The muse may be thankless, but sometimes something unexpected drops down from above in a way that makes you think life has been eavesdropping on what has been running through your mind. In the letter to the reader for the Fall 2021 issue, I wrote about friendship as a mode of reading particularly suited for the literary periodical. April Freely’s poems had reached my desk at the beginning of July. Graduate editor Nathan Dixon flagged these poems when going through our open submissions, and associate poetry editor Soham Patel seconded the thumbs-up, passing it my way. Soham and I discussed, agreeing immediately to reach out about publication, only to be met with radio silence that’s unusual, but not unprecedented. A bit over a week into that wait, Soham saw a tweet from Freely’s employer, the Fire Island Artist Residency (FIAR), about Freely’s untimely death, which happened the week we reached out to her. I did a quick internet search to confirm the social media post, and the abundance of—the only word that comes to mind here is—love that saturated her memorial GoFundMe page inspired me to see if some of those mourning and celebrating Freely wanted to give our readers a hint of the life in and around these poems, to see if they ’d welcome a space for the “formal feeling” (the adjective simultaneously referring to aesthetic and comportment) that Emily Dickinson describes as the hallmark of grief, something that could serve as annotation to the poetry. We had to reach out for permission and rights, anyway; this would be part of the communicating.
So I reached out to FIAR, who put me in touch with Freely’s brother, who then put me in touch with the painter Jennifer Packer to explore what a feature might look like. I reached out to the writer Jennifer Cheng, who had organized the fundraising page. She recommended I reach out to Spring Ulmer. And then there was the improbable correspondence with Mia Alvarado. For months Mia’s essay “Is the First Technological Question the Question of Nipples?” had been slotted for the winter issue; when I saw a photo of Mia and Freely on the fundraising site, a jolt of energy that could only be attributed to the supernatural coursed around my body. I knew I had to publish Mia’s essay contiguous to Freely’s poem and emailed Mia—unwittingly the day after April’s birthday—to inform her. Turns out their friendship started when chance threw them into adjoining rooms in Iowa (“upstairs, the only two, in an old Victorian”), and chance would return them side by side. The fact of Mia was, as I told her, “shocking, uncanny, and proof—in my mind—that there is some generous occult spirit clearing Georgia Review space for this work.” The decision to engage was not easy for any of these five (including Freely’s brother)—the ineffability of grief is imposing, but we are lucky that they did. It is a blessing to share this feature with our readers.
April Freely was born in Cleveland and based in New York City, where she was the executive director of the Fire Island Artist Residency, a prominent nonprofit dedicated to fostering the careers and communities of LGBTQ+ artists and writers. She earned an MFA in nonfiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and then an MFA in poetry from NYU, as well as fellowships and awards from places like the Ohio Arts Council, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
What I have begun to know about Freely exceeds this litany of facts, of course. The poetry and the conversations with her loved ones, provoked by the poems, have given me a beginning sense of the life pulsing behind, between, and about these facts. Nate flagged the poems, admiring how “the poet uses language to drill down . . . through the machinery of preservation toward the act of perseverance.” Soham and I were struck by how the poems operated so urgently, and deftly, in the service of others. In a recent essay celebrating Freely, Mia characterized Freely as having an essentially “caretaker mode,” and everywhere in these poems there is a caring touch pressed tightly to wounds that grieve the soul. The poem “Bose Says ‘Connected to Anne’s iPhone’ Every Ten Seconds,” which is published in the Summer/Fall 2021 issue of Gulf Coast, starts with a question and response that can be taken as a figure for this poetic work. “[W]hat kind of intervention / is a twist in the sensate body?” Freely asks, responding “at the botanical gardens, one cactus leaned on another / which is one way a landscape can be compelling.” The lean and twists of the sensate bodies suggest such an intervention—taken over time—would have the cacti grow contorted with each other due to the constant contact with some other similar being. The landscape is an aesthetic genre for the prominent consideration of context—political, historical, personal, and otherwise—that is, the world around its subject. As Freely states, and demonstrates, the world can be compelling when considered as a place built around human contact.
When we read the span of poems in our feature, we can see how Freely’s poetry is born out of this embodied, collective growth. In 2008, she moved back to Cleveland to care for her ailing mother. Seven years she dedicated to nursing her through a heart transplant, cancer, and organ rejection, seven years that constitute what many consider the prime of their lives. In “Code,” we see the mutual, entangled development between Freely and her mother enacted in the way the poem feels out its poet’s world. The phrase “my mother’s body was an unbuttoning” occasions the intrusion of a “you” that reads, upon first impression, as a referent to the speaker, turning author into auditor, but hovers in a spectrality preternaturally empathetic to author/daughter, mother, reader. The passage culminates in the admission that “I was formless,” a phrase that describes not only the phenomenological feel of the moment, but also the activity of the pronouns in the poetic lines. This Jennifer Cheng calls the poet’s “porousness” in her loving letter to Freely. This is the poem Freely makes with her body leant upon her mother’s, in due time, sensate, intervening, shaped upon human touch. There is the paradox of touching skin: that when one does, one is at once touching and touched. The subject/object division breaks down in such an everyday act. This is the porousness of Freely’s caretaking touch. The poems here make sense of their respective worlds first and foremost through a concern to make sure another’s life be well, which is not the conventional mode in the modern-day lyric.
In this way, it is utterly fitting, striking as it is, that Cheng and Ulmer both chose, independent of each other, a mode of engagement keyed to correspondence, in terms of communication and sympathy. Through letter and email, the contributions by Freely’s friends lay bare the intimacy her poems assume with their readers. What I said to Spring about her contribution applies to the whole: these pieces give “the uninitiated a gift . . . that allows us the ability to approach her work as a friend, whether we have been acquainted with April or not.” The poems ask us to be the poet’s friend, engage us thusly. And it is clear to me, from the poems and my communication around them, that April was a good friend.
As I’ve said, time and again, I see a literary journal as a means by which to make public, momentary space for collectives to continue, start, or transform work they have been or want to be doing. Mourning, and celebrating, a life just passed is collective work, when done at its best. Spring’s annotation pulls a phrase from one of Freely’s emails to describe her aim: “an accurate and lovely ‘reading’ that makes a kind of conversational circle . . . with jumps and gaps in it.” Here we see one of those conversational circles, and one with the porosity to invite the stranger, the unacquainted reader, into the collective. In an interview about his collaborative work with Fred Moten, theorist Stefano Harney said:
What’s also interesting to me is that the conversations themselves can be discarded, forgotten, but there’s something that goes on beyond the conversations which turns out to be the actual project. It’s the same thing I think in the building of any kind of partnership or collectivity: it’s not the thing that you do; it’s the thing that happens while you’re doing it that becomes important, and the work itself is some combination of the two modes of being.
The thing, per Harney’s phrase, that has been happening here is the continued transmutation of Freely’s life, a correspondent life still here and there in the world, making good with her distinctive “caretaker mode.” Spring combs her emails. Mia reads Freely’s poems out loud. Packer holds a conversation with Freely when trying to think through what her sittings have meant to the painting, painter, and process, when it comes to the score of portraits done of the dear friend. As I told Mia and Spring, I have to say that in my mid-life I’ve come to believe in an afterlife of sorts. It took me decades, and I still haven’t the idea of the particularities of this afterlife in which I believe. But I’ve had a few moments in my life that convinced me that one’s lifeforce can ramify beyond one’s corporeal existence, and that something essential about this has to do with words. It’s clear to me, I told them, that learning about April’s lifeforce through her friends at the nascent stage of her incorporeal life will be another one of these deeply influential moments for me. “I have experienced this profound mystery too,” Mia shares. “How good that you have words that live, and that April has sent you some. Gift, yes. All gift.”
We were poised to publish this feature in the Winter 2021 issue (indeed, basically all of the above, and some more of the below, was written in October), but legal roadblocks prevented us from accomplishing our goal. The uninitiated will encounter this work at a time that likely won’t feel immediate to Freely’s passing. Those who already know of Freely will, probably, meet these words less in the stage of “chill” and “stupor” than that of “letting go.” Such is the print periodical’s difficult punctuality, but the delay has given me an opportunity to see, once again, literature’s capacity not so much for timelessness, but rather continual timeliness—“news that stays news,” a modernist once stated.
Another remarkable publication in this issue (they all are, of course) is the beginning of Samuel R. Delany’s novel-in-progress This Short Day of Frost and Sun. As some of you know, we initially conceived this publication as the beginning of a serial novel, but upon reading the second installment and deliberating carefully, I have decided that The Georgia Review is not the right venue for the publication of the entire novel, though I found the next chapters a gripping episode presented with the sophistication of thought and artistry befitting one of the most accomplished and continually daring writers alive. Those who like “To Sleep before Evening” should keep their eyes peeled for the eventual publication of the novel.
Herein we also have a feature that comes out of the symposium we did in collaboration with UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art, “Misplacement,” in early April. What a treat to spend two days listening to Nicole Fleetwood, Martin Harries, Jill Magid, Lisa Tan, Courtney Faye Taylor, and Alejandro Varela present their work, and then talk to them and others in what is known as “dead time.” As you can learn from Isabelle Wallace’s opening remarks, published in this issue, we chose the term “misplacement” for its timeliness, particularly in terms of its resonances with Zoom culture, mass incarceration, and mass migration. It really was a tremendous way to get back into live programming to see thinkers approaching a common term from their own respective angles, finding a common place in which we can discuss, debate, and share ideas.
From around the office:
• Please welcome Maggie Su, who started her job here as associate prose editor on 1 May. We’re very excited to have her on board.
• Check out a new series we’ve started on GR2: “Questions for Contributors” asks five questions of some of our writers to give readers a glimpse at what editorial exchange with our editors can look like. Currently we have features with Melanie P. Moore, Leo Ríos, and two of our National Magazine Award winners, Nishanth Injam and Aryn Kyle. We also have reviews by Chekwube O. Danladi, of Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties, and Jonathan Russell Clark, of Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, as well as a conversation between Hannah V. Warren and Anna Journey about Journey’s winter publication and current book, The Judas Ear.
The development of the Freely feature—of the muse, and then of the print periodical’s difficult punctuality—is all timing, and timing is pure coincidence. Meaning made out of coincidence is the stuff of the world, of the imagination. Whether history, politics, or metaphor, coincidence cannot be one; it is two, of three, four, or more—another way to say it is collective work. I was able to catch Jennifer Packer’s solo show at the Whitney right before it came down. I knew who that figure in the painting was before I looked for the wall text, which said, April, Restless, 2017. It was that month, coincidentally, the characteristic showers and cruelty there only partially, and only when one could think about it enough. (The success of the day was getting back to the hotel—kid, infant, and all our bags—just before the rain let.) And I was restless, from travel, from Covid fatigue, from my mask, my kids—restless themselves, from hunger, among myriad things at that moment, one of which is the way recognition through art can stir the soul.