Welcome, T.J. Sandella!

This month we are celebrating the titles that we’ve acquired in the past six months. These manuscripts came to us through our open reading periods. Today we bring you T.J. Sandella, author of the poetry collection Ways to Beg, which will be published in 2021.

Have a manuscript you think we’d like? During our November Open Reading Period we are looking for poetry (chapbooks and full-length collections), short fiction (again, both chapbooks and full-length collections), novels, novellas, nonfiction (CNF, biography, cultural studies) and translations from German. Also, our Big Moose Prize for the novel is currently open to early bird submissions.

The Author

T.J. Sandella is the author of Ways to Beg (Black Lawrence Press, 2021), which was a finalist or semi-finalist for several awards, including the Miller Williams Poetry Prize (University of Arkansas Press), the Brittingham & Felix Pollak Prizes (University of Wisconsin Press), and the Crab Orchard First Book Award. Selected by Dorianne Laux for inclusion in the Best New Poets anthology, he is the recipient of an Elinor Benedict Prize for Poetry (Passages North, selected by Aimee Nezhukumatathil), a William Matthews Poetry Prize (Asheville Poetry Review, selected by Billy Collins), two Academy of American Poets Prizes, and two pushcart prize nominations. Recently, he has contributed to Poet Lore, the New Ohio ReviewHotel AmerikaPoetry NorthwestZone 3, and the South Carolina Review. You can find him @egregiousteej or in Cleveland, Ohio, biking through a snowstorm, supporting his local library with late fines, or, most likely, walking his pup, Rufio.

On Writing Ways to Beg

I admire instructive poets. The simplifiers. Preachers of awe and grace and gratitude—the ones who teach us how to approach the world with a little more strength, a little more certainty. But if I had a muse, it’d be confusion. My spirit animal is an ape looking around, scratching its head. Every day, it seems, I discover a feeling I cannot name. Or something I was so sure about, sometimes for years, suddenly shakes loose. Or a dead memory opens its eyes, finds its voice, and begs to be exhumed. Writing, then, is an attempt to start a conversation, a way to ask about something that genuinely puzzles me. To beg, if that’ll help. I want to situate the poem, as Frank O’Hara says, between two people instead of between two pages, and I like to imagine the table in front of us, the piece of paper with the sloppy handwriting pushed aside to make room for a couple beers or a pot of tea over which, truly, I’d like to spend the evening listening to your thoughts. For someone much more evolved than me to say, See? It’s like this. 

Ways to Beg is a product of agitation and movement and many, many, many hours. Poems I wrote in my head for months or years—walking the dog or biking to work or upside down in a yoga class—before they ever reached paper. And then re-written and reconsidered over many more months, more years—that rich blue-collar tradition of trying to outwork my own limitations—trying to isolate the thing worth saying, worth asking. I hope these poems feel lived in. They have been. They are. Which is why they so often take the shape of Cleveland, my dog, my family, strangers on planes and trains, and you, whoever you are—all along, I’ve been trying to talk to you.



Say home ten times fast 
and it starts to sound like Om,
sacred, syrupy syllable 
with its single claw 
in every word, purred 

from ascetics’ mouths
until it scrambles 
their brains. Say it for days,
for months, for years,
they claim, 
and you can see god
in a bird, god
in a flower. 

Home, too, is a matter
of repetition: these walls,
these roads, this burning
river. Cleveland,

I tried to love you from afar—
but, as foretold,
I crawled back, 
begged forgiveness
from every person 
I wronged. I keep thinking 
I’ll find a place
I won’t want to leave;

I keep thinking your tongue
will turn to salt, but still
you taste like blood
and rust. City, 
I’m still surprised
that I’m surprised,

like when winter
finally subsides 
and we’re again sanctified
by sunshine and skin,
both of which warm the bed 
I find myself in.

Friends, if anything 
could keep me here,
it’s the long runway
of her back,
the river of her throat,
her highway thighs.

Heart, let any old sound
echo in your chambers.
Let me worship stupidly
this bird, that flower.

O Moon, tell me again
how many people
have looked up at you
and thought,
I want to go home,

and never could,
never did.

first published in The Comstock Review



Because it’s suddenly fall
and so I’m thinking
that life is a long rehearsal 
for death a series of losses
leading to the singular loss

I start to list 
the pain to come
family and friends whose passing 
would gut me 
and as I’m counting distractedly
on fingers then toes

I walk into a low-hanging branch
which rakes me almost lovingly
across the face and I’m like 
the student in the back of class
with his head on the desk 
startled awake by a question
to which he finally
finally knows the answer

and forget what we know
that this student’s answer 
is almost always 
wrong and often even
but what grace to sometimes stumble
into the peripheral foliage 
of the lesson plan

like this branch
which I’m awed to see
has defied the season and sprung 
a litter of buds
of which I pluck one
and move to place it on my tongue
which somewhere
has made Freud proud
but then I think no

the mouth so greedy
for air and water 
and the lips of some buxom 
blonde but what about
my thrice broken nose
which like that student suddenly 
asserts its strange utility

not for spring’s flourish
or mama’s pasta sauce or in defense
of the dank dumpster
behind my apartment building

but here for this bud
which is neither sweet nor nostalgic
nor full of my neighbor’s 
cat’s kitty litter but not either
entirely odorless 
and so I split the struggling shoot
and sniff again at the perfume’s
nuanced ghost

which I’ve spent most of my life 
walking by 
these small out-of-season miracles
that have been 
sure I’ll say it 
right here under my nose
so prolific and ubiquitous 
I’ve nearly forgotten
to mourn them.

first published in Zone 3


My Mother Prepares Me for Her Death 

She’d give me the slip 
in the toy department, a boy distracted 
by swords and flashing lights and pogo sticks. 
A few minutes would pass before I’d notice her hand was gone
along with the rest of her, and I’d scamper aimlessly
from electronics to men’s fashion to automotive,
the soles of my shoes leaving streaks of black like breadcrumbs. 
Somewhere in that fluorescent abyss, a boy in a heap, Mommy
on the tip of his blubbering lips.

This is what it takes. Your legs have to fail.
Red eyes have to empty. You must come to terms
with the reality of loss. Only then
would my mother emerge from her hiding spot—
glide from the dressing room or, like Moses,
part the cardigan sea of the clothing carousel—   
where she’d been watching the whole time.

It’s been twenty years since we played her game,
and I’d all but forgotten that boy. But today, as my dog
and I take a shortcut through the cemetery,
I find myself crouching behind a headstone.
When he realizes I’ve vanished, he lies down 
as if he’ll never move again, and I can sense
the weight of loss in him, the lightness in me. 

I know this story begins with my mother.
I know it ends in a graveyard. I know
we’re somewhere in between, waiting to step into sunlight, 
where, as if by magic, everything we love
will be given back. 

first published in Passages North