Conversation with Matthew Olzmann, Kundiman Poetry Prize Winner

Conversation with Matthew Olzmann, Kundiman Poetry Prize Winner

What was going through your head when you were writing the poems in the manuscript you submitted for the Poetry Prize? What were your inspirations and motivations?

The poems in Mezzanines were written over a six or seven-year period (with the majority of them being written during my last year in grad school and the year that followed). Until recently, I tended to write while thinking only about individual poems, rather than “collections” of poems. I wasn’t sure how they would fit together in a larger collection, or if they would go together in a book. That part came much later in the process. Once I had a substantial number of poems, I started organizing them and noticing thematic threads, figurative resonances, repetitions and obsessions. Turning that into a manuscript involved a long process of trial and error. Putting the poems in different orders. Discarding poems. Adding new poems. Seeing where the holes were and writing toward those spaces. The book that eventually became Mezzanines went through many evolutions. It existed with different titles, and dozens of poems shuffled their way in and out of its pages. I sent it to all the contests, and kept revising it. At some point, I decided to stop working on it and just let it exist for a while. I sent it out for a year without making any changes. After a year, I made some more revisions to it, but this time I was revising without having been staring at it everyday. Maybe that perspective–—that added distance—–helped. The manuscript found a home. Then I started revising it again.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a collection of (mostly) epistolary poems: letters, and poems about post offices. A lot of my poems use some element of direct address, or at least begin that way in early drafts, and this new collection leans into that mode more fully and consciously. I’m also working on some flash fiction and short lyric essays.

What advice do you have for writers looking to submit their manuscript?

Send to the presses that you truly love. You only get to publish this book once, so be patient, and find the press that’s the right fit for you and your work. If you’re thinking of submitting specifically to the Kundiman Prize, know that your work will be read with great care. The people who will be reading your work are rooting for you. A year or two after being selected for the Kundiman Prize, I had the opportunity to serve as a reader for the prize. Each manuscript was read by more than one reader, and careful attention was given to each. It can be daunting sending to contests, but know that there are people out there who are cheering for you.


Matthew Olzmann is the author of two collections of poems, Mezzanines, which was selected for the Kundiman Prize, and Contradictions in the Design, both from Alice James Books.  He’s received fellowships from Kundiman, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Kresge Arts Foundation.  His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in  Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Brevity, Southern Review and elsewhere. Currently, he teaches at Dartmouth College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Kundiman & The Home School Partnership

Kundiman and The Home School would like to announce their inaugural partnership and name Rajiv Mohabir as the recipient of a Home School Miami 2016 scholarship! He will be receiving a full tuition waiver (1175 USD) plus a travel honorarium (500 USD) for the full residency as the winner of the 2015 Kundiman Book Prize.

The Home School organizes weeklong conferences for poets and artists. Home School participants spend six days immersed in an intensive program that foregrounds interdisciplinary experimentation and collaboration.

Apply to The Home School residency by the free early-bird deadline of August 31 to participate in Home School activities. 

Miami Beach, Florida: 

Home School Miami 2016 will feature core poetry faculty: Timothy Donnelly, Adam Fitzgerald, Cathy Park Hong, Dorothea Lasky, Tan Lin, Maggie Nelson and Mónica de la Torre. Visiting poets: Natalie Diaz, Renee Gladman, Mira Gonzalez, Jorie Graham and Derek Walcott. 

July 28: Kundiman with Lunchtime Poems in Military Park

Kundiman is reading with the Lunchtime Poems reading series on Tuesday, July 28, 12:30 - 1:30pm. Reading will be held on the Plaza in Military Park, Newark, NJ. 

Tuesday, July 28 from 12:30 - 1:30pm
Military Park in Newark, NJ
Admission is free

Featured readers are Wo Chan, Chen Chen, Amy Meng, and Alison Roh Park.


Wo Chan is a queer Fujianese poet and drag performer. A recipient of fellowships from Poets House, Kundiman, and Lambda Literary, Wo’s work has been published in cream city review, BARZAHK, and VYM Magazine. As a member of Brooklyn-based drag alliance, Switch n' Play, Wo has performed at venues including Brooklyn Pride, The Trevor Project, and the Architectural Digest Expo. Wo is a 2015 AAWW Margins Fellow.

Chen Chen is the author of the chapbook Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press, 2015). His poems have appeared/are forthcoming in Poetry, The Massachusetts Review, Narrative, [PANK], The Best American Poetry 2015, among others. He is the winner of the Matt Clark Award from New Delta Review and the Joyce Carol Oates Award, selected by Ishion Hutchinson. He holds an MFA from Syracuse University and this fall he will be joining the PhD program in English & Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. Visit him at chenchenwrites.com

Amy Meng’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Cream City Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, The Normal School, North Dakota Quarterly, Pleiades, and Slice Magazine. She is a Kundiman Fellow and was a finalist for the Margins fellowship. Currently, she teaches creative writing at Rutgers University and serves as a poetry editor at Bodega Magazine.

Alison Roh Park is a Kundiman fellow, Pushcart nominated poet, and past winner of of the PSA New York Chapbook Fellowship, Poets & Writers Magazine Amy Award, and Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant. She teaches ethnic studies at Hunter College and is a founding member of The Good Times Collective of emerging poets writing in the tradition of Lucille Clifton.


In case of rain, readings will be held in the New Jersey Historical Society as 52 Park Place. Co-sponsored by the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and the Military Park Partnership. Admission is free.

March 8: Kundiman & Verlaine ft. Bethany Carlson, W. Todd Kaneko, & Monica Ong

March 8: Kundiman & Verlaine ft. Bethany Carlson, W. Todd Kaneko, & Monica Ong

Join us for a night of words & libation with readings by: BETHANY CARLSON, W. TODD KANEKO, & MONICA ONG

Happy hour: 4-5pm
Open mic: 4:30-5pm
Feature Reading: 5pm
$5 suggested donation

RSVP on Facebook!

Bethany Carlson is an MDiv candidate at Yale University and holds an MFA from Indiana University. She is interested in how lyricism enhances sacred liturgy, invites eschatological imagination, and transcends a Christological understanding of narrative time. Bethany is a Kundiman Fellow and a member of The Lilly Graduate Fellows Program in Humanities & the Arts.


W. Todd Kaneko is the author of The Dead Wrestler Elegies (Curbside Splendor, 2014). His poems, essays and stories can be seen in Bellingham Review, Los Angeles Review, The Normal School, The Collagist, Blackbird, Third Coast, Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century, Bring the Noise: The Best Pop Culture Essays from Barrelhouse Magazine and many other journals and anthologies. A recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, he lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing at Grand Valley State University.

Monica Ong is a visual artist and poet whose hybrid image-poems juxtapose diagram and diary. She completed her MFA in Digital Media at the Rhode Island School of Design and is also a Kundiman poetry fellow. Her work has been published in several journals including the Lantern Review, Drunken Boat, Glassworks Magazine, Loaded Bicycle, Tidal Basin Review, and the Seneca Review. She has also been exhibiting artwork for over a decade nationally and internationally. Ms. Ong’s debut collection, Silent Anatomies, was selected by poet Joy Harjo as winner of the Kore Press First Book Award. Silent Anatomies will be released in March 2015.

November 16: Kundiman & Verlaine ft. Jay Deshpande, Sandra Lim, & Jee Leong Koh w/ translator Keisuke Tsubono

Kundiman & Verlaine ft. Jay Deshpande, Sandra Lim, & Jee Leong Koh w/ translator Keisuke Tsubono

Join us for a night of words & libation with readings by:


Open bar: 4-5pm
Open mic: 4:30-5pm
Feature Reading: 5pm
$5 suggested donation

RSVP on Facebook!

** This event was funded in part by Poets & Writers, Inc. through public funds from the New York State Council of the Arts in partnership with the City Council with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. *

Jay Deshpande’s poems have appeared in Narrative, Sixth Finch, Atlas Review, Handsome, Forklift, Ohio and elsewhere. He is the author of Love the Stranger, forthcoming from YesYes Books in 2015. He has studied poetry at Columbia University and served as poetry editor of AGNI. He lives in Brooklyn. You can find him @jdeshpan and at jaydeshpande.com.


Sandra Lim is the author of The Wilderness (W.W. Norton, 2014), selected by Louise Glück for the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and a previous collection of poetry, Loveliest Grotesque (Kore Press, 2006). A 2015 Pushcart Prize winner, she has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Getty Research Institute. Lim was born in Seoul, Korea and educated at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and lives in Cambridge, MA.

Jee Leong Koh.jpg

Jee Leong Koh is the author of four books of poems, including Seven Studies for a Self Portrait (Bench Press). His latest collection The Pillow Book (Math Paper Press) has been translated into Japanese by Keisuke Tsubono, and published in an illustrated bilingual edition by Awai Books. It is shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize. Jee is the co-chair of the inaugural Singapore Literature Festival in NYC, and the curator of the arts website Singapore Poetry (http://singaporepoetry.com/). He has a new book of poems forthcoming from Carcanet Press (UK) in July 2015. 

Keisuke Tsubono.JPG

Keisuke Tsubono is a translator, writer, editor, and scholar of American literature. He is also a co-founder of Awai Books, Ph.D student in contemporary literary studies at the University of Tokyo, and Fulbright visiting student researcher at New York University (2014-2015).

Interview with April Naoko Heck

A Nuclear Family
By April Naoko Heck

Cathy Linh Che: Your book A Nuclear Family came out this spring. Congratulations! Could you talk a little about the book's title?

April Naoko Heck: Thanks!

The title A Nuclear Family works on several levels: My Japanese great-grandmother was a survivor of Hiroshima, and on the day the bomb fell, my mother was in the womb about twenty miles away in Hiroshima prefecture. My mother later went on to marry my white, American father––who, ironically, worked for a nuclear power plant through the 1980s. During that time––during most of my childhood in Ohio––my little sister, our parents, and I made up a "nuclear family," in that utterly romantic sense of the term.

It occurs to me how new the word “nuclear” is––I just checked the etymology for “nucleus,” which I will share for my fellow word nerds: “1704, "kernel of a nut," 1708, "head of a comet," from Latin nucleus "kernel," from nucula "little nut," . . . .  Modern atomic meaning is 1912.”

Yes, “A Nutty Family”––that’s accurate too.

Cathy: We attended all three Kundiman retreats together and graduated together. Why did you apply, and what have you found there as a fellow?

April: In the months leading up to the retreat, I felt lost and demoralized as a writer in New York City. My manuscript was getting rejected from a million places. At the same time, I was working with literary stars, in proximity to, but not part of the glitterati. (Of course, that term is smoke and mirrors; I only had to talk to my non-writer friend to realize how distorted my perspective was, because he hadn’t even heard of writers I envied!)

At my first retreat, I cried as much as I laughed, often in the same breath. The retreat’s workshops were the first time I’d ever studied writing with Asian American faculty. And even though all of us poets came from different places, the common patterns in our histories and struggles to assimilate made for richer conversations and deeper sense of belonging than I’d ever experienced in an academic setting. Kundiman was super vitamin to my creative spirit. It was reinvigorated courage and motivation. It was detox, adrenaline, recovery. It was, and is, my poetry home.

Cathy: What advice would you give to a poet who wants to publish a first book?

Take your time, be patient, and aim high. Everyone should send poems to The New Yorker. Everyone should send their manuscript to the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. Over time your best poems will find the right homes, and your manuscript will find the right press. Don’t compare yourself to others. Just do your work with as much joy as you can muster, trust in the process, and, maybe above all, help your friends. The rewards of the latter continue to surprise and delight me.   


April Naoko Heck was born in Tokyo and moved to the U.S. with her family when she was seven. A Kundiman Fellow, she has been awarded residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Vermont Studio Center. A Nuclear Family, her first collection of poems, was released by UpSet Press in spring 2014 and is available on Amazon. Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths; book cover by Bianca Stone.

May 30: Debut Ball: Reading, Pinata, Dance with Sally Wen Mao, R.A. Villanueva, Tarfia Faizullah, and Cathy Linh Che at AAWW

2014 will go down as an historic year for poetry. We're feting Sally Wen Mao's debut Mad Honey Symposium. Dave Eggers likes its "gritty, world-wise sense of humor that gives her work heavyweight swagger.” Also just released: Cathy Linh Che's Split, a tender exploration of war, diaspora, and violence, and Tarfia Faizullah's Seam, based on interviews with women survivors of the 1971 Pakistani army atrocities Dhaka, Bangladesh. R.A.Villanueva will preview his new book Reliquaria, due out later this year, which discusses, among other things, the "Bodies" exhibition.

Asian American Writers' Workshop
Friday, May 30, 8pm
112 W. 27th Street, Suite 600
New York, NY 10001

Facebook event page here: https://www.facebook.com/events/293294817493674/

We're celebrating with a reading, of course, but in place of wine and polite conversation afterwards we're throwing a pinata bash and dance party.

Sally Wen Mao is the author of a forthcoming book of poems, Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014), the winner of the 2012 Kinereth Gensler Award. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2013 and is published or forthcoming Colorado Review, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Third Coast, and West Branch, among others. The recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, she holds a B.A. from Carnegie Mellon University and an M.F.A. from Cornell University, where she is currently a lecturer.

R.A. Villanueva is the author of Reliquaria, winner of the 2013 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. A founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, his honors include the 2013 Ninth Letter Literary Award for poetry and fellowships from Kundiman and The Asian American Literary Review. His writing has appeared widely in journals and anthologies including AGNI, The Common, DIAGRAM, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He lives in Brooklyn.

Tarfia Faizullah is the author of Seam (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), winner of the 2012 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry’s First Book Award. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares,The Missouri Review, Passages North, New Ohio Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Southern Review, Mead, Poetry Daily, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, she is a graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth University program in creative writing.

Cathy Linh Che is a Vietnamese American poet from Los Angeles, CA. She has received awards from The Asian American Literary Review, The Center for Book Arts, The Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown, Hedgebrook, Kundiman, The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Workspace Residency, and Poets & Writers. She is a founding editor of Paperbag.

Co-sponsored by Asian American Writers' Workshop.

Check out Fireside: A Poetry Blog during National Poetry Month

For more, visit: http://kundimanfireside.tumblr.com/

Poets Playing: Exquisite Corpse

From top to bottom the images/texts are by:

Rachelle Cruz lives in Southern Cali. Her text/image was completed with the help of her CRWT 150 students, Melanie and Jonathan.

Desiree Bailey lives in Providence, RI and is an MFA Fiction candidate at Brown University. She has received fellowships from Princeton in Africa, The Norman Mailer Center and the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. She is the current Fiction editor for Kin Folks.

Eduardo Corral first book Slow Lightning was published by Yale University Press in 2012 as the winner of the Yale Younger Series Poets Prize. Corral was born in Casa Grande, Arizona to Higinio and Socorro Corral. He currently lives in Rego Park, Queens, New York. 

Lisa Lee is a writer living in Los Angeles.

Rona Luo is a writer and healer living in Oakland, California.

Rajiv Mohabir studies writing in Honolulu and loves poems by Kundies, Kabir, and humpback whales. Check out some of his work here: http://rajivmohabir.wordpress.com/writing/

Rachel Ronquillo Gray was born and raised in Nevada; she now lives in the Midwest and is trying to live without mountains. 

Poet and visual artist Maya Pindyck is the author of the collection Friend Among Stones (New Rivers Press) and the chapbook Locket, Master (Poetry Society of America).

Matthew Olzmann is the author of Mezzanines (Alice James Books), selected for the 2011 Kundiman Prize. His poems have appeared in New England ReviewKenyon ReviewGulf Coast,The Southern Review and elsewhere. He’s received fellowships and scholarships from the Kresge Arts FoundationThe Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Currently, he teaches at Warren Wilson College and is the poetry editor of The Collagist.