New book & what I’ve been up to


New book, ya’ll!

My first full-length collection of poems is out! It’s called Mother-Ghosts, and I’ll let my wonderful blurb and intro-writer do the work of telling you about it:

Leah Sewell’s exquisite collection MOTHER-GHOSTS devastates in the way that all the best poems do–with deft beauty and haunting honesty. With fierce mother-love and the fear that is born of it, these poems leave us reaching for a wisp of dream and clutching a child’s nightgown. Sewell’s mother-ghosts sweep readers with both lyric and emotional intensity, and like good mothers, they will never leave us, nor would we want them to. –Amy Fleury, author of Sympathetic Magic and Beautiful Trouble


Could there be a more apt title for this collection than MOTHER-GHOSTS? If so, I can’t imagine what that is. Specters and visitants permeate the collection as does the vast realm of what it means to mother or be a mother. The voices of Annie Oakley, Baba Yaga and Belle Starr are heard in this collection (among others) and their significance is felt individually, but are made even more powerful by their juxtaposition with the other poems. Their disembodied voices no more haunting than the speaker’s as she recounts the journey from innocence to experience, revealing how too quickly and too soon the two can be intertwined. — Teri Youmans Grimm, from the introduction, author of Dirt Eaters and Becoming Lyla Dore

Buy It Here

What I’ve been up to

After putting in my notice at the library, a bunch of wonderful colleagues gifted me an astonishing Facebook tribute that had me in tears.

I took a couple of weeks to decompress, traveled up north to visit with family and took my kids and my niece to one of my favorite places growing up: The Field Museum.

field museum

Strangely, they weren’t as morbidly fascinated by the Egyptian mummies as I’d been at their age. Their response was more disgust than intrigue.

Back home, I got to work securing freelance gigs for Washburn University Law School, Bajillion Agency and other stuff. It’s been many years since I’ve done exclusively freelance work, and, I tell ya, it takes a lot of self-discipline. It’s fun, though. I like the variety. One moment, I’m transforming accounting proposals into fun, engaging layman’s text, the next moment I’m designing flyers and t-shirts for an upcoming poetry festival:

That’s what I’ve been up to, for the most part. Life is good.


Community Novel Project

I’ve been participating in the library’s Community Novel Project for two years, as long as I’ve been working at the library. While I was only a patron, I remember seeing/hearing wisps of news about this program, but never took the initiative to join. Once I was tasked with promoting the project, and once I realized that two of my favorite librarians, Lissa Staley and Miranda Ericsson, were the project leaders, my interest was finally piqued enough to pull me in.

The thing I’ve found really great about it is the accountability. There are very real deadlines, and they require some very real writing. The accountability and support is so good, in fact, that I’m considering joining in on some of the library’s NaNoWriMo activities this year. I’m fed up with talking about writing a novel. Maybe now’s the time to actually do it.


The first year, I wrote two chapters in an exquisite corpse-style novel that involved time travel and other science-fiction-y stuff. Not exactly my bag (writing-wise; I do love reading sci-fi and dystopian stuff). But the writing came surprisingly easily, and I actually enjoyed myself. This year, the project was a short story collection of speculative fiction. I didn’t totally get what speculative fiction was when I started, but I dove in anyway. I used a theme/setting that appears in some of my previous poems and that I can’t really shake loose as a trope in my writing: The Topeka State Hospital. Easy pick for me, since the story/novel is always set in Topeka, and this is one of the most evocative places for me creatively. With guidance from the editing process that’s build into the CNP, I was able to revise to align the content more accurately with speculative fiction conventions. Here’s what I got from this year’s CNP.


I was done. I told my husband I didn’t love him anymore. I sent that spear screaming straight through the kitchen ceiling into his heart. Our marriage splashed the tiles, making a mess I was too weary to clean. I took off my apron and left out the back door, wobbling like a marionette down tricky stairs.

I went into the garden, what was left of the garden from last fall. The merciless birds ate the berries. I’d tied old discs to stakes to ward them off. It was a fruitless chore. In spring’s wane light, the discs turned and strobed gold and blue. I held one up like a mirror but my face gave no indication. If there had been a mountain anywhere in sight, I would’ve climbed it then and there. I would’ve climbed it to the top and looked around, wiser for the view. Seeing the bigger picture.

But this was caraway Kansas in a small, kept neighborhood with rain still hugging the curbs from last night’s storm, leaves traveling the street’s moat to the sewers. Deep inside the sewers, foxes made dens on old brick ledges, waiting for the watery tumult to subside. The only thing left up in the sky was a smear and a waft of ozone.

Down at the end of the block was the empty Topeka State Hospital, its patina peaks and turrets rising over the sleepy neighborhood like a child’s dream of the old world, of a castle, of a world inside of doors with intricate carpets and relationships. I walked to it, my legs mobilized as if pulled by string.

I knew better than a child. This thing was a psychologist’s fantasy taken shape in handsome blonde brick and sheen of stone, but inside was a horror of porcelain, pain, and bodies still in shock, wandering these decades after death. How romantic. My husband and I – before he was a husband and I his wife – crept in one night, drunk on love, and embraced on the floor of the broken ballroom. The dust was thick with lives. It furrowed into our pores, sifted on tongues that we slid in each other’s mouths, high on this, reckless on this.

I found it utterly unfamiliar; a total stranger. The building squatted among the oaks, smug and stupid. Its finery an insult to its history. A liar, a boaster, a pretty facade concealing a black, black soul.

I stood in front of its face, studying and struggling to decipher what I ever saw in those shattered panes, peeling balustrade, stains, cracks, and sediment. Its porch arms flew open, asking for a crushing embrace.

They say it was a wrecking ball that did the final blow. No. It was me. I shook the cobwebs off my heart and the sluggish beat went back to its original fervor. I was a wreck of anger. I poured all the hurt and stones into a vortex, casting off that heavy debris. They say that people came from all points once the waves of dust announced its fall. It was me. Strings pulled my limbs. Wind pulled my fists into hammers made of air and magnets. That’s how the asylum fell.

It was inside me all along, the tornado he once tried to quell. Here and there across the city floats down a tile. A shard. The past in a bit of brick. And a layer of dust the foxes notice, pricking their snouts at the scent.

When I went missing, no one thought to look in the tunnels, the only remaining corridors of the buildings now gone. They raked the river and searched the skinny patches of wood behind the mini malls and fast food joints. They rustled the homeless from their pockets beneath the viaduct. They fingered my husband but found nothing incriminating. He was capable of harm but not culpable for this. Not in the eyes of the police.

I saw the lid to the tunnel cocked off, leaving a hole for my body to slip through and a hold for lowering myself into it. No one saw me go down or heard me call hoarsely for help when I lost my way under the flat plane where the asylum used to be. Someone must have slid the lid back over the opening.

I saw only black but knew the former inmates roamed here too like restless minotaur, huffing breath against my neck as they passed on some mission. It wasn’t until I died eons later, slumped invisible against the flaking concrete wall, that I finally found my way free.

The websites call me the Wailing Woman. They think I was mad and died at the asylum. I was mad, that much is true. In some ways, I still am. The former inmates regard me with distrust and keep their distance. But I didn’t die at the asylum. Most of me died at the house down the street. The last of me, in a tunnel underground.

Me & Ollie & the Apple Pencil

My library purchased an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil and I was able to mess around with the Sketch App and make a few doodles. This is me & Oliver. He’s so snuggly, still, even at 7 years old, but I know that’s not going to last forever.

12983917_10207761141519667_8716295308293945882_oI really, really fell in love with the Apple Pencil. It felt way more intuitive than the slippery Wacom tablet I’ve had at my desk awhile. The pencil has a nice weight to it and you can look directly at what you’re drawing instead of away from your hand, at a screen. It’s also been great for sketching out ideas for infographics or illustrations for Library News. As a note-taker, too, I can see myself taking meeting notes on this thing, with all the memory retention that comes from handwriting, but without losing my notes in piles of papers on my desk. In short, it’s fun, fun stuff. My younger self would not have believed her eyes with the kind of technological advances being made in graphic design and illustration these days. She was really impressed by Microsoft Paint.

Engrossing or just plain gross

Bartender Charmaine and unemployed Stan are a married couple living in their car following America’s economic collapse in Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited stand alone novel, The Heart Goes Last. They eke out a fitful existence marked by dumpster dives and fending off vagrants and would-be rapists. Their intermarital dealings are shot through with tension and irritability. But who wouldn’t be stressed and irritable when everywhere they look, the country is crumbling into ruin and falling victim to crime, disorder and desperation?


Charmaine spots a solution in a commercial for the close-gated community called Positron / Concilience. It’s a chance at a new life — complete with square meals, shelter, middle-class comfort and flushing toilets. The only catch is that Charmaine and Stan have to alternate suburban life for prison life every other month. That means sharing house with “alternates” – an unseen couple who occupies the home in their stead.

When the couple’s vanilla existence grows wearisome, they each become erotically enamored with their “alternate,” and the story soon spirals into dystopian territory. Prison inmates disappear under sinister circumstances and the less-than-idyllic, disturbing details of their new life becomes apparent to both Charmaine and Stan as they take turns narrating their story.

I’m a pretty big Atwood fan. One of my most hallowed book experiences was reading the celebrated Canadian author’s novel Cat’s Eye as a young woman. I followed her lead into the dystopian genre by binge-reading the MaddAddam trilogy, a series that I pined for from the moment I finished it and sent it sadly down the conveyor belt of the book return drop. I was rabid for her new release. So, why did I have such a hard time slogging through it?

The Heart Goes Last was, admittedly, entertaining. It’s zany. It’s unpredictable. It’s … kinda gross. Characters do things I wish they wouldn’t. They have bizarre and painstakingly-described sex. They eat questionable food. They dress up like Elvis and “Green Man Group” characters, pop pills, fall in love with waxy-eyed teddy bears and the list goes on.

I know, in retrospect, that Atwood was trying to be funny and satirical with her way-out plot, but, for me, it didn’t quite hit the funny bone so much as the gag reflex. I heard that this book started out as a serial, and I wonder if, in the process of shaping it into a novel, Atwood lost some of that original umph. To be fair, the story is complex in at least one way, which redeems the novel slightly. Atwood sets the story in a plausible scenario. What if — the reader often wonders — the economic devastation we see in the novel isn’t that far off from reality (pssst, anyone remember 2008)?

And Atwood’s commentary on the unquenchable greed of corporations, while obviously hyperbolic, does sort of smack of the truth. The corporate greedies of the novel aren’t above selling baby blood for a profit. That’s a bit over the top, right? But the corporations of reality make the news daily for environmental and human rights violations. Atwood’s version of that reality is just a touch more hysterical. Atwood warns, Yes, indeed, this could be us if we’re not careful. The raunchy humor doesn’t serve the purpose of that message in the least.

The characters aren’t terribly likeable (consider the human resources employee with a botched face job who resorts to brain mutilation to win over the object of her affection). Perhaps I would’ve found the book more palatable if the following two things had been revealed to me beforehand: 1) Don’t expect an Atwood masterpiece like MaddAddam and 2) The Heart Goes Last is silliness. Leave your intellect at the door and you might just enjoy yourself.

My only story about Prince is secondhand

I have a story about Prince but it’s secondhand. I’m going to tell you the story as I heard it, but I’m also going to tell you the story with a bit of imagination sprinkled over it, like red pepper flakes on a pizza.

I was living in Minneapolis on the south side above a hip-hop clothing shop called Mr. G’s. They sold an array of airbrushed t-shirts and blingy belts and stuff. Idk, I never went in there, I just lived above it. During the day there was a strong bass beat that came up through the floor.

A block down, I worked from 4 p.m. – 4 a.m. at the Pizza Shack. It was a dingy, dark place where once there was a shooting and a cop had died. There was a plaque devoted to the cop right above a long table reserved for the Minneapolis Police Force, who would come in and eat pizza like at the graveside of their lost compatriot. There was a buzz-in toilet, a housefly epidemic and possibly a hush-hush drug/prostitute ring among the Armenian owners and the neighborhood big shots. In house, we had booths with pay TVs and a juke box full of soul, funk and classic rock. Out back, a grease receptacle that sludged into the ground and attracted stray dogs.

At the time, it was the only place in Mpls that delivered so late, up until 4 a.m. We delivered pizza, spaghetti, fried chicken and jojo potatoes.

The oldest delivery driver – whose name I forget, whose bald spot was veiled by thin, slicked back hair, and who wore sunglasses even at night – had a story about a call that came in on a weekday around 3 a.m. This would’ve been in the 90s. At first, the Pizza Shack employee who answered the phone was like, ‘We don’t deliver that far.’ But then it came to pass that this was actually Prince, Minneapolis royalty, and so the order was made and the pizzas stacked a dozen tall.

17th & Lake Street

Now a Mexican bakery

The guy got lost on the way and finally found the place close to 5 a.m. The person who received the pizzas wasn’t Prince. But it goes among the delivery drivers at the now defunct Pizza Shack (the last I saw, it was a Mexican bakery) that the person who actually called in the order that night *was* Prince. And he was a damned good tipper ($$$$).

Natalie Diaz in Topeka

Natalie Diaz is a poet whose work simply floors me. Her first book of poetry, When my Brother Was an Aztec, was released last year by Copper Canyon. I had the chance to meet Natalie last year at my first grad school residency, and to hear her read along with Jan Beatty and attend her workshop. Now she’s coming to my town! (She reads at Mabee Library, WU campus Monday Sept. 16, 4 p.m.) If you happen to be in Northeast Kansas, this is a reading well worth attending.

natalie diaz WU flyer


Here’s an excerpt from an essay I wrote about Diaz’s book which might betray the fact that I’m a little in love with her poems:

Natalie Diaz’s book of poems, When My Brother Was an Aztec, is heavy with figurative devices that lend to a magical and sensual reading experience. Diaz’s collection bravely and mercilessly explores the trials of dealing with a brother dragged into dark depths by a crystal meth addiction. The text is additionally shot through with social and cultural meaning via the recurring motifs of poverty, reservation life, and Mojave identity and history. In its love poems, the book rises to brighter waters; yet the love poems maintain Diaz’s fearless and biting imagery found throughout. Diaz accomplishes vivid storytelling that isn’t merely intellectual entertainment. It is a visceral experience felt in the skin and a reminder of the power of words, when those words are chosen with precision, and the stories conveyed with imagination.

[ Sept. 2013 ]

routine of falling in love

In publishing and design, there’s a definite pattern that pulls me in like a vortex each time I begin a project. It’s a lot like a relationship. I receive a query and I’ve caught the eye of a stranger. I receive the manuscript and I’m intrigued. I begin to theorize about ways to best represent the literature in visual form; I’m its caretaker now, I have feelings for it. I begin working with the literature, casting it onto the page, and I’m all in. Somewhere in the last hours of making the book, I feel overwhelmed. It’s late, but I have a deadline. There are so many last-minute changes that will affect the layout, and I don’t want to make them! But I do, and it’s better. I’ve lost sight of the life that exists outside my computer. But then, it’s complete and the author is jubilant and another being is coming into the world. There’s a lull, like the object of my recent infatuation has gone abroad for a while. Then: the package arrives! Now it’s physical. I’m deeply in love again.

When my chapbook, Birth in Storm, won the Emerge Publications Chapbook Contest, I experienced a disconnect between the manuscript and the package. Ah, this is what it’s like to be the author!  You sit back and let the physical thing manifest out of sight. My little, 33-page book arrived on my doorstep and I tore the package open. Inside, a whole litter of glossy books spilling over each other.


Like I always do, I turned the book over in my hands, checking that the titles and graphics weren’t too close to the bleed, scanning for errors in the blurbs or uneven strokes, off-centered text. It looked good. Proceed to the inside: title page, acknowledgements, good, good. And then that first poem. It was with that first poem that I became the author, I think, instead of the steward of the poems, merely having a hand in putting them out there. This is my poem, and the next one is mine too, and so on and so on. It would be impossible for me to sit down and read this book like anyone else. This was an entirely different thing. A different kind of love.

But I wasn’t so head-over-heels that I missed the one typo. Just one. I’m not telling you what it is. Nobody’s perfect.