Lyric Essentials: Tara Shea Burke Reads Judith Barrington and Donika Kelly

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! In our latest installment, Tara Shea Burke reads poems from two different poets and discusses the connectivity of lesbian poetry, somatic poetry, animalistic poetry, and how important it is for everyone to hear about it all. Thanks for listening!


Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to break the rules and read two poems by two different poets for Lyric Essentials? 

Photo credit: Rae Thweatt

Tara Shea Burke: Well, for a few practical, radical, and metaphorical reasons. Because this trine of things is perhaps how I do everything. When I was thinking about what poems to read, I scanned my shelves and all the poets I love. I could have read from Tim Seibles, Jericho Brown, Mary Oliver, Megan Falley—so many poets and so many poems. But because this was about reading poems I love, I sat and breathed and got deep into my body. The first poem I think about reading aloud when we talk about poems that influence is always, always for me, Why Young Girls Like to Ride Bareback by Judith Barrington. I heard her read this poem at an AWP years and years ago, when I was either still in or just finishing my MFA and realizing how much I needed and responded to poems about the body, the lesbian body, the thrust of us.

I recorded that poem right away, then read the rest of the book “Horses and the Human Soul”, which I haven’t read fully in a while, though I return to my favorite poem often. I love so much of the book, but I was looking for another poem that really rode the wave of my body as I read it in the same way, and I came up short. So, I looked on the Lyric Essentials page and read back through what other poets had done. I was just going to break the rules, like I do, but also wanted to feel in community with other poets that may have gone outside the boundaries, and I found some writers that shared different poets. I break rules and look for shared experiences simultaneously—in life, in poetry, in spirit. I sat for a while again, and asked myself to remember, bodily, what other poems I love feel the same to me in rhythm and texture like this poem. Donika Kelly’s every poem. I immediately wanted to read “The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings.” So, I read it aloud and felt that ride of body of lesbian body of love of queerness and animal and the rhythm and felt at home, which is what I look for, always. 

Tara Shea Burke reads “Why Young Girls Like to Ride Bareback” by Judith Barrington

EH: How do you feel these two poems or two poets are connected, so that they can be read together?

TSB: I mentioned a little of this above, but when I was first coming out, first writing, first finding my voice in literature and as a student, as a young queer writer full of animal feelings all over the place, embodied writers saved my life. I will always want to place two or more lesbian and queer writers together who bring in animals and animalistic urges, who can write about sex while not writing about sex (I fail at this and speak literally of sex) and what love feels like for oneself, and for another, as a queer body in this dominant culture that strangles everything deeply divine about our bodies and all we crave. Barrington’s poem is a perfect poem to me. Its language matches its form matches its sound and tone and experience as I read, and to me every single poem truly should be an embodied, felt, experience on the tongue aloud as well as on the page. Lesbian and queer writers do this best for me. They have been my teachers. I love so much writing people create, but I want to feel something, you know?

Barrington’s poem is about a young girl riding bareback, and not a single word is about sex and early sexuality, and yet every single word choice, every straddle and whole body singing is about the dance of the body waking up in tune with nature, the whole other world between a young girl’s legs. And that queers the hell out of it, too—so unapologetically inviting us to consider what is unsaid, what we’ve all barebacked before. Wow, this is the power of bringing the unsaid, particularly about young queerness, to life on the page. Some may say this poem is about the joy of riding a horse. I say read it aloud, again.

And Kelly’s poem is about feelings in this very frank and unapologetic way, too. About falling in love with a woman and seeing sex and love and lust and death everywhere, in sea creatures and the water and the sand and the tide. And about naming oneself in the poem! Whew. Most of her poems embrace the animal of us, which has taught me so much about my body, about what is possible when I let my love of things, of women, of creatures into my work despite all the damn rules we think we must adhere to in order to write well. Screw them all, sing the body one with the love that wakes us up, the bodies alive and alive, again. 

Tara Shea Burke reads “The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings.” by Donika Kelly

EH: What roles have these poems acted as in influencing your own writing? Do you find one more influential than the other, or one poet more impactful to your writer’s identity than the other? 

TSB: I seem to be bleeding one answer into the other before the next question, which feels like me and all the poets I love. I don’t want to compare here, but man, every time I read Barrington’s poem, I stomp my feet on the floor and rock my body and feel alive in a way I can’t quite name, for worry of killing it. The ride that poem takes reminds me what I’m here for in spirit and in relationship to language and queerness and sex and myself and this body I am loving fiercely as a big giant FU to all the powers that be, no matter how hard it is. And it reminds me how little we’ve written about the young girl’s body and how hard it is to name what we straddle. I mean, really. Kelly’s work is influential as hell for me, but in a way that reminds me to embrace deep metaphor, shorter poems that reveal and hold back just enough to make you hungry for more. 

EH: I love how much we can hear your emotional connection to these poems when you’re reading! Who do you imagine is your audience when reading these poems aloud? As in, who do you imagine needs or wants to hear you read these poems by these poets? 

TSB: Um, everyone. We’ve lost so much of aurality in language, at least in the way poetry asks us to consider words and feelings together. But, I know what’s happening there when we hear the same kind of reading over and over. I get it’s hard to read out loud, but really, what the crap are we doing? I feel like it is my job, when reading a poem, to practice it and read both like myself, and also in a way that honors the poem. Each poem has its own tone (I wrote town first) and music, or lack of, and subject matter, and desire. Every poem is a conversation with an audience, and I want us to read even MORE in poet voice. But I want poet voice to be something we can’t pin down anymore because we’re actually reading like ourselves, to people we truly care about reaching, and in a way that honors each poem as it is.

I love these poems. They light me up and turn me on. Why wouldn’t I read them in that way? I have spent a lot of my life wasting my words, and I aim to not do that anymore. What a waste to read these as if they aren’t magical, love-giving, life-giving, climax-giving poems? I’d read these to anyone. And, I think I’ve read the Bareback poem to children. 


Judith Barrington has published four poetry collections, two chapbooks, and the award-winning memoir Lifesaving: A Memoir. She is also a creative writing teacher who has taught in Britain, Spain, and the U.S. and currently teaches literary memoir at The University of Alaska, Anchorage’s MFA program, and is the author of the bestselling book on craft, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art. She is a recipient of many awards, including the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize, the Lambda Book Award, and runner-up for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award.

Further reading:

Purchase Judith Barrington’s collection of poetry, Horses and the Human Soul
Read this interview with Judith Barrington about crafting memoir into literature
Read Barrington’s essay Poems From the Body

Donika Kelly is an assistant professor of English at St. Bonaventure University where she teaches Creative Writing. She is the author of the chapbook Aviarium, and the full-length collection Bestiary, which was the winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the 2017 Hurston/Wright Award for poetry and the 2018 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and long-listed for the National Book Award and finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.

Further reading:

Visit Donika Kelly’s personal website
Listen to Kelly discuss How to Bring Physicality Into Your Work
Read a review of Kelly’s book Bestiary

Tara Shea Burke is is a queer poet and teacher from the Blue Ridge Mountains and Hampton Roads, Virginia. She’s a writing instructor, editor, creative coach, and yoga teacher who has taught and lived in Virginia, New Mexico, and Colorado. Her writing will appear in Erase the Patriarchy, a book of sexual assault and rape erasures, edited by Isobel O’Hare and University of Hell Press, and was featured in Reading Queer, Poetry in the Time of Chaos, edited by Neil de la Flor and Maureen Seaton from Anhinga Press, as well as many journals and anthologies. She is a board member for Sinister Wisdom, the longest running multicultural, lesbian literary and arts journal. She believes in community building and radical support for any human that wants to tell their stories, and has edited and coached writers through creative work, dissertations, personal projects, and movement-based writing for healing and growth. To find more about her writing and work visit www.tarasheaburke.com

Erica Hoffmeister is is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently living in Denver, she teaches college writing across the Denver metro area and is an editor for the literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019) and writes across genres.

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