Paul David Adkins Turns the Domestic “Upside Down”

March 21, 2013 by So to Speak · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Poetry, Post by: Alyse K, Reviews 

The following is a guest post by regular guest blogger, Alyse Knorr.

Paul David Adkins, a former So to Speak contributor, is the author of The Upside Down House (Yellow Jacket Press 2012), a beautifully crafted and uniquely feminist chapbook about a childhood in Florida.

As the book’s title suggests, Adkins turns the domestic space of the childhood home “upside down,” highlighting the uncanny and the mysterious in Florida suburban landscapes that include everything from a mini golf course to spooky Florida canals.

The speaker’s family, too, is turned “upside down” in these poems by “all the thunder in that house.” Not only across poems, but within poems, we find ourselves immersed equally in the love and the turbulence of the household. The parents are as sympathetic as they are flawed, ever complex in their tenderness and their anger.

The book is as carefully ordered as the poems are written. Each new poem turns to reveal a new complication in the family, and Adkins disrupts any linear re-telling of this childhood by jumping forward and back in time, resurrecting the dead and revealing the future all at once. For example, in one early poem, the young speaker hears a “black secret” by spinning The White Album backwards—the chilling sound of the poet’s name (“Paul is dead”) followed by, later, “Miss him/Miss him/Miss him.” In the very next poem, it is not Paul who is dead but the speaker’s father. The poem’s perspective then rapidly, dizzyingly, shifts from the siblings touching the coffin to the speaker imagining himself being placed into a coffin, then six feet up to the flowers placed above his own grave.

This powerful use of the imagination permeates the collection and puts us, significantly, into the mind of a child. A sense of wonder permeates these poems—treasures, secrets, and things hidden inside of other things delight the speaker, and, in turn, the reader, at every turn. A toy safe with five dollars inside, buried somewhere in the yard, marks a hidden prize tantalizingly within reach. A WWII-era army coat purchased at a flea market contains its own ominous treasure inside a pocket. A birthday cake becomes a hidden miniature world for the plastic Indian family positioned in its frosting.

This use of the child’s perspective offers Adkins a subtle and poignant lens through which to critique society in my favorite poem from the chapbook, “Fifth Grade Field Trip, Gold Coast Skating Rink, Fort Lauderdale, 1974.” In this poem, Adkins describes being chastised by a DJ for roller skating with a male friend during a Couples Skate. Adkins’ speaker recalls the honesty in their childlike innocence, ending the poem with an indictment that is all at once sharp, funny, and still painfully raw:

We didn’t find it wrong
to hold each other up
though the laughter now pricked us
like straight pins our mother failed to find
when we tried on the dress shirts at Sears.

It is moments like this, along with Adkins’ thoughtful, subtle representation of family dynamics and parental gender roles throughout the book, that mark this text as distinctly feminist. Perhaps what is most striking about Adkins’ writing, here and in countless examples throughout this chapbook, is his use of transformative metaphors to subtly convey complex emotions.

In “America Loves Bowling!,” for instance, the father, returning drunk from the bowling alley, transforms through Adkins’ description into a pin (“red-faced and teetering/like a glanced pin”) and the house into an alley (“that house, with its hardwood/swept to a shine”). The implications of violence here echo in their chilling silence.

Similarly, in “The Christmas Tree and My Father,” it is the father, not the tree, who “wilt[s]” in the Florida heat, and the father’s beer that “sweat[s]” after a frustrating attempt to saw the tree’s base that works him into a rage.

Adkins treats us to a double transformation in “My Mother Combing Key Largo After the Labor Day Hurricane, 1935,” when the speaker’s mother hopes to find doubloons and finds instead an unopened bottle of beer:

The cap tumbled to gleam at her feet
like a coin.

She sipped, and sipped again,
assumed the brine was beer.

Perhaps the most fitting example of Adkins’ mesmerizing use of metaphor comes in “Coconut Grove Nightclub Fire, 28 November, 1942.” In this poem, after a magician’s cufflink starts a fire at a nightclub, Adkins describes a man rescuing survivors from the flames thusly: “in the alley a man/pulled them out/like scarf after scarf after scarf.”

In The Upside Down House, Adkins, too, takes on the role of magician, and he, too, has ignited a fire—one fueled by the power of transformative metaphor, and one that will surely burn in his readers’ imagination long after closing this book.

To read Adkins’ poem in So to Speak, click here. To read a blog post by Adkins commenting on feminist writing, click here.

Few of My Favorite Feminist Publishers

In beginning Gazing Grain Press with former fellow So to Speak editors M. Mack and Siwar Masannat, we wanted to provide a feminist poetry chapbook contest for poets of all genders and sexualities. We saw a gap in the literary landscape for an inclusive feminist chapbook contest that would promote feminism in a broader way than ever before. Our inaugural contest is open to submissions now through Aug. 1, judged by Brian Teare—please share your work with us!  Details below.

While researching other feminist journals, we began a list of all of the wonderful feminist literary organizations, presses, and publications that we could find.  That list is available here.  If we’re leaving anyone out, please let us know on Facebook or Twitter, or below in So to Speak’s comment box!

There are so many excellent organizations out there today that it’s hard to pick a few favorites (aside from So to Speak and Gazing Grain, of course!) but here are a few (in alphabetical order):

1.  A Room of Her Own: Any literary organization that boasts an award called “The Gift of Freedom” has got to catch your attention, right?  Said award provides a two-year, $50,000 grant (the biggest of its kind for women writers) to a woman writer based on “talent and motivation.”  Aside from the Gift of Freedom, AROHO sponsors an annual conference, retreats, several other contests, a book club, and a publishing house.

2.  Arktoi:  From Ching-In Chen to Nickole Brown to Elizabeth Bradfield, Eloise Klein Healy, editor of Arktoi, publishes a wide variety of aesthetics, all extremely talented, under this lesbian imprint of Red Hen Press.

3.  The Good Men Project: “We are a community of 21st Century thought leaders around the issue of men’s roles in modern life,” The Good Men Project editors proclaim.  Indeed, this magazine provides lively intellectual discussions of not just the role of men in modern life, but of how to be a “good” man, as well.  The post categories on the site say a good bit about what kind of topics they explore: “Gender, Ethics, Education, Conflict, Sex & Relationships, Dads, Advice & Confessions…”

4.  Knockout:  Launched in 2007, Knockout takes a unique approach to LGBT publishing: the editors aim to balance each issue to represent a 50/50 mix of queer and straight writers. In an interview with the Minnesota Daily, editor Jeremy Halinen said: “It’s something that I don’t see a lot of other magazines doing, having a diverse group of writers, working to bring them all under one cover.”

5.  Lavender ReviewMary Meriam’s Lavender Review publishes writing and art online by, about, and for lesbians. What’s so exciting about Lav Review is that it posts work by established artists alongside up-and-coming names that are fresh, innovative, and fascinating. The journal is lovingly produced, centered around a new theme each issue (fairy tales, night, epithalamion, etc.) and features audio recordings of many of the pieces.

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In Celebration of Wonderful StS Editors

In celebration of our 2011-2012 editorial circle, I wanted to provide our out-going editors a chance to share thoughts on feminism and personal insights in working with the journal. Here we can share dialogue about what feminism is and means to us personally and politically and create pathways of equality together. I have asked our editors a series a questions and below Alyse Knorr, Poetry and Blog Editor, MFA Poetry answers and celebrates.

Q: Why is feminism important to you? What does it mean to you?

A: Feminism is important to me and to people of any gender because it deals with the most basic questions of fair and equal treatment of all people–something that everyone deserves as a simple human right. When I tell someone that I’m a feminist and they connect that to being ”radical,” I try to point out to them that there is really nothing ”radical” at all about a feminist message. Equality and justice for everyone is a common sense goal, not a radical one. Many people I know or have known who would never call themselves feminists would, based on their values and beliefs, actually fit into my definition of ”feminist” quite easily.

What feminist work offers to me is an outlet for the frustration and anger that I feel when I look at our society and see that equality and justice for everyone is not a goal that has been achieved yet.  When I see a problem, I like to be able to work toward getting that problem remedied–even if all I can do is a tiny, tiny fraction of what needs to be done.  It still helps some–every little bit does–and my feminist work gives me hope for the future and pride in myself and my fellow feminists in the present.

Q: How has StS helped you learn about feminism? How has your work with StS helped create an expanding definition of feminism?

A: So to Speak has helped me understand that feminism means many different things to many different people, and that this is not only ok, but necessary to create positive dialogues. Inclusive feminism (third-wave feminism in particular) recognizes that people will have different definitions for feminism and its role in society, but that, as long as these differing opinions are respectful and promote justice and equality, they strengthen our cause instead of weakening it. ”Feminism” does not limit itself to one definition, message, or “party line.”

I hope that my work with the blog and with poetry in StS has promoted an expanding definition of feminism by embodying diversity and inclusivity.  I sought to include writers of many different backgrounds and from many different walks of life in the poetry of each issue of StS that I worked on, as well as writers who differed aesthetically and in their feminist philosophies.  On the blog, I tried to write about all kinds of issues, from monuments and statues to sci-fi female heroes, to demonstrate just how all-encompassing these kinds of feminist dialogues can and should be.

Q: Talk about what initially drew you to StS and what created the desire in you to take on an editor’s role.

A: As soon as I heard that George Mason had a feminist journal, I knew that I wanted to work for it.  Similar opportunities hadn’t existed for me at my undergraduate institution, and I didn’t know how much I needed a space like StS until it was in front of me and available.  I was excited at the chance to have conversations about feminism with the intelligent, creative people on the staff, and especially excited to promote feminist writing through the ever-important act of publication.

The whole ethos of the journal just seemed positive and genuine. Everyone working there was (and still is) so passionate about what they’re doing–artistically, politically, and more. That’s why, after my first year of reading for the journal, applying for an editorship seemed like a no-brainer.  I wanted to get more involved and have a hand in the creative side of production.  My work with StS ended up being one of the things I’m most proud of during my three years at Mason.

Q: Talk about an amazing moment you had with StS.

A: One moment that felt really amazing to me was sitting in the audience of our AWP panel in March in Chicago. It was the first time we’d ever had a panel, so that alone was exciting, but then there was the added bonus that the panel was just unbelievably successful.  The panelists were fascinating, and started a great discussion among audience members (about 200 of them) about the changing definitions of feminism and how these changes affect the writing and publishing community. The audience members were getting so into the discussion, and I just felt so proud of our staff for all the work we do to bring discussions like these into the world.

During my third and final year with the journal, so much changed so quickly–we had just started the blog and online summer issue, a Twitter account, Fall for the Book and AWP panels, a charity poetry reading, other community events, and more.  The AWP panel just seemed like this very present, tangible evidence of all of our recent expansions and efforts.  It was such a powerful moment to look around the room that day in Chicago.

Q: Talk about your accomplishments w StS. What have you strived for with
the journal?

I strove to include more diversity in our poetry contributors–diversity in terms of gender, gender expression, orientation, race, age, ability, aesthetic, and political doctrine. With my work on the blog, I strove to expand the conversations that our journal begins into the online realm, so that more people could freely and easily access us and join in our dialogue. Through the
blog, I also strove to expand the scope of our journal beyond just the creative/artistic and into more directly political territory.

Q: What do you hope for StS in the future? What do you hope for feminism
in the future?

A: I hope that StS continues to maintain all of the new exciting endeavors that began during my time at the journal–the panels, the charity poetry reading, the blog and summer issue, etc.  And I hope that the journal continues to become more directly engaged with the local community, as well as more directly politically engaged. Although the production of each issue is obviously our first priority, we do have an important responsibility, I think, to feminism because of our political bent.

I hope that feminism continues to diversify and grow more and more inclusive.  I hope especially that the “re-branding” of feminism will mean the end of unfair stereotypes of feminists and feminist beliefs, as well as open the movement up so that more people can become involved.  I hope that education and outreach will inform young people enough so that someday, more than just one or two of my 18-year-old freshman composition students will feel comfortable raising their hands when I ask them who considers him or herself a feminist.

So to Speak Panel at AWP on Thursday: Don’t Miss It!!

February 26, 2012 by So to Speak · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Announcements, Post by: Alyse K 

If you’re headed to the AWP conference in Chicago this week, make sure to attend So to Speak’s panel, which will feature an engaging discussion about the feminist literary label by four incredible writers!

“Troubling the Label: When Does a Text Become Feminist?” will feature the voices of award-winning feminist writers, publishers, and activists Arielle Greenberg, Cate Marvin, Eloise Klein Healy, and Ru Freeman. See the bottom of this post for bios. The panel will be held in Continental C, Hilton Chicago, Lobby Level, at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday. Here is a brief description of the panel:

From conception to critique, what is the significance of when the label is applied? Does it matter who applies it? How do we interpret works of literature through a contemporary feminist context? So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art brings together writers, publishers, and academics to discuss the stage at which a work is labeled feminist and the issues implicated with labeling, writing, and publishing socially conscious work.

Our panelists include poets, prose writers, publishers, academics, and activists, representing diversity of identities and points of view within the literary world. Topics of interest to readers and writers across genres include: how feminism informs the agenda of content and form; how the labeling of texts and identities influences feminist contexts within cultural diversity; how social issues inform literary work; and how feminism can exist outside of academic institutions.

A few of the questions we’ll be asking our panelists include:

“When” or “at what point” does the feminist label get applied to a text? Is it at the moment of conception?  In a book review?  In a university class? Are there different criteria for labelling a text “feminist”? Is the label “different” according to who applies it? What is the difference, if any, between writing a feminist text, interpreting a text as feminist, or publishing a text as feminist?

What can “feminist activism” in academia mean in a broader context? Can feminist journals working within the confines of a university have the pulse of the people outside of academic communities? Can such journals inspire and enact change? Why are feminist literary journals and presses necessary?

A book signing with all the panelists and the So to Speak staff will immediately follow the event at our bookfair table, L18, which is listed in the conference program under “Phoebe/So to Speak.” The panelists’ books will be for sale, and they will be happy to sign copies. We will also be selling copies of the newest issue of So to Speak, back issues, and subscriptions, and we’ve got conference goodies to give out, as well! Make sure to stop by and say hello!

Stay connected to us in Chicago and at home via Twitter for up-to-the-minute news about the panel and more.

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Guest post by undergraduate writer Paige Impink

Last semester, while teaching an undergraduate section of Introduction to Creative Writing at George Mason University, I had the pleasure of working with Paige Impink, a very talented young writer. Out of Paige’s many beautiful pieces, I found myself especially struck by the simultaneously humorous and biting feminist themes in this poem, “Digest Cosmopolitan,” which Paige collaged from a newspaper and from Cosmopolitan Magazine.  It’s my honor to share the poem with you here. Read on after the poem to hear Paige’s reflections on her own writing, as well as the feminist readings and ideas that influenced her.



“Digest Cosmopolitan,” by Paige Impink

to write about Africa

…………and the sizzling, sinful things they’re craving right now.

Don’t the critical conditions of democracy

…………look so sexy?


A term was invented for ‘powerless social groups’

…………that no man can resist, and

political attacks misread

…………the 10 things guys wish you knew.


Pragmatism may be a useful way of understanding

…………the colorful smoky eye made easy, but

nuclear power is not the answer for

…………why so many men are suckers for skanks while

a Palestinian peacemaker

…………has pecs of steel.


In any case, France has never undertaken

…………what a lipstick can’t.


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