By Abriana Jetté
Sayreville, NJ, USA

In the early weeks of October, I attended the third annual Creative Writing Studies Organization conference. Attendees of the conference gathered in the Black Mountain region of Western North Carolina. It began as any other ordinary day, but from the start of the first panel all sorts of intriguing conversations took place regarding poetry and pedagogy and the craft of writing. One thing in particular I’d like to share with you that came about throughout the conference is the rethinking of the term “craft.”

When craft is taught, it is often under the notion of making. We consider the structure, rhyme-scheme, plot, syntax, and/or setting of a written piece. However, as was encouraged at the CWSO Conference, writers must also think about the original definition of the word as, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “a lost knowledge.” Creative writing scholar Tim Mayers defined craft as “a way of being in the world.” This definition got me to thinking. If craft is a way of being, then my job is not just to identify the meter and literary devices at work, I must also consider what the poem teaches me about intellectual skill, about wisdom, and about the philosophical concept of inspiration. This is essential to “being” as the form which holds the “being.” That is, craft is not only “how is this poem made,” but “what is this poem doing by existing?” 

I mention this because the poets I want you to read this Fall demonstrate this dual sense of craft. That is, their poetry exudes a knowledge of making and a knowledge of being. Kathleen Balma, Trace DePass, and Christine Hamm write poems that burst off the white-space and manipulate everything from length of line to the spelling of a particular word. While they are poets of word-play and concision, they are also poets who are unafraid of confronting issues like sexual assault, racism, and depression. In that sense, they exist because they must. Without these poets, we’d lose important knowledge in regard to understanding the how and the why of poetry’s place in contemporary America.


Kathleen Balma’s voice ranges from an honesty that courts abrasiveness to the deeply intimate. Her comic gestures evoke sincerity as they consider some of the more harrowing realities of human history. Her chapbook, Gallimaufry & Farrago, approaches topics from GMOs to Abraham Lincoln to sexual assault. If Gallimaufry & Farrago suggests one thing about Balma’s poetry, it’s that there is not a person, word, theory, or character that is off limits.

Kathleen Balma

Balma’s poetry offers a light-hearted voice that bears an attractive colloquial nature. The tones of her poetry mimic that of some of the most personal essays and diary entries, harboring a voice that assumes the reader will listen. And readers listen because Balma has a natural knack for storytelling.  

Take, for instance, the prose poem “no”, which details one night when the speaker drove a friend to a party, which was “not really a party but three men sitting around a kitchen table.” The speaker is forthright, strong, a model of tact, adroit. When the three men continuously offer her beer, she insists on water. When “one of the men starts massaging” her shoulders, she tells him “thanks, but no thanks.”

Balam’s use of hypotaxis – extended syntax – throughout the poem, in addition to the purposeful pulling away from punctuation throughout the lines, strings readers through the drama. The prose form, the lack of stanzas, the poem’s square shape resembling that of the kitchen with the three men, the speaker, and the friend, so boxed in, so tight, establishes an atmosphere of danger. But the speaker reminds us, it was not danger, but “BOREDOM.” When her eyes say “HELP” … Their eyes say, “Hm.” 

Coming from behind her, one of the three men places a hunter’s knife on the speaker’s neck. He asks if she likes it. She manages a “phoneme, but it comes out with the greatest effort.” The fearless speaker feels fear. Still, she manages the word, and with that, in a moment that feels as heavy as long-lasting hours, walks her and her friend out the door. What word? “You can guess”, she tells readers, before the poem’s close. Or you can just consider the title. 

Such sneaky winks, purposeful moments of withdrawing a word or detail, or a coy sense of wordplay are pertinent to Balma’s voice. The trait is not total cheekiness or even sarcasm; more so, it is a demonstration of humorous intelligence. Of wit. Of a sense of global history and pop culture and the itch to revise. 

Balma’s wit resounds in her poem “Dramatic Dichotologue.” The title fuses together the words “dichotomy” (two things which are inherently opposite) and “monologue” (a long speech by one person), to create a word you will not find if you search through the English Oxford Dictionary, but a word, it seems, perfectly fit to describe a poem that features a speaker’s dueling selves. “Dramatic Dichotologue” begins:

          “It’s good to be bilingual. Almost makes up
                   for the other bi thing about me.”

The speaker continues to refer to herself as the forgotten member of the family, “great doohickey twice removed”, but assures readers that she is “something / more like your Aunt David.” As a means of deflecting readers from considering her poems too confessional, the speaker turns her focus on historical figures, literary characters, John Wayne, and, in the case of “Dramatic Dichotologue”, David Bowie. After admitting to readers that she prefers circles to lines, the speaker reveals that Bowie was the closest she has ever felt “to the throne.” The idea of the throne bears significance to me for two reasons. Previously within the poem Balma refers to “the Knights of the Round Table” and a “circumference of metal-clad men.” With the acknowledgment of this literary trope and the assumption that the one who sits on the throne is the leader, not just of the family, but of the community, the evocation of the throne suggests that the speaker feels, or felt, accepted. Why? Because of Bowie. Perhaps if the pop-culture icon were still alive, he might compose his own “Dramatic Dichotologue” between the voices of David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust.  

Balma’s poetry demonstrates a knowledge of comedic timing and syntactical precision. Her work is refreshing as it is haunting. Kathleen Balma is a librarian, teacher, and translator. Her poetry has appeared in Hotel Amerika, The Journal, the Montreal International Poetry Prize Anthology, New Orleans Review, Prelude, Rattle, Spillway, and Sugar House Review. Her awards include a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright grant in Spain, and a Writer-in-Resident Fellowship from Rivendell Writers' Colony. In 2018, she was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. Her first chapbook, Gallimaufry & Farrago, is available from Finishing Line Press.


In geometry, the term tesseract is used to describe a cube within a cube within a square. The three-dimensional figure goes by many names: eight-cell, octachoron, tetracube, and hypercube, to name a few. No matter the nomenclature behind it, the tesseract is as philosophically intriguing as it is mathematically necessary. The tesseract unveils the complex layers of the ordinary thing. As it is unfolded, it reveals the edificial construct of the cubes housing the cubes that house the square. The idea of peeling back the layers, of trying to get to the explanation for the form behind the thing, resonates behind much of Depass’s work. 

Trace DePass

DePass utilizes the tesseract as a medium to explore the variety of selves within the body in his poem “the tesseract tethers rooms”, which appears in his collection Self-portrait as the space between us. The poem is not just concerned with the speaker’s body, or to the bodies that have felt they never belonged, but also to the body of the poem: its shape and use and structure. In particular, acute attention is paid to the body of sentences. For instance:

          “i tire of death, relative to me, no passing, in 3D. i need this divorce.
                   you go writ(h)e”

DePass’s use of parentheticals to interrupt the body of a word alters meaning(s) throughout the poem. In the above example, the speaker may discuss both the urge to write and/or the action of recoiling with distress. Perhaps the two are one in the same. Or, perhaps, the intention is to get readers to consider the anatomy of language. Throughout the poem, the speaker is hyperaware of the language’s aesthetic and sonic qualities and calls the reader’s attention to the splendor of words within words.

In “the tesseract tethers rooms” DePass considers the “black body” of the speaker, the body he “knew could never keep up.” The poem asks for respite from feeling trapped under societal expectations and investigations, at feeling like he represents “everything that did not make me beauty enough.” The speaker’s body “coaxed oxbows not oxygen.” As the oxbow offers a break or meandering in the scheme of a river, readers can interpret the speaker’s black body as a symbol of separation from its main source, whether one would call that the spirit or the soul. The disconnect persists. The body causes the speaker to recognize his difference. It breaks him apart from the rest.   

The notion of “breaking apart” is present from the start of the poem, in which the reader is placed in a room, an ordinary room, alone with the speaker and his thoughts. The speaker reveals his plan to “sit, stay, and spin congruent with hypercubes.” In other words, the speaker is about to undergo an evaluation of the self. In other words, the speaker is about to pull back the layers, about to uncube himself.

The contemplation of the body, the consideration of structure, the analysis of the bones of the poem, the omnipresent presence of death, and the self-doubt are concurrent themes throughout DePass’s poetry. The way in which these themes are crafted, however, tend to vary. For instance, “Mike Brown is Eighteen” and “a tesseract tethers the room” diacritically oppose one another in regard to poetic structure. “A tesseract tethers the room” is a two-page, experimental piece that spans across the white space. It does not adhere to specific stanza forms, manipulates language with punctuation, and searches across realms: from dreamscapes to reality to the past. “Mike Brown is Eighteen” is a poem structured with four lines per stanza on focusing solely on the coming-of-age celebration that never would be for the slain teenager. 

However, similar to the way “A tesseract tethers the room” utilizes punctuation to accentuate meaning, much of the action within “Mike Brown is Eighteen” happens between moments of punctuation, in this particular case, within brackets. Brackets pose as a whisper, as indications of the could have been. The only words that appear outside of brackets within the poem are “Now” (first stanza) and “Might as well” (last stanza). What happens within the brackets in the poem, what is hushed, hidden with punctuation, is crucial to the poem’s goal. What happens when Mike Brown turned Eighteen only occurred in the speaker’s imagination, for Mike Brown was not on this earth to celebrate. Within the poem, the speaker asks:

          “What is a young black life?
          But, thick hair,
          good organs for the taking,
          and crying mothers”

An attractive quality of DePass’s work is the continuous switch in style and structure. Some poems are finely-tuned forms that adhere to stanza shape or syllabics. Other poems use the blank space on the page as a pool in which to swim laps, stretch the body, and experiment. A word is not just one word for DePass, but a possibility of words. The poem is not a single poem, but a collage of experience.

Trace Howard DePass is the author of Self-portrait as the space between us (PANK Books, 2018) and editor of Scholastic’s Best Teen Writing of 2017. He served as the 2016 Teen Poet Laureate for the Borough of Queens. His work has been featured on television and radio—BET Next Level, Billboard, Blavity, and NPR’s The Takeaway—and in print—Anomalous Press, Brooklyn Rail, Poetry Foundation, Entropy Magazine, Split This Rock, The Other Side of Violet, and Bettering American Poetry (Volume 3). DePass is a 2018 Poets House Fellow.


Christine Hamm’s collection, Notes on Wolves and Ruin, blends elements of drama, poetry, and fiction to dismantle the paradigms often imposed on product(s) of creative writing. Unlike many of the poets I’ve featured in the past, the poetry in Hamm’s collection remains untitled. That is, rather than use titles, Hamm uses numbers to work as a means of organizing and/or identifying poems. Before each poem is presented, an epigraph appears, doing the work a title might do. Together, numbers and epigraphs welcome readers into the particular theme, idea, or tone of the poem; they guide readers in some way. 

Christine Hamm

Take the way Hamm prefaces a poem numbered “2” with an excerpt from the shooting script for An American Werewolf in London by John Landis (1981). The character, David, asks the dog, “What did I do?”, and in return “The dog begins barking ferociously, the little girl tugging on his leash.” After the quote, Hamm’s poem begins:

            “Everyone wants to know what is inside a girl. There are many ways to find out. One is
            getting the girl to sing a madrigal. Another is asking a girl what color maxi shirt she’d

Landis’s scene evokes the idea of the human as the creature, and Hamm’s poem continues with this, except in her poem, it is the girl’s body that is the mystical and dangerous. “Everyone wants to know what is inside a girl”, the poem begins, and then offers a litany of things one might do to become intimate with the “insides” of a girl. For instance, “one way to find out is to hand her a knife or a knitting needle.” Though the image of a metallic reflection from a blade is sparked from the thought of both of these objects, the connotations that go along with a knife and a knitting needle are typically of different worlds. The notion of needling and weaving brings many readers back to Homer, and Penelope’s trickery on her suitors; Odysseus’s wife used intelligence not violence to work towards her goal. The power of a needle. The use of the knife evokes actions that are not so pleasant, borderline violent. In any case, the opposing objects represent social binaries of the good woman and the bad woman, Madonna vs. Mary Magdalene, Betty vs. Veronica. The poem leans in support of such binaries. 

The speaker considers how “some girls, despite wearing flowered violet blouses” are transparent…and “people can immediately see” what’s inside them. This divisive nature of the female is intentional, meant to bring reader’s back to the transformation of the wolf and the two selves often harboring within us all. Towards the end of the poem, the speaker offers the consensus that “one you have seen what is inside a girl, you will never want to see it again.”

As mentioned previously, “2” relies on litany, in this case the litany of “some girls”, a phrase which holds together the poem’s musical and rhythmic structures. “2” is composed as a fourteen-sentence prose-poem; seven of those sentences start with the phrase “Some girls”, while the other half offer syntactical variety.

The epigraphs throughout Hamm’s work directly and indirectly evoke the idea of transformation, of the wolf being set free. Before readers encounter a poem numbered “1”, we are introduced to section from the Metamorphosis when Ovid describes the transformation. Ovid writes: “his limbs became crooked / a wolf – he retains yet large traces of his ancient expression.”

The epigraph deals with physical transformation, while the poem turns to the pathetic fallacy of the seasons changing to express a desire for change. It begins: “Leaf-shadows shimmer from the windows.” Wolves lean in from the walls. The speaker trips “over the dark carpet” which is not carpet “but water.” The dream like sequence ends with the image of the speaker, five years old, “in a navy and yellow striped two-piece”, being pushed down, tasting water. It is a quick poem, imitating the fleeting quality of a nightmare during which a mere second can cause the dreamer such a fright that it forces them from sleep, and the trauma carries over into reality.

Christine Hamm has a Ph.D. in American Poetics and is an MFA candidate at Columbia University. Her publications include A is for Absence, The Transparent Dinner, and Notes on Wolves and Ruins.

Abriana Jetté


Abriana Jetté is an internationally published poet, essayist, and educator from New Jersey. Her work has appeared in dozens of journals, including the Dr. T. J. Eckleburg ReviewThe Iron Horse Literary ReviewThe American Literary Review, and 491 Magazine. She teaches at St. Johns's University and the City University of New York, writes a regular column for Stay Thirsty Magazine that focuses on emerging poets and she is the editor of The Best Emerging Poets of 2013 that debuted on Amazon as the #3 Best Seller in Poetry Anthologies, the author of 50 WHISPERS that debuted on Amazon as the #1 Best Seller in Women's Poetry and the recently released 50 WHISPERS - Vol. II. Her newest anthology, Stay Thirsty Poets - Vol. 1, will be released in December 2018.

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