories she wanted to write. Although I wanted to do so, I said I wasn’t qualified. I wrote mostly poetry; she should have an experienced teacher who could truly honor her talent.

When I was done, Naira raised her palm and held it to the side as she replied—a gesture I would come to know well over the years and which meant: The rest of the world can believe what they will. But let us talk of what is real and cannot be compromised at the heart of this matter. She wanted me as her teacher. I had not known that finding the one to whom you are supposed to impart your wisdom, however frail or inadequate it might be, had a feeling associated with it: such recognition, such shock.

So began a decade of trying to learn enough about writing prose to stay ahead of Naira’s curve, no easy feat. Although she told me often how grateful she was, I don’t think she ever grasped the depth of my own gratitude: I knew she was teaching me as much if not more about writing than I was teaching her. She was hungry for knowledge, came to my office, and eventually, as we became friends, my home, with another question, another approach, another way to think about writing. Her stories grew more complex and nuanced, and she thought carefully about what she wanted to say and to whom. She was hard on herself, exacting, always believed she could have done better.

But it’s easy for me to talk of Naira the writer. You can find your own proof in her pages: she was brilliant and what she had to say was important and world-changing. It has indeed been one of my life’s greatest privileges to witness her growth as an artist. And I feel a chasm opened out into the years ahead that her stunning words would have filled. I regularly play her stories back, hoping they’ll echo there.

It is harder to write of Naira the person. For creative people, especially those who use the material of their lives in their work, the two are intertwined, so we sometimes forget that there is a self who hovers before the blank page, and she can never be written down. By herself or others. You know her only in flesh and blood and long hours spent talking, by how her hair flies in the wind when she’s standing on a cliff overlooking the sea in Ireland with the man she loves and is truly happy.

The blade to my heart is losing Naira, herself. Her thoughts, her dreams, the part of her that existed even outside the bounds of what we can know even about a fiercely-loved other, a concept that brings me great comfort now, as perhaps that part of a person we can never know persists most easily beyond death. Fiercely, she would say at the end of each of her letters. I love you fiercely. It was one of the last things she ever said to me. Had Naira taken up long-distance truck driving or lawyering halfway through the years we were given, I would have yet loved her as my friend, my sister, my child, one of my witnesses in this life.

Because she was my witness and her love was fierce, Naira made me want to become a person worthy of being in her presence. She understood how to love better than I did; she was my teacher in this regard. But this is not the after-the-fact realization of a grieving friend: Naira made sure everyone knew how important they were to her, how much each moment meant.

One night my partner and I were having dinner with Naira and Vedran in Chicago, and it started to snow. Naira, having grown up in Los Angeles, hadn’t seen much snow, although she had written of it in stories taking place in Armenia. She said, Let’s go! So the two of us left the restaurant and stood beneath a streetlamp and watched it swirling in that gold glow that also lit up her young face. She turned and embraced me then so sudden and tight I felt the shock, recognition: we were supposed to know each other. Thank you, she said. For everything. This is so beautiful.

When I read our correspondence from years ago or her final weeks, it strikes me that we were always having the conversations some have only when they know they will lose each other. Imagine that your words spoken to friends at the end of your life are only a reiteration of the love you have given generously throughout. Naira did this without even knowing it was incredible. And those of us who knew her, whether in person or through her writing, will spend the rest of our lives saying to her: Thank you. For everything. It was so beautiful.

—Josie Sigler Sibara

▴ ▴ ▴

On “My Dead Aunt Watches” (nonfiction), forthcoming from Black Warrior Review:

When I first came across Naira Kuzmich’s “My Dead Aunt Watches,” I read it straight through three times; each time more captivated by the harrowingly wistful language, more intrigued with the buoyant spirit carrying the narrative voice. Her essay reads like the exhale of a single breath, moving gently yet confidently through the tender, layered spaces of sorrows—present, past, and anticipated. Although her prose is heavily concerned with the body’s transience, it remains deeply embodied, hauntingly self-possessed. Naira’s work viscerally sucks you in, leaving you all too aware when you emerge of your own shared loss; the loss of the brilliant, wise woman behind the words.

—Nonfiction Editor Sarah Cheshire

▴ ▴ ▴

On “The Bargain-Shopper” (fiction), which appeared in the Adroit Journal in 2019:

I unfortunately never had the chance to meet or speak with Naira, but what a gift it has been to learn of Naira’s exceptional work. Her fiction lifts right off the page—and the piece I had the pleasure of publishing, “The Bargain-Shopper,” is no exception. Equal parts sincere and bold, Naira’s prose consistently surprises and delights. May we continue to give Naira’s words the time, breath, and life they deserve.

—Editor-in-Chief Peter LaBerge

▴ ▴ ▴

On “My Evil Grandmother Wakes” (nonfiction), which appeared in Shenandoah in 2018:

Every time I read this essay—and I have read it many, many times—I am surprised by Naira’s honesty, and by the complexity of her revelations. Naira wrote this when she was very sick with cancer, and her fear about the stress both she and her grandmother are putting on her mother as caretaker is palpable. But so is Naira’s strength. Even as her body falters, her mind—her intellect, her imagination, her compassion, her ability to notice and record, her willingness to assess complicated family dynamics—blooms. This short essay manages to meditate on writing, death, caretaking, dementia, duty, familial disconnection, shit, love—in a single breathless paragraph. I’m hard-pressed to think of a paragraph that offers as much profound grief, beauty, and candor as this one. Many sentences break my heart here, but the final image is so hopefully beautiful, I end the reading feeling amazed each time. Naira: a light turning on, always.

—Editor Beth Staples

▴ ▴ ▴

From “My Sister Paints” (nonfiction), which appeared in the Southern Review in 2018:

I blow on my fingers as she takes the old color from her toes, as she talks about regrets. She says, I wish before I got married I did more for Mom and Dad, that I did more for this house, that I took them on trips. She says, A woman can’t have it all, don’t they understand? I see my daughter a few hours a day; will she know who I am? She says, I don’t know why I’m crying and why I can’t stop. She says, Please let me wash your feet after your nails dry. It is a sunny day in California. The grape leaves above us are fairy-tale green, the shape of stars, and they cast their shadows on our colorless faces. Or maybe they, too, are too colorful. It’s hard to pick. Is it even a choice? To stay or to go? To fight or to die? I’m doing the best I can.

▴ ▴ ▴

From “Cadenza” (fiction), which appeared in Carve Magazine in 2018:

He told her to play on, play loudly, play wild and loud, play until string cut into skin, but her life was not like his life; it couldn’t end simply because music began, because music began to break the spell in the head that kept man standing upright, that kept his breathing measured, his mouth filling with words and only words.

▴ ▴ ▴

On “Garni-Geghard,” which appeared in Ecotone in 2017:

I was lucky to work with Naira on two essays for two different magazines (and alongside her, too, at Hayden’s Ferry Review when she worked as an international editor). We worked on edits together for “Garni-Geghard” after her diagnosis with lung cancer, and I was awed by her dedication to the work, the eloquence of her emails. Naira had a rare gift—the ability to understand complicated and conflicting human dynamics: in the characters she created, in her loved ones, in herself. She could render people on the page with acuity and compassion without sacrificing their complexity. In fact, by virtue of her incredible truthfulness, each character opens outward, exposed as something holy, something fierce. I always hope a piece of writing will expose a part of the world I haven’t seen before (literally, figuratively), will make me feel smarter and more conflicted and bigger-hearted than before. Naira’s work did that; her focus did not reduce the world, it expanded it. Each time I read her work, I want to read it again, immediately. I don’t want to miss anything.

—former Senior Editor Beth Staples

▴ ▴ ▴

On “Dances for Armenian Women,” which appeared in the Cincinnati Review in 2017:

Naira Kuzmich was the kind of writer every editor hopes to find. In a voice both lyrical and frank, she explored and challenged deeply evocative issues of culture, identity, and displacement, and revealed the beauty and pain of women caught between two cultures and, on a more personal level, the generational challenges within families as they navigate time and culture. How do we honor and treasure the past as we seek new identities in new lands and landscapes? Naira’s work was poignant, surprising, and fresh. We will never know the breadth and depth of what she might have written, but in the little time she had she has made her mark on the literary landscape.

—Literary Nonfiction Editor Kristen Iversen

▴ ▴ ▴

From “Hava Nagila” (nonfiction), which appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review in 2017:

Before I tell you about the strange night I danced to “Hava Nagila” in a bar in Berlin, I have to admit that I think about this night often, and I think about it on two different occasions. I think about it when I find myself at a loss for words, when I am confused about how to feel, what to do or say or think. A new horror on the news, and suddenly I picture myself dancing.

▴ ▴ ▴

From, “On Grief” (nonfiction), which appeared in the Massachusetts Review in 2016 along with this interview:

Allow me to speak to you about grief. On the eve of my grandfather’s death, my mother sat at the kitchen table, writing, because I could not. My poet daughter, she gutted. Where are your winning words? Grief lives on the tongue, yes, but I had swallowed mine long ago.

▴ ▴ ▴

On “The Kingsley Drive Chorus” (fiction), which appeared in Salamander in 2013 and The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015:

“The Kingsley Drive Chorus” came to Salamander, as most of our contents do, through our online submissions manager, along with a flood of other stories and poems, at the beginning of our 2012 submission period. Looking back on the comments by readers and editors, it clearly stood out from the first read-through: “smart and deep,” one says, while the next says “the last line will shake any mother to the very core of her being.” We were thrilled to publish the story the following spring.

“The Kingsley Drive Chorus” is a story of the Armenian-American experience and the lengths mothers will go to for their sons. Using the first person plural, Naira Kuzmich tells the story of an entire community of women through the heartbreaking experiences of two mothers who are losing control over their growing sons. With rich cultural details, textured and complex characters, and devastating honesty, it pulls you in with its raw compassion until you, too, are a part of its chorus.

When it was republished in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015, Naira Kuzmich gave a short explanation of the story in a “Writers on Their Work” addition. “This story was born out of love for the mothers of these boys”—the young, troubled Armenian men from her East Hollywood community—“women I had long admired and feared in equal measure. Because I was so young, there was much I was unwilling to ask these women and much they were unwilling to tell me. I was forced, then, to wonder. Now I still wonder, but also imagine. Now I write and try to empathize. Only now have I begun to understand.” What a gift this understanding was, and what a loss to feel its absence.

—Katie Sticca, Managing Editor, Salamander

In “The Kingsley Drive Chorus,” Naira Kuzmich used a first-person plural narration. Sometimes the collective voice is brilliant but sometimes it’s generalized and alienating. Naira’s skill and heart gave life to the observing and feeling “We” of her story. The devastating ending grabs the reader by the shoulders, asking, Now do you see who we are? Now do you understand what we’re saying? The loss of such a passionate writer at such a young age is disheartening. Who knows what she might have done if she’d been given more time?

—Laura Furman, Series Editor, The O. Henry Prize Stories

▴ ▴ ▴

From “Beginning Armenian” (fiction), which appeared in Arts & Letters in 2013:

Young women with breast cancer are treated aggressively. Doctors try to leave no chance for the human spirit to weaken, for it to play a part. They think that young patients aren’t as resilient, that they generally have not been tested. He recommended that I have my left breast removed. A mastectomy. The tumor clocked in at 1.96 centimeters, small enough to have a lumpectomy, a procedure that could’ve saved most of my breast tissue, but he didn’t want to risk it. Do you want to risk it, he asked. And what could I tell him—that a man had yet to touch that left breast with love, yet to stand quiet, in awe, of my body, at the foot of my bed? Of course not, I told him. Get rid of the whole thing.

▴ ▴ ▴

From “Eulogy for Rosa Garsevanian” (fiction), which appeared in Blackbird in 2012:

At her wedding, Liyanna had thrown a pomegranate onto the ground and watched it break into a thousand little pieces, as was the tradition in their gyugh. The seeds scattered and scuttled towards all the corners of her husband’s home—her home now, too, she had to accept—so that for weeks afterward, Liyanna would find them hidden underneath their bed, underneath the rugs, on the soles of her slippers. By the time the last seed was uncovered, she had learned that she was pregnant with Davit, and they had left the country shortly after. His child would grow up an American, Robert had said. Enough of their devastated little town and their backwards people. And back then, Liyanna had agreed with him about everything.

▴ ▴ ▴

From “In a Name” (nonfiction), which appeared in Guernica in 2012:

Like so many Middle Eastern and central Eurasian countries, Armenia appreciates the pomegranate. It is one of our formal symbols. I have always loved it. The hard shell, the bloody berries, how, when you cut it open just right, it resembles a starfish. Even the English word, pomegranate, seems so pretty on the page. I can write it over and over again.

▴ ▴ ▴

From “Exercise in Translation” (fiction) which appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly in 2012 along with this interview:

Mama sees life in bottom of coffee cup when I am just child. She says to me, Araxie, you have lonely heart. Girl like you will always be lonely. I am child, I don’t know what this mean, but I grow up. Everything grows, I will tell Carol. Belly, breasts, and I will touch breasts to show her. I will touch the way women touch. When I am old I find husband, and I am happy, not lonely, like mama says.

▴ ▴ ▴

On “Round Trip,” which appeared at The Rumpus in 2012:

I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Naira Kuzmich, and yet I feel like I know her intimately from reading her writing. In “Round Trip,” readers travel with Naira to the town of Plovdiv, in Bulgaria, where her grandfather may (or may not) have been born. With vivid, evocative language Naira describes what she sees and what see feels in the moment and then pushes further, considering what it means to belong to a place, to be from somewhere. Her spirit leaps off the page and fills the room—Naira’s words shine that brightly, seven years after this essay was published. We are deeply honored to have given a home to a small piece Naira’s literary legacy.

—Editor-in-Chief Marisa Siegel

▴ ▴ ▴

“On Fear and Writing” appeared in the Threepenny Review in 2012 and is available only in print.