Hibernaculum: Dissecting Story and Fable like an Animal

March 30, 2014 by So to Speak · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Poetry, Post by: Sheila M, Reviews 

The hush of cold greets us in the opening circus of Hibernaculum. A family in winter navigates through the chatter of its children, young adults, and older adults. Firm boundaries between each age-restricted grouping of relatives provides our speaker a way into understanding her changing role as a woman in the culture of her family. Our attention begins to narrow onto our speaker who fights to come into her own and be her own type of girl through the re-imagining of yonder tales. Poet Sarah E. Colona, dissects story and fable like an animal in her first full-length collection from Gold Wake Press (2013).

Divided into three sections, Hibernaculum is not a resting place for the animal or storyteller in us all. The first section is full of familial musings, some written at a slant digging into a deeper pain as in “Custody of Ghosts,” and some beautifully tender as in “Visiting John, 1990.” In this piece our speaker visits her brother in the hospital along with her parents. Too ill the boy cannot be touched, and the gift they bring for him as a guarantee he will be leaving those sterile conditions cannot be left with him. Soon our speaker begins to see herself as a twin in those around her. As a reflection in a mirror, in statues, in a dead girl, our speaker whispers to be noticed feeling a futility in her efforts as well. Here we begin to uncover what slinks into our rooms after all the lights are turned out, and enter a ramping toward the surreal.

Section Two goes Grimm, goes ancient Greek, and fills us with the dark fables we learned young. As adults we re-experience these stories with acute awareness of our growing skepticism of fantasy in the shadows penetrating our daily lives, and yet the soft animal inside is still quivering.

Colona has an intriguing ability to move between disparate periods of storytelling, placing a poem inspired by Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast next to a piece on Psyche. She doesn’t conflate the two but connects them through a female voice that seems to transcend time. Through an empowered female voice, the characters Colona embodies provide an alternative context to the story surrounding them and the unflinching myth they’ve been transformed into.

I found “Cruelty,” the last poem in the section, to be a kind of Ars Poetica for Hibernaculum.

make no mistake

stories are predators not pets

But we long for company

Here Colona conflates the mythic with the contemporary. She moves in and out of danger constantly confronted in stories; not only in fictional tales we read, but through the news we hear on television. This poem confronts the temptation, danger, and hatred reflected in stories mirroring our lived experiences. Our speaker, by the end, tames the beast, Story laid its head in my lap/ and purred encouraging an effort to remember there is still decency in the world.

The third and final section brings us back home. We return to the present day engulfed by scenery, this time haunted, not by myth or fable, but by anger and regret. And this section comes out swinging, carrying some heavy fist-pumping anthems. Here we navigate perception and Colona opposes the categorization of women specifically based on gender. She calls out that hypocrisy in poems like “Another Round with Loneliness,” “Have At,” and “The Little Engine that Did” forthrightly. But also examines closely one’s inherent hypocrisy as in “That Girl We Killed” and “Bitch.” We end in the stories we create of ourselves, not to become mythologized stone, but to lean toward an empathetic understanding of what is around us and how we’ve framed our love.

Sarah Colona is currently at work on a new collection poetry, That Sister, and a novella based on Burlington New Jersey (her hometown) folklore and history. Hibernaculum is available on Amazon.


Sheila McMullin runs the feminist and artist resource website, MoonSpit Poetry, where a list of her publications can also be found. She is the Website Assistant for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and Contributing Editor of poetry and the blog for ROAR Magazine. Her chapbook, Like Water, was a finalist for the Ahsahta Press and New Delta Review chapbook competitions, as well as a semifinalist in the Black Lawrence Press chapbook competition. She works as an after-school creative writing and college prep instructor, and volunteers at her local animal rescue. She holds her M.F.A. from George Mason University. Follow her @smcmulli

Post-AWP Withdrawals

It’s now been almost 72 hours since Seattle’s own Sherman Alexie closed the annual national celebration of all things writerly known as AWP.  But writers everywhere, and this writer in particular, remain jetlagged and not just because of the 12-hour trips each way for those of us in the east coast.

(Ahem, if you don’t know anything about AWP check out Peter Mountford’s Guide to AWP for People Who Don’t Know What AWP Is. His Useful Stereotypes are especially on-point: example 1. Earnest Poet, example 2. Mid Level Writer You’ve Never Heard Of. )

This was my second year attending AWP and I have to say I was a little less dazed and confused but just as googly-eyed as the first time.

There was running into my undergraduate prof., Allen Gee, at the top of the fourth floor escalator on registration day, then later in a rather intense panel on Writing Fictional Characters of Another Race led by the phenomenal Randa Jarrar and Mat Johnson among others.  (I chased them both after the panel and hope to feature them on StS soon!)

While womanning the StS table at the bookfair along with StS Asst. Poetry Editor, Alicia P, I saw and invited (manhandled-fawned) over the Great Joy Harjo whom we featured back in November, and yes there were pictures and yes this is us bragging.


There was the joy in Joy Castro‘s packed panel on Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family which offered touching and surprisingly humorous tales of the logistical and emotional negotiations endured when writing about everything from incest and sex addition to adoption and parenting and autism. StS will work tirelessly to bring Joy to you in the near future.

Dorothy Allison was greatly missed at Lambda’s 25 for 25, but at least I was able to see Butterfly Boy’s Rigoberto Gonzalez in action. Then, there was the pleasure of a first-time reading with Chang-Rae Lee and the discovery of the lazy charm of Chris Abani. (You had to be there! Were you? Tell us about it in the comments! But rest assured Abani would approve of my qualifier.)

Finding and sitting next to former StS Blog Editor, Sheila McMullin, at The (She) Devil Inside: Unlikeable Women in Fiction, where Samantha Chang and others referred to Edith Wharton and Claire Messud’s work to illustrate how Likeable = Respectable in literature and in life, was a special treat. And an impromptu reunion with StS featured poet Javier Huerta in the convention lobby and later at a ConTinta/CantoMundo offsite reading moved me so, it’ll have to be its own post.

So l’ll  stop here and not bore you with any more of my literary stalking, or with what could very well have been three George Saunders sightings –Asst. Fiction Editor, Julie D. is my witness–except we couldn’t be sure. We were too tired and either non or under-inebriated to approach him, though he was, we swear, no more than 5 feet away all three times.

Will continue AWP-detoxing  for weeks to come. Bear with us.


WILD, BUT NOT LOST: A Review by Sheila McMullin

January 5, 2014 by So to Speak · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Poetry, Post by: Sheila M, Reviews, Uncategorized 

Melissa Schuppe’s debut chapbook Wild, But Not Lost (Finishing Line Press, 2013) finds itself in the good company of poets’ Sarah Vap, Rachel Zucker, and Arielle Greenberg: women writing motherhood and sharing women’s multifaceted experiences in the age of choice and women’s equality. Yet, as the many feminists reading So to Speak, we know choice not always has so many options and equality not so balanced. As a single woman, not yet a mother, but hoping to one day become, I am always appreciative of the poetic insights gleaned from poetry participating in adulthood theatrics and caring for aging folks and children. Schuppe’s collection acknowledges the all too familiar changing of relationships with parents and siblings, and struggles of keeping afloat in the dynamic landscape that is now our everyday lives.

Back-to-back poems “Note to Self” and “Nora” focus on beautifully complex relationships between mother and daughter, woman and elder. These pieces trouble static binaries of how one is assumed to react to and treat children and elders. From “Note to Self” to the end of the collection hold my favorite poems in the chapbook. Here I found a quickening pace of our speaker’s reflection on very present moments, creating uncanny collisions of material and thought, as in the husband who can no longer wear his wedding ring, not from lack of devotion, but of a changing of body. In Schuppe’s bio she writes herself to be “a wife and mother whose words reflect the exploration of her life’s event,” so I imagine Schuppe in “Note to Self” working with the elder woman who is growing “impatient with death,” who would “like to get out of here tomorrow,” and Schuppe noticing the body worked by age. I imagine when our speaker touches the older woman it both reminds her of her own fragility, reminds me of my fragility, and how that is scary. But overwhelmingly, we are provided insight through our bodies about the changing of time and how to look toward the future without so much fear. On the flip side of that, “Nora” a nine-year-old hugging her mother barefoot in the kitchen reminds us that one day children become adults, and although young they still carry agency. In this moment, our speaker is “afraid for what’s to come” and I am grateful for that honesty. It lets me imagine one day, in my own kitchen with my own daughter in my own version of this poem I will be afraid to, afraid out of protective love, but like Schuppe will have found inner strength to believe it will be alright. And with close attention, maybe then, I would hear “the whistle,/ clarity emerging” too.

Check out Melissa Schuppe’s guest StS post On Being Silenced


Sheila McMullin is an after-school creative writing and college prep instructor, supportsVIDA–Women in Literary Arts as part of their Membership Team, and is a contributing poetry editor and the blog editor for ROAR Magazine. She holds her MFA in Poetry from George Mason Univeristy where she was the 2012-2013 Heritage Fellow and the poetry editor and blog/twitter manager for So to Speak. During her final year at GMU, Sheila interned at the Library of Congress in the Poetry and Literature Center helping to create easily accessible poetry resources for the public through the LOC database. In 2010, Sheila lived and traveled throughout China, teaching English to university students in the Shandong Province. Winner of the 2012 Mary Reinhart Poetry Prize and 2012 Virginia Downs Poetry Prize, her work can be found or is forthcoming in HER KIND: Women in Literary Arts, YEW: A Journal of Innovative Writing and Images by WomenThe Catbird Seat Blog at the Poetry and Literature Center in the Library of Congress, 1913: A Journal of FormsROAR Magazine: A Journal of the Literary ArtsBig Lucks, Counterexample Poetics: Assemblage of Experimental Artistry and Gentle Strength Quarterly.

Standing between the Doorway of Panic and Love: Shelby Settles Harper Reviews Harjo’s Crazy Brave

December 1, 2013 by So to Speak · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Nonfiction, Poetry, Reviews, Uncategorized 

Guest post by fiction writer, Shelby Settles Harper:

What Joy Harjo has done through Crazy Brave: A Memoir, a heartbreaking and unflinchingly honest mural of her life story, is what sportswriter Paul Gallico described when he wrote, “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.”  A poet and musician, Harjo guides the reader on a journey, some parts non-linear, through myth, mirth, and survival, from pre-birth to Harjo’s salvation through poetry and art. She’s strips down, opens a vein, and bleeds onto the page.

Reading Harjo’s memoir was for me a sort of homecoming.  I grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, not far from the towns of Tulsa, Tahlequah, and Okmulgee, which factored into Harjo’s early years.  I, too, was born to a mixed-blood mother, though my family is Caddo.  Harjo and I share the landscapes of the southern planes that formed and created us.

“Harjo,” is a Muscogee/Creek word for “reckless in battle,” or “crazy brave” and gives the memoir its title. Harjo structures the book using the American Indian concept of “four directions,” common among a number of tribes, and which symbolizes the totality of the universe.  East represents the direction of “sunrise” and “beginnings”; North, the direction of “difficult teachers” and “cold wind”; West, “the direction of endings”; and South, where “release,” “fire” and “creativity,” are found.

“East” begins in the womb of her beautiful, mixed-blood Cherokee mother, in which Harjo enters the world “choking and kicking, fighting for air.”  The early years were filled with hard work and near-poverty, as well as love and disappointment for her alcoholic and mostly-absent Muscogee/Creek father.  Harjo writes of the day he left: “My father disappeared.  And so did I in this world without father.  Emptiness took the place of everything I had known to be true.”

“North” tells of Harjo’s escape from her white, abusive stepfather and his “house of bad spirits and pain,” to the Institute of American Indian Art in New Mexico.  There, she finds an outlet for her talents in theater, music, and painting – talents she had been forced to suppress in her stepfather’s home.

Readers encounter many heartbreaking characters at the boarding school.  One such character is a boy from a South Dakota reservation who runs by Harjo one afternoon.  She writes:

He leapt onto the hoods of every car in the administration parking lot, crushing in the roofs, one by one.  He kicked in a set of windows lining the academic building. Around him a whirling halo glowed a brownish red.  Within the whirlwind were racial slurs, his abandoned baby self, the running-away ghost of a father.  Two teachers grabbed him and threw him to the ground.

“West” begins with Harjo meeting and falling in love with a Cherokee Indian in the boarding school postgraduate program.  Soon afterwards, she returns to her mother and stepfather’s house, still a teenager and secretly pregnant. Harjo’s new life in Oklahoma is no easier than her young life there, and she struggles as a new mother with a distant, alcoholic husband who can’t keep a job, and a mean-spirited mother-in-law.  She writes that her days were “consumed with the drudgery of survival.”  Her life was once again devoid of art.

I was struck by Harjo’s casual mention of visiting the Indian clinic in Oklahoma shortly before the birth of her first child and being asked if she wanted to be sterilized. She chose not to sign paperwork authorizing her sterilization, and writes that she didn’t think much about it at the time.  Harjo later realized that many Indian women were sterilized – some without even the formality of signing consent papers – and others, not fluent in English, signing without understanding what they were authorizing.

The first time I read this passage in the memoir, I sat the book down and paused. Sterilization? Before I could move forward in the memoir, I researched this horrific period in our country’s history, barely one generation earlier than mine, in which the Indian health services improperly sterilized thousands of native women. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Indian Health Services sterilized an estimated 25 percent of American Indian women who were between the ages of fifteen and forty-four.  The allegations include the failure to provide women with necessary information regarding sterilization; use of coercion to get signatures on the consent forms; improper consent forms; and a lack of an appropriate waiting period between the signing of a consent form and the surgical procedure.

I remained stunned that I hadn’t heard of this before Harjo’s memoir, that this wasn’t covered in Oklahoma history classes or in United States history classes.

I’ve always believed in fiction as education, in fiction as a means of social change.  Inspired to bring more awareness of this horrific practice, I wrote a short story about a Native woman who, as a teenager, is forcibly sterilized following the stillbirth of her child.  Before this mutilation of her body, she was a gifted painter.  Afterwards, she loses her desire and ability to create art, and slowly goes mad.  I am forever grateful for Harjo for teaching me about this shameful government practice committed against Native women.

In “South,” Harjo and her husband return to Santa Fe, to rekindle their dreams of being artists.  She begins to paint again and eventually finds freedom from her cheating husband, only to replace him with a physically abusive Pueblo poet, with whom she wakes next to with a hangover nearly every morning.  Harjo eventually leaves her abuser, but beneath the functioning student and mother roles she plays, panic attacks and inner demons consume her.

Harjo writes, “I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you.”  She begins writing poems, and uses them to survive the panic, alcohol, monsters, and dreams that threaten her existence.  “It was the spirit of poetry,” she writes, “who reached out and found me as I stood there at the doorway between panic and love.

Be sure to read StS’s interview with Joy Harjo!


Shelby is a yoga teacher, former lawyer and unabashed country music fan. She lives with her husband and three children in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, where she has learned to embrace the minivan. She is a candidate for an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University and is working on her first novel, Persimmon.  Shelby is a citizen of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, and American Indian themes feature prominently in her writing. Shelby’s latest endeavors include training for a half marathon and triathlon, learning French and home brewing hoppy pale ales.

Her work can be found in Bethesda Magazine (July/August 2013)Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine (March 2013), Defying Gravity: Fiction by Washington Area Women (fall 2013), Gargoyle Magazine #61 (forthcoming spring 2014) and on her blog.


The Powerful River of Heid E. Erdrich’s Cell Traffic: A Review

November 19, 2013 by So to Speak · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Poetry, Reviews, Sarah Winn 

As I read Heid E. Erdrich’s Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona, 2012), I follow the method I use when reading critically, especially with an eye for writing a review. Throwing book lover no-nos to the wind, I dog-ear the pages that exemplify the poet’s perspective or style, and write liberal marginalia. I star the poems that seem most universal or most personal.  My interactions with the poems become a permanent part of them.  I use a pen.

A few nights ago, as I sat down to read the last of this book, I realized that I dogeared more than two thirds of Cell Traffic.  I scrawled across these pages “lineage!” and “family of humanity!” -  “YES!!!”  more than one page exclaimed.  It was clear that in mapping the tightly knit poems, they had worked to become part of me.  Erdrich’s writing does this.

To read Erdrich’s work is to get caught up in the rapids of a powerful river.   She transverses broad landscapes easily.  Images from the Chinese zodiac, Ojibiwe stories, and Biblical icons rush past, all put to Erdrich’s purpose – that while weight is genetic “…the thrifty gene makes sure/our bodies warm through spring” – she claims it as good fortune – “Spiral of fate, chain of code,/luck genes must match up/with thrift genes somewhere.”  So much ground covered in a difficult to discuss topic, body image and heredity, and that’s only the first poem,  “Thrifty Gene, Lucky Gene.”

Recently, I watched a TED talk about storytelling, given by Andrew Stanton, the creative mind that brought us Wall-E and Finding Nemo. He claimed that the single most important thing that a storyteller must do – and must do quickly – is to make the reader care (or the listener/viewer in his case).  He does not broaden this beyond storytellers, but I believe it’s true of any powerful writing.  Erdrich makes her reader care by identifying the role that all of us have in the family of humanity.  Again and again she returns to this subject of our common denominator of genes, “a strand of maternal code, thinner than hair,/stronger and lasting long as humanity.” (from “Mitochondrial Eve”)

How generous her beginning, via Walt Whitman.  How inclusive. – “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”  In “Seven Mothers,” she writes:

“Imagine an engine

in each cell, the furnace

of flesh built in each of us.”

Our mothers, then.  I am brought into the family in this poem, which spans the entire book, which reaches out its arms into the world and invites all readers everywhere.  How better to make me care, than to help me see that we are all part of this family?  Her past is my past is your past.

Her work provides a deep sense of connection because she has connected herself to her readers on the cellular level: her stories become our stories.

“In Search of Jane’s Grave” and the “Kennewick Man” series deepen our understanding of the insidious nature of the sins of the distant past.  How difficult they are to right, if not impossible. She doesn’t place blame, she merely retrieves the pieces of history from the floor – finds Jane, whose headstone doesn’t reference her importance to her tribe as war chief’s daughter, her writings, or her place historically as a Native American whose mother’s family stories were taken by Longfellow as inspiration for Hiawatha.  Erdrich sweeps up the scattered facts, and arranges them in their proper order so that we can join her in thanking the ancestors – because, she asserts – these are our ancestors, too. To read of past wrongs, done to our grandmother is to take ownership of a story that’s done generations dis-service, to want the story to be corrected.  The stories she seeks to mend, to tell fully, are our family stories.  We know history has appropriated and contorted these stories, when they have not been outright stolen and purposefully obscured.  With Erdrich’s poetry there is a move to relocate and restore the facts.

One of the great treasures of this book is the conversations the poems seem to be having with each other, and the subjects that Erdrich returns to repeatedly.  Some are similarly titled, some have an echo feel.  This happens in the poems she has translated into Ojibiwe and back into English, done collaboratively with Dr. Margaret Noori.  On the other side of this translation, as in reading her paired poems, lines translated assert something subtly different, some deeper meaning than if it was only ground covered on one level.  (Although none of her poems are mono-level to begin with.)  In “This is the Way We Walk”

We walk this way.

Mii sa ezhi-bimoseyaang.

(This is the way we walk.)

The first line speaks of direction.  The second line as translated speaks of mode.  I am not a linguist, but in this set of poems, this was an ongoing feeling – that the English language communicates direction and constraint, and as translated, the Ojibiwe communicates mode and quality.  In this cascade of language, the lines seemed to open up further, to stretch out for the reader to interpret the myriad of images and nuances.

Part of the two-way highway of this book involves Heid E. Erdrich tenderly talking to her own daughter and her ancestors.  Though these poems are deeply personal, she speaks with the voice that we all need to hear coming to us across the pages – inviting us to find our place on the continuum far beyond our individual lives, our lifetimes.  That which has been severed and forgotten for generations can be mended, even after the fact, even when the repair may show, even when the lines of communication are knotted and difficult to untangle.

These ideas are part of the literary DNA of this book, which shares links to Frost, and William Carlos Williams, among many other poet ancestors.  By the end of the book I have returned to her dedication page – Indinawemaaganidog – all my relations.  I somehow feel a part of that.

The Selected Works section begins with “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects,” which instructs the reader, whether Ojibewe or not, how to read and reread these poems.  They are something all are welcome to honor, all are welcome to invite inside, to allow them to become part of all readers.  The poems should not be put behind glass, remain only admired from a distance, and othered.  Even in a poem ostensibly about the cells moving back and forth between mother and child, “Microchimerism” situates the self in a larger sense.  The “blood river once between you/went two ways/what makes us/own sole and sovereign selves/is only partially us.// The search for God can be called off.”  “Forgive me, I am not my self.”  Fortunately, with Erdrich, you are with family.

*Be sure not to miss Indigenous Elvis Walks the Medicine Line, HERE .


Sarah Winn is the 2013-2014 Completion Fellow at George Mason University, where she is an MFA candidate in Poetry. She was a 2012 runner up for the Virginia Downs Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Chimes, Crux and most recently in Egg.

She has reviewed and blogged for School Library Journal during her time as a school librarian, and currently teaches writing in Fairfax and Arlington County Schools through a Sally Merton Fellowship.

Read more of her work here or follow her on twitter @blueaisling.



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