We asked the poets from our latest issue what questions they would want to ask their fellow Volume 9 contributors. A few then answered those questions, delving into their craft, their inspirations, and their approach to creating. Read on to learn more about poets Kahlo Smith, author of "Unsummoning Song," James Champion, author of "Portrait of Two In a Field at Dusk," Harley Anastasia Chapman, author of "Conversations With God In Utero," Ariel Machell, author of "Persephone In Recovery," and Moni Brar, author of "Hindsight." And make sure to check out their work in Vol 9: AGENCY!
Ariel Machell: Are you working on any projects that you're excited about right now?
Kahlo Smith: I just committed to an MFA in creative writing! I've been pondering my eventual thesis novel in the lazy, forward-thinking way you might ponder a dessert after stuffing yourself with dinner. Right now my mind is on catacombs, historical embalming, and how we process grief through public spectacle.
AM: Are there any recurring themes/motifs/questions/images that keep popping up in your work? Perhaps against your will?
KS: My writing consistently strays towards the classic motifs covered by such literary greats as Scooby Doo, Goosebumps, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The weird and whimsical—especially when it turns spooky. I write a lot about corpses and decomposers. I also write a lot about Bigfoot. To me, these things are thematically connected. The central question, I guess, is: "How do we fill the gaps in our lives?" In my work, the answer is often: "I could probably jam some ectoplasmic goo in there."
AM: Who were some poets you admired when you first started writing? Who are some poets you admire right now? Has your answer changed over time?
KS: I started writing poetry in elementary school, so for me it was all Shel Silverstein and Lewis Carroll. By the time I started seriously writing poetry, in college, I was reading and experiencing the art of my peers. I still admire poets like Charlotte Sabina, Devon Hagstrom, and Jay Aaron Wolf—both because they are excellent poets and because they are excellent friends. When I do turn to more established artists, they're often lyricists. You may see a dedicated fan of The Mountain Goats reflected in my piece.
AM: When you're revising, how do you recognize when you've gone too far in the wrong direction?
KS: With poetry, I read over a piece multiple times as I edit. If I finish a repeat skim and feel less engaged than I did before, I skip back a few drafts. Words can be like bubblegum: the more you chew them over, the less flavor they have. I think good writing should buck that trend, getting better the more you read it. I know it's time to reorient if a piece starts feeling stale.
AM: Where do your best ideas for poems often come from?
KS: When you express an interest in the weird, people will deliver it to you in wax-sealed envelopes. Telling people I studied cryptids in college has led to a lot of poem-worthy conversations. Inspiration is really everywhere. One of my favorite pieces to date is a meditation on the cultural idolization of tragic love based on the relationship between a red M&M and a Spiderman valentine. I was just thinking about Valentine's day in elementary school, and there it unfolded. There are infinite things to write about. It's just a matter of which ones tug your hand hardest in their direction.
Adam Arca: What is the story behind your poem? Was it a sudden epiphany of an idea or a slow creative process?
James Champion: I've come to view poetry as an excavation of self. If the self is a cave, the goal is to find what in the self hasn’t been given light, and then to give it light. Naturally, this means exposing the subconscious sometimes. It means total and bare honesty. I really am trying to answer the question—this is all to say, when I sit down to write I don’t usually know what is going to come out of the pen. I seem to chase and be chased by poems, and I try not to settle on one way of writing. I remember that one coming out quickly, I think, while I was cooking breakfast—I had to turn the burner off and run to my desk in my room. If the question was meant to have me talk about what the poem is about as well, I’d say it’s maybe about how even the closest intimacy between two people cannot guarantee any sort of absolute knowledge of the other, and what that looks like.
AA: If you were to have tea with any poet dead or alive, who would it be?
JC: Robin Gow (living). They write incredibly inventive poetry. As far as modern poets go, I think they stand on a separate (shimmering) plane of their own. Also I’d like to arm wrestle J.D. Salinger. I think I could beat him.
AA: What is one poem that inspires you? A poem that seems to be a driving force within your life?
JC: Robin Robertson’s poem “Leavings” comes to mind (Hmm. seems I’m really a fan of Robins). A handful of Mary Ruefle's poems. Sylvia Plath's "Mirror," actually, yeah, that one. That's my final answer. That poem has never not made me hold my breath while reading it and shiver after.
AA: Why do you write?
JC: To hurt the pain, as Nathanael West would say. To understand myself. To honor the peripheral and embrace the impermanence of things. To marry image and emotion (which I think is what most of the human experience is, right?).
Moni Brar: What inspired the poem that's published in Fatal Flaw?
Harley Anastasia Chapman: Lately, I’ve found myself in a near-constant state of conflict with various power structures. “conversations with god in utero” was inspired by an increasing hyper-awareness of, & agitation toward, this reality. My complicated relationship history with faith was also a factor.
MB: What's the most surprising thing you've learned about poetry?
HAC: When I first started writing, I thought that a defined purpose or objective was necessary while crafting a poem. I’ve since found it much more satisfying to give up control in the initial stages of writing & save direction for the editing process. I’ve realized that the less I try to sculpt the poem from the get-go, the more pleased I am with the end result.
MB: What's one of your all-time favorite poems?
HAC: Matthew Sweeney’s “Dialogue with an Artist” is taped to my mirror. The final four stanzas remind me that loneliness is a universal condition, which is comforting.
MB: Where's your favorite place to write?
HAC: Anywhere I don’t have to sit properly– usually my living room floor.
Harley Anastasia Chapman: What motifs have you found emerging within your work?
Ariel Machell: Rivers, lakes, streams, the ocean, or any other body of water! I just can’t seem to escape water’s reach in my poems! They trickle in or flood.
I’m also infatuated with the moon, and I’m not completely convinced it’s one-sided.
HAC: How intentional is your writing process?
AM: I do a lot of casual jotting down of words or isolated lines in my notebook, as a way of keeping the pressure off day-to-day. I enjoy the freedom of letting these tiny inspirations live on their own, without enforcing the significant weight of “poem” onto them. Later, I might sit down and look for bigger inspiration in the scatterings. This is when I try to be more intentional, excavating the bones of ideas, building the language into something whole, or almost.
HAC: What are your creative goals for the year ahead?
AM: I just finished a thematic chapbook that revolves around the Willamette river, some precious friendships, memory, and loss, and one of my goals for the year ahead, after revision, is to submit the manuscript to as many places as possible, and to embrace rejection as part of the artist’s process! Another goal is to read more lyric essays :)
HAC: What inspires you?
AM: My immensely talented friends.
James Champion: How do you handle the relationship between image and emotion in your work? Can they exist separately?
Moni Brar: Why separate them when there is so much amazing interplay between them? A lot of my work is focused on individual and collective cultural memory. I love how powerful imagery (based on memory) can include a rich range of sensory details which in turn can invoke strong emotional responses in readers.
JC: How would the way you wrote a poem on a hilltop overlooking an ocean differ from a poem you wrote in your room by candlelight? Would they differ at all?
MB: I don’t think they would differ that much. Often, when I’m writing, I seem to be completely absorbed by the internal and oblivious of the external. I find writing transports me to other times and places effortlessly!
JC: How do you feel about using "poetic clichés" (i.e. the moon, roses, "you," love, my heart, my soul)?
MB: I love when they’re used in an ironic way, but sometimes they make me cringe or worse yet—lose interest.
JC: Do you wait for the poem to come to you, or do you come to it?
MB: I come to it. I feel there are lots of poems scattered about, underfoot and hanging above. I just need to quiet my mind and body enough to be able to see them.
JC: How are you?
MB: Good question! I’m okay, right now. I live with chronic depression, so I find I need to constantly check in with myself to see how I am.
Kahlo Ruth Fromm Smith is a graduate of UCSB, where she conducted original research in cryptozoological museums and sex magic churches. When not hunting Bigfoot through Santa Cruz, CA, she can be found feeding her Venus flytrap, Hydra.
Ariel Machell is a poet from California. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon and is an Associate Poetry Editor for Northwest Review. Her work has been nominated for Best New Poets, and is published or forthcoming in The McNeese Review, Birdcoat Quarterly, Midway Journal, trampset, The Pinch, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Los Angeles. You can read more of her work at arielmachell.com.
James Champion (he/him/his) is from Whitehall, Michigan. He has a bad habit of looking only at his shoes as he walks from place to place, but this makes arrival (and the sky) a constant surprise. You can find him online at @jameslchampion on Instagram or Twitter.
Adam Arca (he/him) is a queer Filipinx aspiring poet, academic, and EDI researcher currently studying Health Sciences at McMaster University. His work explores the meaning of queer & Asian desire, despair, and optimism in a hostile landscape traversing the individual to the institution. Adam’s previous work has been highlighted in the Queer Toronto Literary Magazine.
Harley Anastasia Chapman holds an MFA in poetry from Columbia College Chicago & a BA in English studies from Illinois State University. Her poems have been published in Nimrod International Journal, Atlanta Review, Superstition Review, Bridge Eight Press, & Columbia Poetry Review, among others. Harley’s first chapbook, Smiling with Teeth, was released in 2020. In her free time, she enjoys befriending spiders & painting portraits of ghosts.
Moni Brar was born in rural India and raised in northern British Columbia on the land of the Tse’Khene peoples. Her writing explores the interrelation of time, place and identity in the immigrant experience, diasporic guilt, and the legacy of trauma. She has multiple nominations for the Pushcart Prize and was the recipient of the 2022 Queen Elizabeth Platinum Jubilee Medal, the 2022 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award, and The Fiddlehead’s 2022 Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize
We sat down with Allison Blevins, author of Cataloguing Pain (YesYes Books, 2023) and two-time Fatal Flaw contributor, to talk with her about her new hybrid collection of lyric essays and poems, the juxtaposition of form and genre, and the challenge of making pain "readable."