The ProsenPeople

On Dedication(s)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017 | Permalink

Peter Hayes is an award-winning educator and the author of  How Was It Possible?: A Holocaust Reader. With the release of his new book Why?: Explaining the Holocaust today, Peter will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


A friend of mine says that the most interesting parts of any book are the dedication and the acknowledgements because they reveal most about the author. In the case of my newest book, Why? Explaining the Holocaust, I doubt this generalization will apply. The subject matter is too unsettling and important. But I hope my expressions of thanks will get readers’ momentary attention, especially the dedication. It is to six teachers who changed my life.

Public education was one of the glories of America in the decades just after World War II, which is when I grew up. The first two people I mention opened worlds to me in the middle and high school classrooms of Framingham, Massachusetts. Mary Faherty was a devout Catholic who not only assured that I got confirmed in that faith, from which I already was falling away at the age of thirteen, but who also introduced me to Shakespeare, Browning, and Ibsen, who are not exactly canonical Catholic authors. I ended up a writer, and I might never have become attuned to words as I am without her. James McGillivray taught history as I had never encountered it before: in the spirit of his era, as a subject that focused as much on the “frame of reference” of those who wrote it as on the matters they wrote about. I ended up a historian of a less subjectivist bent, but I might never have been as questioning and skeptical of received wisdom as I am without him (and Ibsen!).

I came in contact with the other four of these mentors at the elite private institutions—Bowdoin, Oxford, and Yale—to which scholarships gave me access. All men (such was the era), they could not have been otherwise more different from each other or from me, the product of a family in which no one had completed college. Athern Daggett was an elderly, endearing New England Yankee who taught constitutional and international law in Mr. Chipsian fashion; John Rensenbrink an intellectual iconoclast and gadfly (and later Green Party leader) of Midwestern Dutch Calvinist heritage who supervised my undergraduate senior thesis on African politics; Tim Mason, a brilliant and charismatic English Marxist specializing in central European history, moved my attention toward Europe and backward in time, and then passed me on to Henry Turner, a classically liberal American scholar and careful prose stylist, who devoted his career to unmasking the easy certainties of marxisant approaches to German history.

What all six of these disparate people imparted was a combination of passion and rigor. They loved and believed in what they taught, and they treated it—and wanted me to treat it—with the kind of respect that hard work indicates. They made participating in their interests seem like the most fascinating thing I possibly could do with my time and energy. That ability to spark is, of course, the kinetic secret to great teaching. It’s also the singular talent that gives the lie to the old saw that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

Good teaching, whether in person in a classroom or at a distance via the pages of a book, requires the capacity to inspire that these people had, along with one other vital component of their magic: empathy, the ability to sense where listeners and readers are, to reach that place, and to bring them to a new location.

All but one of these six individuals is gone now; and the exception is 88 years old as I write. But, whenever and wherever I have taught and written during a long career, they have been constant presences. To a young person whose parents were not very adept in that role, these teachers provided models of why and how to pay it forward. Now, at long last and in a small way, I get to pay them back.

Peter Hayes currently chairs the Academic Committee at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and was from 1980 to 2016 Professor of History and German and from 2000 to 2016 Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor at Northwestern University. He writes and lectures widely on German and Holocaust history in the United States and abroad.

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New Reviews January 13, 2017

Friday, January 13, 2017 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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A Week of Jewish Literary Honors

Thursday, January 12, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It’s been quite a week in the world of Jewish literature: Jewish Book Council and the Association of Jewish Libraries both released major announcements on the same day, naming the books and authors to receive this year’s National Jewish Book Awards and Sydney Taylor Book Award medals!

Awarded in roughly twenty different categories each year, the National Jewish Book Awards honor authors of outstanding Jewish literature across a wide range of genre and subjects. Academic press winners for the 2016 National Jewish Book Awards include Michael Bazyler's Holocaust, Genocide, and the Law: A Quest for Justice in a Post-Holocaust World (Oxford University Press), Never Better!: The Modern Jewish Picaresque by Miriam Udel (University of Michigan Press), Anti-Jewish Riots in the Crown of Aragon and the Royal Response, 1391 – 1392 by Benjamin R. Gampel (Cambridge University Press), Extraterritorial Dreams: European Citizenship, Sephardi Jews, and the Ottoman Twentieth Century by Sarah Abrevaya Stein (University of Chicago Press), Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece by Devin E. Naar (Stanford University Press), Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food by Roger Horowitz (Columbia University Press), and Makers of Jewish Modernity: Thinkers, Artists, Leaders, and the World They Made (Princeton University Press).

Daniel Gordis’s Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn received the Everett Family Foundation Award for Jewish Book of the Year, and Michael Chabon was awarded Jewish Book Council’s Modern Literary Achievement Award for his lifetime contribution to Jewish Literature.

In fiction, winners included Rose Tremain for The Gustav Sonata (W. W. Norton & Company), Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit (Knopf Books for Young Readers) for Debut Fiction, and Lauren Belfer’s And After the Fire (Harper) won the inaugural Debby and Ken Miller Award for Book Club titles. Stanly Moss’s Almost Complete Poems (Seven Stories Press) received newly dedicated Berru Award in Memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash for Poetry, and awards for Young Adult and Children’s Literature went to On Blackberry Hill, a self-published novel by Rachel Mann, and I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster).

CLICK HERE for the full list of 2016 National Jewish Book Award Winners and Finalists

Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley also received the Syndey Taylor Award Gold Medal for their children’s illustrated biography of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as did Gavriel Savit for his YA crossover debut. The Gold Medal was also awarded to Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly for The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog (Dutton Children’s Books). Silver Medalists included Richard Michelson’s Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy (Knopf Books for Young Readers), illustrated by Edel Rodriguez; A Hat for Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting and Love by Michelle Edwards and illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Schwartz & Wade); A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (Viking Books for Young Readers); and 2016 – 2017 JBC Network author Joel Ben Izzy’s novel Dreidels on the Brain. For the full list of 2017 Sydney Taylor Award winners, honorees, and finalists, read the official press release here.

Last week, the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize 2017 Shortlist was announced, naming 2015 National Jewish Book Award-winner The Crime and the Silence by Anna Bikont (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Little, Brown & Company), Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933 – 1949 by David Cesarani (St. Martin’s Press), All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski, and Philippe Sands’s East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, a 2016 – 2017 JBC Network book.

Jewish Book Council also recently launched the Natan Book Award, a two-stage prize to encourage writers in writing and promoting their work before it has been published. Do you have a forthcoming book of interest to Jewish audiences? Find out more about Jewish Book Council’s programs, resources, and awards for 2017!

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Picking Up the Brush. I Mean the Mop. I Mean the Brush.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, poet Molly Peacock reflected the courage behind the encouragement she received, her upbringing in a Jewish neighborhood as an Irish Protestant, and how the story of a boy who saved himself from the Nazi gas chambers with a mop stayed with her through adulthood. With the release of her collection The Analyst this week, Molly is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I am a goyishe lady, almost 70. After 38 years of being in analysis (not all at once! In spates, sometimes long, sometimes short, of intensity over the years,) I am no longer a patient. Yet now I have to be patient with my former analyst, Joan Stein, now 82. We have embarked on a new relationship. It’s a bit like a watercolor of the old relationship. The paintbrush (and the mop) are still saving our lives.

After those watercolors began appearing on her walls about 25 years ago, Joan Stein reduced her practice to four days a week. On Fridays she took painting classes in the studios at the 92 St. YMHA on Lexington Avenue. Her watercolors were often portraits of people. It was people who engaged her, not landscapes or objects. Faces, postures. Like the face of her father that she painted as a very young woman at Radcliffe. What had once been rejected resurfaced. Her talent was waiting, just as she so patiently once waited for me, hour after hour, to slowly come to feel what I felt when I felt it, not after the feeling had hardened cold.

Doctors rescued Joan, even as she, the analyst, rescued me. But in both our lives something else, so health-giving and so essential to survival, was at work. After her stroke, Joan lost a great deal of language, and most of her ability to read. She even had to re-learn to use a key to unlock her apartment. Of course she had to abandon her practice.

But she did not lose her capacity to paint. That part of her brain worked—and it began to work to save her life. After she returned from the hospital, she began to paint. The art she had turned away from began to restore her life. She couldn’t any longer paint faces, so she began painting other living things: flowers.

When people talk about the “vision” of a poet, they’re really talking about imagery. It’s the images a poet creates that amount to what we name a poets’ “vision.” I don’t think of myself as a visionary, but I often wake up with images, and I try to write poems from this hypnogogic state. Occasionally I wake up with this image: a mop in filthy water in a bucket on a concrete floor. After visiting my analyst, whose living room that once served as her therapy room is now a watercolor studio, I wake up with another image: a watercolor brush dips in almost musical motion into water, into paint, onto paper… Another image materializes, brilliant and glowing.

“If I couldn’t paint, I wouldn’t want to live,” Joan tells me, on each of my pilgrimages to visit her, and in each of our stay-in-touch phone calls. She is saving her own life by picking up the brush. I mean the mop. I mean the brush.

Joan watched me as I reintegrated all the parts of my life. She watched the repair over decades. And now I have the privilege of watching the woman who helped with every artistic decision of my life put her own life in her hands as she takes up that brush, every day. Several of the poems in The Analyst take place in small museums we have visited in our new, rather strange, post-stroke, post-analytical relationship. I barely know what to call her in the last poem in the book, where we are watching three monks make a sand painting at The Asia Society in New York. Here the poet steps in to query the monks:

“…Excuse me, my friend is

recovering from an accident. She’s a …
painter. May we ask you some questions?”
(Have I introduced you, my former analyst,

as my painter-friend?) You point with your cane<
to the mandala-in-sand…When they’re done,
they’ll brush it all away. You can’t believe it.
Nothing stays (including the memory you’ve lost).
What lasts? The pattern the monks have

memorized. Their burnt-down temple re-
turns as this circular core.
                                                                                                       Only when
something’s over can its shape materialize.

Molly Peacock is the President Emerita of the Poetry Society of America, the author of seven poetry collections, and the co-creator of Poetry in Motion. Her newest book, The Analyst: Poems, comes out January 3, 2017 from W. W. Norton & Company.

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Book Cover of the Week: The Widow of Wall Street

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

If you enjoy dark fiction about family relationships and deception, keep an eye out for a new novel coming out this April from bestselling author Randy Susan Meyers:

You gotta love a glitzy book cover. The Widow of Wall Street opens in 2009 with a visit to the Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institution, where Phoebe Pierce’s husband, Jake, is imprisoned on fraud charges following the discovery of the elaborate Ponzi scheme upon which he built their fortune. The novel follows Phoebe from the beginnings of her relationship with Jake in the summer of 1960 through the present day, living with her husband’s notoriety and the world’s censure and suspicion, reminding readers with that sparkly city skyline that all that glitters is not gold.

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The Courage Inside Encouragement

Monday, January 09, 2017 | Permalink

Last week, poet Molly Peacock reflected on her upbringing in a Jewish neighborhood as an Irish Protestant and how the story of a boy who saved himself from the Nazi gas chambers with a mop stayed with her through adulthood. With the release of her collection The Analyst this week, Molly is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

By New Year’s week of 1992, I am on the subway looking up at a poetry placard above the heads of bundled-up New Yorkers and feeling pretty amazed. I am 45 years old, President of the Poetry Society of America and a co-creator of Poetry in Motion on New York City’s subways and buses, thanks to the encouragement of my analyst, Joan Stein—whom I now see for check-ins, unless something big comes up. She is avidly interested to support all my efforts as a poet, helping me to weather rejection after rejection.

I was not then aware that she herself refused to pick up a brush for 25 years after a terrible critique shut her down. So often helpers help from desiccated spots in their hearts. I was utterly unaware that watching her patients grow helped Joan grow. Well, of course it was more complicated: being aware that she was helping others withstand rejection, she was able to reestablish some part of herself that allowed her to pick up a brush again.

It strikes me that, metaphorically speaking, a paintbrush is a bit like a miniature version of the mop that the boy had the wits to grab to escape death. A gigantic version of a paintbrush saved his life. Somehow, the story of the boy who picked up the mop and the story of the woman who picked up the brush after decades of hurt refusal are now for me intertwined. One is monumental and full of the noise of the shouts of the officers; the other is small and quiet. But the images seesaw back and forth.

How is it that my analyst was so sensitive to criticism? Once she asked me, “Do you know how much rejection you take?” I answered that my actor friends take a lot more rejection at auditions. My painter friend used to take half a valium before she went on rounds of galleries to show her work. I did not realize that Joan’s question came from such a deep place in her own life. It forced me to understand how much rejection I really did take—and still do. As Joan was helping me to realize this, I also developed ways to acknowledge that it was happening and to cope with it.

When I receive a rejection of a poem (and believe me, it happens, even to those of us lucky enough to have W. W. Norton as a publisher,) I don’t tell myself I should “have a thicker skin.” Poets, by virtue of what they do, must have thin skins. Instead, I tell myself it hurts. Then I wait. It takes about 48 hours before I get furious. How could that misguided editor reject my adorable poem? Then I can revise it—or not—and send it out again.

I am completely convinced that 1) being able to write poetry saved my life and
2) a woman who made a career after a critique shut her down helped make that artistic life possible. But what about her? As a teenager she turned to art to transform her deepest feelings. How could she deny the transformative power of art to herself, yet encourage it in her patients? I think of the word “courage” inside “encourage” and realize that inside the warmth of support comes the steel of bravery.

Watercolors began appearing on her walls.

When my thoughts misfired for me
you painted me a copy of their beauty.

Molly Peacock is the President Emerita of the Poetry Society of America, the author of seven poetry collections, and the co-creator of Poetry in Motion. Her newest book, The Analyst: Poems, comes out January 3, 2017 from W. W. Norton & Company.

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New Reviews January 6, 2017

Friday, January 06, 2017 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Book Cover of the Week: Breaking the Chains of Gravity

Thursday, January 05, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I’m not sure I can express how much I am looking forward to seeing Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures this weekend: the incredible true story of three black female mathematicians who helped NASA launch John Glenn into orbit in 1962 hits theaters tomorrow! While the film is based on a Margot Lee Shetterly book of the same title, I have my nose buried in a different relevant read:

Amy Shira Teitel’s Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA begins in the spring of 1930, following the German rocket program from the Wehrmacht through World War II and its postwar integration into the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the United States federal agency founded in 1915 and absorbed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 under President Eisenhower—in response to the October 1957 launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union. This fascinating historical account is a an excellent companion to Michael Chabon’s recent novel Moonglow, which depicts many of the same events, programs, and engineers introduced here in Amy Shira Teitel’s nonfiction debut.

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Brushes You Exchanged for Words

Wednesday, January 04, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, poet Molly Peacock reflected on her upbringing in a Jewish neighborhood as an Irish Protestant. With the release of her collection The Analyst this week, Molly is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

By New Year’s week of 1982 I have become an independent, divorced, goyishe young woman of 31. I am about to tell my analyst Joan Stein the story of the boy who picked up the mop. I live in a tiny studio apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; her office is in her home, a one-bedroom apartment in a comfortable building on the Upper West Side, near Zabar’s. Waking up from dreams where my father has vaporized into toxic smoke that seeps beneath my apartment door, I schlep through the city slush and at last show up in her office. We begin each session sitting across from one another: I tell her about the poems I’ve gotten published and wait for her to beam her famous smile of approval. Dark-haired, high-cheekboned, she outlines that smile in clear, direct red lipstick.

Then, as I swing my feet onto the couch and lie down, she switches to the chair at the far end just behind my head. Now the analysis begins. Reliving the half-dream of the seeping toxic smoke of my father, I realize I hope always to keep my wits about me, always to be ready to scramble across a room and pick up a mop and fake my way to safety. That’s when I tell about the boy. A talisman I’ve latched onto. She doesn’t discuss whether I’ve appropriated a tragic story for my less-than-tragic life. She doesn’t tell me to embrace an Irish myth because I have no right to internalize a story from the Holocaust. Joan doesn’t remind me that my father didn’t kill me. (I always put those knives away.) Or that I escaped from my family. She doesn’t remind me that I overcame the fear of claiming myself as a poet (with her help). Instead, she waits. And waits.

When I finally burst into the tears I always seem to save for the end of a session, just when I have to leave in a disheveled mess, she speaks. Just a little bit. Reminding me of my habit of hyper-vigilance, something I shared with some of my elementary school classmates who were children of survivors.

Years later, after her stroke, and after she is forced to close her practice, I learn about Joan’s own father, an attorney, who died when she was seventeen. He had encouraged her to take independent painting lessons. He and her mother sent her to a special art summer school. She was determined to become a painter. A neighbor helped her to apply to Radcliffe, and the bright, electric Joanie Workman, as she was called then, was accepted. She entered Radcliffe in 1953, and the Dean sent her to study with T. Lux Feininger, the son of the modernist painter Lyonel Feininger. Raised in the tradition of Bauhaus painting, T. Lux Feininger embraced abstraction. Although he and his family fled the Nazis to settle in New York, he enlisted in the United States Army and fought in Europe. Traumatized, he returned to New York, and after seeing a therapist himself, moved to Boston and his job at Harvard. When bright, 17-year-old Joanie Workman appeared in class, he was not interested in her mournful paintings of the father she had just lost. T. Lux was determined that the T-square, and not the organic, messy shapes of life, the ones he had suffered, should rule post-war art. Joan Stein recalls his critique of her portraits of her father as “excoriating.” That’s how it felt to the girl whose father had left a great hole in her life even as bombs had burst holes in her professor’s life.

“…your Radcliffe professor taught:/ all drawing is thought,” I write in the second poem in The Analyst, “To you, abstraction was lying./ All you did was draw your father failing,/then dying…”

What did she do after the “excoriating” critique? She turned on her heel and left the class. Never went back. Declared a Psychology major. Graduated early to marry. Moved to Seattle. Had two sons. Did graduate work at the University of Washington. Divorced. Moved to New York City. Never picked up a brush for twenty-five years.

…brushes you exchanged for words
drawing from what you heard,
the lines of your patients’ inner lives…

Molly Peacock is the President Emerita of the Poetry Society of America, the author of seven poetry collections, and the co-creator of Poetry in Motion. Her newest book, The Analyst: Poems, comes out January 3, 2017 from W. W. Norton & Company.

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“I'm an Irish Molly”

Tuesday, January 03, 2017 | Permalink

Molly Peacock is the author of The Analyst, a collection of poetry exploring her evolving relationship with Jewish psychoanalyst Joan Stein, With the release of the book today from W. W. Norton & Company, Molly will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I am a goyishe girl, age 9, returning to PS 88 in Buffalo, New York, just after New Year’s Day, 1956, hanging my snow-caked leggings up on a coatroom hook with all the other girls. My fourth grade class is almost exclusively Jewish—except for me, a Protestant, and two Catholics. In Show-and-Tell my girlfriends will show off the poodle skirts they got for Hanukkah, and I will show off the poodle skirt I got for Christmas.

1956 is the same year that my future psychotherapist, Joan Stein, one of the few Jewish women in her class, graduates from Radcliffe. When I meet her in 1974, I am about to be divorced and in despair. So will begin our 38-year psychoanalytic relationship. It will last until 2012, when a devastating stroke will force her to close her practice. Astonishingly, a new relationship will begin, one in which I get to watch the woman who helped me with every major decision of my life make the choices that will infuse her end game with the power and light of painting. All this is part of the backstory of The Analyst, a book of poems about this remarkable woman, about the power of art, and about how, post-analysis, an unlikely friendship began.

In my writing this week, I’m tracking Joan’s and my story, starting with my childhood, of course. My mother, a raven-haired Irish farm girl who married a Navy man with PTSD (though no one called those violent, alcoholic vets victims of war trauma then), determined that her daughter must have the best chance in life. She convinced my father and grandparents to buy a duplex in the north of Buffalo, where the public library is a wonderland, where kids catapult through elementary school, and where almost everyone is Jewish. I am the only goy in my Brownie troupe. After school I visit my friends’ houses where their bubbies dole out almond cookies, their sleeves slipping upwards to reveal the numbers on their arms. And in these houses, larger than mine, darker inside than mine, the light seeming not to come from lamps but from the polish on the massive mahogany furniture, I hear the stories about children who used their wits to survive.

Wits! I need my wits not to perish in a household where my mother instructs me always to put the knives away immediately after they are washed. You never know what my father, the man who tried to push her down the cellar stairs, who hurls plates, glasses, and beer bottles, shards flying, will do when drunk and out of control. Inside my house, I fear for my life. (Not that I mentioned this to anyone until I met my analyst.)

Meanwhile, mild-mannered fathers read the newspapers in my friends’ houses. Mothers take the time to lie down on the couch with a headache. Arguments ensue about the Rosenbergs. Bubbies plunk babkas on those mahogany tables. My friends are grilled about what they learned in school, and I am grilled, too, a little girl with a Jewish name, Molly. “I’m an Irish Molly,” I patiently explain. Stories of the camps unfold, including the story of a boy standing in line for the lethal showers who suddenly drops to the floor, using his wits to save his life:

As the line shuffled toward the gas chamber and the soap was doled out, the boy spied an abandoned mop and pail when commanded by an officer to deliver a message. The boy scrambled to the pail, picked up the mop and started swabbing. The line moved on, and the boy who seized his chance survived.

If only I could be like that boy, I thought. He became my example of kid resourcefulness. If only I could summon up his vigilance to protect myself. The difference between my friends and me is not only whether you get one bonanza of presents under tree or you stretch it out for eight nights. The difference is blue-collar violence.

In Boston, my future psychotherapist is also protecting herself, in quite a different way: by stalking out of an art class.

Eighteen years later I will tell her the story of the vigilant boy in the camps.

Molly Peacock is the President Emerita of the Poetry Society of America, the author of seven poetry collections, and the co-creator of Poetry in Motion. Her newest book, The Analyst: Poems, comes out January 3, 2017 from W. W. Norton & Company.

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