For this episode of Lyric Essentials, we’re joined by poet Saida Agostini. Agostini reads work by Dorianne Laux and June Jordan and shares her deep appreciation for the “richness and rigor” of these poems. Agostini discusses how that appreciation has evolved over the years (she’s read Jordan’s poem over a hundred times!). Many thanks to her for joining us, and thank you, readers, for supporting this series!
Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems to read for Lyric Essentials?
Saida Agostini: I love poems that evoke powerful, unexpected emotions, that demand your presence. Both Jordan and Laux’s work have a hungry, unstinting immediacy that I can’t ignore.
RS: Was there a reason that you chose to group these two poems together, specifically?
SA: I was taught from a very early age that desire was something unmanageable, ugly—a force that must be tamed. Jordan’s body of work calls out black women’s desire as a revolutionary force, the foundation of any real work, to build a freedom that we can hold and feel. Quite frankly, I want that. I want to be in my body and not just feel safe, but revel in the wonder of my skin and feel its glory. Laux’s poem speaks to this desire, what it means to luxuriate in want, to put my hand against a lover’s skin and sit in knowing with them. I think these poems are about a kind of reclaiming, a naked and unabashed commitment to let our erotic selves (as Lorde calls it) guide us to freedom.
RS: What was your experience like when you were recording these poems? For instance, did you already have a pretty good idea of what the poems would sound like, or did you try out different intonations? What was your thought process behind the way you read them out loud?
SA: I was first introduced to “A Poem about My Rights” in high school. I was part of a theatrical team that would perform poems in competition with other schools, so I’ve actually read this poem aloud over a hundred times. I would argue that in some ways I grew up with this work. I don’t think I even intellectually understood the poem fully until I was in my late twenties, but emotionally I connected with it immediately. I always get caught in Jordan’s cadence, her call to own her name, how she writes such an expansive, broad world that is also deeply intimate. Reading it in 2019 gave it a different texture—to read it as a 38-year-old black queer survivor of domestic and sexual violence in a country led by a white supremacist—found me reading the work as a battle cry, a prayer, and prostration.
Similarly, with Laux’s work, it felt like reading a prayer. I kept thinking about her focus on labor, the gentle uncovering of a lover’s day—and then that line “Then I’d open his clothes and take / the whole day inside me.” Oh! That line slays me to this very moment. I wanted to just pause and take that line in.
RS: Did you discover anything new about these after reading them out loud, as opposed to reading them on the page?
SA: How could I not? There is such a richness and rigor in their collective works. Jordan’s poem is so dense and fiery, it’s easy to overlook the incredible nuance of her work—even when you read it aloud over a hundred times. I was struck by her proclamation “I am the history of rape.” What does it mean for our history to be defined by sexual violence and trauma? What are the artifacts of this history, what does it mean to build a world where we don’t flee these realities but honor how we saved ourselves?
RS: How did you first discover these poems? Have they (or the poets who wrote them) had any influence on your own work?
SA: As I mentioned, I was first introduced to “A Poem About My Rights” in tenth grade. I discovered Laux in college. I write in the tradition of black and brown queer women who are unapologetic in their desire and freedom. I write to claim our history: the fantastic, the beautiful, the unconquerable nature of our love.
Dorianne Laux lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the author of What We Carry (1994), Smoke (2000); Facts about the Moon (2005), and The Book of Men (2011). Her work has won the Oregon Book Award, the Paterson Prize, and the Pushcart Prize, and she’s been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.
June Jordan was a Jamaican-American writer and activist. She was born in Harlem in 1936 and went on to earn her B.A. from Barnard College. She taught at numerous universities, including Yale University, Sarah Lawrence College, and New York University. Her award-winning work including poems, lyrics, plays, journalism, essays, and speeches. Jordan died in 2002 in Berkeley, California.
Explore a website dedicated to Jordan and her work
Read Jordan’s obituary in the New York Times
Purchase Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan from Copper Canyon Press
Saida Agostini is a queer Afro-Guyanese poet and activist. Her work is featured in Origins, the Black Ladies Brunch Collective’s anthology, Not Without Our Laughter, the Baltimore Sun, pluck!, The Little Patuxent Review, and other publications. She has received support for her poetry from Cave Canem, the Blue Mountain Center, and other institutions. She is presently working on a collection of poems, just let the dead in.
Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.