Interview with Joy Ladin, Author of Impersonation

Following the republishing of her book Impersonation, Joy Ladin spoke with Doubleback Books editorial intern Pema Donnelly about the revision process of republishing, as well as how her gender transition and relationship with God and religion inspired her poetry.

Pema Donnelly: In your author’s note at the beginning of Impersonation, you talk about what revising was like for you. Could you talk a bit more about what it was like to work with these poems that were coming from all different stages of your transition?

Joy Ladin: My first response to re-reading the book after it was accepted by you was shock. Over the years since its publication, I had occasionally reread individual poems that became regulars at readings. But I hadn’t read it as a whole since the first edition was published in 2015. In addition to being struck by the need for an organization that would make it easier to see the connection between the relations to gender expressed when I wrote each poem, there were a number of poems that simultaneously seemed to cry out for revision, and feel too foreign to re-enter imaginatively. They were my poems, I remembered writing them, but after years of living as rather than struggling to become and grow into myself, they didn’t feel like mine any more. 

As I worked on them, I realized how much my relation to gender when I wrote them had shaped my poetics. Poetics grow out of the problems we are wrestling with when we write—they are ways of using language to explore, or clarify, or navigate, or avoid, or resolve those problems. For example, the earliest poems in Impersonation were written when I was in the closet, hiding my trans identity behind a dissociated male persona. That created two poetics-shaping problems: though I wanted to write poems that were coherent and in some ways true, because I wasn’t present in my body or life, I had little vivid experience, feelings, or even memories to draw on, and because I was in the closet, I dared not say anything that revealed my gender dysphoria or female gender identification. These problems led me to write persona poems about feelings, experiences, and memories that weren’t mine, but which indirectly reflected an unspeakable sense of dislocation, loss, and (internal) exile which, after fifteen years of living as myself, seem like a bad dream. That made it excruciating to revise those poems – to once again approach writing as something that couldn’t reveal or even be about me.  

There are three other poetics-defining relations to gender represented in the book. The poetics of my pre-transition poems were defined by trying to explore or express my struggles with gender in ways that are so abstracted that no one would recognize them. The transition poems were driven by a bundle of exciting new (to me) problems. I was trying to speak from a female subject position I hadn’t yet embodied, and to create language for feelings, fears, and losses that, so far as I knew, no trans poet had yet expressed. I was also, for the first time, trying to write as myself, the person I knew myself to be but had not yet grown into—a problem that lead to me writing a lot in what I think of as the prophetic second-person, as a future voice addressing my struggling, unformed self. Writing about a process of becoming I was in the midst of made it impossible to reach what I now think of as endings or conclusions—like fragments of existential rainbows, the poems begin and end in the middle. And finally, even as I was trying to express the excitement and ecstasy of becoming, because my transition was bound up with the breakup of my home, family, and marriage, I needed to do so in a way that acknowledged the sufferings of those I loved – sufferings I caused by finally being true to myself. I couldn’t revise these poems until I gave up trying to force on them a clarity and conclusion that, I realized, negated the problems that summoned them into being. The only section that was easy to revise was the last one, poems about living as, rather than becoming, an openly trans, female-identified person. Even though I don’t write much about that these days, that relation to gender, and representational problems that grow out of it, are much closer to those I live today. 

PD: You mentioned that the “Transit of Venus” sequence felt very ambitious. What does this sequence mean to you, and how do you feel about it in relation to the book now?

JL: The “Transit of Venus” section represented what were then completely new ways of writing for me—writing about feelings in the present (actually, after 45 years in the closet, openly writing about my feelings was new to me); writing about my life in the midst of living it, rather than fictional lives or abstracted reflections of bits of my life; and what was then a new practice of writing poems composed solely from language sampled from women’s magazines, something which became a staple composition technique, but which then was an effort to learn what it meant to write from a female subject position, as a woman. Those poems were also among my earliest efforts to create language to express transgender experiences and interiority, particularly for the tumultuous emotions surrounding gender transition and the process of becoming. But in the personal sense, the most ambitious aspect of these poems was that they weren’t only efforts to represent and express transgender experience—they were efforts to imagine becoming myself and, in a real sense, my first experiences of being myself. To me, they were crucial parts of gender transition; in fact, I considered their earliest drafts as the beginning of my transition—a crucial test of whether I could write poetry as myself, and so—apologies for being so dramatic, but this was how I thought – of whether I could actually live as myself, or needed to die in order to end my life as a man. 

PD: During the revision process, did any favorites emerge for you? Were there any surprises to revising? For instance, a poem you initially liked didn’t make the final cut, or the opposite, a poem you didn’t like initially made the cut with a few changes?

JL: My biggest surprises came when I went back to poems I cut out of the original manuscript—I have musician envy, so thought of them as outtakes from the original sessions—and found previously unpublished poems some, including “Unmaking Love, “Reincarnation,” and “Letter to the Gender Critical,” and the “Stories” sequence, that seemed relevant and strong enough to include. 

I was also surprised that the father poems in the “Post Mortem” section felt important to me after all these years, and by the sharpness and vividness of some of the “Mind-Body Problem” poems, such as “Photograph 1934” and “To Say You Lived— they reminded me of  a kind of concentration and distillation of image I left behind when I left the closet.

It was a relief to cut three poems I included in the original book even though I had misgivings about them – “Still a Guy,” “She,” and “Exegetical Fingers.” Leaving them out made the book better.

PD: One of my favorite poems while reading Impersonation was “Filibustier”. I think it stands out as one of the more overtly political poems in the collection as well. Was there any specific moment that inspired this piece?

JL: I don’t remember a moment that inspired “Filibustier.” It grew out of techniques I learned during the study of modernist American techniques that became my dissertation and book, Soldering the Abyss: Emily Dickinson and Modern American Poetry, in which I examined how Dickinson would fuse language representing different discourses together in ways that turned them into metaphors for one another. She does it much more concisely and mind-blowingly that I do, of course, but that technique gave me a way to express the intensely ambivalent experience of exploring gender transition while still being in the closet without veering, as I often did at the time, into shame or self-hatred. I suddenly realized that, like gender transition, voting (the metaphorical discourse that makes up most of the poem) is an act of self-expression that is done in private, a self-defining choice no one else witnesses or knows, a way of trying to change the world that may mean a lot to the individual (my mother was a devoted member of the League of Women Voters, and came from a refugee family that saw voting as a gift and sacred responsibility) but which is imperceptible to others. I feared that gender transition would cut me off from society. As I expanded the voting metaphor, the poem surprised me by speaking about gender transition in a way I hadn’t imagined—as a private commitment that would strengthen my social participation, a prophetic glimpse of what happened years later after I started living as myself.

PD: A lot of your poems tend to incorporate God or religious references in some way. What is your relationship to religion & how would you say it has changed & evolved over the course of writing Impersonation’s poems?

JL: I’ve written a lot about my relationship to God and religion (two different things!) and how they are bound up for me with my trans identity, including chunks of my memoir of gender transition, Through the Door of Life, which I wrote before Impersonation, and a book-length work of trans theology, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, which I wrote after it. Long story short, though my family wasn’t religious, I have always had a sense of God’s presence that sustained me through decades of gender-related suicidal depression. My family didn’t talk about God, and I learned as soon as I started taking writing workshops in junior high school that American poets aren’t supposed to talk about God either, unless we occasionally want to do so skeptically or angrily. So though I’ve always written poems with the word “God” in them, for most of my poetic career, I kept my actual relationship with God, like my female gender identification, in the closet. As I did about gender in my pre-transition poems, I wrote about God from a distance, in ways that make God seem like an idea I’m questioning rather than someone who feels like an important part of my life. You can see those closeted techniques for talking about God in several poems in Impersonation, including the first, “A Story About God,” and the last, “Making Love,” in which God is part of a metaphor for queer sexual ecstasy. But in “Gender is Not the Only Transition,” the sequence that makes up much of the post-transition section and was written after most of the rest of the book, I come close to directly representing parts of my actual relationship with God (though still through the veil of the voices to which the poems in the sequence are attributed).

PD: Finally, if you could, what would you like to say to those who are becoming? 

JL: “All beginnings are hard”—that’s a Jewish saying that applies directly to becoming. Becoming new or truer versions of ourselves is hard, because it means living through a series of beginnings. Every time we come out to someone, it’s the beginning of a new relationship. Every time we re-examine our ways of living or thinking or talking or acting from the perspective of the selves we are growing into, it’s a new beginning. When I was in the throes of becoming, everything felt like a beginning: dressing, walking, talking, seeing old friends, going to the bank, sitting on the subway, kissing, waking up as myself rather than to male persona I had to suffer and maintain, even my emotions, felt new, beginnings of a life and self I was just discovering, making up as I went along.    

Because all beginnings are hard, becoming takes toughness, courage, resilience, and hope—and it also takes compassion toward oneself and those who are affected by our becoming. We have to learn to enlist the most grown-up parts of ourselves in caring for the newborn parts of ourselves. As toddlers teach us when they are learning to walk, becoming takes falling down, getting hurt, pulling ourselves up, lurching forward again. 

Most of all I want to tell those who are becoming that though the world may not be ready for you, though it may seem utterly hostile to you, it needs you—because you, and only you, can be the person you are becoming.

Impersonation is available to download for free from Doubleback Books

Joy Ladin has long worked at the tangled intersection of literature and trans identity. She has published ten books of poetry, including her latest collection, Shekhinah Speaks (Selva Oscura Press, 2022); 2021 National Jewish Book Award winner The Book of Ana (EOAGH); and Lamda Literary Award finalists Impersonation and Transmigration. A new collection, Family, is forthcoming from Persea in 2024. She has also published a memoir of gender transition, National Jewish Book Award finalist Through the Door of Life, and a groundbreaking work of trans theology, Lambda Literary and Triangle Award finalist, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective. Her writings have been recognized with a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship, among other honors. Many of her poems, essays, and videos of her presentations are available at

Pema Donnelly is a poet and interdisciplinary creative born and raised in Southern California. In her work, she explores representing queer joy, silver linings, and aspects of her own mental health journey. Today, Pema attends the University of California, Irvine, where she studies English and Education. When she is not studying, you may find her visiting your local estate sales or spending time with her senile tuxedo cat, Rose.

Sundress Reads: Review of Four in Hand

A book cover that reads "Four in Hand" in white letters against a dark green background with a folded down piece of yellow in the top right-hand corner. "Poems" is written in yellow in a vertical line below the title and the author's name "Alicia Mountain" is written in black letters at the very bottom of the page against a white outline that wraps around the dark green and yellow.

Alicia Mountain’s new poetry collection Four in Hand (BOA Editions, 2023) is comprised of four heroic crown sonnets—a sequence of fifteen interlinking sonnets wherein the last line of the first sonnet is the first line of the next, and so on, and the fifteenth sonnet consists of the first lines of the previous fourteen. Quite a complicated structure indeed, and tricky to pull off, but Mountain does so masterfully. She weaves together eloquent, and at times archaic, language with urgent issues like late-stage capitalism, the pandemic, environmental devastation, LGBTQ issues and discrimination, drone strikes, the 2016 election, etc. with contemporary references and found text. Mountain also offers contemplations of familial structures, her gay poetic lineage, love and loss, as well as investigations of the self and place.  Aside from the political undercurrents and heavier themes, Four in Hand is also tender and personal suffused with numerous kinds of love, including the lingering love that persists even after heartbreak, “I offer to trade you / a poem for the story of the place we pressed / our bodies together.” This book feels like a necessary antidote to the crushing pressures and anxieties facing us today.

A narrative thread is braided through the book, submerging then reemerging signaled by motifs like “train tracks,” “the queen,” and “violet,” “which operate as anchors that ground the poems and refocus the reader’s attention. The form lends itself to this loose, nonlinear narrative and though each heroic crown appears disparate at first you begin to notice the intricate patterns as you read further.

Each sonnet rolls effortlessly into the next, turning the meaning of its last line to mean something completely different—even opposite—when it becomes the first line of the next sonnet. For example, the last line of the ninth sonnet in the first sequence “Train Town Howl” reads “whomever you love. They belong beside you,” which seems to be a lament that their ex-lover likely has a new lover. But in the next sonnet, the same line reads as well-wishing towards the lover rather than lamentation—the speaker is now expressing to their past lover that they deserve to be with someone they love, whomever it may be, and be happy. Mountain achieves this reversal of meaning simply by changing the sentence structure. As a last line “whomever you love” is part of the sentence that begins in the previous line, but as the first line of the tenth stanza, “Whomever you love” is the beginning of the sentence, starting a thought rather than completing one. It’s a tiny change but has a significant impact, which is a testament to the virtuosity of Mountain’s. The syntax is delicately crafted and each period, comma, line break, and word, and is intentional.

On the note of intentionality, while many sonnets in the collection resemble traditional sonnets, the sonnet form never feels tired because of Mountain’s experimentation. In the second sequence “Sparingly,” she pushes the boundaries of the form: each line consists only of a single word. A traditional sonnet puts pressure on the line as a unit, by using one word per line Mountain zeroes in on the word, forcing us to linger with each word and really notice them, hold on to each syllable, savor the sounds.

Despite the dark cloud of political instability, environmental degradation, and loss that permeates, Mountain finds moments of lightness and hope, especially in the “elementary poets” the speaker is teaching poetry. They like “butts and cats and killing” and the girls are “purple princes too.” This childhood silliness and wonder contrasts the “The sinister lever-pull that will not right us / came swift in November,” meaning the election of Donald Trump and the dividedness of the nation. Mountain asks, “How long has it / been since you worked for an hourly wage?” exemplifying the disconnect between the wealthy and the politicians and the rest of us. By posing this question and then going to work with eight-year-old poets, the speaker is deciding to do not be crushed by despair and do the important work of investing hope in the future, represented by the children, and in small but not inconsequential actions. Such a kernel of optimism is found when “Eight-year-old writes, We befriend enemy / countries like we were never enemies.” A vision of a more peaceful world without senseless violence—a better world.

Four in Hand is an epic, ambitious work, the opulent landscapes, gentle intimacy, and acute awareness of corruption and destruction that we are complicit in, “Often, I forget I am a benefactor / of war by birthright,” will percolate in your brain long after you’ve put the book down. It is a perfect alchemy of the personal and the political, of abundance and sparsity, of the quotidian and the extraordinary. Mountain demonstrates dexterity in both form, lyric, and blank verse while retaining a pleasurable cohesiveness. This book is achingly beautiful and exemplifies the magic of poetry—how at its best, poetry can touch you deeply; make you feel, and think, and cry, and hope, and yearn, and be glad to be alive.

Four in Hand is available from BOA Editions

Max Stone is in his final semester as an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of Nevada, Reno. He received his BA in English with a minor in Book Arts and Publication from UNR in 2019. He is originally from Reno, but has lived in many other places since including, most recently, New York City. His poetry has been published in Black Moon Magazine, & Change, Fifth Wheel Press, Sandpiper ReviewNight Coffee LitCaustic Frolic, and elsewhere. Max is also book artist and retired college soccer player.

Doubleback Books Announces the Release of Joy Ladin’s Impersonation

Doubleback Books announces the release of Joy Ladin’s Impersonation. Previously published in 2015 from The Sheep Meadow Press, and a finalist for the Lamda Literary Award, Impersonation is a collection of poems that chronicles the messy, mysterious, profound, and idiosyncratic gender transition of the speaker. It is a book about the life-long process of becoming. The poems encompass shame and triumph, ecstasy and disappointment, the mundane humiliation of airport security screenings and the miraculous experience of incarnation and fully embodied love. This new edition of Impersonation has been edited with new poems, a new structure, and a new introduction by the author.

Download your copy of Impersonation on the Doubleback Books website.

Joy Ladin has long worked at the tangled intersection of literature and trans identity. She has published ten books of poetry, including her latest collection, Shekhinah Speaks (Selva Oscura Press, 2022); 2021 National Jewish Book Award winner The Book of Anna (EOAGH); and Lambda Literary Award finalists Impersonation and Transmigration. A new collection, Family, is forthcoming from Persea in 2024. She has also published a memoir of gender transition, National Jewish Book Award finalist Through the Door of Life, and a groundbreaking work of trans theology, Lambda Literary and Triangle Award finalist, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective. Her writings have  been recognized with a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship, among other honors. Many of her poems, essays, and videos of her presentations are available at

We Call Upon the Author to Explain—Layla Lenhardt

“These moments are punctuated by the smell of oolong tea, memories / of getting drunk off Blue Wave Vodka at Brian’s house, and hiding / from the cops in your car” (14). Throughout Mother Tongue, lines such as these resurrect. What is resurrected depends on your reading. For me, the tactile details and lush symbolism tore a hole in time, through which I could explore my early heart ruptures, while clasping hands with my co-time traveler, the speaker. 

Mother Tongue is a merciless miracle of storytelling. In its pages, readers enter the realms of trauma and passion anew. 

This latest installment of Sundress’ We Call Upon the Author Series contains valuable advice for designing and organizing a poetry collection from Layla Lenhardt, the esteemed author of Mother Tongue and a gallery coordinator. 

The cover of Lenhardt's book Mother Tongue: a face reflected in two hands.

Marah Hoffman: Because I know you are gifted at curating aesthetics, I would love to ask some questions about Mother Tongue’s design. The cover art is perfect for the collection–peculiar and alluring. How did you decide on this image? 

Layla Lenhardt: Choosing the cover art was, admittedly, the hardest part of the entire process. I wanted something that really captured what Mother Tongue was. I spent the better part of three months looking at various artists’ websites and pouring through pages of stock images. After sending three contenders to my editor, we made the decision to go with the image we chose for the cover. It just spoke to me in a way I can’t quite explain. But it felt right.

MH: Any advice for others picking cover art? 

LL: Don’t settle. Take your time and do your research. The cover of your book represents the entirety of it. It is the first idea that the reader digests, so make sure it is something that really resonates with you and your work. 

MH: Would you be willing to explain how you selected titles, for the entire collection and/or individual poems? Choosing titles has always been a challenge for me, but yours feel like essential components, providing texture. One of my favorites was “The Owl Theory.” An awareness of this theory makes readers understand the speaker’s loss so sharply. 

LL: Mother Tongue took on many names during its conception. Actually I didn’t decide on the name Mother Tongue until a month or so before I finished it. It had a different name for years. The idea came from a year of my life where I was unable to cry, and I felt that was akin to forgetting how to speak in my mother tongue. Some of the titles of the poems are names of the actual people. Most of them encapsulate the feeling I felt while writing it. I’d choose to reference things and events that I’d find were parallel to the concept of the poem. 

MH: What are your main sources of creative inspiration? 

LL: I feel the most inspired after listening to music or reading a poetry collection. I think one of my biggest inspirations in writing is Joanna Newsom. Her lyricism is so profound and all encompassing; I always learn a lot from her. 

MH: Any recommendations for music, writing prompts, or books?

LL: Joanna Newsom, especially her album Have One On Me. I’d also like to recommend the following poetry books; Refusal by Jenny Molberg, Field Glass by Catherine Pond, and Vantage by Taneum Bambrick.

MH: Reading Mother Tongue, I felt close to the speaker’s lovers through your consistently tactile and tender imagery. I lost them, mourned them, and watched time morph their memory. What are your views on the art of transferring a beloved onto the page? Dos and don’ts? 

LL: I think you should only do it if you’re ready, sometimes you have to kill your darlings. I find in transferring these people to the page, it’s showing them a small bit of gratitude for the things they’ve allowed me to feel, which in turn makes me very thankful for even the worst experiences; I find it cathartic. 

MH: While the collection flits back and forth between different eras of youth, there is a clear arc. How was the process of organizing the poems? 
LL: The process of organizing poems was a little arduous. Initially, I wanted to put them in chronological order, but I soon realized that wasn’t the best for the collection. So I printed out each poem and sat on the floor and organized them around me so I could literally visualize how to best curate this collection. I liked to pair pieces that spoke to each other. I also chose to move through the general sentiments and feelings, so I’d select the order based off of pieces that encapsulated each feeling: grief, youth, longing, guilt, etc.

Mother Tongue is available from Main Street Rag

Layla Lenhardt is an American poet currently based out of Indianapolis. She is the author of Mother Tongue (Main Street Rag, 2023) and a 2021 Best of the Net Nominee. She is a 2022 alumna of the SAFTA residency. Her work appears in Rust + MothPoetry QuarterlyPennsylvania Literary Journal, and elsewhere. 

Marah Hoffman is a 2022 graduate with a bachelor’s in English and Creative Writing from Lebanon Valley College. In college, she served as co-poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and Sigma Tau Delta English Honors Society president. From the LVC English department, she won The Green Blotter Writer Award. She has been featured in journals including Green Blotter, LURe JournalOakland Arts Review, Beyond Thought, and Asterism. Now, she works for the Sundress Academy for the Arts, where she enjoys immersing herself in a new and radiant literary community. Marah loves creative nonfiction, intertextuality, whimsicality, cats, lattes, distance running, and adding to her personal lexicon. Her favorite word changes nearly every week. 

Sundress Reads: Review of Bird Body

Content warning: Sexual assault mentioned

A sketched bird lies in the center of the book cover amid drawn ferns. Bird Body is written above in lowercase italics. Below the image is written "poems by Zoë Fay-Stindt"

What does it mean to inhabit a woman’s body in a world that tries to break it? This is what Zoë Fay-Stindt explores in their poetry chapbook, Bird Body. Fay-Stindt weaves intricately between birds and the stories of women to shine a light on women’s and femme’s experience in our misogynistic world. Fay-Stindt writes of the speaker’s emotional pain and exhaustion following their sexual assault. Here, healing can take the form of being picked apart by birds even as our speaker is devastated by their own inability to help others with their pain.   

Birds, Fay-Stindt appears to say, have levels of meaning and such a depth of representation that even we are birds. Sometimes we are brutal, then too-easily crushed by the world, yet containing within the cages of our ribs wrathful howls and cries of mourning and the ability to, despite it all, keep “opening [our] eyes every morning.” In such exploration, Fay-Stindt offers us the great gift of understanding what it is to survive in our problematic world.

Much of the chapbook is around the assault of the speaker and the emotional aftermath, although the assault is itself never described in much detail. Instead, much of the focus is on the effects and the ways that society compounds them by teaching the speaker to invalidate her own experience, even telling her (when she does begin to write about it in poetry) that she speaks of it too much. Bird Body dives deep into the emotional effects of something that is so innate to many women’s experiences, as 1 out of 6 women in the U.S. face sexual assault in their lifetime and 90% of sexual assault victims are women (“Scope of the Problem: Statistics.” RAINN).    

In “that’s it, now” Fay-Stindt compares the speaker to the mourning dove in her grief and exhaustion, imploring the reader to not pity the dove (or, perhaps, the woman) as she weaves laments yet still opens her eyes each morning, holding her “tremor and her great loud voice / in the same body.” This emotional depth and exploration makes clear the impact of an event that many still invalidate, bringing forth shockwaves from the event in all directions so that it can be fully felt—and understood—by the reader.

Bird Body also looks at the way terrible events echo backward, affecting the speaker long before it even happened through the fear women must live with. Through such writings, Fay-Stindt connects us in community, building bridges between us in order to share often overlooked and unspoken experiences. Fay-Stindt writes of the prelude to the rape, “I’ve been training for a lifetime—my body / knows the drill: I won’t yell. Instead, / offer a bargain: not tonight, or I promise / I’ll make it better next time, or I owe you one.” As a woman, this line had a profound effect on me because it touched on something not often discussed; the way that we spend our lives preparing for the possibility of an assault, finding responses to catcalls and men who approach us, finding the ways to battle our own instincts of rage in an attempt at survival. And this prevalence makes it all the more necessary to discuss.

Fay-Stindt expands the examination to include our human fallibility, broadening the chapbook’s relevance for all potential readers. They write in “a robin at the bus station” of the devastating inability in the face of others’ pain to do more than “build beds, soft spaces to land,” and show how our best attempts at help can make matters worse when the speaker accidentally kills a robin in “swallow.”

Yet, as the chapbook explores, there is so much more to a woman’s experience. From their relationship with their mother, to breast cancer, to pap smears, to finding a connection with and healing in nature, to having one’s body picked apart and prodded like it’s nothing more than a vessel, Fay-Stindt touches on much important and often-overlooked aspects of what it means to be a woman or femme in their poems.

But let us not evade how the speaker’s body is treated as a visceral vessel throughout. Their body is picked apart by a heron, washed clean, then squeezed and entered by a doctor during a pap smear. In this way, although both situations are geared toward healing, a comment is made on the objectification of women and femmes as nothing more than a body, how they are treated as such by society.

Bird Body is a vital read since it shows these experiences without flinching away, and makes obvious that you cannot completely tell a woman’s story—or understand it—without showing the grief, the connection to nature, our helplessness to aid each other, our objectification by society, and so much more. Fay-Stindt creates a vibrant, moving ode to women, femme people, and our bodily experiences by shining the spotlight on aspects of our lives that are often overlooked, and in so doing allows us to understand ourselves, and even humanity in all of its cruelty and struggle.   

Bird Body is available at Cordella Magazine

Solstice Black (she/they) is a queer poet and novelist living in the Pacific Northwest. They are currently undertaking a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in ChautauquaThe Fantastic Other, and A Forest of Words, among others. They hope to pursue an MFA in creative writing and a BFA in visual art in the next few years. Her cat is both her greatest joy and torment.

Sundress Reads: Review of The Body He Left Behind

Are there nuanced steps—complicated travels—between the shapes of vulnerability and viciousness, prey and predator? How do we, as humans, form these shapes when we face loss? These are only a few questions that arise from Reese Conner’s debut poetry collection, The Body He Left Behind (Cider Press Review, 2021). An homage to Conner’s father and his cat Lewis, The Body He Left Behind provides a unique space where animalistic movements initiate a poetic voice that calls attention to the way grief, love, or violence can shape us just as tangibly as our own bones.

The Body He Left Behind pulls from a kaleidoscope of observances about human and animal nature that weave together so interchangeably throughout the collection’s five parts that they seem causal and interdependent. In repeating images of toothpicks, rubber bands, spillages, and balsa wood, Conner constructs human and animal bodies according to a material vulnerability, thus exposing the way that humankind stands to bind both themselves, and the nature surrounding them, to a physical compartmentalization and self-imagined organization. “The Rapture”, for instance, illustrates a vomiting ocean as analogy to our view of an exposed human materialism: “a gentle murmur / spread in the bellies of the observant, / who saw even the ugly things begin to ascend—blobfish, Smart Cars, murder weapons, every issue of Us Weekly—and they began to think: / What about us?” In “The Necessary”, Conner points to the losses that occur at the intersection between nature and humanity’s material constructions: “if roads, cars, and quick commutes / mean one, two, one thousand dead cats, then / the choice is still clear: It would be far too expensive, / not to mention logistically irresponsible, / to make cat-retardant roads, so, of course, / a run-over tabby or two is necessary / unpleasantness.” By so clearly pointing to the downfall of human efficiency, Conner makes congruencies between human and animal survival—both of which, at times, reach towards the same beauty—the same menace.

Throughout The Body He Left Behind, the tricky intersection between nature, nurture, and survival becomes the similarity between humans and animals. The need for humans to build their world, to frame the bodies of other people, holds the same mindset as a cat with a dying chipmunk, urging its prey “[t]o move differently, / willing her back to the life he took / so that his purchase / might be made again”. Similarly, the way emotions are sharpened, changed, and buried within a person’s mind holds the same survivalist instincts as a cat licking the cyst on his forepaw: “It is the logic he knows, but it will not work. He’ll lick. It will blue… He’ll lick. It will burst”. The speaker of this collection not only acknowledges these similarities, but takes ownership in the connection, confessing, “I am the reason / the cat, domestic and heavy / with wet food, still kills the cockroach—tears it limb by limb by limb, by limb… Forgive him, he is a violent shape.” In weaving between these images, Conner grants all the room necessary to air the true dichotomy of violent shapes in our world, creating ruminations that ask whether, “desire, even with menace / has meaning”, “how many monsters suffocate / the things they love, and how many / call it kindness,” or if “Frost was right about gold, / about every type of happiness ending / in a quiet violence.”

The dichotomies in The Body He Left Behind not only lead to a forgiving tone throughout the collection, they contribute to a dynamic contemplation about the self and its relationship to loss. As the speaker ruminates on the death of their father and the passing of their cat Lewis, they also question how one reacts to an encounter with impermanence, and how there could ever be a right way to do so. This is particularly prominent in the poem “Thank You,” when the speaker notes that their father: “received the bag / full of Lewis, / who, / like all dead cats / that are carried, / became broken rubber bands / heavy as ball bearings, / and said thank you / as if it were a kindness / to yank a dog / from the cat it killed, (13-21).

Speaking to another loss in the title poem “The Body He Left Behind”, the speaker moves from the act of politely concealing emotion in “Thank You” to describing the adamant desire to let go of a loved one’s image: “It’s time to let go / of the body he left behind, / the one that’s lodged / in your eye like a floater…Yes, it’s time to let go / of the body he left behind. / It’s lodged / in your throat—you mistake it for breath.” It is the struggle to both intimately feel and pull beyond the absence of a loss, the stress in both knowing of an end and ignoring it, that Conner places as a centerpiece in his work. In recognizing the loss of their cat Lewis, for example, the speaker comes to the bittersweet understanding that, “My father told me the saddest stories / are not about broken things—no, the saddest stories are the happy ones / told in past tense because we know everything is broken and we have to see it untouched first, we have to do the breaking ourselves.” By so dynamically illustrating the feeling of recognizing a goodbye that is already in the room, Conner looks unflinchingly towards grief, while also allowing it to hold its own gentle, dismantling character—just as humans, just as animals. “I am lonely for my father,” the speaker says in “Bring Flowers to What You Love.” “I am lonely for my cat” they say in “Lost Cat”. These statements, if any, encompass The Body He Left Behind—they speak to the violent, beautiful impressions humans and animals trace into one another and the way naming that impression, claiming it, is powerful for the same reason naming a cat is: “because naming a cat / does not make him ours, / it makes him us.” Conner’s work shows us how we do that naming, over and over again. 

The Body He Left Behind is available at Cider Press Review

Hannah Olsson holds a double BA in Cinema and Creative Writing English from the University of Iowa. During her time in Iowa, Hannah was the president of The Translate Iowa Project and its publication boundless, a magazine devoted to publishing translated poetry, drama, and prose. Her work, both in English and Swedish, has been featured in boundless, earthwords magazine, InkLit Mag, and the University of Iowa’s Ten-Minute Play Festival, among others.

Sundress Reads: A Review of Escape of Light

In Escape of Light, Deborah Kahan Kolb merges modern contemplations with grounding visuals to persuade the reader into a state of ever-present attention. While Kobe’s collection collides concepts such as identity, personal exploration, social issues, and inherent connection, she allows for intermittent moments of air between her stanzas: a place for careful breaths of introspection as her speaker explores the depth of the world surrounding them.

Carefully and with genuine precision, Kolb’s Escape of Light unearths a world forged from moments of unraveling. A world of striving to find answers within its own questioning: what is emergence? Where are the limitations of exploration, of breaking open? And are we allowed inside them? Grief and contemplation, rage and loss, are all balanced to form a staple connection between each poem, linking the thesis of exploration on each page. Escape of Light is a collection of revealing consequences just as it is one of action; each of Kolb’s poems are movement, action backed by vivid scenery that beckons their reader closer to ask: what, in all of this, is coming through? Questions of what remains are molded within the perspective of the speaker’s strength, positing that, in wake of the violence done, there is still connection: there is still hope.

Kolb’s collection opens with an emergence, an action of revealing a personhood apart from a sense of finality. Emergence, Kolb argues, is a process of creation: collected moments of driven action that do not end in a simply packaged result. Escape of Lights first poem begins the collection with a center of continuous evolution, allowing the reader to take a breath just as strong as the speaker themself: “What must the torpid caterpillar do to emerge / from its glistening chrysalis a laurel-crowned monarch?” Here, the speaker directs the reader’s attention to the pained practice of emergence. Again, the process of becoming is presented as a pathway to creation. Emergence becomes not a pathway to an end result but rather a focus on the continuous process and its varying details: “Self-immolation, it seems, is a requirement / for emerging.”

Awareness of the self, of gaining a self, is also something Kolb’s collection manifests well. The “bleeding knuckles” and “tamped / down spirit” become noted costs of this self-actualization within the process of “emerging.” What then, Kolb’s speaker poses, makes the process worth it? Well, in a collection that thrives from its ability to find an answer already in its question, the next stanza presents the daunting answer: “be prepared to extinguish / yourself in a phoenix fire before you can emerge. / Established.” The cost, Kolb’s speaker states, is a heavy burden, but one that the speaker strives to redefine and exhibit in all its trials. “Emerging, Art of,” is a poem that not only succeeds in setting a tone for the collection but one that captures the hefty process of unearthing. This process of becoming allows for a connection to be made between speaker and reader; a tether spanning the gap between desire and action, with the speaker beckoning from the other side.

There were multiple instances where Kolb’s collection left me speechless. Witnessing her ability to evoke carefully crafted images, ones that welcomed as well as educated the reader, was an enthralling experience. Kolb does not shy away from difficult concepts or experiences; rather, she faces them in ways that allow her speaker spaces for grief and reclamation. Poems like “Psalm for a Son’s Burial” and “Showering at the Swiss Hotel” address difficult concepts in the form of complex poetics. They allow the speaker to emerge from the confines enforced on them and to speak and feel the injustices and horrific experiences imposed upon them: “You understand, dear guest, neutral is no more. / We are obliged to prevent / your / stain / from / spreading.”

Kolb’s ability to condense these moments of horrific injustice into potent stanzas enthralled me as I read along. I was heartsick; I was furious. Escape of Light’s speaker embraced humanity in its full view, revealing its naked face and offering its readers the opportunity to behold it. Kolb’s speaker seems to tell us: Look. What I have seen, you must also face. And who are we to look away? See what I have seen, Kolb’s speaker argues, and be aware. It is, after all, the least we can pay as readers: to both engage and learn from the consumed work. In this way, Escape of Light is both a warning and a revelation of emergence; perhaps what strengthens the collection further is the blend of these aspects. As readers, we are left to wonder whether the speaker is sharing these moments of introspection to warn of these great griefs or to welcome the potential of a changed, more humane future. Kolb ensures this everlasting presence of thought in her linkage between poems, between the personal and the collective. Whatever the “correct” answer may be is relative in comparison to the collection’s lasting image, arguing that, regardless of this answer, one aspect of Escape of Light is for certain: no one who enters the collection is left untouched. 

Escape of Light is available at Finishing Line Press

Mary Sims is an undergraduate senior at Kennesaw State University working towards her BA in English. She is a poetry editor at Waymark Literary Magazine and has been published in Josephine Quarterly, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Poetry Annals, and more. Currently, she splits her time between working as a student editor, piling her shelves with poetry collections, and laughing over raspberry cappuccinos with friends.

Sundress Reads: A Review of Every Possible Thing

Every Possible Thing - Kindle edition by Poppy, Karen. Literature & Fiction  Kindle eBooks @

Karen Poppy’s stunning collection Every Possible Thing begins with an opening of offerings. Proposed by imagery dominated exchanges, her use of themes such as sacrifice, transformation, and renewal offer her readers an immediate sense of connection to her work. Her collection’s first poem “Every Possible Thing” begins with this same sense of sacrifice and renewal by immersing her audience in the imaginative and hypnotic exchange between the speaker and their subject.

The collection’s opening line sets a tone of intention throughout, displaying a sense of coated devotion unique to the poem’s own movement: “What I promised, I gave you: / Silver-skinned gloves, my hands / Loosened from life became twin fish.” From there, the speaker catalogues devotion through their physical actions and movements. Throughout her collection, Poppy continues to employ this same precise movement to embrace the action within each of her poems. No poem, Poppy assures us early-on, is ever stagnant. 

Every Possible Thing is never still. The collection begins in motion and continues to guide its reader by cataloging the duality of action and movement. This use of movement throughout her work offers insight into the depth of implication. Poppy’s poem “Your Words” is an opening to the collection’s themes, but it is also a record of just how carefully emotion channels through action.

When communicating with the reader, the speaker offers more than physical objects or images to converse. In fact, the speaker’s sense of dedication is painted behind the physical action of each offering, a new unique twist behind every new image displayed: “I want you / To speak to me, / In fact, / As you would speak / To your animals.” “Your Words” is a poem of communication as much as it is of desire. There is a need to be seen, to be regarded as gravely as can be allowed. The speaker directs us to see her, and who are we to turn away?

As I read Poppy’s collection, I found myself immersed in her use of mythology. Even more so in her use of it in creating reclamation narratives. Her poem “Badass Mermaid” explores the complexities and empowerment of transformation through the lens of a mythological mermaid within Odysseus’s tale. The speaker reclaims her narrative outside of Odysseus’s story and establishes the idea that her agency does not stem from being an ‘accessory’ to a hero’s quest but rather her own power outside of it: “Homer’s / Odysseus / Told it wrong, / Or his men / Told it, / Innocent.” It is here that we see the speaker reclaim her own identity within Odysseus’ story after being alienated from the tale. 

The speaker retells her story by crafting her own narrative in wake of the chaos left by Odysseus, thus attaching a sense of authority to her own lost story. Agency, Poppy tells her audience, is more than a necessity; rather, it is a value that cannot afford to be overlooked. The speaker’s narrative is one of power, of danger, and more than ready to peel out of the confines of her established erasure. 

Poppy’s use of line breaks within the poem further add to these implications of power. Every moment is calculated; every space, line break, and punctuation are brimming with not only intention but with assurance that truth is lurking around the corner, waiting for an opening to break into.

In addition to mythology and reclamation narratives, connection is a vital theme within Every Possible Thing. The ability to join together, to meld ideas and images, is not only a powerful device Poppy employs. Rather, it is also the basis of understanding in a place where the mere idea seems impossible. Her poem “What We Find” exemplifies this concept openly: “Our own voice, / Each other. / To sing uniquely, but not alone. / Eerie electricity. Connection. / Through the song: / Everything is the right choice.” The poem, like her collection, becomes a moment of connection, reaching out to include the reader in this narrative of understanding. 

Through her collection, Karen Poppy draws in her audience by the speaker’s ability to not only connect but their desire to understand. Searches for understanding, the power of reclamation, and the concept of connection litter the pages, leaving the reader haunted even after the collection has been finished. There is something warm and vulnerable within Poppy’s use of connection. Her poem “I Like When You Speak” perhaps displays this best as the speaker weaves a moment of pure humanity: “I like when you speak / When you are here / Saying all that you want to say, and nothing more.” There is an ever-present ache buried between the lines, a moment so openly human we cannot turn ourselves away from the carefulness of the moment. 

Where Every Possible Thing is a collection of connection and understanding, it is also a journey of being human. Reclamation narratives, paths of renewal, and movements shaped in the form of devotion collide to create a bond so intricate it becomes innate. All of these multitudes and more, Every Possible Thing is a conversation between speaker and reader– an opening made just small enough for the reader to want to join, without having to be invited directly. Poppy’s collection is a meticulous warmth. More than anything, it is an invitation into the experiences of humanity and an exploration to all of the crushing and beautiful depth they offer.

Karen Poppy’s Every Possible Thing can be found for purchase here.

Mary Sims is an undergraduate senior at Kennesaw State University working towards her BA in English. She is a poetry editor at Waymark Literary Magazine and has been published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Poetry Annals, Peach Mag, Kingdoms of the Wild, Rising Phoenix Review, and more. Currently, she splits her time between working as a student editor, piling her shelves with poetry collections, and laughing over raspberry cappuccinos with friends.

Interview with syan jay, Author of Bury Me in Thunder

Ahead of the release, Sundress author syan jay sat down to discuss their forthcoming collection, Bury Me in Thunder (Sundress Publications, 2020) with editorial intern Kimberly Ann Priest. In the discussion they touched on writing through trauma, moving against colonial notions of research, landscapes as memory, and the ways we carry our homes with us wherever we go.

Kimberly Ann Priest: The book covers topics on abuse, confusion, intimacy, and pain. Were there ever moments when you felt like you were saying too much on these topics? Too little?

syan jay: Bury Me in Thunder was put together with care and thoughtful intention. Yes, it explores intergenerational trauma, illness, and pain. It also celebrates love, kinships, and the ways in which we learn to heal. To call back to my interview with Frontier Poetry, prioritizing my boundaries with writing is key. Every word, image, and piece, I reviewed to be mindful of what I was saying and how I was saying those things. I only felt the manuscript was completely finished when I felt fully in control of my narrative.

KAP: How do you make aesthetic choices and know where to break lines in a poem? Why the winding nature of these poems?

sj: I am a visual learner, and in understanding that landscapes are not linear, neither is my writing. Some pieces call for such breath, to expand and move as a river. Others call for structure. The poems tell me how they want to be made by how I write. Most of it comes through experimentation and trust in the process of self-editing.

KAP: Tell me, what research went into writing these poems?

sj: Quite a few of these poems are from personal or invented places. I remember Kaveh Akbar discussing Zbigniew Herbert and how there are cat writers and ox writers. Cat writers may wait for extended periods of time before being “hit” by inspiration and suddenly burst into writing. A majority of these pieces were written during these moments of spontaneity. Even the ones that did involve subsequent research, such as my poem “The Infant Machine”, were written without planning. I was listening to a podcast and the topic fit into scraps I had kept of other poems to work into a larger, final piece.

At the same time, I think the idea of research within poems is often within a colonial, Westernized framework. It carries the idea that there must be a source cited or be verified by some “objective” truth. This does not allow for Indigenous knowledge to exist on the same plane. Oral storytelling is research; how I carry the culture of my people through connections and sharing of knowledge is research. This process of Indigenous research was at the core of this book.

KAP: Do you feel it is important to draw attention to how traumas from our past and past generations inform our present and our future as individuals?

sj: Of course—we do not exist as singularities. Trauma is carried in our DNA, through memory, and in the body. BMIT seeks to draw on my own experiences. I don’t want to try and think that I can understand or claim the narratives of other people and their trauma. I do not experience the same violence and struggles that are faced by Brown and Black Indigenous people. BMIT was a reckoning toward my own healing, and being able to find clarity in what my ancestors, my family, and myself have experienced.

KAP: Talk about the women in your life. How have they formed and shaped you? How have they influenced you as a writer? And why do you think it is so important to write about the lives of women?

sj: Well, to start, I am not a woman but I was raised in girlhood. This book wasn’t looking to only discuss the lives of women. Much of it discusses my grandfather. I talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women because it is ongoing. Settler colonialism is a continuous project.

I dedicated this book to my mother, who has survived abuse and other traumas. She was the one who taught me how to write poetry as a way to show others my world and how I describe it. It helped me navigate the frightening experiences I was going through and to find another connection to land, beauty, and love. Even if the writing was filled with pain, it ultimately comes from a place of love and acceptance. She raised me with my siblings, most of whom are women.

My culture is matrilineal. Perhaps the work can be read as maternal and about women, but it is for myself and the generations that came before me. My priority will always be to my transgender and gender non-conforming kinships.

KAP: Talk about landscapes. I see a strong desert motif in the poems, but you also mention other places such as Nebraska and Oregon. Tell us about your relationship with landscapes; specifically, as home or lack of home and how it relates to your ancestors in this book.

sj: Deserts are not exclusive to the Southwest. My homelands have forests, mountains, and beautiful rivers too. Oregon has deserts, green valleys, and long coastlines. There is so much space to know and be with, and I wanted to acknowledge all of these places.

BMIT tells stories of all the places I’ve lived or where my loved ones lived, or even as I was on a plane flying over Nebraska writing a poem that one day became the title for this book. I am of the land and connected to it. I have a responsibility for its care because it takes care of me. This is how I was raised. It felt natural, then, while writing these poems to call to the land.

We are always tied to place, even if we leave it, because it exists in our memory. How we remember, what we remember, they inform our relationships to a place. I was not raised on my ancestral homelands, but it will always be a part of me because it is where my ancestors lived, it is near where my mother grew up. Home is a place you always carry with you, even as you create new homes and find new places.

KAP: What is significant about “teeth” in these poems? What do they represent or allude to?

sj: Our teeth provide evidence of where we are from. The land and what we have access to during childhood will influence how our bones grow. Scientists use isotope chemistry to look at tooth enamel and bone in order to measure geochemical signatures that carry evidence of where a person lived as a child. We can tell how someone lived, what they ate, and their access or barriers to nutritional food and clean water. The body carries so much and yet, we do not think of what we can find beyond what we say. What can the body say? What can teeth tell us about intergenerational trauma, legacies of forced malnourishment through cutting off access to traditional diets?

KAP: Tell us how you came to name your book and what this title means for you as an overall statement of the book’s content.

sj: Bury Me in Thunder was originally the title of a poem included in this book. I had been considering which of my poems could tie together all of the themes. The first versions of the manuscript were titled Mother Warhorse, from another poem. Eventually, I decided upon BMIT as I wanted to utilize the storm to frame these complex issues and stories. Thunderstorms are integral to my culture for many reasons, and it serves as an anchor to who I am. BMIT honors the legacies of where I come from and the process by which we heal. There will be ruptures and storms, but eventually, clear skies follow.

Pre-order Bury Me in Thunder today.

syan jay is an agender, Dził Łigai Si’an N’dee (White Mountain Apache) poet who resides in Massachusett/Nipmuc/Wampanoag land. They are the winner of the 2018 Pacific Spirit Poetry Prize and are Frontier Poetry’s 2019 Frontier New Voices Fellow. Their work is published/upcoming with The Shallow Ends, WILDNESS, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Black Warrior Review. You can find more of their work at

Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Still Life (PANK, forthcoming 2020), Parrot Flower (Glass Poetry Press, forthcoming 2020) and White Goat Black Sheep (FLP, 2018). Her work has appeared in several journals, including The Laurel Review, The Berkeley Poetry Review, and The New Delta Review. You can find her work at

Interview with Ruth Foley, Author of Dead Man’s Float

Ahead of the publication of Dead Man’s Float, author Ruth Foley talked to Sundress editorial intern Erica Hoffmeister. They discussed the ocean, grieving, and the order of the book, among other things.

Erica Hoffmeister: Did you set out to write poems about the ocean? Is that something inherent in your writer’s identity?

Ruth Foley: If anything, I try to avoid writing poems about the ocean. It doesn’t work. I grew up spending summers at my grandparents’ house on the south coast of Rhode Island, as much time as I could, anyway. My cousin Turquoise was there, and my brother, and the rest of my cousins—every summer, my grandparents would have us all there for a week. That time with my cousins built all sorts of aspects of my personality—from my sense of humor to my relationship with the water. In a long, agonizing process, we lost my grandmother, and the house, and Turquoise, among others, and the ocean stopped being a place of solace for me.

I have tried extremely hard to break up with the ocean, with that particular piece of the Atlantic, and I can’t do it. And with all of the writing I’ve done about the landscape there, I’m still not done, even though I also find myself writing poems about the woods and fresh water. I haven’t yet found a way through it all. Maybe I never will. Part of me thinks—maybe knows—that I could go to Wyoming and write in its vast expanse for the rest of my life and somehow the ocean would still be there.

EH: What is the relationship between this book and your chapbook, Dear Turquoise?

RF: Dear Turquoise tells a less-complete version of the story. I wrote the vast majority of the poems titled “Dear Turquoise” in a rush, during the last two months of her life—she had held off on telling me how serious her condition was, and I don’t know if I could have been prepared for her death anyway. She decided to stop treatment, and my brother and I made plans to see her in California in May, as soon as my classes had ended for the semester. We didn’t know if we’d get there in time, and I spent that April writing poems. I couldn’t stop writing poems for her, to her. In all that, I still haven’t written much about her—they’re all about me, essentially, and the process of me trying to wrap my mind around losing someone who was so entwined in my life that I knew I wouldn’t understand a world without her in it.

As I write this, seven and a half years after her death, I still don’t understand the world without her. I have reached the point where thoughts of her usually make me laugh (there will never be a funnier person on the planet than Turquoise Taylor Grant, I promise you) instead of cry, but something reminds me of her every day, no exaggeration. She lived long enough for my brother and me to spend a few days with her, and she was awake and engaged for most of that visit, but it was clear she had very little time left. She died a couple of weeks after we went home. I am endlessly grateful that we had that time, that Turquoise’s brother was also there, and that my brother went with me. The four of us have a lot of our childhood woven into each other, and it was a gift to have that time to be that quartet again.

The chapbook was really an exploration of my pre-grief, for lack of a better way to put it. It contains a handful of the “Dear Turquoise” poems, and it came out after her death, but it’s very much situated in the days before she died. It ends with “Dear Ocean” while Dead Man’s Float begins there, backs up a little bit, and then moves through. I put the chapbook together fairly soon after her death, when everything was still unmoored and surreal, and it sits in the unknowing a bit more than Dead Man’s Float does—though I couldn’t have put together the full-length collection without the chapbook. Dear Turquoise also taught me about how I wanted to present that larger experience, not just in terms of ordering the poems or creating a narrative line, but in the exploration of grief as a testament to love.

EH: Can you speak to the ordering of these poems, and what each section hopes to accomplish?

RF: There’s a narrative arc, certainly, though it’s very low-slung, I think; it starts in anticipation of grief and ends with only the tiniest lightening of it.

I came to the bulk of the order during a retreat in Connecticut with some of my dearest poet friends, who were all very patient with me both in the aftermath of Turquoise’s death and the following year, when I spread bits of the manuscript all over every surface of my room. I had printed out pretty much every poem I’d ever written and I brought this giant pile of paper with me in the hopes of sorting it all out. I knew I wanted about twenty of the “Dear Turquoise” poems but the rest of the book hadn’t revealed itself yet.

Most of the rooms at the retreat have both a double and a single bed, and I had poems fanned out and stacked up across both of the beds, the dresser, the desk, and parts of the floor. I had to be careful to keep the poems in order when I moved them off my bed every night, and in the morning I’d put them back where they had been. When I got home, my husband and I put one of the leaves into the dining room table and I color-coded the poems I had decided were contenders, making notes of themes and recurring motifs. When I ran out of colors in my pack of markers, I opened up a 64-count box of Crayolas. That’s how I finished the first cut of the work, which changed a bit in subsequent drafts, but not a lot. If I showed you the first cut and you compared it to this final version, you’d absolutely recognize it as the same collection.

All this to say it felt huge to me, the ordering process. It was important to me that I did the poems justice. I wanted them in an arc that would make sense in terms of the impact of her death, because of how important she was to me, but also because I was creating a monument to grief itself. I’ve known people who have given copies of Dear Turquoise to other grieving people—one of my friends gave her copy to a stranger on an airplane—in an attempt to let them know they weren’t alone. Grief is monumental. I wanted a through-line that reflected and honored that.

The poems in the second section have changed and grown by the way they’re included here, in my mind at least. The infidelity poems were originally born of my fascination with the ways in which people can be terrible to each other, but here they are an examination of a different kind of loss and hopelessness than the poems in the other two sections—the speaker in these poems moves fairly quickly from one sort of abandonment to another, finding no real comfort or ease. The speaker in these poems isn’t Turquoise or me, but in order to use them in this way, I had to come to terms with the idea that readers might see her as one of us. I don’t think she would have minded. Section three is the path to the very faint beginnings of hope, of the life we leave when we’re deep in grief, one we might feel like we can never get back to.
In the simplest terms, section one is about the anticipation of grief and the early stages. Section two explores a very different kind of betrayal and abandonment and the total emptiness of that sort of false promise. Section three is where we begin to claw our way out.

EH: What is the meaning between the use of first or second person, and why does it change throughout the book? Is there a certain emotion or connection that leads you to this decision with each poem, or was/is it strictly intuitive?

RF: Generally, if I’m using the second person in a poem, it’s because of direct address. The “Dear Turquoise” poems are very much addressed to Turquoise, and so are some of the other poems. Many of the “you”s in the infidelity poems are addressed to the specific male character involved. Other times, the second person is meant to reflect the way we speak to ourselves when we’re giving ourselves a pep talk or maybe if we’re unhappy with our decisions or actions (or maybe that’s just me doing that!). “One More for Your Baby” and “The Rules” are both examples of that kind of voice. I rarely if ever use “you” to mean “people in general,” and while “I” is often literally me, sometimes it’s just the speaker.

As with formal decisions, I try to let the poem tell me what it wants to be. Any choice of person (third person, too) can help create closeness or distance, but the level of distance doesn’t hang exclusively on that one choice. In any poem, success in creating the desired response in a reader is a combination of many of these kinds of decisions—diction, syntax, line breaks, rhythm, verb tense, and any number of other aspects of language.

EH: What is the meaning behind the title, Dead Man’s Float?

RF: Learning the dead man’s float was part of learning to swim when I was a kid. It means lying face down in the water and relaxing, despite the fact that it’s impossible to breathe. The dead man’s float requires loose muscles: if you’re going to try one, you need to let your arms and legs do what they will, which for most people means something halfway between sinking and floating. It’s about giving in and finding stasis—that place which is neither swimming nor drowning nor simply standing up and walking out of the water. It only works for a brief time before the need to breathe takes over.

For me, Turquoise’s death felt a lot like doing the dead man’s float, but it also was about not being able to do it—I wanted a moment to rest, and a moment where I was able to simply let things be, while simultaneously being desperate to come up for air or, really, control anything at all. It was all the terrifying aspects of floating combined with all the helpless aspects of sinking, and I lived in that in-between for a long time.

EH: There are several poems that begin with a salutation. How did you decide what parts of the earth or of experience to address specific poems to?

RF: They’re deliberately epistolary poems, and they started with the “Dear Turquoise” poems. Turquoise and I grew up in the days of long-distance charges, long before the internet, so even though she lived only about 45 minutes from me, we couldn’t usually talk to each other unless we were in the same place (or arranging a visit). We wrote letters, countless letters. They were filled with jokes and stories and drawings and benign lies. Once we had cell phones and the internet, we moved to texts and emails. She told me about her diagnosis over Facebook messenger. We had long since stopped using an epistolary form of address, but when the poems started coming, there was never a question of how I was going to title them. In many ways, I didn’t title them.

The first poem I drafted, the one that opens, “Not with everything I do,” titled itself and the rest followed. What would I tell Turquoise if I weren’t worried about upsetting her, if I didn’t want to impose my grief on her dying process? I wrote those letters. I never showed her.

The other epistolary poems come from those same roots, in that I was desperate to establish connections and understanding in a world that no longer felt like my own. I wrote very few poems in the year or so after Turquoise died, and those I did write felt extruded as if the words were forced through my teeth under immense pressure. And I suppose they were. I did find I was able to revise, sometimes, and when I knew I was putting together a manuscript for her, I revised towards that impulse of seeking connection and communication. I was trying to break up with the ocean, as I say above, but I needed something to take its place, something that would speak to me the way the Atlantic does.

EH: Do you consider these poems elegiac?

RF: I couldn’t go to Turquoise’s funeral for a variety of reasons. Friends and relatives wrote pieces for her—elegies, eulogies, stories of shared love—and I couldn’t. I couldn’t do her justice or do my feelings for her justice, and I couldn’t bear the thought of struggling to do so publicly. Even if all other obstacles had been erased, I don’t know if I would have been able to go. I needed time to come to an understanding of what the rest of my life was going to look like without her. It was selfish of me, but it felt like survival, and at that level everything we do is selfish. The poems aren’t elegies in the sense that they’re much more about me than about her, but she was three years older than I was; not only could I not remember a life before her, there literally was no life for me before her. I suppose they’re elegies to the places in me where she once lived, which are forever changed because of her absence.

EH: Poetry is often felt as a healing tool for both reader and writer – how much was this true for you in this process?

RF: My initial impulse is to say, “Not at all,” but that’s not exactly true. For one thing, I firmly believe grief needs to be experienced. It’s not healthy for me to pretend I don’t have the feelings I do, so I’m not going to just suck it up and push forward. I have to live through it, and I often don’t feel like I’ve processed a major event until I’ve written about it. It’s possible they were healing for me in that way, though it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. The most important thing the poems did for me, though, was allow me to focus on Turquoise when I went to see her shortly before she died. I wasn’t distracted by things I wanted to say, because I had said many of them in the poems. It helped me to focus on my love for her instead of my grief, which freed me to take those last few days with her almost entirely on their own terms, without dwelling on what was soon to come.

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Ruth Foley lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her work appears in numerous web and print journals, including Adroit, Sou’wester, Threepenny Review, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Her poems can also be found in several anthologies, including the Best Indie Lit New England anthology. She is the author of the chapbooks Sink and Drift, Creature Feature, and Dear Turquoise, and the forthcoming full-length Abandon.

Erica Hoffmeister holds an MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry from Chapman University, and teaches college writing across the Denver Metro area. 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). She’s obsessed with pop culture, cross country road trips, and her two daughters, Scout and Lux.