Lyric Essentials: Barbara Costas-Biggs Reads Jane Kenyon

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, we welcome Barbara Costas-Biggs who reads Jane Kenyon for us and offers a moment of solace and emotional check-ins through poetry during an exceptionally chaotic time. Thank you for reading!


Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Jane Kenyon for Lyric Essentials?

Barbara Costas-Biggs: My mind immediately went to her.  I read her a lot—for inspiration or to find a moment of calm in this crazy world.  I feel a connectedness to Kenyon’s poems, the way she works things out with particular attention to the natural world.  When our children were very small, my husband and I moved into his grandmother’s old farmhouse in eastern Kentucky and thought we’d make a go of it as (very) small scale organic farmers.  Really, we had a large garden and a few cows and chickens, enough to keep friends and family in eggs and vegetables.  It felt very foreign to me, this new way of life we had chosen.  I think that’s when I really started to want to understand her work better.  In prepping for this interview, I read a lot of old articles about her, went back into her books and her own words.  One thing I think that people who aren’t more familiar with her think is that she wrote nice little poems about nature, and that her work might not stack up against the work of her husband (which is a crazy notion that I hadn’t really thought about myself, but the idea is out there).  Here’s one of Donald Hall’s responses when asked about their stylistic differences: “Yeah,” he’d say, “her style is a glass of water – a 100-proof glass of water.” I think that sums it up pretty well.

EH: Was there a particular reason you chose the poems “The Pear” and “Heavy Rain” from Kenyon’s expansive oeuvre?

BCB: It might be a bit of a cop-out, but I think I chose The Pear because I recently had a birthday, my 44th, and there is so much in this poem that resonates with me right now.  This wild year has had me all over the place.  I’ve spent 2020 all over the emotional charts, and I know many others have, too.  This poem, 10 lines & 53 words, is a powerhouse.  In it, I read desperation and fear, but also a warning of sorts in that last stanza.  I spend too much time worrying and thinking on the things that I have lost, and when Kenyon writes “and you may not be aware/ until things have gone too far”, it gives me pause.  It’s a reminder to me that the desolation she also speaks of in the poem can be stemmed with a bit of self-preservation and emotional check-ins.  I know that this is a deeply personal reading, and that not everyone might see it that way, and that’s ok. 

Heavy Summer Rain might be my very favorite poem, so choosing that one was easy.  I think again, she is working with the natural, looking for ways that the world (and ourselves) can “right itself”. And also again, her work with vowels is just so lovely: “Everything blooming bows down in the rain”.  It’s almost an incantation, asking to be repeated in a holy way. The images in this poem are just so clear to me, like my own backyard.  Knowing where the deer bed down, watching the poppies that my husband’s grandmother planted fall in a storm.  And that middle stanza, the one that takes a personal turn, is just too perfect. “I miss you steadily, painfully”, exactly like the falling rain.

Barbara Costas-Biggs reads “The Pear” by Jane Kenyon

EH: Your simple, almost anecdotal yet powerfully emotionally resonant poetry style seems to share some of those elements with Kenyon’s work. Do you find a particular inspiration from her poetry?

BCB: Oh, yes, and that is really much too kind. I think I have probably answered this question before getting to it officially.  There are two writers that I feel a special kinship with.  Kenyon, obviously, and also Barbara Kingsolver.  I think it’s because they write so much about place and relationship to that place.  I have spent most of my life in Appalachia, and I don’t think you can live here without feeling a strong connection to the hills and dales. I can’t imagine trying to write without bringing in mayapples, river trout, sycamore trees.  For me, like Pound said, the natural object is always the adequate symbol.  I met and studied with the poet Cathy Smith Bowers while I was working on my MFA, and she gave me wonderful advice: Always go back to Jane. And I do. When I get stuck in a poem or in my head, I pull out Kenyon and try to get back to work.

Barbara Costas-Biggs reads “Heavy Summer Rain” by Jane Kenyon

EH: Lastly, is there anything you are working on now that you’d like to share with readers?

BCB: I’m slowing putting together a second collection of poems (which seems funny since the first one is still unpublished!), and I’m also expanding a chapbook that I wrote which contains poems about my father and his death.  It’s called The Other Shore, and was recently a finalist for the Washburn Prize from Harbor Review.  My father was a music fanatic and a guitarist, and the title comes from an arrangement of Good Shepherd by Jefferson Airplane.  Music plays a large part in those poems.  I also have 4 poems forthcoming in The Appalachian Review.


Jane Kenyon is an acutely midwestern American poet, born, raised and educated in Ann Arbor Michigan. In her lifetime as a translator, poet and essayist, she published four collections of poetry and championed the art of translation, translating Anna Akhmatova’s poems from Russian to English. The wife of poet Donald Hall, Kenyon’s poetry is distinctly focused on rural and naturalist themes while addressing depression and melancholy, as is famously outlines in her acclaimed poem “Having it out with Melancholy.” She was the poet laureate of New Hampshire when she died of leukemia at just 47 years old.

Further reading:

Read this review and short biography of The Poetry of Jane Kenyon from The National Book Review.
Purchase The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon from Graywolf Press.
Watch this extensive profile of Kenyon and her husband, poet Donald Hall, from Bill Moyers.

Barbara Costas-Biggs is a poet and librarian from Appalachian Southern Ohio. Her work has appeared recently or is forthcoming from Appalachian Review,  Lost Balloon, Northern Appalachian Review, Mothers Always Write, Glass, Ghost City Press, 8Poems, and others. Her poem “Naked in the Macy’s Changing Room, Trying to Think About Anything Other Than the Election” won the Split This Rock Abortion Rights poetry contest in 2017, and her chapbook, The Other Shore, was a finalist for the Washburn Prize from Harbor Review.  Her MFA is from Queens University of Charlotte, and her MLIS is from Kent State.

Further reading:

Read Costas-Biggs poem “Naked in the Macy’s Changing Room, Trying to Think About Anything Other Than the Election,” winner of the 2017 Split This Rock Abortion Rights poetry contest.
Read Costas-Biggs’ blog on her personal website.
Follow Costas-Biggs on Twitter to stay updated with newly published works.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and 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). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/

Lyric Essentials: Madeleine Barnes Reads Michelle Maher

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week Madeleine Barnes reads poetry from Michelle Maher and discusses maternal lineage, relationships, and inspiration. Thank you for reading!


Erica Hoffmeister: You were eager for the opportunity to share Michelle Maher’s poetry with our readers. Can you share why that is?

Madeleine Barnes: Michelle Maher is my mother! It’s a privilege to know her through her poems. I admire her as a person and an artist. In the poem “For My Mother,” May Sarton writes: “Today I remember / The creator, / The lion-hearted.” Sarton honors her mother as creator, committing her artistry and courage to memory. My mother is the lion-hearted woman who gave my sisters and me life, andthe author of an incredible debut poetry collection, Bright Air Settling Around Us (Main Street Rag, April 2020). When I was growing up, I don’t think I appreciated how much creative energy goes into motherhood, and how difficult it is to make time for writing while raising kids and working full-time. I don’t know how she ever slept. So it was really exciting when our first books were picked up for publication around the same time last year.

She’s not on social media and she’s averse to self-promotion, but her writing makes an impact on people. I want her work to reach as many people as possible because there’s so much we can learn from it. A few years ago, Toi Derricotte selected one of her poems as the winner of the Patricia Dobler Poetry Award. At the award reading, I had this experience where I both could and couldn’t believe the reader was my mother—her poems are a heartbeat. Her voice is the first poem I ever heard. In her work, I recognize the marker of poetry: a life not only lived, but deeply felt. She taught me that our legacy is who we love, who we support, and the meaning we make out of our lives.

Madeleine Barnes reads “To Return is to Carry” by Michelle Maher

EH: In our emails, you expressed the difficulty in choosing just a few poems of Maher’s to read for us–how and why did you end up reading the poems that you did?

MB: In the end I chose poems that ask difficult questions and address topics like grief. Her poems have the power to help a lot of people. “What would it mean to see with the eyes / of a woman recently returned from the dead?” she writes in “To Return is to Carry.” The speaker’s vision is a “flame that sears away everything inconsequential.” When we’re confronted with mortality, what truly matters rises to the surface. “To return is to carry a thirst so deep it seems like grief,” she writes. This line helps me recognize how loving life and loving the world is similar to complicated grief. What will outlast us? What would it be like to come back from the dead? A man walks past the woman and ignores her, assuming that she has nothing to offer him. My mother’s poetry honors people who are overlooked, and people who can’t do anything for us. The poem closes with the repeated question, “What lasts? What lasts?” It’s a question that all of us have to face, and the answer depends on the individual.

“Deep Blue Bowl” is a lesson in grief. After someone we love dies, we still feel their presence everywhere. This poem does something important—it addresses an incredulousness that can accompany grief. When the speaker sees an image of her mother, she senses that she’s is happy in the afterlife, and this feels upsetting. “Really? I want to say. / You left me with boxes of photos / and no one to call who will be interested / in my day, down to its tiniest detail. / I want to be somebody’s child again.” I feel anguish reading these lines. She captures how hard it is to feel left behind after someone so integral to your life dies. How could they leave us? Don’t they know how much we miss them? Even if we sense that they’re okay, we might selfishly wish they were still with us. I’ve read a lot of wonderful poems about grief, but to me, this one is stands out because it captures a moment in the grieving process that we don’t talk about enough, and it’s related to anger. The pain we feel over someone’s absence is directly proportionate to the amount of love we feel for them. The image of the deep blue bowl, and the feeling of being under something cosmic and heavenly, is so powerful.

Madeleine Barnes reads “Deep Blue Bowl” by Michelle Maher

EH: You and your mother write, collaborate and create together – even writing about each other and connecting familial threads throughout one another’s poetry. What positive impact do you think you and your mother have on the writing community as a writer’s family of women?

MB:
My relationship with my mother as a poet is one that is founded on love and joy in each other’s accomplishments. She always rejoiced in my successes, and this showed me how to celebrate others. Now that I’m an adult, we’re artistic peers and collaborators. We’ve gone through hard times, and we’re not perfect in any way, but there’s a fundamental love and respect that seeps through. Our first community is our immediate family, and hopefully we carry collaboration and support into the wider world. We made a decision a long time ago to always have each other’s backs and support one another no matter what, because living any other way would be intolerable. It’s not a rivalry or a zero-sum game where “whatever you have takes away from what I have.” That mindset is extremely destructive. She says it would be strange to compete with me—she doesn’t see that as her role as a parent. We both had graduate school experiences where writers tried to tear each other down, and that competitive mindset is toxic. It destroys mutual health and friendships and support systems and love. So, we make the choice to continually lift each other up, knowing that support, encouragement, and community is what lasts.

She recently told me that she’s never been to a funeral where people say, “Oh, this person won this and that prestigious award.” What they remember is what that person contributed, who they loved, who they supported, and what meaning they made from their life. I think there’s sometimes a valorization of selfishness in art—we’re taught that it’s commendable if you put your art above how you treat people, and selfishness is somehow complex and admirable—she and I are both tired of that, especially under our current administration. We prioritize art and how we treat others, and we don’t buy into the scarcity mindset. We don’t agree on everything, but we never look at each other in a way that’s disappointed or stressed out. A win for her is a win for me. We want to lift other people up, too!

EH: Lastly, is there anything you are working on now that you’d like to share with our readers?

MB: We’re mulling over the idea of a collaborative chapbook—poems in response to each other, and in response to the urgencies of this extraordinary time that we’re living through. Our goal is to have it ready to submit by summer 2021.


Michelle Maher is is a professor of English at La Roche College and the author of the poetry collection Bright Air Settling Around Us. Her work has appeared in the journals Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Chautauqua Literary JournalThe Georgetown ReviewAtlanta ReviewU.S. 1 Worksheets, and others. Her poem, “At the Brera, Milan” won the 2012 Patricia Dobler Poetry Award, a national contest sponsored by Carlow University.

Further reading:

Purchase Maher’s debut poetry collection Bright Air Settling Around Us from Main Street Rag.
Read more of Maher’s poetry featured in Cordella Magazine.
Read this interview with Maher in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Madeleine Barnes is a poet, visual artist, Mellon Foundation Humanities Public Fellow, and PhD student at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Her debut poetry collection, You Do Not Have To Be Good, was published by Trio House Press in July 2020. She is the author of three chapbooks, most recently Women’s Work, forthcoming from Tolsun Books. She serves as Poetry Editor at Cordella Magazine, a publication that showcases the work of women and non-binary writers and artists. She’s the recipient of two Academy of American Poets poetry prizes, the Princeton Poetry Prize, the Gertrude Gordon Journalism Prize, and the Three Rivers Review Poetry Prize. Visit her at madeleinebarnes.com.

Further reading:

Purchase Barnes’ collection You Do Not Have to Be Good.
Read an interview with Barnes and Maher in The Brooklyn Review.
Check out Barnes’ feature in Sundress Publications’ The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed series.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and 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). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/


Lyric Essentials: Amanda Galvan Huynh Reads Sara Borjas

Thank you for joining us this week for Lyric Essentials! Amanda Galvan Huynh joins us to read Sara Borjas and discusses Latinx Heritage Month, Xicanx writer identities, and the power in rewriting our own narratives.


Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Sara Borjas for Lyric Essentials?

Amanda Galvan Huynh: During the last month, I’ve been spending more time with Latinx voices. Coincidentally, it’s also Latinx Heritage Month. So, there might be a subconscious longing for home as I’ve been reflecting on my writing as a Xicanx writer. In the reflection, I notice that I still struggle with being “Mexican” enough and with my understanding of identity. I think this is one of the reasons I chose Sara Borjas’ poems as she unflinchingly confronts the Pocha label—and embraces it. Her book is definitely one that I wish I would have had as a young adult. Sometimes, as a Pocha, you just get lost, and it’s reassuring to know there’s a voice, like yours, writing in the world—that someone has written these beautiful words for a reader like you. Her poems are also teaching me to be braver and unapologetic in my writing. In both of our works, there are similar themes and issues, but our approaches take different shapes. It’s refreshing to watch how others are in conversation with similar ideas, and how we’re collectively trying to bear witness to our family’s lives.

EH: Was there any particular draw to these specific poems that you chose?

AGH: It was difficult to narrow down which poems to read! Originally, I had picked out eight. Where to even begin with these poems—I feel like I just have to reiterate that I have been in my feelings a bunch lately and am a little homesick. With that, I’m going to start with “Míja” as this poem roots itself in longing—longing to be named, to be called, to be claimed, to be tethered to a mother. There’s warmness in the word míja that’s loving and endearing—something magical when you are surrounded by family. It’s like being called into being—into fulfilling the míja role—being awoken in the self. The poem also records subtle resistance to assimilation as míja remains on the familial tongue versus replaced by the English equivalent: my daughter. For myself, I know this feeling of being called míja and what that invokes in me.

For “Lies I Tell”, this reimagines a life. I think everyone can relate, at one point or another in their life, of wanting things to be different. Whether it’s wanting a different name, family, job, love, [insert your desire here]—“Lies I Tell” focuses on the specifics of one’s outlook. Sometimes the information we take in like shows, stories, Snapchat, Instagram, and other medias makes this longing easy. At times, our memories alter what we want to believe. This poem settles in between the awareness of realizing the kind of life you have been given and writing another life into existence. As writers, we are given a kind of power to rewrite our stories and claim our narratives. But we are also capable of revealing those truths for the lies they are.

Amanda Galvan Huynh reads “Lies I Tell” by Sara Borjas

EH: As a Mexican-American writer from the Southwest, what does Borja’s Heart like a Window, Mouth Like A Cliff mean to you?

AGH: In writing, it is important to see your reflection. Her poems were the first ones I saw myself. Of course, it’s not identical as there are some nuances that are specific to Mexican Americans living in California versus Mexican Americans living in Texas. Together, we share a culture but have different landscapes for each of our lives. This speaks to the many facets of the Xicanx experience. There will be overlaps within our stories even with the long distance between California and Texas. Especially, when you look at the ganas passed down from generation to generation.

Amanda Galvan Huynh reads “Mija” by Sara Borjas

EH: Lastly, is there anything that you are working on that you’d like to share with readers?

AGH: Right now, I am working on my PhD at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Just last week I made my first mini zine for a project—it was exciting to step out of my comfort zone as I don’t consider myself a good artist. My drawing skills are at the stick figure level, but I did have the fleeting thought: Not bad. Maybe I can make poetry comics or poetry mini zines. Something on the back burner but my curiosity and wonder has been piqued!

Since the pandemic started, it has taken me several months to get back into creating. It’s been a real thing for me to recognize and name. But, I have slowly surrendered to it. The most recent piece of writing I finished was a chapter of nonfiction. Over the last few years, I have been outlining, organizing, and trying to find a thread into a memoir idea. Now, I’ve moved into finding my writing style as a nonfiction writer. It’s a clunky jump for me—I’m trying to embrace the mistakes and identify my editing and revising tendencies. While I write by hand for poems, I write by computer for nonfiction—I’m still editing by hand though.I’m also still writing poems. I’m creating new work centered on intersectionality, interracial relationships, biracial and multireligious family systems and dynamics. So, my work still revolves around identity, but now it is in relation to a loved one. I’m exploring what it means to hang on to your identity while being in love with someone. How can two identities remain independent but coexist? How can you leave enough room for each other? How can you be without diminishing or losing you or your partner’s self? What do we compromise on? And when we compromise what is lost or what is gained? What parts of ourselves do we surrender in order to keep the peace within a new family? Or maintain order in our own?  So many questions I still do not have answers to, but questions I’m trying to answer for myself.


Sara Borjas is a Xicanx poet and fourth-generation Chicana from Fresno, California and the author of the acclaimed debut poetry book Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff, which won a 2020 American Book Award. She is a 2017 CantoMundo Fellow, a 2016 Postgraduate Writers Conference Fellow at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a 2013 Community of Writers Workshop at Squaw Valley Fellow, as well as the recipient of the 2014 Blue Mesa Poetry Prize. Borjas is active in liberation, decentering whiteness, and reclaiming her pocha identity. She currently lives in Los Angeles and teaches Creative Writing at University of California, Riverside.

Further Reading:

Purchase Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff by Sara Borjas.
Read this interview with Sara Borjas in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Listen to Borjas read at Writers for Migrant Justice for Poetry.LA in 2019.

Amanda Galvan Huynh (she/her) is a Mexican American writer and educator from Texas. She is the author of a chapbook, Songs of Brujería (Big Lucks September 2019) and Co-Editor of Of Color: Poets’ Ways of Making: An Anthology of Essays on Transformative Poetics (The Operating System 2019). Amanda has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. She was a 2016 AWP Intro Journal Project Award Winner, 2018 Best of the Net Winner, a finalist for the 2015 Gloria Anzaldúa Poetry Prize, and a finalist for the 2017 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. Her poetry can be read in print and online journals such as Hayden’s Ferry ReviewPuerto del SolThe Southampton Review, and others. Currently, she is a doctoral student in English at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

Further Reading:

Purchase Huynh’s chapbook Songs of Brujería from Big Lucks.
Read this write-up of Songs of Brujería from Poetry Northwest
Watch Huynh read her work for Rigorous Magazine from last year’s AWP conference.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based 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). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/

Lyric Essentials: Nishat Ahmed Reads Ocean Vuong

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, Nishat Ahmed reads work from Ocean Vuong and discusses immigrant identity, the connection between songwriting and writing poetry, and how it feels to come of age as a poet as part of the mid 00’s Tumblr scene.


Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose Ocean Vuong’s work to read for Lyric Essentials?

Nishat Ahmed: I’ll be honest and say that my tango with poetry wasn’t very book-based until I got into grad school. In fact, I came up in the slam/spoken word scene so a lot of the poets and poetry I loved was consumed and heard in person or via videos. A good chunk of what really got me writing and thinking of poems was also the Tumblr poetry scene in the 2010’s. I’m sure a lot of folks cringe at that slightly but I’ve come to realize that posting all my unedited drafts into the void of Tumblr trained me quite well for the slog of workshop life. All this to say that Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds was the first full collection of poetry I ever read, and it struck me so greatly because I got to sit with a poet through a whole journey, not just a few snippets. I really think it’s one thing to sit with a poet for a few poems and another to sit with them through pages and pages of their work. I imagine it’s the difference between a ten minute chat with the person waiting behind you in line versus getting to know your seatmate on an ocean-crossing flight. Beyond Vuong’s work opening my eyes to the world of the page in a new way, I think it’s also safe to say no one comes back the same after reading this collection. Of course all poetry is daring, but there is a kind of edge the Vuong brings to the page that makes you lean in that extra little bit while you’re reading his work.

Nishat Ahmed reads “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” by Ocean Vuong

EH: Do you have any personal connection to the collection that you selected poems to read from, Night Sky with Exit Wounds?

NA: I think there are two real connections and the first is that despite some of the horrors and traumas occurring in Night Sky, these are poems about love—the absence of it, the glory of it, the pining for it, etc. etc.—and to me that’s the ultimate force in the universe. A lot of the work I write (and enjoy) is dark and hurting but at the core of it, it stems from a desire to explore and glorify devotion.

The second comes directly from his poem “Notebook Fragments” where he writes:

“An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.”

While the history of my lineage isn’t the exact same, my people are of Bangladesh and that country came into existence as a result of deep violences and horrors, but the country was born nonetheless. I think a lot about those lines and how we children of those countries and those people carry that memory of violence and pain in our language, our culture, and our bodies. Without doubt that’s a big part of what draws me to this book again and again, how it faces these truths and the complicated fallout. 

Nishat Ahmed reads “Devotion” by Ocean Vuong

EH: How does the relationship between your identity as a poet and your identity as a musician play into your creative work?

NA: I think they’re just about intertwined! (I do want to note that I only write lyrics and sing in my band, I don’t play any instruments so I wouldn’t call myself a musician, especially so as not to offend talented folks who can indeed play an instrument!)  If it weren’t for Fall Out Boy getting me into writing lyrics when I was younger (shoutout to the GOAT), I don’t think I’d be here today. I’m obsessed with sound, from the sounds of crickets and power lines  to more specifically the way how sound operates in language and in poems. When I’m not writing poems, I’m writing lyrics; sometimes, I double-dip. What’s cool about getting to write songs with my band is that I am always in the practice of learning how my words work with something backing them and without; furthermore, it’s an extra muscle I get to train in terms of rhyme schemes and meter. But at the end of it all, it comes back to how much I love getting to play with sound. Silence freaks me out; I’m not about it!

EH: Lastly, is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with our readers?

NA: Oh gosh, you’re asking a Gemini to share what they’re working on? Don’t threaten me with the best a good time!

As aforementioned, I sing and write the words for indie-rock band, Ocean Glass. You can find us on Facebook at facebook.com/oceanglassband or spin our latest full-length on Spotify (we’re also on Apple Music if that’s your jam).

Every Wednesday night at 7:30PM CST I host a live poetry reading on Instagram called “The Weekly B.O.P” (Bits of Poetry) where I share poems I’m feelin’ that week and I have some amazing guests on there! Caroline Earleywine was actually one of my guests earlier this month! You can follow that account on IG via @theweeklybop for GREAT poetic content and conversation!

If what I said earlier about sound intrigued you or maybe you’re interested in figuring out how to ask better questions in and of your poems, I’m teaching two online classes via The Muse Writers Center. The two classes I’m teaching are called “How to ask Questions in Poems” and “Unlocking Sounds in Poetics.” If you’d like to sign up, you can do so here!Okay last one, I promise! I recently had my debut chapbook, Field Guide for End Days come out and I’m really proud of this book. It’s a book all about the end of the world (how fitting now, right?) in some way, shape, or form and if you’d like to purchase it, I have copies for sale! Best way to reach me is by DMing on Twitter or IG — @thenishfish!


Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese-American poet, editor, and novelist born in Saigon and raised in Hartford, Connecticut. He is best known for his debut book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which was named one of the top ten books of 2019, longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction, a finalist for the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal in Fiction, the 2019 Aspen Words Literacy Prize, and won the 2019 New England Book Award for Fiction. Vuong’s debut poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2014) won the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize. Vuong has also been the recipient of the 2014 Ruth Lilly/Sargent Rosenberg fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and a 2016 Whiting Award. He currently lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts and works on faculty in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Further reading:

Join Vuong for a free public lecture presented by the Visiting Arts Program of SAIC on October 5th.
Purchase Vuong’s best selling novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous from Penguin Random House.
Read this interview with Vuong in The Guardian.

Nishat Ahmed is a Bangladeshi-American residing in the Midwest. He’s an Illinois native with a deep love for Fall Out Boy, The Notebook and Chipotle. He received his MFA in poetry from Old Dominion University and currently is the Editor in Chief at UrbanMatter. His work has been published by SobotkaWords DanceThe Mochila ReviewInto the VoidThe Academy of American PoetsThe Tampa Review, Passages North and has been performed at TEDxUIUC and AWP. His first chapbook, “Field Guide for End Days” is available now from Finishing Line Press, and his second, “Brown Boy” is forthcoming in fall 2020 from Porkbelly Press.

Further reading:

Purchase Ahmed’s chapbook Field Guide for End Days from Finishing Line Press.
Check out Ahmed’s band Ocean Glass on Twitter.
Read Ahmed’s poem “Superposition” in Passages North.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based 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). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/

Lyric Essentials: Caroline Earleywine Reads Nickole Brown

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, we feature poet and educator, Caroline Earleywine, who reads Nickole Brown for us and discusses writer’s identities in spaces of queerness, gender, and the South.


Erica Hoffmeister: In our emails, you said that despite brainstorming other poets, you still returned to Nickole Brown. What do you think drew you to her poetry that made you feel it was necessary to share her work with our readers?

Caroline Earleywine: What makes me return again and again to Nickole Brown’s work is the way she makes me feel seen. When I was in graduate school, before I ever really wrote about my queer or southern identity, I was lucky enough to have Ada Limón as one of my mentor teachers. She was the one who recommended Fanny Says to me. It was a pivotal moment for me in my writing. 

I so admire the way she writes about the South and about family and those complexities and hard truths that come with both. I also relate to the way she writes about beauty and femmeness in the queer community and its ties to nature, gender, and violence. Underneath even the tough parts, there is a joy and resilience found in her work, which is something I cling to right now. So in addition to hoping her work helps others feel seen in the way it has done for me, I think everyone can benefit from those chutes of joy. 

As an aside, after I started reading her work, I found out she used to teach in Little Rock where I live and has a couple of books published with Sibling Rivalry, which is a local press. I got to meet and hear both her and her wife Jessica Jacobs read in Hot Springs at Wednesday Night Poetry last year.  (And I’m so thankful for being introduced to Jessica Jacob’s work — I aspire to write love poems with the honesty and integrity she does in her book Take Me With You, Wherever You’re Going.)

Caroline Earleywine reads “Fuck” by Nickole Brown

EH: Why did you choose these particular poems of Brown’s to focus on?

CE: I so love the tenderness of “Fuck,” and how it takes a word often seen as crude and raw and inappropriate and turns it into something beautiful. The poem feels like a portrait of Fanny. I don’t necessarily have a person like Fanny in my life, but I feel this familiarity to her. I’m really drawn to this idea of what it means to be a southern woman and how we push up against that conditioning and expectation. There’s such a defiance in those last lines: “My grandmother, who didn’t ask for power, but took it, in full, fuck-it-all-bloom.” I love it for its un-apology and grit. It’s a type of strength that is unladylike as far as tradition, and is typically a type of power reserved for men. I love how Fanny takes up that space, and in writing this poem, it feels that Nickole Brown is occupying that space as well. I also just love how in this poem, and in others in the book, she examines a word that is so specific to a culture. It emphasizes that language is very much alive. It also makes me think of Nate Marshall’s poem, “Finna,” which I’m currently obsessed with. 

“An Invitation for My Grandmother” is a poem that means a lot to me. There is grief, there is beauty, and there is the joy of finally being seen. I love the journey the poem takes, both geographically and emotionally. It honestly chokes me up almost every time I read it or think about it. My grandmother died before I was able to come out to her and before I married my wife, and I often wonder what her reaction would have been. She was a true southern woman who always spoke her mind. In that way, Fanny reminds me of her. I actually wrote a poem that was largely inspired by this poem and concept called, “My Grandmother Gives Me Her Approval Nine Years After Her Death.” 

Caroline Earleywine reads “An Invitation for My Grandmother” by Nickole Brown

EH:  As a fellow queer, southern poet and educator, do you find that Brown has influenced in your own work in certain ways?

CE: I feel like she gave me a permission I didn’t know I needed. I have felt, and still feel, a bit of fear and intimidation at the idea of writing about the South. I worry about falling into stereotypes with my portrayal, or getting too negative, or not giving the unflattering parts enough space. The South is filled with such contradictions and pain and beauty, and I so admire the way Nickole Brown holds all those truths in her hand at the same time. 

I also feel a kinship and a further layering of feeling “seen” by the fact that Nickole Brown is a queer southerner who is a femme woman. There’s this experience of passing as straight, even to yourself. Heteronormativity is so conditioned and learned that it can make it hard to hear the pulse of your own desire. I feel so much of being conditioned as a woman is prioritizing being the object of desire, specifically to men, instead of examining what you yourself desire. This is further complicated with homophobia all around you because even if you did drown out the noise and hear yourself, there’s this knowledge underneath of other people’s disapproval, sometimes coming from those you love dearly.  

A very specific example of this is in Nickole Brown’s poem, “Fanny Asks Me a Question Before I’d Even Ask Myself.” I have one poem that I feel is particularly in conversation with that one, which is “Lesbian Shoes.” Obviously, my work has been very affected by Nickole Brown’s — I held this book closely as I worked on my own manuscript. 

EH: Lastly, is there anything you are currently working on or upcoming publications that you would like to share with our readers?

CE: My debut poetry chapbook is coming out in October with Sibling Rivalry Press! It’s called Lesbian Fashion Struggles. Like the name suggests, the collection is a chapbook that chronicles my experiences as a lesbian, specifically as a lesbian who grew up and resides in the South, with aspects of clothing and identity woven throughout. Much of it is a reframing of my youth through a queer lens. I’m excited and a little nervous to have it out in the world. 


Nickole Brown is a Southern poet with an MFA in fiction from Vermont College who has worked and written in various spaces, including a decade-long position at the nonprofit press Sarabande Books, an editorial assistant for Hunter S. Thompson, and Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and she currently works as Editor for the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and guest teaches for various programs and workshops. Her novel-in-poems Sister (Red Hen Press, 2007), biography-in-poems Fanny Says (BOA Editions, 2015), and essays-in-poems The Donkey Elegies (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020) are considered groundbreaking cross-genre works and speak to identities in lesbian, Southern, and working class spaces. Brown lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her wife, Jessica Jacobs.

Further reading:

Purchase Brown’s book Fanny Says: A Biography-in-Poems from BOA Editions.
Read this interview with Brown from The Nashville Review.
Listen to Brown’s feature on Rattlecast + Open Mic.

Caroline Earleywine is teaches high school English in Central Arkansas where she tries to convince teenagers that poetry is actually cool. She was a semifinalist for Nimrod’s 2018 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and for the 2019 Vinyl 45s Chapbook Contest. She was also a finalist for the 2019 Write Bloody Publishing Contest. Her work can be found in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Barrelhouse, Nailed Magazine, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Queens University in Charlotte and lives in Little Rock with her wife and two dogs. Her chapbook, Lesbian Fashion Struggles, is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in October of 2020. It’s now available for preorder.

Further reading:

Preorder Earleywine’s debut chapbook Lesbian Fashion Struggles from Sibling Rivalry Press.
Read poems by Earleywine as featured in Barrelhouse.
Watch Earleywine read poetry in this video for the Write Bloody Finalist Competition.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based 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). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/

Lyric Essentials: Bradley Trumpfheller Reads C.D. Wright

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, we hear from Bradley Trumpfheller, who reads poems from C.D. Wright and discusses identity, influence, and questioning categorization of poets. Thank you for reading!


Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read C.D. Wright for Lyric Essentials?

Bradley Trumpfheller: C.D. Wright is among that pantheon of writers that I just wouldn’t be the person or poet I am without. For me, any conversation about influence or the traditions I might be working within has to invoke her and her incredible oeuvre. There’s not a lot of dimensions of my writing that don’t owe some debt to Wright: how I approach the page, the sequence and its relation to the book-as-form, punctuation and sound, collage, and on and on. Too, I think her work does what may be my favorite thing that a writer can do, which is point to her influences and debts in a way that opens those writers and artists to the reader. In the back of One Big Self, maybe my favorite of her books, there’s a catalog of all the books she “cites” in the poem. I love finding things like this in books, because it’s so tuned to the way I read: beginning in one place, and if I really like it, finding the texts that influenced it and then reading those, perpetually expanding outward and backward. So, through Wright, I was able to find Jean Valentine, Raul Zurita, Viktor Shklovsky, Frank Stanford, and so many others to whom I am indebted. Wright never really aligned herself with a “school” of poetry (thankfully) as so many American poets did (and weirdly, sometimes, still do), but she made it clear that she was speaking from a certain tradition: contextual, personal but not private, and international in its orientation. Tradition-making is something I’m very invested in, particularly when it’s against canon-making. Wright was a real exemplar of this while she was with us, and I think that’s well worth honoring. 

Bradley Trumpfheller reads from Deepstep Come Shining by C.D. Wright

EH: From Wright’s expansive catalog of books, is there any particular reason you chose to read from Deepstep Come Shining?

BT: Deepstep Come Shining was the first book of Wright’s that I ever read as an undergraduate. I had read a few loose poems before that, and was aware of her as a popular contemporary poet that had died about 8 months prior. I feel like so often I come to the writers who affect me the most immediately after they pass away. I remember vividly being in my cousin’s house in Alabama the morning that Lucie Brock Broido died, reading poem after poem and having that same feeling. And Sean Bonney, last November, may he rest in power. As for Deepstep, though, it was the first one: it’s one of Wright’s books in that period of her life where she became really interested in the book as a form unto itself: Just Whistle, One Big Self, One With Others, from the mid 90’s into the 2000’s. Deepstep is a book length poem, as with those other works, that effectively is an account of a road trip through the South. Locations transmute, images are recorded; the obsession at the heart of the book is with looking, what it means to fix something (and to fail to fix something) in your gaze. Wright didn’t invent the idea of bringing in citation into the poem the way that she does in that book, but it was the first time I had encountered something like that, and was baffling to me at the time. Reading what you think is a lyric poem and then there’s a Kurosawa quote in the middle of the page, and then there’s a car dealership, and then there’s a sign that says “birthplace of John Coltrane”. The page, and I love this so much, becomes a field of relation. Wright looms so large over my own writing partially because when I first read her, I was so confused. The texts that stay with me are the ones that ask a lot of me as a reader, that have a surface tension. Not impenetrable, per se, though that has a value as well, but you have to spend time with them to get the scent, to catch the tune.

EH: Do you draw any inspiration from Wright’s work in your own, as a fellow “socially conscious, Southern” poet?

BT: When I was a younger poet (I say, as if I am not only twenty three), I think I was a little bit more attached to the idea of a “contemporary Southern poetics,” of which I would have counted Wright’s work as a grundnorm. But, I’m not sure how invested I am in that now, for a few reasons. On the subject of Wright, she was certainly a poet whose work returned to the landscapes of the South quite a bit, especially in Deepstep and One With Others, but I’m unsure of there being some quality of irreducible Southern-ness about her work. Or what that would mean for any writer, beyond the realm of images and a particular embedded topography. Wright spent the last half of her life living in California, Mexico, and Rhode Island: her time in Mexico was probably as important to her work as her time in Arkansas and Memphis. None of this is to say, you know, that it’s not an interesting hermeneutic to look at where a writer is from and what role that place has in their writing. That can be generative, has been generative for me in certain ways. I’m just a little more suspicious, for now, of that kind of sub-categorization in American literature, what differences it might be erasing, what assumptions underpin it. What does it mean to be a Southern poet—does the region need to be present in the work? We can go further, too: what does it mean to be Southern in the 21st century? Who says what is or is not Southern? I ask because I genuinely am not sure.

Also, it elides something really important about the work that Wright was doing in Deepstep and especially in One Big Self. My favorite thing about her, I think, is her intransigent commitment to self-criticism, even when it makes for a more confusing or hesitant poem. In both of those books, part of that criticism is emerging from her position as an outsider. Wright returned throughout her career to James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Agee was himself an “ex-Southerner” who had moved North. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is saturated with his own suspicion of himself, of why he’s writing about these working-class tenant farmers, of his inability to put the real into language. What comes from that particularly anxious relation, in both Agee and Wright’s work, is what you could call an apophatic poetics, a poetry of the unsayable. And I think that gets at about what I’ve come to believe is an essence of writing: that it, like all language-work, is a project of already-failing. And committing to fail more rigorously anyways.

Bradley Trumpfheller reads “Crescent” by C.D. Wright

EH: Lastly, is there anything in particular you are working on right now that you’d like to share with our readers?

BT: Well, I think I’m sort of increasingly superstitious. There’s that old Yiddish joke, “How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans.” So, I can’t say too much about specific dimensions of projects I’m working on. I’ve just started in the MFA program at the University of Texas in Austin, which I’m very grateful for, and is giving me an immense amount of quiet time to listen and read. Right now, I’m reading through all of Susan Howe’s work, who’s really phenomenal, and instructive in presenting a pretty singularly contumacious mode of reading-as-writing. Also Anna Kavan’s Ice, Catherie Keller’s body of work on negative theology, re-reading some Marx, China Mieville’s novella This Census Taker; poetry-wise, Johannes Goransson’s translations of Aase Berg are holding me captive in a really wonderful way, plus works by Sean Bonney, Kevin Lattimer, Harmony Holiday, Joanna Klink, and Zaina Alsous’ totally underrated debut Theory of Birds, which was maybe my favorite book of poems I read last year. I mention all of this so as not to duck the question entirely, but because I think whatever work ends up emerging out of this period of time will inevitably be inflected by all these other writers and luminaries.


Carolyn D. Wright was a Southern poet from the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas who received a MacArthur Fellow, A Guggenheim Fellow, and acted as Poet Laureate of Rhode Island from 1994-1999. She published twelve books of poetry, two state literary maps, and a collection of essays. She earned several awards and accolades in her lifetime, including the 2011 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for One With Others (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), the 2009 International Griffin Poetry Prize for Rising, Falling, Hovering( Copper Canyon Press, 2008), the Lange-Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University for One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana (Copper Canyon Press, 2003), and was elected as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2013. Wright taught at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and worked as the former coeditor of Lost Roads Publishers. She died in her sleep on January 12, 2016, at the age of 67.

Further reading:

Purchase Deepstep Come Shining by C.D. Wright from Copper Canyon Press.
Read this feature on Wright from NPR.
Listen to Wright read poems from her book Steal Away in The Paris Review.

Bradley Trumpfheller (they/them) is a trans writer and student. They are the author of the chapbook Reconstructions (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020) and the co-editor of the website Divedapper. They’ve received fellowships from MacDowell and the University of Texas, and currently live in Austin.

Further reading:

Purchase Bradley’s debut collection Reconstructions from Sibling Rivalry Press.
Read a recent interview with Bradley in The Adroit Journal.
Follow Bradley on Twitter @bradtrumpfh.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based 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). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/

Lyric Essentials: Caits Meissner Reads Ai

Lyric Essentials is back this week with writer, artist, and PEN America’s Prison & Justice Writing Director, Caits Meissner who reads work from the poet Ai and takes us deep into the human experience through conversation about writing and justice work.

Note: the content of this interview, and Ai’s work, might be triggering for some. It discusses, in part, difficult acts of violence.


Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read the poet Ai for Lyric Essentials?

Photo by Aslan Chalom

Caits Meissner: When I reread Ai’s work in preparation for this feature, the gutting poem “Abortion” drew up the memory of a teenage student on Rikers Island. Years ago now, the student defended a newly incarcerated peer who had been beaten by other girls in the jail, and soaked in their piss. They’d read the paper, which stated the following facts: the new arrival was seventeen and charged with asphyxiating her newborn child after giving birth in a friend’s bathroom. She was caught while shoplifting at Victoria’s Secret. The dead baby was in her bag.

But she loved that baby, even though it was dead, that’s why she carried it with her, so she could stay close to it, my student said.

The paper said otherwise.

This story sat on my heart for weeks—both the girl’s devastating acts, the muddled question of her motivations, and her subsequent treatment. As often required when working in spaces of incarceration, the central activity of my daily life, one is forced to hold conflicting truths that can dizzy the moral compass. Below the sociopolitical conversation I engage in around mass incarceration—my own is ultimately an abolitionist orientation—lives a landmine of the most difficult, generations-long questions of our species. Sometimes, I drown in them.

The newspaper, of course, doesn’t tell us what led the teen to this wrenching act, or who she’ll become after long term incarceration. No—that information might trouble our distance from the act of “monsters,” “convicts” and animals.” It might force us to admit that this horrifying act, too, is not separate from, but squarely a part of the spectrum of human behavior, which is a hard reality to own. And with that knowledge, how do we contend with it and create the proper mechanisms of accountability? With more retribution? With more violence? How do we, then, redeem ourselves?

Ai is often referred to as a poet who works in dramatic monologue, which seems to me an imprecise term. You’ll notice that her poems don’t even bother an attempt at approximating another’s language. Instead, Ai’s characters always sound like Ai. This creates a jarring form of universal consciousness, increasing the terror of each reading, a sense that these characters, in part, might lurk somewhere buried in myself. We are all cut from the same cloth, most of us seeking redemption, even when through profoundly misguided actions—I think this is what the poems are getting at.

In truth, I tried not to choose Ai for this feature—her work is so heavy, and challenging to parse. It felt risky and maybe even unfair to tug readers into my whirlwind of emotional response. But a voice inside me kept pulling me back again and again. For this series, which “pays homage to the poets that have guided us and transformed our work,” it’s the most honest choice of this moment. Ai has transformed me. Her work helps me think through what is most confounding about humanity by facing it, head on, without flinching.

Caits Meissner reads “Conversation” by Ai

EH: Do you have a personal connection to “Cuba, 1962” or “Conversation” that led you to read these particular poems for us?

CM: Frankly speaking, I chose these poems because they are among her least gratuitously violent—a slightly easier entry point, even with their own robust weight. Perhaps I should have been more brave in my selections. Still, the two examples prove Ai’s attention to craft and the emotional life of her subjects are as much guiding forces as the often shocking and tough-to-stomach stories she chooses to enter.

“Cuba, 1962” is a daring, masterful short poem of witness through the voice of a grieving husband. The piece reveals the exploitation of Cuban fieldworkers in the demand for consumerist production—in this case sugarcane—by the United States and Russia during the 1960s.

“Conversation” has always moved me with its rendering of talking to a dead loved one, poet Robert Lowell. Her metaphors are razor sharp in this poem. Ai brings us into the realm of the unimaginable. Having lost my mother this year, I have lots of conversations with the dead, and the poem takes on another layer of personal meaning.

Caits Meissner reads “Cuba, 1962” by Ai

EH: In what way has Ai’s work influenced your own as a creator, writer, and educator?

CM: Though clearly concerned with the social conditions that lead to extreme marginalization, I don’t think Ai was explicitly out for social justice. Many of her subjects are perpetrators of unspeakable cruelty and violence themselves. Ai’s work can sometimes feel closer to the true crime genre than to protest poetry. She takes on the internal landscape of individuals—either living nearly anonymously in assumed poverty or, conversely, infamous historical/celebrity figures—who are the warped human shrapnel of a hyper-capitalist, celebrity-obsessed, violence-obsessed American culture tethered to an origin story of genocide and racial subjugation.

And then, on another level, put plainly, Ai was looking for interesting characters to creatively mine—“scoundrels,” as she called them. She was curious about people who did bad things.

These mixed impulses towards creation, some noble, some sociopolitical, some perhaps even romantic in their curiosity, add up what I find to be a rigorous, polarizing, challenging, and yes, at times sensational body of work. Her approach was honest and brave and flawed and human and layered, as are her subjects. I’ve read as many interviews with Ai as I could find (there aren’t many) and nowhere does she qualify her work as intending to offer any particular service to the world. All of this is what makes her poems cut to the bone with the harrowing, chilling truths of human consequence.

Ai’s approach directly influences a project I’ve been working on for the past 4 years. This series of “ghosted voices” borrow Ai’s hallowed monologue form. For example, “Loving the Enemy” is a poem in the voice of a woman married to a man who commits serial rape, and chooses to remain in love with him.Trapping” is a poem about a woman who locks herself in the bathroom to mirror the experience of her partner’s solitary confinement. I am also often trying to understand how “good people do bad things,” and her form has given me a route in.

EH: Lastly, is there anything you are working right now on that you’d like to share with our readers?

CM: Despite the intensity of the poems I just pointed to, and my choosing Ai to share, I also take much softer creative approaches! Among those are two recent projects that use illustration as part of the storytelling method.

Returning to the medium of my youth, the self-published, DIY 80+ page Pep Talks For Broke(n) People arrived this past February. The comix-poetry zine chronicles, through short visual narratives, encouraging words exchanged between friends and lovers (and sometimes within my own head) that have helped me to cope with the bizarre and trying act of living.

And throughout 2020, I am publishing a monthly comix vignette series, New York Strange, in Hobart journal that captures unexpected encounters—comical, tender, emotional, sobering—during my 18 year tenure in this wild city.


Ai Ogawa was born Florence Anthony in 1947, adopting the legal name Ai–the Japanese word for “love”–as a way to reshape her personal narrative. She is of mixed race heritage, including Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche; her feminist politics and identity shaped the dramatic persona poetry and ability, as the Poetry Foundation describes, to “give voice to marginalized, poor and abused speakers” that she is most known for. Before her death due to pneumonia complications and undiagnosed cancer in 2010, she published seven books of poetry, receiving the National Book Award for her book Vice (1999), an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, for Sin (1986), and the Lamont Poetry Award of the Academy of American Poets for Killing Floor (1979). She was a tenured professor and the vice president of the Native American Faculty and Staff Association at Oklahoma State University until the time of her death.

Further reading:

Purchase The Collected Poems of Ai from W.W. Norton.
Read an interview with Ai from Tomas Q. Morin in AWP Magazine.
Learn more about Ai’s poetry and life in poets.org’s feature “Assuming the Mask: Persona and Identity in Ai’s Poetry”

Caits Meissner is the author of the illustrated hybrid poetry book Let It Die Hungry (The Operating System, 2016). Her latest projects include the DIY comix poetry zine Pep Talks For Broke(n) People and a comix vignette series, New York Strange, publishing monthly in Hobart journal throughout 2020. She currently is the inaugural Palette Poetry Second Book Fellow and spends her days as the Prison and Justice Writing Program Director at PEN America.

Further reading:

Follow Meissner’s monthly comix vignette series New York Strange in Hobart.
Purchase Meissner’s debut hybrid poetry book Let It Die Hungry.
Read an interview with Meissner about her justice work in Teachers & Writers Magazine.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based 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). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/

Lyric Essentials: Candice Iloh Reads Sasha Banks

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! For this installment, we chat about righteous anger with writer and performer, Candice Iloh and listen to her read poems by the legendary Sasha Banks.


Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose Sasha Banks’ work to read for Lyric Essentials?

Candice Iloh: I have known about Sasha’s work for a long time and she is a poet I tell everyone about, so her work was an easy choice already at the tip of my tongue. Simply put, she is a Black person writing the kind of poems I want to read right now as this country shifts and implodes on itself. I’ve moved past being satisfied with poems simply working as a witness to our experiences and violent pasts as people Black people in America. I want to read poems that cast knowing spells on the reader and this entire country as a firm reminder of the powerful presence of our ancestors. I want to read Black poems warn this country of the error in harming Black bodies while reminding those of us who are still alive that we are not in this alone. I want to read poems that speak of Black people who have had enough. Sasha Banks does that. 

Candice Iloh reads “america, MINE” by Sasha Banks

EH: america, MINE is not your average poetry collection—there is a sort of narrative arc within the worldbuilding of magical realism and Afrofuturism. Why did you choose these two particular poems read from this book?

CI: I first chose the title poem america, MINE because, for me, it is the gut of what Sasha is getting at with this entire collection. My favorite line “we are not asking anymore” really says it. We are done asking permission for our rights, our freedom, our humanity when it has always been ours to claim.  I chose uhmareka, post collapse: three for it’s very similar quality, but with vivid examples of a society stripped of its oxymoronic symbolism and oppressive structures. This poems is, for once, suggesting a mourning that will follow the destruction of  white supremacy and all that does not serve us. It gave me a lot of pleasure imagining that. 

Candice Iloh reads “uhmareka, post collapse: three” by Sasha Banks

EH: How has Sasha Banks influenced your own work as a writer and community mentor?

CI: Sasha has and will always be a welcome challenge to do the bold thing in my work as a poet. To come to the page with knives and allow my very righteous anger the space to drive my stories. And she is also a poet who is really for our communities along the entire spectrum of black poets/artists. Her loyalty to both the integrity of her work and to the people its for is relentless.

EH: Lastly, is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with our readers?

CI: My debut YA novel in verse Every Body Looking hits stores nationwide on September 22nd and I’m so excited about it. It’s available for pre-order now.


Sasha Banks is a Pushcart-nominated poet from Brooklyn and the creator of Poets for Ferguson. She has had work featured in RHINOKinfolks QuarterlyPBS NewshourB O D Y Literature, and many others, and has performed in Tulane University’s Vagina Monologues. She holds an MFA from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and currently lives in North Carolina.

Further reading:
Purchase Sasha Banks’ book america, MINE.
Read a feature about Banks from PBS News Hour.
Listen to Banks discuss and read from america, MINE on the podcast Angels and Awakening.

Candice Iloh is a first-generation Nigerian-American writer and performer whose work centers on the body and finding one’s chosen home in the world. Her words have appeared in Fjords Review, So to Speak Journal, For Harriet, Blavity, No Dear Magazine, Glass Poetry Journal, The Felt, and The Black Girl Magic Anthology by Haymarket Books. She is a recipient of fellowships from VONA, Home School via Lambda Literary fellowship, as well as a Rhode Island Writers Colony Writer-in-Residence alum.  She holds an MFA in Writing for Young People from Lesley University, where she completed her forthcoming young adult novel in verse, Every Body Looking (Dutton YA/Penguin Random House, Sept 22 2020). She is a 2018 Hi-ARTS Critical Breaks artist residency recipient where she debuted her first one-woman show, ADA: ON STAGE. When Candice isn’t writing, she dances.

Further reading:
Preorder Candice Iloh’s Every Body Looking from Penguin Random House.
Watch an episode from the docu-series Brooklyn is Masquerading as the World, featuring Iloh.
Read an interview with Iloh from Colored Girls Hustle‘s #growfierce series.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based 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). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/

Lyric Essentials: Roya Marsh Reads Eve L. Ewing

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, we welcome the very talented Roya Marsh, who reads two poems by Eve L. Ewing and discusses poets’ roles as storytellers, activists, and informers. Thank you for reading!


Erica Hoffmeister: Eve L. Ewing’s poetry is so powerful – how and why did you choose to read these two particular poems for Lyric Essentials?

Roya Marsh: When prompted to read poems for Lyric Essentials my mind immediately centered Black women. When sifting through pieces and poets whose pieces I love, I’d ended up with a list of poets and poems that were in conversation with the work that I create. The Horror Movie Pitch poems by Ewing bring about the exact questions most folks should be asking themselves. The “what ifs” and “how abouts” in these poems beg the readers to consider a fictional world where Black women (the ones the world loves to hate) can choose to retaliate or live their best carefree lives. It brings about the topic of visibility and calls out the folks who so often abuse and take advantage of us and then comes back for more in the second piece.

Roya Marsh reads “Horror Movie Pitch” by Eve Ewing

EH: What is your personal connection to Ewing? Does she influence your writing or activism in any way?

RM: Dr. Eve L. Ewing is an outstanding writer with an incredible body of work that allows the reader to explore the past, present and future of Black experience. Her writing has an incredible impact on my own craft as she uses her everyday life’s work and research to craft intriguing, witty and powerful poems based in truth and historical context. The poems are made to inform, remind and demand change through messages that are accessible to readers of all backgrounds. 

EH: You are an incredibly talented performance poet who always seems to be so comfortable reading poetry for others. Is that an accurate perception of your relationship with reading poetry aloud? How is the experience of reading Ewing’s poems different from reading your own? 

RM: The only difference between reading my own work and Dr. Ewing’s is that I pray I do her poems justice. My reading voice is heavily impacted by the theme of the poems. I never attempt to assume a poet’s intentions, but I am guided by my own interpretations of the piece. I can imagine what it sounds like to pitch an idea, especially one that seems so farfetched, and let my imagination guide my voice. Here, I also considered what it would be like to be one of the Black women that Dr. Ewing is referring to in the lines. Now, that adds another layer to my reading voice. It is less about who I sound like when I read and so much more about doing the tale justice. Paying homage to the lives that would inspire Dr. Ewing to craft such a tale about invisible Black women seeking revenge.

Roya Marsh reads “Horror Movie Pitch 2” by Eve Ewing

EH: Your debut collection dayliGht was released this spring, and has been met with well-deserved praise in working to dismantle white supremacy and center LGBTQIA experiences. Can you speak to how poetry in particular is such an important medium when creating space for your voice and activism?

RM: Poets have become the storytellers. Our work now is to inform the public of what is going on and continue prompting conversations around these subjects. In our current social climate, poetry is a meaningful outlet for the surging thoughts, questions and emotions plaguing our minds. There’s an indescribable feeling that comes along with the craft, when your work is honored and valued you are reminded that people are listening. The platform makes room for countless others to resonate with what you’ve created, and it calls for an audience. The work from today’s poets broadens the genre and builds on the legacies of Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and so many more set the path for. The goal is to dismantle white supremacy and all of its ills. The artists use poems to liberate the marginalized and incarcerated, highlight youth experience, demand rights LGBT+ community and so much more. 

EH: Lastly, is there anything you are working on, whether writing or organizing, that you’d like to share with readers? 

RM: I’m working on so many things at once that it is sometimes hard to center my mind. Luckily, I am never alone. I have a lifestyle brand, Blk Joy (Black Joy) that is giving away a $1,000 book scholarship to a Black scholar pursuing a college degree. We are also launching a fundraiser, which will benefit 4 organizations doing the work to liberate the incarcerated and support with bail funds. That showcase will be livestreamed on Facebook on 7/31. More information can be found at http://www.blkjoy.com.


Dr. Eve Louise Ewing is a poet, essayist, visual artist and sociologist of education, teaching as an assistant professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, and Faculty Affiliate at UChicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture and the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. She is the author of two collections of poetry: Electric Arches, which received awards from the American Library Association and the Poetry Society of America, and most recently, 1919. She has also written the nonfiction work Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, and co-authored the play No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks with Nate Marshall. She also writes comics for Marvel: Ironheart and Champions. Her first children’s book, Maya and the Robot, is forthcoming in 2020. Ewing’s writing, art, activism, research, and work as an educator centers around racism, social inequality, urban policy, and the effects on the public school system.

Further reading:

Purchase Ewing’s acclaimed debut collection of poetry Electric Arches from Haymarket Books.
Check out Ewing’s comic series from Marvel: Ironheart and Champions.
Listen to Ewing’s podcast, Bughouse Square.

A Bronx, New York native, Roya Marsh is a nationally recognized poet, performer, educator and activist. She is the Poet in Residence at Urban Word NYC and works feverishly toward LGBTQIA justice and dismantling white supremacy. Roya’s work has been featured in Poetry MagazineFlypaper MagazineFrontier Poetry, the Village VoiceNylon MagazineHuffington PostButton Poetry, Def Jam’s All Def DigitalLexus Verses and Flow, NBC, BET and The BreakBeat Poets Vol 2: Black Girl Magic(Haymarket 2018). In Spring 2020, MCD × FSG Originals published Marsh’s dayliGht, a debut collection of experimental poetry exploring themes of sexuality, Blackness, and the prematurity of Black femme death—all through an intersectional feminist lens with a focus on the resilience of the Black woman.  

Further reading:

Purchase dayliGht by Roya Marsh from MCD x FSGO.
Watch Marsh read her poem “Black Joy” featured on All Def Poetry.
Listen to Marsh discuss dayliGht on LitHub’s podcast collaboration, Well-Versed With FSG.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based 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). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/

Lyric Essentials: Amanda Gomez Reads Miguel Hernández

Hello, and thank you for joining us again for Lyric Essentials! This week, we are pleased to hear from Amanda Gomez, who reads poetry from Miguel Hernández to us and chats about viewing poetry as a tool for hope and teaching literary citizenship through exposure to diverse writers. Thank you for reading!


Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose these two particular poems by Miguel Hernández to read for Lyric Essentials?

Amanda Gomez: Despite the fact that Miguel Hernández is one of the most popular 20th century Spanish poets, I am very new to his work. I purchased The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernández, edited by Ted Genoways, last year, but it was not until this spring that I began to read his work. It seems easy to say that I chose to read Hernández work because I have just recently finished reading his work, but I think it is his urgency that compels me. With everything going on around us, the pandemic and the ways in which it has exacerbated the inequities of our systems, police brutality and the murders of innocent Black lives, systems of oppression that continue to exist, I wanted to return to someone who has come before, and Hernández is that person for me at the moment. Hernández fought for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and both of the poems I decided to read were written by him from jail after having been imprisoned by Francisco Franco.

The first poem I chose, “Lullaby of the Onion,” was the very first poem of Hernández’ work that I was introduced to, and it is probably his most well-known poem. Hernández wrote the poem in response to a letter from his wife in which she details how she and their child were starving, and the child was malnourished having only onions and bread to eat. Hernández resists despair throughout this poem. It is not just a love poem, but a political poem: he illustrates the poet’s work is not simply to witness the moment but to reimagine a new future.

The problem with imagination, however, is that it’s rooted in our bodily experiences, and if left unchecked becomes dangerous, which is why I’ve also chosen “The World is as it Appears.” Here, Hernández’ hopeful tone is more restrained. In one line he writes, “[n]o one has seen us. We have seen / no one,” highlighting the ways in which we flatten the identities and experiences of others and conflate them with our own, reducing our capability for compassion and empathy. And while this is human error, I think we could interrogate this idea further as to how power interacts with these moments. For instance, I am reminded of D. L. Hughley who said, “The most dangerous place for Black people to live is in White people’s imagination.” I am fearful that we as a country will continue to remain blind, “blind as we are from seeing,” as Hernández ends the poem. But if there is some consolation, it is that “[i]t takes work and love / to see these things with you.”

In choosing these poems, I wanted hope for the future. Hope for now, but I can’t see that hope being viable without looking back to the past.

Amanda Gomez reads “The World as it Appears” by Miguel Hernández

EH: In our emails, you mention Don Share reading his translation of Miguel Hernández’ poem “Lullaby of the Onion” as your introductory point to Hernández’ work. What about that experience of hearing that poem aloud resonated with you so deeply?

AG: Listening to Don Share read the poem was enthralling for me. I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing, which was driving in my car, and just as he began the poem, I was parking in a gravel parking lot outside of a local coffee shop. I could not get out of the car until I had listened to the entire poem on repeat multiple times.

I am drawn to people’s voices. A speaker’s intonations and pauses are just as interesting to me as the words. In the act of listening, I am learning about the writer and the speaker, and sometimes those identities are shared in the same person and sometimes those identities are shared by two different people, but I find listening an erotic act. I can’t imagine anyone reads the same poem the exact same way every time. We linger in places that hold our attention more, and those places speak to us at very finite points in time. So for me, I could hear the nostalgia in Share’s voice in the places his voice warmed, knowing he’d read it many times.

However, I will admit that while listening to the poem was a great moment, reading the poem was a very lackluster experience the first time. It took multiple readings for me to come to my own appreciation and understanding of the poem.

Amanda Gomez reads “Lullaby of the Onion” by Miguel Hernández

EH: Has Hernández’ work influenced your own writing in some way?

AG: I would still say I am new to Hernández’ work, so I can’t exactly say how he has influenced my writing directly. I can say that Hernández’ imagery has stuck with me. He ends his poem “A Photograph,” by saying, “a picture accompanies me,” and I enjoy how much weight he places on the image. In one poem, there are “rustling eyelashes of the canefield,” and in another poem, “there is an orchard of mouths.” It is hard not to walk away from one of his poems without remembering these phrases, reminding me to always continue to invent new ways of seeing everything around me.

EH: How does your teacher-writer relationship impact the poetry that you read and/or teach?

AG: Being a writer has definitely impacted the way I teach and what poetry I teach. It wasn’t until graduate school that I encountered poets outside of the canon, Latinx poets that I could relate to and identify with, and I think that is such a travesty. I don’t want my students having to wait that long to find authors that look like them. I make it a priority to focus on QTBIPOC writers. I want author identity to be important to my students, though I do worry that my students come to the page to reassert their own opinions or biases rather than to confront them. I try to incorporate as many writers as possible to confront this concern and dialogue with them.

I’m also thinking about ways in which to teach my students the importance of literary citizenship. Many of the writers I choose are contemporary writers because I want them to think about the ways in which art serves us and how we can reciprocate. I also try to maintain some sort of balance between books published by large presses and small presses, so students can think about and talk about access to art as well.  

EH: Lastly, is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with our readers? 

AG: Yes! My first chapbook, Wasting Disease, will be available in October through Finishing Line Press, and it is available for pre-order now. I am also working on a hybrid work that could probably best be described as lyrical essay. Growing up, most of my education came through television and movies. My parents were fascinated with American lore, and it was always a bit eerie to me. My dad especially loves Western movies, and so the piece is an exploration of John Wayne and his wives, a characteristic someone once described as the most “un-American” thing about Wayne. My primary focus is his second wife, Esperanza Baur, and I want to think through and reimagine her history as it’s hard to see her clearly past the patriarchal whitewash. At least, that’s my opinion.


Miguel Hernández is an early 20th century Spanish poet and playwright who gained fame as a political figure who wrote and read poetry during the Spanish Civil War. The son of an impoverished goat herder, Hernández was self-taught despite being discouraged and abused by his father for wanting to pursue writing. A member of the Communist Party of Spain, Hernández was arrested several times for his anti-fascist views and wrote many of his works from jail, some poems as love letters for his wife. Hernández’ prison poems which were collected and published posthumosly as Cancionero y romancero de ausencia (Songs and Ballads of Absence). Throughout his lifetime, he wrote five books of poetry and six plays. He died in 1942 in prison, at the age of 31.

Further reading:

Purchase The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernández, edited by Ted Genoways.
Read this feature about Hernández in Latino Life magazine.
Learn more about editor and translator Ted Genoways on his website.

Amanda Gomez is a Latinx poet from Norfolk, VA, where she received her MFA in poetry at Old Dominion University. Some of her poems have appeared in Nimrod International Journal, North American Review, PANK, Tupelo Quarterly, and Writers Resist. Her chapbook, Wasting Disease, which was awarded 2nd Honorable Mention in the New Women’s Voices Competition, is now available for pre-order through Finishing Line Press.   

Further reading:

Keep updated about Amanda Gomez by visiting her website.
Read Gomez’ prize winning poem “Grind” in the Academy of American Poets.
Read Gomez’ interview of Azar Nafisi in Barely South Review.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based 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). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/