The Murderous Edge: Three Questions with Gail Mazur

Lauren Peat/AGNI: Your portrait of the German artist and designer Josef Albers (in “Josef Albers,” AGNI 87) is addressed to an enigmatic second-person subject; though I initially read the poem as being addressed to a student of Albers’ (in their “cold shared studio”), it could also be interpreted as a self-address. The more time I spend with the poem, the more I lean toward this second interpretation—particularly because its clipped lines and staccato rhythms (as well as its ultimate, breathless conclusion) is an ingenious performance of Albers’ “brutal…wisdom”:

becoming an artist
you need to know
would be a ruthless life
you need to take
what your art needs
theft and murder….

Considering how convincingly the poem enacts the classic writer’s workshop adage “kill your darlings,” how much of the poem’s artistic attitude is performative? To quote Oscar Wilde: “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” Do you consider the poem to be primarily a portrait of Albers, or is there something of your own philosophy within it?

Gail Mazur: Of course, although he was an abstract artist, Albers was speaking figuratively! He wasn’t homicidal.

When my husband, Michael, was an art student at Yale, Albers had retired from teaching, but he hired Michael to print a (beautiful) inkless intaglio print of his (Albers’) on the art department’s etching press. They worked together for a few days printing the full edition. Albers’ color course at Yale, his color theory, had a profound influence on a generation’s painting. He was a born teacher. When he said, “When you steal, kill,” he was talking about how ruthless you have to be in your standards for your work—and about how, when we are influenced—as we all have to be—by artists whose work we love, we must move beyond imitating their work. Of course, partly, maybe mostly, he meant it competitively—Do even better, beat them at their game!—but also, more importantly, make the work your own.

Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Temperamentally, Albers shows a similar bracing ruthlessness, with a murderous edge! When they “kill,” artists could change the Conversation. I can hear Albers, his Germanic accent, sounding absolutely—or needing to be—sure that his brilliant Homages to the Square were changing the narrative in his time.

We don’t necessarily want to erase the source! So much from (writers) we admire enters our own poems—when we look at a painting, read poetry, hear music, isn’t it a joy to experience the sources, the history of the art itself? Depends on how well the theft is incorporated!

(Yogi Berra said, “If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”)

LP/AGNI: Originally from Bottrop, Germany, Albers experienced the Nazis’ ascent to power firsthand, studying and later teaching at the famed Bauhaus art school until its closure in 1933, due to Nazi pressure. He subsequently fled to the United States, where he lived until his death in 1976. How do you understand Albers’ “brutal…wisdom” in the context of the mass atrocity of World Wars I and II?

GM: I didn’t mean to imply in “Josef Albers” that his personal history—his wife, Anni, the really revolutionary textile artist, was Jewish, and so to the Nazis, he himself might as well have been—influenced his “brutal wisdom.” But. But.

To a young artist like my husband, what Albers said was shocking and bracing, as it was to me. A kind of ferocious permission to be ruthless in your art. I think master artists, beside Picasso, must have always thought that way!

LP/AGNI: Albers taught at Yale University until 1958; your poem depicts a scene in New Haven, in 1959. As a teacher of poetry yourself, do you think Albers’ philosophy is incompatible with the art of teaching? How does a practicing artist mentor younger artists and advocate for their work if their professed business is “theft and murder”?

GM: No, I think implied in what he says is the need for students to steep themselves in the histories of art, to be in lifelong dialogue with art.

Well, the way to be ruthless with one’s own work is to be relentless with yourself. Not to be too easily satisfied. To be merciless. (That’s where the instruction to “kill your darlings” has come in. It’s not near what Albers was saying, but it’s a warning not be soft on yourself, to be as objective as you can be in the re-making.) A work of art might not be fierce, but sometimes, in the process of making, the maker must be cold-blooded, relentlessly dissatisfied. Until it’s the best one can do. Sometimes that’s torment, until it’s exultation.

A mentor will always be urging younger artists to look, look, look, listen, listen, read, read, read! Albers was a profoundly influential teacher, a great teacher. Difficult, maybe tyrannical, but great.

AGNI Monkey

MazurGail_S16-credit-Morgan-Lacasse 2Gail Mazur’s books of poetry include They Can’t Take That Away from Me (finalist for the National Book Award; Zeppo’s First Wife: New and Selected Poems, winner of The Massachusetts Book Prize and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Paterson Poetry Prize; Figures in a Landscape; and Forbidden City. She’s received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bunting Institute . and the Radcliffe Institute and has been Distinguished Senior Writer in Residence in Emerson College’s graduate program and Visiting Faculty in Boston University’s MFA Program. She teaches a week-long summer workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown where she serves on the Writing Committee. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

Peat PhotoNative to the rolling British midlands and the great metropolis of Toronto, Lauren Peat is a current poetry MFA candidate at Boston University and an intern at AGNI.


Working in Murky Territory: Four Questions with David Yee

Grace Yun for AGNI: Here is a life lesson from your story “Donut Man” (AGNI online here): “You know the best way to lose something, Beak? Let someone know you have it to lose.” Do you think this statement also pertains to the process of writing (e.g., withholding information from the reader)?

How I see the absence in narration, specifically in Donut Man, is an extension of “show vs tell.” For instance, when the father sleeps in the car, leaving the son to sell everything by himself. The narration almost defends the father, describing his exhaustion, explaining the hours the father works. Yet, the narrator couples every moment of luxury between the father and son with a scene describing how bad things are in the mother’s household. I was trying to insinuate the charisma of the father, how he can be irresponsible and yet the other characters in the story continue to believe in him, to trust him, to love him.

GY/AGNI: What is it like writing about your personal relationship with your father? Are the physical details from your childhood the most salient or your emotional state?

My father is my buddy in that I have no ill will toward him. We aren’t very close. If I hurt his feelings by telling a story from my perspective it would cause me little pause. I don’t feel the stories are unkind.

I submit real stories as fiction because it allows me to more fully utilize an emotional memory rather than a factual one. My father never called me “Beak” but I always felt like he saw my mother in me, maybe not physically, but in how she was raising me, and treated me with some distance accordingly. I find a lot of inspiration in Stuart Dybek who writes often true accounts as fiction. I wouldn’t say I embellish the details of a story, rather I streamline the truth to make a better narrative. The day I sold us out of donuts was not this day in my memory—the first time I sold by myself. But the days of our visitation, as short-lived as they were, often blend together.

I don’t mind working in a murky territory between the two genres. I’d also have no issue submitting this as nonfiction. Nothing that happened in the story is untrue of my life. I usually submit based on the tone of narration. If it is more narrative, like this story, than I submit it as fiction. Which is not to say that every piece of fiction I’ve written is factual, but typically, there is some emotional memory in my life that I’m trying to emulate in a story.

The physical details from this time are what bring me to the page. I can recall vividly odd sensations from this time. The smell of the cleaning product. The brown ottoman he kept in the middle of the van as a “backseat.” The way his voice pitches when he yells. I don’t recall as clearly how I felt. I remember always waiting for him to show up. I remember feeling a sense of adventure. Those things are easier to make up, though, which is why I often submit mostly true stories as fiction. Real life is often boring. Getting to give the details, the feelings some direction make it a story.

GY/AGNI: Has your father or mother read your stories? 

My mom is a huge supporter of my work, even more so now that I spend most of my time bartending. I know she reads everything, even some of the stories I try and hide from her because they are about moments in my life that hurt her feelings. I’m not sure if my dad does. I don’t think he knows most of the time when I get something published. He takes a lot of morphine, prescribed.

GY/AGNI: Do you like donuts? What’s your favorite flavor?

Everyone likes donuts, even if they don’t eat them regularly, which I don’t. At the time this story was about, I could eat an entire dozen Krispy Kreme glazed, but there is honestly this saccharine smell to old garbage that reminds me of them and vice versa. When I was a kid, the lemon-filled ones would be what I’d call my favorite. Now, I think I like buttermilk/cake-style.

AGNI Monkey

David E. Yee Author PhotoDavid E. Yee is an Asian American writer whose work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Seneca Review, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. In 2017, he won the New Ohio Review Fiction Contest, judged by Colm Tóibín, as well as the Press 53 Flash Contest judged by Jeffrey Condran. He holds an MFA in fiction from the Ohio State University, where he was associate editor of The Journal. He lives in Columbus, Ohio. See what he’s published in AGNI here.




GYGrace Yun, an intern at AGNI, is from Los Angeles. She is in the BU fiction program. Her grandmother is her muse.

Call and Response: Two Questions with Alicia Elkort and Jenn Givhan

Aanchal Narang for AGNI: I would love to hear about the process of co-writing poems. What does that look like? What inspired you to co-write these two pieces specifically?

Another thing that struck me was the mirror-like structure of “A Small Metamorphosis or The Power of Seeing” (AGNI 86). I’m curious about what drew you to this structure. How did you pick the order of the words as the mirror structure was developed?

AE and JG: We have been giving each other feedback on poems since we first met in an online poetry class, seven years ago. When the idea of co-writing came up, it seemed like a natural conclusion. Our distinct themes and language offered an opportunity to create a fresh voice united by our similar understanding of life and beauty.

Some poems were written much like a call and response with one poet responding to the outline of a poem by the other poet. For instance, in “A Small Metamorphosis or The Power of Seeing,” Alicia responded to the despair and decay of Jenn’s images by recognizing beauty in the decay. The form as mirror image demonstrates that, in every image or experience, there is another way to see. Jenn’s line “I am the broken swing set near collapsed” is mirrored by “I am broken wounds filling with gold.” In Jenn’s line “I am a knob of roots waiting for someone to pull,” pulling is an action of removal or being uprooted, taken. The “I” is passive. Alicia mirrors this with “I am a knob on a door to a celestine attic,” which reads as an invitation. Pulling the knob on the door would reveal heaven. From a metaphysical point of view, great challenges can be a doorway into greater self-compassion and awareness. And yet the poem as a whole encapsulates the human experience, how we live with joy and despair, sometimes in the same moment.

Other poems written together developed in a more organic manner, emailing one line at a time back and forth (we live in different cities) and editing as we progressed until we had arrived at the end—a completed poem. “One by One” (also AGNI 86) was written in this manner, but the final poem does not equate to one line for each poet because, as the poem found its bearing, we removed entire lines or rearranged the order and edited out words to create the forward momentum and crux.

All of the poems written together were given time to settle; then edits would be made.

In other poems we’ve written, themes that are more reflective of one of us or the other would stand out, and still the poems are relevant for both of us. The synergy between poets can work like a real time cut-up tool, discovering new expressions, word choices. On a deeper level, writing together demonstrates how narratives can coalesce.

AGNI Monkey

ElkortAuthorPhotoAlicia Elkort edited and contributed to the chapbook Creekside, published by Berkeley Poetry Review, where she also served as an editor. Her poetry was featured in the Ishaan Literary Review and has been published in, among other journals, Elsewhere Lit, Menacing Hedge, Stirring, and Rogue Agent. She works as an accountant for film and television and is currently producing a documentary on global traditions of prayer. See what she’s published in AGNI here.




Jenn purple crabapple (resized)  (resized).jpgJennifer Givhan, a Mexican-American poet, is the author of Landscape with Headless Mama (Louisiana State University Press, 2016), winner of the Pleiades Editors’ Prize; Protection Spell (University of Arkansas Press, 2017), winner of the Miller Williams Poetry Prize; and Girl with Death Mask (Indiana University Press, forthcoming 2018), winner of the Blue Light Books Prize. Her honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices Fellowship. She is editor-in-chief of Tinderbox Poetry Journal and lives with her family in New Mexico. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

IMG_3627 Aanchal Narang is an MFA candidate in Boston University’s Creative Writing Program. She is an intern at AGNI and a Boston native.

Delight and Devastation: A Conversation with Ben Purkert

by Jay Deshpande

Ben Purkert’s poems aren’t just concerned with intelligent life—they are intelligent life. Reading his lyrics, one feels an organism of language assembling, cobbling together casual talk, billboard advertisements, and wisdom to examine what we make and how it comes apart. For the Love of Endings is the kind of poetry debut that invites many rereadings as the poems turn in the light and take on new weight.

I’ve been reading Purkert’s poems for some time: we met in a college poetry workshop, and have continued to talk about craft, unremittingly, for nearly 15 years. For the book’s March release, I wanted to get Ben’s thoughts on For the Love of Endings and the world it enters into. Our discussion highlights Ben’s distinctive approach to making poems, but it also captures the enthusiastic speed and range of his thinking.


JD: I wanted to start by asking about the place of wit in these poems. I see it in phrases like “really gasoline got me where I am today” or “at least the swallows outside // my window sound into / each other.” In each of those cases, the statement is true but gets stranger the longer we look. Familiar phrases fork into multiple meanings and force us to take them literally. How do you think about wit as an instrument in poetry? Are you conscious of it when you write?

BP: I’m not sure if I’m conscious of it as a writer, but I’m very attuned to it as a reader. I love poems that delight and devastate in equal measure, that strike many chords at once. Sometimes we associate being a “serious poet” with always being serious. But wordplay has been an integral part of poetry since the beginning. A serious part, even.

Wit, like poetry, is only as powerful as it is subversive. And I admire poets who take jargon and slogans and euphemisms and expose that language for what it is. Who break it open with enjambment and lay out the shards for the reader. A gasp and a laugh aren’t so far apart. They can even sound the same.

JD: The laugh and the gasp are also bonded in that moment of surprise, which is one of the great pleasures a poem can give us. It makes sense that you refer to enjambment here, as the potential shock of a linebreak is central to your process. In “Salivating Over Nothing,” the poem quivers between peace and unrest, depending how we read a line: “& they / let the mind be // ravaged…”

It makes me think about the sense of impending threat throughout the book. The poems are laced with ideas about destruction. The speaker suggests “You can nuke yourself / garlic knots” or admits he will “work a little / bomb into this page.” Or he considers his own obsolescence: “When I’m gone, the thing I’ll miss is missing, is describing the world I miss.” What interests you about these big and small deaths in the poems?

BP: “Big and small deaths” is such an interesting phrase, because every death feels so big, you know? But it’s hard sometimes to parse these differences of scale, particularly when gigantic icebergs are dissolving and small men are bragging about buttons on their desks that would make it all disappear.

I know we just talked about humor, so apologies for the dark turn, but I feel like all poems are inherently, as you said, laced with ideas about destruction. Dean Young describes poetry as being “formally involved with endings: its primary characteristic, the line, is defined by its ending, so poems are really ending all the time.” It’s poetry’s “terminal aspect.” And maybe that’s why poetry feels so necessary right now? It’s not that the world is ending and we need more poems about its demise. It’s that every poetic line is—by its nature—broken, interrupted, a life cut short. Poetry is the art form that’s closest to our condition.

JD: Giorgio Agamben hits that same note in his lecture “The End of the Poem”: when the poem ends and we fall back into prose, it’s something like a death, or at least “a decisive crisis for the poem… the poem’s very identity is at stake.” Similar to Young, Agamben sees the linebreak as an essential quality of poetry, and doesn’t show much interest in the prose poem.

BP: But I think the prose poem has that potency, too. This may sound weird but I’ve never understood why linebreaks in prose are paid so little attention. I talked with Kaveh Akbar recently and he expressed a similar feeling—shouldn’t the end word of any line (in all genres) sing? It’s the trophy you hand the reader before they trudge back to the left-hand side of the page. I’m indebted to my publisher (hi, Four Way Books!), for many reasons, not the least of which is that they indulged me and preserved the linebreaks of my prose poems as I’d written them. I’m also working on a novel right now and I’m always tweaking sentences and futzing with margins so that the story breaks in the “right” places. It was oddly comforting to discover that one of my favorite fiction writers, David Gilbert, does it too.

JD: Let’s go back to this idea of “differences of scale.” I think your poems teach the reader how to parse them. For example, “Self-Portrait as Infinite Smallness” begins by acknowledging the speaker as a collection of microbes, then considers a car crash, then the street, then the city’s grid, then the ocean. It’s like a primer on how to expand from self to an environmental scale, step by step.

But when the poems look at the world on that macro scale, they often turn toward the possibility of abandonment. In addition to “Escape Plans,” there are a number of poems that contemplate leaving our ravaged planet behind. It’s like science fiction, but considering climate change, maybe this moment is nearly upon us. What are the ethics of imagining an escape from our home planet?

BP: I don’t know much about science fiction, but I do know that our existence here is tenuous. That’s especially true for communities where resources are scarce, where the evacuation routes are already submerged. It’s horrifying to think about, and more horrifying not to think about. To answer plainly: if my poems are dreaming of an escape from Earth, it’s only because they’re so hopelessly attached to it.

On the topic of poetry and the environment, I have to mention Inger Christensen’s Alphabet. It’s such an incredible book; it attempts to take account of nearly every single thing that exists, as the threat of apocalypse looms. And here’s the miracle of her book: it’s not depressing! It’s strangely kind of joyous. Yes, tomorrow brings nuclear winter and floods and famine, but *today* still exists. Today is a gift, and poets must praise it.

JD: And praise is no small task, especially for poets right now. But I’m curious about that accounting-for-things you mention. There’s a coy adherence to things in For the Love of Endings, specifically the physical matter of our late capitalist existence. A closeout on ice cream, a visit to Target, El Diablo Doritos “screaming my name”… I sense both an admiration for these products and a cynicism toward their power over us.

BP: I wouldn’t say admiration, but definitely an obsession. Working as a branding copywriter really shaped (or misshaped) how I see language and its applications. Target, for example, is an interesting case… If you look at their marketing, notice how often they use the bullseye logo as a substitute for spelling out the brand name. Like the Nike swoosh, the symbol alone says it all. Once a brand is burned into our consciousness, it bypasses language altogether.

JD: Your poems have a meticulous spareness. Even your colloquial phrases are poised and concentrated. So how do you revise? For instance, “Passing Thoughts in a Couple” was originally published in AGNI 78 as “Caged Words in a Couple.” The adjustments to it are small but significant. What’s the principle behind your revisions? 

BP: For me, revising means working in service of the poem on the page. I’m not trying to impose some idea I might have (Donald Hall: “There is no poem inside the head”). I like how George Saunders describes revision, this idea that every writer is outfitted with a compass that points either to good or bad, and you make edits through trial and error while keeping one eye on the quivering needle.

I will say, though, that revising a book is different than revising individual poems. It compelled me to make some changes I hadn’t expected. For instance, I think “Caged Words in a Couple” is possibly a stronger, more intriguing title. But there are sacrifices you make for the sake of the collective. Uh oh, I feel a sports metaphor coming on.

JD: Running through the theme of environmental destruction is also an undercurrent of guilt and responsibility. It’s there in “Blame Game” (“Pin the ozone layer on me… I clearly went too far”) and it carries throughout the book. Sometimes it’s on the personal level, too: “like most men, I’ll gaze // at anything to avoid looking / inward.” Where do you get your poetics of self-incrimination from?

BP: Well, I’ll say this: poetry is like prayer, and as such, it spans both praise and confession. I’m drawn to a speaker who feels burdened, who’s carrying some weight. It’s what makes writing compelling. As for me, I am absolutely culpable, and can’t hide that from my poems. I wouldn’t want to.

AGNI Monkey

AGNI BPBen Purkert is the author of For the Love of Endings (Four Way Books, 2018). His poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Guernica, AGNI, Best New Poets and elsewhere. A former New York Times Fellow at NYU, he teaches creative writing at Rutgers New Brunswick. See what he’s published in AGNI here.



AGNI JD.jpegA former AGNI poetry editor, Jay Deshpande is the author of the poetry collection Love the Stranger (YesYes Books), named one of the top debuts of 2015 by Poets & Writers, and the chapbook The Rest of the Body (YesYes Books). He is a Kundiman and Civitella Ranieri fellow. His poems have recently appeared in Denver Quarterly, Poetry Project Newsletter, LARB Quarterly Journal, and Horsethief. He teaches at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn. 

The Pursuit for Mercy: Two Questions with Donald Quist

Leone Brander for AGNI: Much of your nonfiction work, both essays and your book, Harbors, contain social-political themes. Are you consciously using literature as a political tool, and if so, where and how do politics and storytelling intersect for you?

Donald Quist: I’m going to go on a bit of a tangent to answer your question. I’m sorry. One of my favorite TV shows is the short-lived American adaptation of a British series called Getting On. It follows a group of highly flawed individuals serving a fledgling hospital’s elder care unit. In the final moments of the series, Laurie Metcalf’s character says, “There is no justice; but there is mercy, because that is what we can give each other.” The first time I heard her monologue, I squealed. That’s it! Anything I write starts from a desire to offer empathy, understanding, grace and mercy.

This pursuit for mercy—the attempt to remind others and myself that all human lives have value—inherently leads to an exploration of the nuances among governing systems and ruling social constructs. One’s race, gender, or sexual identity can make their experience political. Because of where I’m from, looking the way I do, because of how I was raised and because of who I am, my existence in the United States is politicized. Since the 1800’s the rights of those with my complexion, our role in this society, have been public affairs issues open to debate—”The Negro Problem.” So, although I don’t intend to write overtly political pieces, I accept that the stories I find worth telling will be social-political. I know when I write about shoplifting as a latchkey kid with my poor white friend it’s not such a simple anecdote. There are layers. I hope the stories I tell encourage more constructive discourse about some of the exigencies of life in North America.

LB/AGNI: What you said about “layers” is interesting. As an author who writes both fiction and nonfiction, do you find that the nuance and layers can change from genre to genre? Are there certain considerations you have when writing in fiction that you don’t have for nonfiction, or vice versa?

DQ: Yes—I think the way these nuances and layers are portrayed vary between genres. Fiction has a set of expectations. Readers demand authenticity, that the characters of an imagined universe move within the parameters or conceits introduced by the author. For me, fiction lends itself to the exploration of hypotheticals, the imagined limits of divisions we create in reality. When I write nonfiction, I have greater consideration for the existing disparities which frame the narrative I wish to tell. It’s a matter of varying responsibility. With fiction, I must convey a sense of truth and believability. In nonfiction, I must provide truthful examples demonstrative of a shared experience while recognizing that these examples are invariably shaded by my own perception. Nonfiction requires me to acknowledge the limits of my perspective.

AGNI Monkey

Processed with VSCO with m3 presetDonald Quist is the author of the nonfiction collection Harbors. His work has appeared in North American Review, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, J Journal, and elsewhere. He was a finalist in the 2017 International Book Awards and runner-up for the Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize. He is creator of the web project Past Ten and co-host of the podcast Poet in Bangkok. See what he’s published in AGNI here.




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In addition to being an intern at AGNI, Leone Brander is a Canadian author and illustrator. Her work has appeared in Canadian Notes and Queries, Bacopa Literary Review, and the Bellingham Review. She earned her BFA in creative writing at the University of Victoria and is currently an MFA student at Boston University.

On Food, Memory, and Writing: Three Questions with Jung Hae Chae

Grace Yun for AGNI: “It was forgetting at the heart of drinking, forgiving at the heart of communal eating” (from “The Great Meal,” AGNI 86). What is at the heart of cooking for you?  

This morning, my seven-year old daughter, Audrey, looks up from her breakfast table, and tells me excitedly (again) about her life ambitions, one of which is to become a world-class chef or “cooker” as she sometimes calls the profession. Lately I’ve given over to her demands of helping me cook, so I let her slice, dice, chop, julienne carrots, potatoes, celeries, even onions. She stirs soups and stews, stir-fries veggies and fish patties. With a quick swish of her wrist, she sprinkles salt and garlic powder (sometimes too much) on everything. She does so, not for content but for form. (She’s all about the form!) Don’t forget the garnish, she says, as she reaches for spring onions.

Form is to ritual as cooking is to remembering. And it’s true that everything worth remembering happened in the first seven years of my life. So, I cook and I remember. The smell of the wood burning inside that dark, bunker-like kitchen of my grandmother’s house, the warmth of the fires from her wok, its afterglow on my cheeks in winter evenings. I remember the early-morning screeches of the roosters behind our house, the smell of the fresh raw pig liver that I fetched for my grandmother on Saturday mornings to help with her eyes. My grandmother, the Man in the house for all of us three generations of women. I cook and I remember the lights of the night market igniting the small dreams of the 1970’s post-war South Korea and its people. I remember because I loved the complex smells of the dirty streets, the cacophony of the black market vendors haggling or cussing or whatever, even the dirty looks of the old men glaring at my wee-year-old self as I ran away from them. I remember the layers of pains associated with a childhood lost to lost dreams, in between the layers of myths held untouched by a child somehow. I remember my dead grandmother and my mother. I cook and I remember.

GY/AGNI: Do you think writing is also communal?

Most definitely. Writing is an act borne out of community. I often hear many “voices” speaking to me, as I try to form the language to express “them” and “their” experiences. Quite literally, in writing, the speaker is not I, but a conglomerate of experiences of the people I am interested in giving voice (power) to. I have been preoccupied with the voices of women in my life, and my “ancestors” in a broad sense of that term. For me, these are the people who haunt me the most.

GY/AGNI: Finally, does the process of writing involve some level of forgetting and forgiving for you?

I think so. I find writing to be a humane act, not far from an epiphany. I read in some self-help book that to forgive is to remove the illusion that the past could have been any different than it was. To do so requires a brutal truth-facing—or, at the very least, an exploration into the (often uncomfortable) unknown, requiring a reckoning of some sort. I think good writing, like any religious experience, happens when one is pushed to the limits and awakened to the truth-seeking soul, when clarity of the imagination meets some Scary Truth via language authentic to lived experience. In recalling a primal memory, and rendering a sober take on the human experience from an imagined viewpoint, you forget who you are, and forgive the illusory gravity-bound existence. That is to say, I forget and forgive the unreflected self, in favor of the ever-searching one.

AGNI Monkey

JHCJung Hae Chae’s work has appeared in CALYX, Crab Orchard Review, AGNI, MiPOesias, Third Coast, and elsewhere. See what she’s published in AGNI here.




GYGrace Yun, an intern at AGNI, is from Los Angeles. She is in the BU fiction program. Her grandmother is her muse.

Hearing Voices: Two Questions with Patrick Dacey

Leone Brander for AGNI: Your story “Once More Before It’s Too Late” (AGNI 86) has such a compelling and unique first-person speaker and I really admired how his language captured his character. Specifically, I wanted to ask you: What goes into creating such a strong first-person voice? Do you have a specific person(s) you are trying to emulate, or are you more focused on language?

I start first with voice. For me, that’s the most important part of writing a story, and the most difficult. Writers, like a lot of crazy people, hear voices. And you have to pick which ones are the loudest to get at a story you find worth telling. With this story, I started with the line, “So maybe I am uneven,” and went from there. From the voice comes the character. To me, he sounded defensive, and so this story took on the shape of a defense for the reckless actions he takes to try and prove he’s a better father than we initially perceive him to be. I think here and in most of my recent work, the impact of what I’m seeing in our country and around the world is very present. The characters I’m hearing want to be better people; know they can be better; and struggle to figure out how.

LB/AGNI:  It’s interesting to me that the whole story began with a single line of voice. How much did voice dictate the plot in this piece? Is this a common way that you formulate your stories?

Voice can carry a story, really, because that voice is responsible for the other characters’ actions, words, and reactions, all of which are perceived in a specific way by this one narrator. That’s why I don’t believe an unreliable narrator exists. Most people think they’re pretty reliable, and they wouldn’t tell you a story about how tragically unreliable they are, would they? Maybe on their death beds. Maybe that’s why there are so many terrible death bed novels.

Once you realize how reliably unreliable narrators actually are, then you can fool around with how this narrator would tell the story to a specific person–so the story changes if he’s telling it to his friend, mother, co-worker, etc—and it becomes multiple versions of the same story.

I think about all this as I start out, but there are images that appear, too, as in this story, like the image of the insides of the old courthouses on Cape Cod, the beauty, yet rigidity of those colonial buildings. These images are of a place, really. So if I have this voice in a specific place, I can start to feel the story this character needs to tell.

AGNI Monkey

AGNI PD Patrick Dacey is the author of the story collection We’ve Already Gone this Far and the novel The Outer Cape. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Zoetrope All Story, AGNI, Guernica, Bomb, and elsewhere. He has worked as a reporter, landscaper, door-to-door salesman, and on the overnight staff at a homeless shelter and detox center, and now teaches creative writing at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


Processed with VSCO with k3 presetIn addition to being an intern at AGNI, Leone Brander is a Canadian author and illustrator. Her work has appeared in Canadian Notes and Queries, Bacopa Literary Review, and the Bellingham Review. She earned her BFA in creative writing at the University of Victoria and is currently an MFA student at Boston University.