Stillhouse Press Author Published in Poetry Magazine

MFA Alum Guided Book Project As a Watershed Lit GPA

by Tommy Sheffield, MFA Poetry '21

Stillhouse Press Author Published in Poetry Magazine

When I first met Latif Askia Ba, he was reading at a Zoom poetry event—a common occurrence during the early stages of the Covid outbreak—and his screen was off. Though I didn’t understand why this was at the time, I could still hear his voice. He read two or three poems, but I remember the way in which he took control of the (Zoom) room.

Everyone was fixated on what he had to say.

Latif's readings are unique because his Cerebral Palsy affects his voice and cadence, but he sees these factors as enhancements to the reading, like improvised notes during a jazz solo.

I received my invitation for that Zoom event through my friend and fellow poet/editor John Compton, who I’ve worked with in many contexts since, but at the time, I was at the virtual event to read my own poetry. It had been a suffocating series of months early in the pandemic, everyone was locked indoors, college classes had shifted to Zoom, and I was even teaching online as well. A little poetry community had begun to form around Kai Coggins’s Wednesday Night Poetry event (the longest-running poetry open mic in the country, hosted consistently since 1989), along with a slew of other online poetry Zoom events streamed from all over the world. It led to me making a number of interesting connections with other poets.

Some of the attention I caught during this time was related to being the Poetry Editor for Stillhouse Press. I’d done well editing Megan Merchant’s book Before the Fevered Snow, and she’d told a number of people some very nice things about my editorial work. One of those people, John Compton, took me under his wing and introduced me to this online community. 

That was how I first heard Latif's poetry.

After the reading, I was stunned. I wanted to know more about Latif, how much he had written, where he’d been published, and whether he had studied creative writing or had an MFA degree. I sent him an email. The message expressed admiration for his work, how great I thought his reading went, and asked if he had any other poems he could send me. Turned out he had already begun work on a new manuscript, and I learned that he had recently graduated from Pennwest Edinboro with a degree in Computer Science. He was into coding, video games, and computer science...not your typical poet. Halfway through his undergraduate experience, Latif added a minor in Creative Writing. He began writing poems in his free time after a general Creative Writing class had tasked him with it, but he couldn’t stop. After publishing Wet Monasteries in 2019 when he was still an undergrad, Latif began to doubt his future. He had been applying for web development jobs, but this path didn’t feel quite right. Plus, his job search was during Covid, and he couldn’t find any work.

It was around this time, still during my MFA program at Mason and working as a GPA for Stillhouse, that I called him up and offered him a book contract based on what I’d read.

He told me later that the timing was perfect. He really hadn’t wanted to pursue web development, he’d felt lost, and now that he’d had his book acquired, he could pour all of his energy into the project. We worked tirelessly together to prepare the poems for publication. It was strange. I wasn’t so much editing his work as I was working with him to edit it. He was talented as an editor, so mainly I would coach him on how best to form the poems, curate their order, and get them ready for the collection.

The collection itself was another thing.

What exactly was it? The first working title Latif had was "The Body Meanders," which we kept for a long time. That title still found its way into the collection, but the actual book's title came about in a very strange way. I read a particular line in the text, and it just…kicked my ass! And I had this…feeling. I suggested that he read the poem where I'd found the line ("On High School (an estuary)"), which is a fairly long poem, and see if any one line in the poem struck him as something that could work as a title. A few minutes later, he texted me, "Is it 'The machine code of a bleeding moon'?"

It was meant to be.

I couldn’t believe we’d both come to the same conclusion. So then we sculpted the collection to fit both the title and the themes that Latif explored. After many hours of work, we had built a pretty phenomenal collection of poems. 

Here's the point of the story: during this time, despite working on a full-length poetry collection, Latif also looked toward his future. He applied to two MFA programs, Columbia University and New York University. Although he was waitlisted at NYU, Columbia University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, one of the finest in the country, accepted him. What’s strange about this trajectory is that poets usually don’t publish their first collection until after they graduate from their MFA. In fact, most MFA programs base their curriculums around helping their MFA students formulate their first manuscript. Latif, on the other hand, began to attend classes at Columbia University with his second full-length poetry manuscript already edited and waiting to be published. And in his third semester, his first major full-length poetry collection was released by Stillhouse Press.

The Machine Code of a Bleeding Moon touches on many different subjects—coding, video games, mythology/religion, language, music, disability—while not straying too far from his Senegalese heritage. Latif even managed to put together a book release reading at Unnameable Books, where the venue bought a wheelchair ramp for the event, which they kept for future use after the reading. 

Since the publication of The Machine Code of a Bleeding Moon, Latif has been writing, publishing, and following the usual route that poets take after their first major book release. He’s completed his MFA at Columbia and will be taking on a full-time teaching position there next year. Meanwhile, two of his poems were published in the June 2023 issue of Poetry Magazine, one of the most prestigious poetry magazines in the country (read "Langue Pochée" and "Cratylus").

I suggest that you read these two poems first, then check out Machine Code, so that you can be floored by the talent of this great, rising poet, just like I was. He is moving full steam ahead, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Tommy Sheffield (MFA, '21) is co-founding editor of Shiversong LLC. He teaches 11th Grade ELA at the SEED School of Washington, D.C., a public charter school. He remains a poetry editor for Stillhouse Press.

Tommy was among the first of a cohort of creative writing students to receive a Graduate Professional Assistantship, a new channel of funding to complement teaching assistantships and support the work of Watershed Lit.  Assigned to Stillhouse Press, Mason's in-house literary imprint and teaching press, Tommy met poet Latif Askia Ba, acquired and helped develop his book project, and successfully published The Machine Code of a Bleeding Moon in 2022.