nessi alexander-barnes

Esoterica/Ethos: Critique; for personal use when editing the work of others-


my experiences are complex and alien, and thus my voice is complex and alien;

i am excruciatingly aware that many contexts cannot support the weight of that alienness, and thus i often shave off my idiosyncratic edges to accommodate the access of others, as necessary.

in my personal writing, i do not make this sacrifice. my personal writing is complex and alien.

Thus, my personal writing is hard is hard to read.

i have allowed it to remain hard to read.


On black cords, two hangings of sheer cloth or transparent paper are shown. On the front hanging, there is an image of mostly abstract linework. Yellow, green, and blue hues predominate above; a darker and warmer tangle occupies the lower half. All of the hanging is printed with text in black Times, of which evident phrases include "through their repetition within commodity culture", "carries market value. The effort to name the", "will always fail and ought to", "how do normative gender presump", "which we come to see", and "Gender Trouble offers to explain the". The rear hanging is completely covered with hand printed text.
i am *not* a prescriptivist;

i am more of a descriptivist, but i am not *really* one of those either.


On two black cords, before a pale wall, hang sheets of sheer cloth or transparent paper. The front hanging is marked with an image: before a brick red wall, an incarnadine humanoid figure stoops toward a vermillion barred rectangular portal. The figure has a tail, feathered arms, clawed feet and hands, and serpents, feathers or fur, and blebs or pustules upon its back and head. The figure walks with a black cane or walker. In the red wall, above the figure in a round black niche, sits a white cat, facing away. In a larger rectangular cavity to the right, a dark tree is visible upon a lighter void. The figure stands upon light lavender ground; before which proceed rectangles of black and pink, framed with white lanes. On the back hanging, there is hand printed text, largely illegible.
i believe that the technical aspects of writing, such as grammar, are tools intended to do the work of conveying meaning to a reader;

i believe that there are multiple kinds of reader, and that all of them will bring different needs and experiences and interests to their practice of readership;

i believe that the technical aspects of writing are growing and flexible things, that they are never static, and that recorded strictures of their use are necessary, but that such strictures are also ossifications, always a step behind the alive-things as they move between the spaces of our interactions, and so that to replace the living entities with ossified strictures is to remove the source and potential of their continued vitality;

i believe that language and grammar, and the control of one's voice more broadly, have long been tools of violence and oppression, and that to address that brutal history, we must actively make room for multiple ways of being and writing and speaking;

i believe that 'universal' and 'singular' have limited applications, and that there is no one 'true' or correct form of writing –– rather, there are multiple ways of writing, and vastly different contexts may require vastly different modes and styles to adequately address their needs;

i believe that specific technical and conceptual features of writing, from vocabulary and grammar to the use of literary devices and rhetoric, are tools and *only* tools –– they are deployed to make the thing happen, they are neither the thing itself nor the appropriate universal goal –– they are invoked to call the thing to fruition, and if they do not meet that need, then either old forms need to be uncovered/reinvented, or what exists need to be changed/added to;

i believe there are both different levels of need and different kinds of taste, and that there is no form of writing that is universally accessible to every reader, and that what one reader finds unbelievably dense and opaque, another might find as vital and refreshing as air, and further that neither of these readers are *correct* and that they both deserve to be served;

i believe that other approaches to the technicalities of writing are *as valid as mine* and *do not supercede mine*, and thus i recognize that my style of writing and editing is not appropriate for every audience –– should the person seeking guidance [from me] be one of those i cannot serve, i *actively* encourage them to pursue the guidance they need from a more conventional practitioner;

i believe that the way i can best serve the writer i am critiquing, their readers, and social justice as a whole, is to *preserve and bolster that writer's voice* as best i can;

i believe that words mean vastly different things according to context, and that synonymous words are *not* identical in definition;

i believe that to encourage someone to file off their idiosyncratic edges in the name of an idealized archetype of Generic Audience is to create a caricature that represents no one accurately and thus serves no one effectively;

i believe that it is important to be generous to one's audience, but that there is a difference between generosity and self-erasure, and that audience members are often smarter than they're given credit for, if one takes the time to be careful and patient and, indeed, generous –– that it is generous to write honestly and to honestly share one's experiences –– and that it is *okay* if the only audience a writer seeks to address is themself;

i believe that precision, accuracy, and clarity are very important, and that sometimes those things are *not* at odds with simplicity and can be conveyed simply, but that the resolution of conflicts between those standards involve the prioritization of the former (accuracy, precision, clarity,) because the removal of information in the name of simplicity is *neither* neutral nor more clear, and tends to create distortions and erasures, particularly over many generations of data processing and the subsequent collation of that data into text.


On black cords, two hangings of sheer cloth or transparent paper are shown, up close, from the side, and obliquely. In the hanging in front and rightmost, a humanoid figure is shown, of incarnadine color, with feathered arms, clawed hands and feet, and blebs and serpents upon its back and head. The figure stoops toward a gray portal barred with vermillion. Above the figure, in a round black niche in a brick red wall, a white cat sits, facing away. The figure walks with a black cane or walker. In the leftmost hanging, hand printed text predominates, largely illegible. The first line might read "This personal truth makes".
i am trained as an artist, which significantly structures my approach to the technicalities of writing: these are to me the same as color and line and paint: tools to be arranged to achieve a specific purpose or goal, and for which the approach will be different according to the specifics of those purposes or goals;

they are also tools whose appropriate use has been governed by very different strictures according to temporal and cultural contexts, and whose governing strictures often have far more to do with the advertisement of social position on the part of those enforcing them, than they do with any intrinsic characteristics of either the tools or the works generated by those tools.


i believe in, and admire, complex and/or ornate writing.

i also believe in and admire many other kinds of writing, including simple ones.

i do not believe that all writing needs to be complex and/or ornate, but rather that these kinds of writing have a place, at all. i have a theoretical grounding for this (and many of my other) position(s); many thanks to José Esteban Muñoz specifically, for the queer possibilities of the ornamental.1

it is my intention to advocate that more room be made at our tables, not that any who operate under more conventional constraints be excluded in our stead.

if this seems impossible, then it is our job to be more creative, with regards to our approach.

and possibly to get a bigger table.


i am a disabled reader, whose disability often necessitates *more* complexity in writing for things to be accessible to me –– not a terribly common state of affairs, and thus not a well-served one, either;

i also often need more grammatical/syntactical cues, not less –– it is inelegant, but commas as pause-notations *really make a difference* in my ability to read something coherently; this appears to be unusual enough i try to actively ignore this need in my role as provider-of-critique, but i think it is good for people to keep in mind, as an illustration of the way that syntax and grammar differently address different needs for different readers;

i am exquisitely aware of accessibility conflicts, and that often the only solution is mitigation. My job as provider-of-critique is to partially mitigate that mitigation, as much as is possible.

i do not demand that it be read by anyone but me –– only that it be allowed to exist, so that i, too, may know what it is to reach for/into a cultural repository and to hear the echo of a voice like mine, even if that echo is only actually *my* voice preserved in boolean amber.

i am selfish; i am ravenous; i am starving; i have been hungry for so long; this is a source of food.


critique is something different; critique is not about me; the approach i take to critique is not governed by the specific approaches i take when recording my own voice in boolean.

critique is about the person i am advising.

my writing and my voice exist independently to critique, as much as i can make that so; my job as someone who is critiquing someone else is *not* to impose my voice on them, but to listen for their voice, and to help them make that voice more resonant.

if i can prevent them from starving, i have done a good job.
if i can help them to feed themselves, i have done a good job.


These are the same tactics i employ when critiquing artwork,
casually and professionally.


My decision both to eschew caps in reference to myself and to use the lowercase 'i'
is intended to pay homage to a line of scholars who i deeply admire and from whom many of my thoughts are descended.2

Works Cited

boyd, danah michele. “What’s in a Name?” Accessed January 6, 2021.

Loyal Jones Appalachian Center. “bell hooks: Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies.” Berea College. Accessed January 6, 2021.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. Kindle. Sexual Cultures. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

1  Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, 1–3, 6-7. 104, 132-139

2  i am here referencing scholars such as bell hooks, danah boyd, and micha cárdenas. This presentation is both homage and  strong agreement with their work and their reasoning.
Additionally, in fine art, we are visual authors, and we are authors who are very much not dead-- the discipline broadly leaves no room for an empowered reader to argue for the validity of their own interpretations, there is only room for the meaning we meant to impose on the world through the work, which is understood to be intrinsic to the work itself, and which must always be obvious and universal and available for public consumption.
 But to argue that there is one universal interpretation to anything is to exclude anyone whose context does not grant them the intuitive access necessary to ‘read it correctly’, and to further mark them implicitly as catastrophically deviant as the work’s meaning is thought to be intrinsic. That argument-- that the meaning of a work can be universally understood (that there is one/one set of correct interpretations)-- would also deny the means by which i survived for decades, by ravenously devouring every piece of media that i thought interesting and intuitively altering it as necessary to see myself in it, regardless of the author’s preference. (No apologies to Ms. Rowling, whose magical school will *always* be full of trans kids for me.)
bell hooks says that she eschews capitalization “to emphasize the substance of her writing as opposed to who she is.” i cross-apply the same convention, making a slight deviation: i am operating within a discipline that only makes room for who i am, and that also thinks it understands what that means, that demands my who-ness be instantly legible on normative, neurotypical, cishet terms. 
But my work is my a personal mythology, developed privately for decades with a rich and idiosyncratic iconography, put to pictures: i do not need to sign it to be present in it, and its legitimacy is not determined by a stranger’s ability to read it accurately. 
or at all. 
So, in homage to-- and in the spirit of-- bell hooks, i am visibly removing myself from the work by means of non-capitalization, and i am doing so to strengthen the function of my work and the theories behind it. In the context of my discipline, that means making room for other people.The work is already of me; it is not conventionally *for* an audience, in the sense that it was not made to serve them and it will not be altered for their comfort, *but* they are welcome to it - to engage with it-- on its own terms and their own.
For similar reasons, i try to remove myself from the process of critique-- because critique is not about me, and it’s not for me-- it’s about and for the person i’m critiquing, and whatever they’re trying to do with their work.   

boyd, “What’s in a Name?”
“bell hooks: Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies.”

nessi alexander-barnes is an interdisciplinary artist who draws its thoughts in allegory so as to make sense of the world. It is anxious, neurodivergent, transmasculine nonbinary (yes, simultaneously; yes, that is possible; gender is not math and is thus under no obligation to follow linear logic), genderqueer, and generally queer. It accepts many pronouns (xe, they, he), but the one it uses –– and has always used –– internally is the one used here.




Alix Anne Shaw

I could not hear the other side / the other side could not hear me

The body runs its applets

as apples shyly glow

through the dusk beneath the trees

so, too, there is a gear in us
nimbly clicking

in foreshortened air

I hear the arc and whirr of it
ratcheting the nil

the empty shaft—

meantime, the river stretches out
the single silver fiber that it is

and the body with its silver threads

halflit in the armchair (lavender or
avocado green)

flickers, intermittent
attempting to connect

with something it could wish for




as the river snarking past the house
fidgets with its lake

its dirty bank—

If only I had been
some other kind of self

if / then
would you skype me

until I sky myself

because this dark is a variant
of every other dark

a spindle of intent that I must nightly choose to wind

Alix is shown, the left side of the face and shoulders, lying upon brown and yellow leaf litter. Alix has pale skin, and red or auburn hair of several inches length. Alix wears narrow oblong glasses with black frames, a red collared shirt, and a mint green hooded jacket.

Alix Anne Shaw is the author of three poetry collections: Rough Ground (Etruscan, 2018), Dido in Winter (Persea, 2014), and Undertow (Persea, 2007), winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Poetry Prize. Her work appears in Harvard Review, Fence, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, New American Writing, and online at She is also a sculptor.




Meghan Kemp-Gee

Content warning: drinking, domestic abuse


You were looking for different 
words to say good team player. I 
suggested you use  more  verbs. I
suggested you say you over 

saw the team. I suggested you 
call me. Together, we practiced 
for the part of the interview 
where they ask if you have any 

questions. I have a question. My 
question is, what team do we play
for. My question is, what did you
do, did you manage or over 

see, my question is, what did you
oversee, my question is why do we keep
using the same words and how would 
a wolf talk and what would it say.


works well with others      magna 
no, summa     no, magna cum laude
feels at home     in competitive 
fast-paced work environments     no, 

thrives in     highly-structured, close-knit 
work environments     should i say
team, community     or should i 
say environment     should i say 

highly specialized     harder than 
bone     the one who went in first when
it heard the herd-lost     calf call out 
certificate program     master 

of business     administration 
highly motivated     who went 
in second when     it smelled the coat 
dyed red     words per minute 

experience with excel     and 
java     executed special 
projects     stumbled home the morning 
after wearing someone     else’s 

clothes     went in first and never 
once fell behind     not ever


You drank too much. The animals came into the room.
They saw your path to the exit blocked. Their herd-sense
calculated one or two escape routes, attuned
tick-bitten ears on your behalf to the exact
moment when you could have spoken up, turned an art
appraiser’s eye to silence, threw themselves into
the painting on the wall, the deer with hard black eyes
with one bright painful spot of blue in them. They came
into the room. Your terror wanted them to watch
what happened and your terror saw the blue spot and
your terror got a lichen-eating audience
to your bullseye focus on that blue-stained motel
deerseye, your terror drank too much, your eyes summoned
them, they saw your story shrink into a fist.


I just had some quick questions. I was just calling for a routine checkup. My first question is whatare you saying. My next question is what do you mean by contraindication. What do you mean by sexual preference. What exactly are you offering me and can I avoid eye contact and can I say no thank you and

Look, is this one of those things where the story’s author finds itself complicit because I was just asking questions I was not following orders I was just writing things down and I didn’t ask for any of this. It’s not my fault if the cattle don’t keep track of their numbers, it’s not up to me whose clothes I’m wearing and if fawns go missing. What I am asking is,

Look, it was just body language. It doesn’t mean anything. I’m just saying I was hungry, it was just a hotel room I paid for. I was only baring my teeth for show.


It has a question. 
It wants to know what 
you mean when you say 
Seem. For example, 
when they say that You 
don’t seem like yourself, 
it does not know what 
Seeming is, so it 
can’t tell. You tell it 
this is a question 
of taxonomy. 
This is a question, 
this is not a pet. 
This is a question, 
a wild animal. 
Do not touch the bars. 
Keep your hands to your 
self. Come home wearing 
someone else’s clothes. 
Don’t be mistaken. 
What do they mean by 
Do not feed. Do you 
understand what that 
means. Do you find it 
confusing for some 
reason, when it licks 
your face and asks you 
questions. What happened, 
it asks. You’re crying. 
What does crying mean.
Megan is shown from the shoulders up, before a white wall, whereon a door is visible to the right. Megan has light skin, and chinlength silvergray hair. Megan wears raspberry red lipstick, and a crew or slightly scoop necked shirt patterned with narrow black and white horizontal stripes.

Meghan Kemp-Gee was born in Vancouver BC and writes poetry, comics, and scripts in Los Angeles. She won the Poetry Society of America 2014 Lyric Poetry Award. Her work has also appeared in Copper Nickel, Helen: A Literary Magazine, The Rush, Switchback, and Skyd Magazine. She teaches written inquiry and composition at Chapman University.




Olivia Muenz

Content warning: unsanitary, death

A 3x4 panel, black and white CT scan of a head. Each panel shows a segment of the head moving laterally and is overlaid with text: "my cells cum / in n out / the screen / all memory // my lil / psych / e in / slivers // I look / 4 waldo / up my nose // btwn / my pixels // 4 a secret / lil slip / of paper // w my name / on it / (cmon / sniff me out) // psssssst // i m / naming / yr / wrong / ness / but im 1 / big gray / of normal // in / btwn / the slides / ive erased // the / impt / total / ity / of / my / face // my rites / n wrongs / all sown / together".

I’m here

Here is my brain. It is writing this. For you. In Times  New Roman. To make us both feel. Better. We feel  even. Here is my brain. Here is my brain on drugs.  No eggs this time. Only the good ones. The doctor  ones. Perfectly legal. I feel fine. Perfectly regal. I  don’t feel pain. The earth is. Rotating on its axis and  so. Is this room. And so are you. We are. Fine.  Welcome to my book. 

Here is the world. We are in this together. The body  pulls. In towards itself and towards all of us. That is  all we need. Am I doing this right. Where was I  again.  

Here is the body. Of water. That you were looking  for. Take a drink. Kiss the mirror. It will last longer.  Don’t forget. To call the pharmacy again.  

Here is the state. Of things. We are in this together  and the room is moving with us. How nice. How  orderly. How together we are. I love you for being  here with me. We think about hop scotch and that’s  fine enough for now. I offer us a cold beverage. We  love cold beverages especially when it’s hot out.  How nice.  

Here is the fire. Place. It’s warming us up. We  needed it. We feel safe now. We breathe it in. The  smoke that’s good. We’re saw dust. We love this  stuff. We’re so happy we’re here. Did you see the  moon. Landing.  

Here we go again. It’s hurling towards us. Look out.  That was close. Let’s take a bath. Let’s promise each  other we’ll never bathe again. That will make us  proud. That will make us eat peaches. It doesn’t 

matter what we think. We forgot to call the pharmacy  again.  

Here is your brain on. Music. I’ll give it to you  Einstein. I’ll take you on a boat and make you watch  it sink. Do you believe me now. Is anybody alive out  there. Can anybody hear me.  

Here it is. We’ve been looking for you and here you  were all along. That’s the nature of it we figure. Hide  and we’ll seek. Do you think we can find it by smell.  Should we bake cookies. Can we find our way home  from  

Here is an orange. Let me show you how to slice it.  First you take an orange. Then you stick your thumb  in it. Then you hold it up to the moon. This step is  important. Don’t think about it. Think about orange  juice. Think about swallowing. Spin it like it’s the  earth. Now you can eat it.  

Here is that memory I wasn’t looking for. You  brought it back all of a sudden in a little tote bag. I  had forgotten all about it and now here it is. What a  surprise. Did you bring a gift receipt. 

Here is the new one.  

Here is my dusty balloon. I unpacked it just for you.  It will stay put if you let it. Give it a kiss.  

Here is my note. I am writing to you. To express my  gratitude for your prompt response. It is nice to be  thought of so quickly. I’ve been thinking about what  you said about jam. I am with you for the most part.  Have you given any thought to peaches. That is the  only hole. 

Here. I said here. A little to the left. A little more. A  bit higher. Not that high. But a little higher. Yes. 

Here’s your hat. What’s your hurry. 

Here I’m giving you an out. I’m giving you an out.  Well if you don’t want to take it. That’s not on me.  

Here I am. Surprise. I got you this time. You should  have seen your face. You looked like an icicle. You  hardly knew you were dangerous. You keep dripping  in my eye. I shouldn’t keep looking up. Let me know  when you spot the moon.  

Here we go again. 

Here I will read it back to you. So do you love it. You  can be honest. It won’t hurt. My feelings. Well you  could have been nicer about it.  

Here are my keys. Now get lost. 

Here is my urine. Sample. I made it just for you. I  hope you like it. I wiped the outside with toilet paper.  I even signed it. I packed this silver tray just to  deliver it to you. I hope you don’t mind the garnish.  I couldn’t decide between turnips and peaches.  

Here comes trouble.  

Here you went. I let you die without asking. I could  have done it. I could have made it easier for all of us.  But here you were and I couldn’t say a thing besides  no I am not my mother. It was too late for talks about  The Great Depression. Our great depression. I don’t  know why but I knew. I will save them for us forever.  We will live on forever.

Olivia, who has light skin and darker hair that falls below the shoulders, is shown on a very dark background, in a grayscale image. Olivia is smiling, and wears a dark and slightly shiny garment. Faint pinpricks of light are visible in the background.

Olivia Muenz is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Louisiana State University. She received her BA from NYU and is currently the Nonfiction Editor for New Delta Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Salt Hill Journal, The Boiler, Pidgeonholes, Heavy Feather Review, Timber Journal, Peach Magazine, Stone of Madness Press, and ctrl+v. @oliviamuenz




Isaac Pickell

Content warning: anti-Blackness, slavery

our greatest ambition, to be met somewhere other than the middle

passage—just a shadow but sometimes
it’s hard to walk around in your own 

worn shoes like an old truth, grotesquely
retrospect of addressed flesh & grit 

teeth. across a sea that is big & was
already old, what survives may not be 

               pretty: what color could shadows
               be once this present is subsumed? 

answered in that familiar hush,
saved for spaces where your life is

the one game in town. so many bodies 
find predicaments, but it’s rare
to worry over naming 
blame while they are still 
only named bodies, haunting  
us like a ghost that isn’t quite
friendly yet carries along with you  
knowing you need the company  

for the habit of horror.  
a habitat teaches you to remain

resilient or alive. most times  
that is enough to be and joy  

is safely ignored, but when they demand 
to hear mourning you can remain 

enough, be made sacred by silence &
leave them to listen & listen & listen
for the stillness of no  

sound at all, running head 
long for your brilliant, elated pause.

in the absence of a parrot 

                                                      a nature curated in the obverse  
                                                      self we have always craved as conquerors
                                                      airbrushed past all recognition 
                                                      of our predation, a shadow at the whole 

                                                      which word alone cannot erase  
                                                      from the geologic record 

                                                      expanding as we are into time measured  
                                                      in strata, the historical record keeps 

the familiar shapes of our noses, the color  
on our backs and our shoulders, the voices  
trapped as legacies of legacy invested in ornaments  

like truth, molded into anachronistic  
oddities waiting for their day to be
sold at market literate in the value of remains  
grown small with time, even our oak shriveled, softened 
for the hands of children elastic as they wiggle  
the rods, rattle bladeless sabers, able to imagine  
they never sought blood, never drained color from any face
recognizable as man; how inviting these artifacts
as they approach dissolution. even waves turn  
static waiting for break, distance decays, even 
the sand slows itself from melting as glass resting 
between you and drowning, an imagined protection 
                                                      expanding as we are into time measured 
                                                      in strata, the historical record keeps 

a hilly cemetery nearby in the tall weightless grass, an old
barn melting into ground across the bay, a good place  
to share with a cat or something else to outlive, accessories 

to remember instead of leaving behind. the world at my back,
exposed to nothing but the humming drone of nothing, the rest  of
the world all in process. become this thing we tell ourselves we are 

                                                      expanding as we are into time measured 
                                                      in strata, the historical record keeps  

the grief which your cat lacks when it fails  
to miss you, or your own
nostalgia, an evolutionary wedge which found a way
to process loss as promise, holding on 

to every one of our mistakes, until mirrors  
fade back into sand and we drown
                                                      under the weight of it all  

                                                      the historical record keeps  
                                                      for its sheer number of things 
                                                      expanding as we are, the time 
                                                      to answer question is past.

for all the broken things unfixed with nothing  left but time to fix them 

we’ve discovered whole vocabularies 
of disappointment; maybe I am 

as old as we all feel, detached 
as we all think. what if all this talk 
of new normal is nothing more  
than old rumor finally hitting the fan 
& we all see the very same thing 

in the inkblot splatters on separate walls 
& can’t chalk it up to happenstance, again. 

what if all this distance is is 
a really big mirror facing 

the wrong way. what if the universe was not 
such an unspeakable terror
for its endlessness & my hands, 
pale palms unburned & open, 

tumbled each and every one of you 
I could ever imagine loving, breathing 

& petrified, into the inert 
vision at the ends of my own 

go-go-gadget arms, finally enough 
to fold each and every one

within a single shared thought and not 
recognizing the universe in deference 

to its scale we always mistranslate 
as endless difference. will each and every
or even just one of you 
please pity me with this simple kindness:
tell me it’s okay that the universe is so big 
that it must be ignored.
Isaac, who has light brown skin, and short brown hair and beard, is shown standing before a poster presentation. Isaac wears rounded rectangular glasses, a blackstrapped backpack, and a light blue shortsleeved tee, which reads FOLLOW ME in red letters, and which, over the lettering, shows a ladybug with a dotted flight line trailing behind it. In the right hand, Isaac holds a large black insect that might be a cockroach; on the left forearm, a black rectangular tattoo is visible.

Isaac Pickell is a passing poet & PhD student at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he lives & studies the borderlands of blackness & black literature. His work’s found in Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Fence, Protean Magazine, and Sixth Finch, and his debut chapbook everything saved will be last is available now from Black Lawrence Press.