Zoe Dzunko and Sarah Jean Grimm run Powder Keg, a journal that aims to illuminate the bravest and most exciting voices in contemporary poetry. Zoe is based in Melbourne and Sarah lives in New York.
How did the two of you meet?
SJG: We met at the Yale Writers’ Conference in June of 2014. We’d been published together a few times, so we were on each other’s radar before then. I knew that we had similar interests in our poetry, and I’d been admiring Zoe’s work from afar. What I didn’t know was that we would have such an instant and profound connection beyond the level of the work. ZD: It’s strange now to reflect upon our first meeting, especially the level of anticipation I felt and couldn’t quite explain. I’d followed Sarah’s work and found her really impressive, so I was looking forward to meeting her for that reason. But in person she blew me away. She was incisive and generous, and I was immediately drawn to her. It was a strange dynamic, we felt simpatico from the outset. I think I asked her out for coffee as soon as our first class was over and that was it, we were a team from that moment onwards.
Tell us about Powder Keg.SJG: We dreamed Powder Keg up on the train back to New York after the conference. I think we’d been separately nursing editorial urges for a while. For me, meeting Zoe sparked some confidence in the idea. The internet is saturated with literary journals, so I suppose I’d assumed I might not be able to bring anything new to the table. But while I could easily feel that way about myself, I couldn’t feel that way about Zoe – I was sure that anything she signed on to would be amazing. We sort of empowered each other to take a risk, and that’s carried through in the nature of the magazine, I think. With Powder Keg, our main imperative is to shine a light on brave and even risky poetry. ZD: Yep, it was something I wanted to do for a long time, but for me it was an issue of authority. Was I in a position to carve out a positive space and did I have the right to? As Sarah noted, the plethora of online lit magazines made me hesitant to contribute anything that didn’t feel original or useful. Granted those value judgments are wholly subjective, and maybe Powder Keg doesn’t achieve those aims for every reader, but the intent is there.
I think those early concerns have informed our aspirations for the magazine. It’s really important to us that we consider who is speaking, which voices are heard too loudly or too often and, by extension, those that are drowned out in the noise. Our hope is to provide an alternate landscape for that dialogue. When we use the phrase ‘risky’ I don’t believe we mean it to be consonant with an experimental poetics, necessarily. For me, it is more to do with risk in an ontological sense – I’m interested in the positions that are difficult or dangerous to voice. As such, our goal of creating a space that sustained this ethos has impacted the way the magazine is put together. From the beginning we knew that we would never allow gender imbalances, so we often have to temporarily shelve work we’re dying to publish in order to maintain equality. This extends to our attempts to address diversity in myriad ways, while avoiding tokenism. We’re not anywhere near where we’d like to be, in that respect, but it’s in the forefront of our minds at all times.
Personally, one of the most profound aspects of Powder Keg is its affirmation of female friendship and the strength of female voices and collaboration. I draw everything from my female friends – especially the writers – they are my heroes and I seek validation from them only. Knowing we could carve space, rather than having to wait to be offered it, was a really good feeling.
SJG: There’s absolutely something so fulfilling in fostering the space that Powder Keg has become, rather than passively waiting, as Zoe said. Claiming the authority of the title ‘editors’ did feel like a bold move at the time. From there, we’ve solicited some of our heroes, pursued what seemed like a pipedream of an issue based on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television series, and so on. I know we’re both really excited to keep growing Powder Keg together, pushing our own expectations in its service because it does feel so important to us. It’s also just been incredibly fun.
Powder Keg is situated online and with this you both also bring your different contexts to the project. Through the process of putting Powder Keg together have you noticed a difference in the aesthetics or preoccupations of US writers compared with Australian writers, for example?
SJG: It’s hard to generalise. Since we read blind, we’re not considering the nationalities represented in a given issue until we’re actually putting it together, after the work has been accepted. At that point, I’m always surprised – I’d say I’m unable to guess at a writer’s nationality based on any aesthetic or thematic trend.
ZD: Not explicitly. As Sarah said, we read our submissions blind and are often surprised when we discover where and who they come from. Most are from the States, and they are totally heterogeneous. I feel like maybe that variance is key to the difference in aesthetics. The pool of Australian poets is smaller, and I notice a stronger sense of regionalism in the poetry here, which is less present in the work of the American poets I read. That could have a lot to do with who is sending us work, too. I really enjoy the notion of a discernible Australian poetry aesthetic; there are some really inspiring writers here.
There’s real buzz around video poetry at the moment. What do you think that’s about?
ZD: I’m not sure. I love seeing poets read their work, so I get it. Maybe because it’s more communicable – hearing a poet’s pauses or intonation is appealing because idiosyncrasy gets you closer to the poem. There’s nothing better than seeing one of your favourite poets read the poem of theirs you love the most. It’s like being in a club with your best friend when ‘No Diggity’ comes on. SJG: Oh my god, there’s nothing better than that moment when ‘No Diggity’ comes on. I agree that video adds another dimension to a poem, which is already working on multiple levels if it’s working on the page at all. Experiencing a poem in that personal mode can definitely be an enhancement. After our first issue, we decided to incorporate audio into Powder Keg out of a related impulse. #But I also love when the audiovisual transcends a straightforward reading. Maybe it’s a little bit like the music video genre in that some video-poems are sort of companion pieces, but others can become almost inextricable from your understanding of the poem. In my small Brooklyn nexus, I’m thinking of two videos by Emily Raw – Monica McClure’s ‘Screen Grab’ and Natalie Eilbert’s Swan Feast book trailer. They’re so memorable; they’re like the Smells Like Teen Spirit of poetry videos.
Who do you have your eye on at the moment, poetry-wise?SJG: This is such a hard question! I’m stalking so many poets. No, but in all honesty, there are a number of people whose work I read voraciously, as in D.E.A.R. (drop everything and read –was this a thing in Australian grammar schools?). I won’t list everyone here because I couldn’t possibly, but I will say that I’m really excited whenever I find someone new-to-me to follow. I recently had this experience with the poet Lo Kwa Mei-en. In a very short span, I encountered her poems in Jellyfish and The Offing, and then realized I’d also loved her work in our queue, and that Zoe and I had both already voted yes on her submission. By the time we sent her acceptance, those poems had been picked up elsewhere. Luckily, she sent us some more, and we loved them just as much. Definitely one of many poets to watch!
ZD: This is definitely the hardest question of all for me because I’m chronically admiring everyone. One of the best/worst things about the split role of poet/editor is this newfound awareness of the sheer scope of talent in the world. Recently, a friend of mine was judging a book contest and was like: there are so many talented poets, which is amazing but also ugh, why bother. I oscillate between these feelings daily, but it’s rejuvenating to see the work of your peers and understand the cruciality of producing the best work you can as a poet. If you’re not going to do that, hundreds of others will and you have to step aside. So the scale of incredible work we receive is humbling and yet, when you read a poem that grabs you it feels so vital and totally singular, which is a beautiful thing. # As seems to be the way, Sarah and I have a lot of overlaps in our taste and the poets we admire. Our early Powder Keg wish list reads like a veritable love letter to those that have inspired us, so: Paul Legault, Dorothea Lasky, Hoa Nguyen, Natalie Lyalin, Eileen Myles, Terrance Hayes, Matthew Zapruder, Alice Notley, Joyelle McSweeney, Dean Young – all well-known poets that constitute only a small part of the huge body of writers to whom we feel indebted. The lesser-known poets – if you can even call them that – who I would recommend people literally drop everything and read changes daily. Sarah mentioned Monica and Natalie – they are fierce and exciting poets who make me want to bang my head against a wall every time I read them. Tommy Pico blows me away with his ingenuity; his poems are ambitious and funny and tender. Add to them: Leopoldine Core, Jon-Michael Frank, Morgan Parker, Angel Nafis, Sophie Collins, Danez Smith, Chelsea Hodson, Mark Cugini, the list is endless. SJG: Totally endless, but as long as we’re doing it, let’s also add Melissa Broder, Jenny Zhang, Jericho Brown, Kelly Schirmann, Tyler Brewington, and David Gorin, who taught the workshop where we met. That class was like a little Powder Keg incubator, and we are seriously grateful.
Sarah on Zoe’s poem ‘Absolution’
I’m drawn to the subtlety of Zoe Dzunko’s ‘Absolution’. It reads almost coolly, belying the pain it expresses (just as anyone in pain becomes accustomed to putting on a brave face): ‘How unfair that it is / on earth I feel loved like this.’ Beyond resilience, the speaker longs for innocence, though she knows it is always already on the brink of corruption. Absolution is a complex impossibility, but she wants it anyway, and the poem teases out this contradiction elegantly. There is a world of tension between wanting to live without a history and the non-question that follows: ‘what is the newest / thing that has not yet hurt / anything else.’ I fell in love with this poem because of this not yet, and all the futures contained in those two words. Inevitably, the newest thing will hurt and be hurt. If the speaker admits she felt lonely in the poem’s middle, and if perhaps the reader feels lonely too, we might both take comfort in our shared experience – in the knowledge that the problems of the poem are universal. And yet the poem is confessional, quiet, utterly personal. I think this is a crucial balance, a golden ratio Zoe invents. This is something Zoe does expertly, confounding boundaries. Following the ease of her language and the nimbleness of her connections, suddenly the poem arrives at a truth you think you must have known all along, but needed her to voice.
Zoe on Sarah’s poem ‘Divide The Hoof’
‘Divide the Hoof’ exemplifies what Sarah’s poems do so well, I think, which is they get to the meat of being a body. It’s often an uncomfortable place to live and yet it’s the only space we’re given. However much we try to own our physicality we still find ourselves confounded by its strangeness, its separateness, or its limitations. That uncomfortable aspect of corporeality is a source of sadness, in and of itself, but this poem complicates the problems of dualism by asking how the synthetic might widen the gap between body and self. This is a modern concern – some would say a female concern – the issue of agency in the face of advancing technologies that promise much for the flesh but so little for the mind. Feeling mistaken for using the body to get what the mind so desperately requires is a moment of crisis, however subtly this poem renders it. The idea of flesh as simultaneously life-giving and corrosive applies as much to the female body as it does the animal form, so Sarah’s choice to collocate woman with calf feels both natural and revolutionary. Why do we speak about women and animals in similar terms? Sarah asks this question, although I suspect she already knows the answer. The atrocity that is animal cruelty demands that we separate fully the entities of body and mind, but what happens when we become body, only, in our relationships with others or with ourselves? This poem pulls back the curtain on the horror of flesh and questions what makes meat worthy of respect and, most importantly, what makes it worthy of love. For me, Sarah’s poems feel like waking on a dead limb, when your newly numb fingers trace your cheek: the foreign and the familiar coalesce into one perfect moment.
I adopted the voice of somebody very hungry before a mountain of choices, and never stepped out of her. How unfair that it is on earth I feel loved like this: the way sunshine requires little light, like day ignores lampposts. There it is, in the grey guts of my disbelief. Each time you rebuff me I grow a little more resilient. Today, I bent my own self over inside the invisible cage of the shower, it felt lonely. If I’m permitted to wear pink can I keep telling you it’s a mans world. Wait, who are you buying flowers for this morning? My only hope is they are for somebody unable to cut the stems themselves. Rejecting your own privilege feels more and more to me like a privilege in itself. I don’t want to be anything with a history; what is the newest thing that has not yet hurt anything else.
Originally published on the Tin House blog, February 2015.
Divide The Hoof
What hurts today is the evidence of effort I brushed my teeth and lined my eyes Came back to bed to feel mistaken Some days I am more synthetic than others I have many moods They turn in systems I am in the habit of my own diagonals But I get that the patterns are medley I like how even when the sky is ugly It’s not Some days I make myself a fatted calf Chewing cud for your arrival How pleased am I to have you Even as you show me the rumper The splitter The vat dipper If I imagine these things are paper and gloss I can get off on my own lack My moods are many animals We’re all lined up at the stockyard Waiting our turns Some day I’d like to be One prime cut of my choicest offering When you eat an animal Are you absorbing its life or its death I’m not sure it makes a difference