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The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 108 pgs.
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The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva is musically New Orleans, but also a collection of poems about learning a role that you may or may not take on.  It takes on the pomp and circumstance of the city and reveals an underbelly of sadness and want, while paying homage to the beauty of the city and its culture. The dichotomy of New Orleans comes to life in Leyva’s poems.

 From "Inamorata" (pg. 5-6)

...
and a funk in the other
     Nola when your bounce
         leaps from speakers

comes the great gyrate
    the whole line
        all heredity backing it up

...

Where'd you sleep
   last night? In the pines?
        Nola you fat and fine

the quick-quick-slow
        that repeats
         like being sick and tired

of being sick
    and tired or late again
            on last week's rent
...

Leyva’s poems are beautiful songs full of love, passion, and sadness. It’s a collection that pays homage to the past and invents a future. It’s about leaning into a bi-racial skin and finding a path that makes the most of an American life that is not always easy and is not always the most glamorous. It’s about breaking out of the molds assigned to us and creating our own lives and incorporating cultures in ways that make the most sense for our own well-being.

Poems like “Ear Hustle” unearth the dark past of an Americanized New Orleans culture in which powdered faces from beignets are unaware of the ancestors who cut the cane for that sugar. There’s that undercurrent of culture that he explores in his poems, but not to seek a rescue but to pay homage to the sweat and the work — to the understudy of society’s labors. These poems are multilayered, while the surface appears playful and musical. It’s a collection that celebrates rather than shames, though some poems do illustrate some of the shames of American history.

One of my favorite poems in this collection, “Sonnet for the Side Eye,” examines nature’s destructive tendencies (like Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans) with humanity’s obsession with naming that destruction. Leyva is tackling a great many things in this collection, but this poem in particular takes our obsession with categorizing things head on. So much divisiveness stems from these labels. But how do we as humans get to the point where we no longer label our fellow humans as a way to harm them or treat them as “other?”

Don’t miss The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva. I heard him read at a poetry event online and had to get my hands on this book, and I wasn’t disappointed.

RATING: Cinquain

Check out this interview with Steven Leyva in ArtsFairfax.

Reading: The Inner Loop Presents This Is What America Looks Like

The Inner Loop is hosting a reading from This Is What America Looks Like, featuring Elizabeth Kadetsky.

Poets include:
Serena Agusto-Cox
Hayes Davis
Kristin Ferragut
Matthew Hohner
Courtney Sexton

Fiction writers include:
Amy Freeman
Melanie Hatter
Len Kruger
Kirsten Porter

I hope you’ll join us at 7:30 p.m. on March 16.

Giveaway & Interview with Jona Colson, poetry editor of This Is What America Looks Like

Full disclosure: I have a poem in this anthology.

Today, we’re talking with poetry editor Jona Colson about the new anthology from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House.

It is their first anthology in a number of decades, and the fiction and poetry included in this collection runs the gamut in terms of what America looks like. Many of these poems and stories were written during the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and so many other traumatic and pivotal events in recent history.

Please give Jona a warm welcome.

Stay to the end of the interview for a special giveaway.

Savvy Verse & Wit: Congratulations on the new anthology, This Is What America Looks Like, published by the Washington Writers’ Publishing House.

This is the second time you’ve worked with them, since they published your first poetry collection, Said Through Glass. How would you describe the publishing process for a debut poetry collection and was that similar or different from working on the anthology?

Jona Colson: It was similar and different. With your own work and developing a manuscript, you see how the poems speak to each other, and I did the same for the anthology. However, the writers were placed reverse alphabetical (Z-A), so I did not have to consider the order of the poems. I still had to create a balance with the poems—the themes, topics, and forms. This was the first time I put on an editor’s hat, and I learned a lot about working with other writers. I also was able to read so many wonderful poems!

SVW: As the poetry editor for the anthology, how much coordination was there with fiction editor Caroline Bock? Did you both have a game plan in mind before submissions started rolling in or were their themes that emerged on their own as submissions were being read?

JC: The submission’s call offered a prompt in many ways, so I was ready to read submissions in response to that. We didn’t share the specific poems and texts that we were reading, but we did discuss the topics and themes we were getting. The majority of submissions came in during the height of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movements. So, many of the topics changed in response to these events, and we had to balance the narratives of the work we accepted.

SVW: How did you view your role as an editor of the anthology? Let us in on what your process was when selecting poems and whether you asked any artists for edits.

JC: I was so pleased with all the submissions we received. Unfortunately, we had a very limited space with the book, so I had to choose what fit the best. There were many poems that I couldn’t take because of space. I asked poets for revisions when I felt that it would improve their poem. I had a few edits—some minor and some major. I found that writers were really responsive to revising their work, and that was wonderful. I love reading poetry, and I have such respect for any artist who attempts to shape experiences into language.

SVW: This Is What America Looks Like provides a very broad landscape in how writers could approach the topic, but how would you describe what America looks like? Does America’s description merely entail its mountains and landscapes or is it about the people within it?

JC: I would say it is all of that. Emotional and physical landscapes. Dreams and visions. The poems in this anthology offer a reflection of America in many different ways. There are many poems that do not directly respond what America looks like, but discuss belonging, childhood, adulthood, expectations. These are all American experiences.

SVW: Thinking about the writers in the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) region, how would you describe their writing styles and overall view as presented in their poems? Is there something that readers could immediately recognize as poetry from this region?

JC: There are many references to locality. Many poems showcase towns in the DMV, or specific streets and locations—Dumbarton Oaks, The Library of Congress, battlefields. In this way, you are immediately placed into a particular part of our country. Some poems are more abstract but suggest places in the area. The poems—and the fiction—solidify the DMV as a literary powerhouse.

SVW: What has been your fondest memory of your poetic journey so far? And what’s next for you?

JC: Getting to know other poets and writers, and being welcomed into the literary community. I got my MFA from American University, and I got to know many writers. However, since I published my book and started working on this anthology, I have met so many more people and the thriving literary community that we have here in the DMV. Discovering more writers and hearing their stories have been the best part of this journey.

Right now, I’m working on poems and some translation projects. Another book may take a while, but as long as I can keep writing, I’m happy.

Giveaway: Leave a comment about what you think America looks like by Feb. 17, 2021.

I will send the winner (age 18+) a copy of Jona’s book, Said Through Glass, and the anthology This Is What America Looks Like.

Please leave a way for me to contact you.

Publication News 2021

Hello everyone!

I have some wonderful publication news to share. It’s been a while since I’ve shared some news on the poetry writing front. I have been updating my Publication Credits page (it’s in the menu), so feel free to check that out, too.

First, three of my poems now are available in The Magnolia Review, Volume 6, Issue 2. The theme for the issue was “A Defining Moment.” You’ll need to download the PDF, but the magazine is worth the download.

My poems appear on pgs. 68, 80, and 115. I hope you check them out, but they are on dark topics regarding gun violence, so be aware.

Secondly, I’m happy to announce that the anthology from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House, This Is What America Looks Like, is available for purchase.

I have 1 poem included in this collection, but I hope you’ll buy a copy because I know many of these writers (fiction and poetry) and their work is AMAZING.

You can purchase the anthology through Amazon or directly from the publisher.

I’ll also have an interview with the poetry editor Jona Colson very soon on the blog. You may recall my review of his collection, Said Through Glass.

Perseverance pays off. I just want to remind you that art is hard work and pleasure in the making, but getting it published is even harder work. If you want it, pursue it.