Lyric Essentials: moira j. Reads Joy Harjo


For this installment of Lyric Essentials, we are joined by Sundress author moira j. They read poems from poet laureate Joy Harjo, and talk about the role of storytelling in indigenous poetry. Thanks for reading!


Erica Hoffmeister: What is your personal connection to Joy Harjo that led you to read her poetry for Lyric Essentials?

moira j.: Joy Harjo is the first Indigenous poet I was ever introduced to, my first connection to seeing how storytelling could be done on our terms through poetry. Her book, “Map to the End of the World” was the first poetry book I read outside of school and I instantly felt bonded to it. Her and her work have been integral to my creative landscape since I was a child. I cannot imagine a world without her work.

EH: Of Joy Harjo’s expansive body of work, why did you choose these two poems?

mj: These poems have been sitting in my mind recently. To think of the ways my people, and Indigenous people all over the world, have survived or haven’t survived these apocalypses of settler colonialism and all its violence. I think it’s necessary to look at the ways in which we interrogate the systems that have displaced and dispossessed our people, and the methods in which we continue ceremony and connection to each other. This includes questioning the ways America is seen as America by settlers and non-Indigenous people who may benefit from settler colonialism now.

moira j. Reads “An American Sunrise” by Joy Harjo

EH: How do you think it’s important to experience Harjo’s poetry read aloud?

mj: Her work has unshakable cadence, the ways in which she utilizes line breaks has such concussive force. I love being able to feel the way in which her words form landscapes, the low valleys to high peaks. She is one of my favorite poets to read aloud. 

EH: There is a particular line from “Perhaps the World Ends Here” that reads: “It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human.” Do you make use of that concept of what it means to be human in your own writing, or in your newest poetry collection Bury Me in Thunder, specifically? 

mj: Storytelling in my community, and so in many others, is a reflection of humanity itself, to explain or process the situations we’ve encountered since time immemorial. Bury Me in Thunder specifically looks at how we are made through intergenerational trauma, the experiences of our family members, and how we process our individual life events. In the case of the book, it was the ways in which I came to terms with grief and healing through these facets, and how it reinforces, instead of diminishes, my humanity as a transgender, Indigenous person.

moira j. Reads “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo


Joy Harjo is member of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation and belongs to Oce Vpofv (Hickory Ground). An acclaimed poet, musician, playwright, and activist, Harjo was named the 23rd U.S. poet laureate, becoming the first Native American to serve the position. She is also the chancellor of the American Academy of Poets, directs For Girls Becom­ing, an arts mentor­ship pro­gram for young Mvskoke women, and is a found­ing board mem­ber of the Native Arts and Cul­tures Foun­da­tion. She is the author of nine books of poetry, two award-winning children’s books, and a musical play. As a poet, she is best known for writing about vast landscapes and incorporating indigenous storytelling and histories, and social justice traditions into her work by exploring the violence of settler colonialism and the reclamation of her heritage. Awards for her work include: the Ruth Lily Prize for Life­time Achieve­ment from the Poet­ry Foun­da­tion, the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets Wal­lace Stevens Award, the New Mex­i­co Governor’s Award for Excel­lence in the Arts, a PEN USA Lit­er­ary Award, Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund Writ­ers’ Award, a Ras­mu­son US Artist Fel­low­ship, two NEA fel­low­ships, and a Guggen­heim Fellowship, among others. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Further reading:

Purchase Joy Harjo’s book How We Became Human
Read NPR’s feature, announcing Joy Harjo as the first Native American U.S. poet laureate
Listen to an interview with Joy Harjo, from the Academy of American Poets

moira j. is an agender writer of Dził Łigai Si’an N’dee descent. They were the winner of the 2018 Pacific Spirit Poetry Prize and were Frontier Poetry’s 2019 Frontier New Voices Fellow. Their work is published/forthcoming in The Shallow EndsWILDNESS, and Black Warrior Review. They currently live with their partner in the occupied Massachusett homelands of Nutohkemminnit (Greater Boston). Their debut poetry collection, “Bury Me in Thunder” (January 29, 2020) is out now with Sundress Publications. You can find more of their work at www.moiraj.com.

Further reading:

Purchase Bury Me in Thunder from Sundress Publications
Read Frontier Poetry’s interview with moira j.
Follow moira j. on Twitter

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: Tara Shea Burke Reads Judith Barrington and Donika Kelly

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


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

Photo credit: Rae Thweatt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Further reading:

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

Lyric Essentials: Amy Watkins Reads Carl Phillips

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! In this latest installment, Amy Watkins, author of Wolf Daughter, reads two poems by one of her favorite living poets, Carl Phillips. Amy discusses the act of reading poetry out loud, Phillips’ poetry’s intricate complexity, and Watkins’ new chapbook.

Of special note to regular readers: Sundress would like to welcome former intern Erica Hoffmeister to our staff as the new editor of LE. We’re excited to have her rejoin the team and know she will create fantastic episodes for the series. Thanks for reading!

Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read these two poems by Carl Phillips for Lyric Essentials?

Amy Watkins: I wanted to read something by a living poet. Carl Phillips is one of my favorites, and I had just read his new chapbook, Star Map with Action Figures from Sibling Rivalry Press. I chose these particular poems because I love them; “Sea Glass,” in particular, is one I read over and over. Like a lot of Phillips’s poetry and a lot of my poetry, they’re about love and death, but they’re quiet, controlled. I love that calm, thoughtful voice. I love the metaphorical leaps he makes, and the way the careful syntax and punctuation and line breaks hold it all together.

I also chose these poems because, in spite of the heavy themes, they have a little thread of lightness. In “Sea Glass,” when he says, “some things maybe still a little bit worth being sorry for,” it’s not funny exactly, but there’s a little humor in that wry take on regret. 

Amy Watkins reads “Sea Glass” by Carl Phillips

EH: You said in our discussions that you love reading poetry out loud (and your readings of these poems are beautiful!) – how do reading these particular poems express that love?

AW: These poems are not easy to read out loud because Phillips writes such complex sentences, and he uses line breaks and punctuation so masterfully. I don’t know if you can hear it in my reading, because I tend to read through line breaks a bit, but “Words of Love” has short, choppy lines—some only one word long—and if you read some of the stanzas alone, they momentarily contradict the meaning of the sentence as a whole. 

For instance, the middle of the poem without line breaks goes, “I might have added that not only do I respect, I require mystery. Less and less am I one of those who believes to know a thing, first you touch it…” But there’s a stanza break after “Less and less.” For just a second in the middle of saying something, he subtly suggests its opposite. The form and punctuation are all in on the existential reflecting and reassessing the speaker is doing, so you have to read carefully. It’s a beautiful poem to hear, but also really rewarding to read on the page.

I’m a page poet more than a performer, but I do love reading out loud. I used to host a podcast poetry “magazine” called Red Lion Sq. I enjoyed reading the poems myself, but It was better to have a variety of voices. Sometimes poets would submit recordings, or I would ask other writers or actors to read. I prefer a heightened natural reading voice, but every reader has to find their own sweet spot. Making fun of “poet voice” just makes people self-conscious; however, I don’t think you could convey the meaning of a poem like “Words of Love” with a really affected performance—dramatically pausing and up-turning at the end of every line. My unsolicited advice for reading out loud is to remember that the point is to communicate; speak slowly and clearly, and focus on the poem. And if you’re giving a live reading, practice once or twice, have your material ready so you don’t have to fumble for it when it’s time, and pretend you’re not nervous.

Amy Watkins reads “Words of Love” by Carl Phillips

EH: Has Carl Phillips’ poetry influenced your own writing?

AW: I’m sure it has; I’ve read a lot of it! His book The Art of Daring is the craft book I recommend to my smart friends. But I don’t think my poetry is much like his. My poems are more straightforward. Syntactically they’re a lot simpler than Phillips’s poems. Reading him does make me more aware of punctuation and line breaks. It makes me think more about what a powerful tool grammar is. And we both like similes.

EH: Is there any elements in your newly released chapbook, Wolf Daughter, that you find especially connected to what you’ve talked about here?

AW: Like “Sea Glass,” Wolf Daughter is both heavy and light. It’s about parenting an adolescent girl at this moment in America, only my girl has turned into a wolf. It talks about gun violence and fear of the “other” and alludes to sexual assault, but it also talks about radical confidence and self love, singing in the car, making art—many small joys. There are even two poems about reading out loud together!


Carl Phillips is a one of America’s most celebrated living lyric poets and the author of more than a dozen books of critically acclaimed poetry and criticism. Known as an accidental poet, Phillips earned an M.F.A. from Boston University after studying biology and math at Harvard University. A biracial, queer poet, Phillips’ writing explores themes of dual identities, and has garnered numerous awards and honors. He currently serves as a professor of English and Creative Writing at Washington University in St. Louis and was elected chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2006. His latest collection of poetry Wild Is the Wind (2018) won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Further reading:

Purchase Carl Phillips’ newest book, Wild is the Wind
Read a feature about Phillips in the New Yorker
Listen to an interview with Phillips on NPR

Amy Watkins is the author of three poetry chapbooks (Milk & Water, Lucky, and Wolf Daughter), a graduate of the Spalding University MFA in Writing, and a parent of a human girl. Find her online at RedLionSq.com or @amykwatkins on Twitter. She lives in Orlando, Florida

Further reading:

Follow Amy Watkins on Twitter
Listen to Amy read more poetry on Red Lion Square podcast
Download and read Wolf Daughter from Sundress Publications

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

Lyric Essentials: Jonie McIntire Reads Marge Piercy

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! In this latest installment, Jonie McIntire reads two of her favorite poems by prolific writer Marge Piercy. Jonie tells us about the ways she sees herself in Piercy’s writing, the joy she finds in reading these poems aloud, and her experience studying with her hero, Piercy herself, in 2019. Thanks for reading!


Riley Steiner: Why did you choose to read these two poems?

Jonie McIntire: While I am sure these two are not the most celebrated poems of Marge Piercy’s, I have found myself returning to them over and over again. With “Ascending Scale,” I remember the first time I read this poem in Stone, Paper, Knife, that I immediately recognized both of these women in myself. So moved by seeing the loss and desire in someone else that you want to reach out to them, meet their eyes, insist that they are truly not alone, that they need to hold on.

There’s a work ethic in Piercy’s poems, and in the woman herself, that resonates throughout. Not to succeed beyond others, but always to be working hard, to return to a base that is who we are at heart. A constant return to authenticity. We do this work throughout our lives. Go in a direction and hunker down, work hard, succeed, but it’s so easy to lose our way. I think of my own life and how many iterations of woman I’ve been—businesswoman, mother, student, artist. How all of those involved the desire to succeed, the strange obligations and stresses that go with trying to fit into each role in a way that makes your achievements visible. And how that longing to be better and more, to fit someone else’s ideal, is so isolating, such a constant thrumming loss.

Jonie McIntire reads “Ascending Scale” by Marge Piercy

This poem also struck me as a lovely metaphor for feminism, for the ways in which women can so easily lose each other in our struggles to make ourselves known and respected. “If I should lose you like a gold earring in a motel bathroom … then we will fail as everyone expects.” We fraction ourselves as feminists, pick our sides and hunker down, claw for scraps of respect and let pettiness pit us against each other, but when we lose our big picture, when we lose each other, we lose. We as women need to be “rooted in the plentitude of love.” It is the only thing that will give us the strength to stand together.

“Eat Fruit” makes me smile. I enjoy the act of eating—the tastes, the smells, the textures, the bitter skins, the pulpy messes. I have messed myself with plums over bathroom trash cans, broken off pieces of cheese irresponsibly large and nibbled through each tight curd. And I have a relationship with fiber which any nutritionist would be jealous of. My poor children get slipped flaxseed and chocolate chip cookies, kale and beet quiche, even chocolate-covered haystacks made of pure Fiber One cereal. I take colon health very seriously.

But beyond the wise words of staying regular, there’s such corruption in this poem, such delicious intrigue. Silliness but patience. This love of being human, of desiring simple things, of accepting your silliness and sloppiness and being absolutely at peace with yourself for it. I love the descriptions of other people—the customs agents and their desires and disappointments, the guy with the salami. I’ve met them. The fruit-smuggler doesn’t resent them, simply understands their role. It’s that patient understanding that strikes me over and over again. Patient understanding of self, of others. And yes, I know the taste of an “extremely sophisticated pear,” and it’s delicious.

RS: What do you admire about Marge Piercy’s work? How did your relationship with her work begin?

JM: To begin with, Marge Piercy never stops working. Just look up her writing achievements. She must write in her sleep. Incredible and admirable body of work. But I didn’t really know about her until I met Gina Mercurio, who used to run a feminist bookstore, People Called Women, in Toledo, Ohio. I had just moved to town to attend the University of Toledo, had just found the bookstore, and mentioned that I liked poetry. Clearly, Gina, said, I needed to read Marge Piercy. She was right, of course. She pointed out some other writers to look into, and they all had their important voices, but I heard so many of my own thoughts in Piercy’s writing. An instant connection with the way she looked at things—sometimes defiant, sometimes resigned, sometimes silly or sexy or angry—but always with this need to understand.

RS: I loved the expressive tone you used while reading both your poems. “Eat Fruit,” especially, seems like it lends itself well to a playful sort of voice. What was your thought process behind reading these poems aloud? For instance, did you already have a pretty good idea of what the poems would sound like, or did you try out different intonations?

JM: I’ve shared these poems a few times. Everyone who knows me well has heard them. I am unapologetic about loving what I love. And they are a joy to read aloud, especially “Eat Fruit.” It has the immediate language, the recognizable situations, and the lightheartedness that works so well spoken out loud. A crowd-pleaser every time. “Ascending Scale” might be a little harder to understand just hearing it aloud. I don’t know. I understood it immediately. Frankly, I don’t care if anyone else gets it or not. I like to read it. Its plea for us to stay together, its love of the woman so bruised and the speaker who wants to help and the you we are rushing to return to. A love poem, really, asking to be shared.

Jonie McIntire reads “Eat Fruit” by Marge Piercy

RS: Has Piercy’s work influenced your own in any way?

JM: As I practice writing, I work to get closer and closer to her level of authenticity. I appreciate confessional poetry for its rawness, but there’s too much ego to it—a relishing in shame or defiance. I appreciate poetic forms for their difficulty and mastery, but in reading them I often feel lost or tricked or still hungry. What she does is neither of these, though she writes openly about difficult things and is thoughtful about how they are constructed. She uses these poems to understand herself and the world around her, to argue back and fight when needed, to forgive and show love.

I never feel like she’s written a poem to impress someone. And while that may not seem like a big deal, it’s massive to me. There’s a permission in her poetry that allows us to be imperfect and to love our imperfections. In my own writing, the struggle to write without constant and oppressive judgment never seems to end. Nobody cuts me down as quickly and completely as I do. So the influence of this tireless work ethic and this voice that allows the writer to write, to say anything and everything, is my mantra. I see that I can write about everyday life and write things that are worthwhile, but that doing them with honesty and authenticity will take work.

There’s also a fearlessness in her subject matter. Shame is useless when you are trying to get real work done, so she’s ditched it. That bravery, to write about rape and abortion, about sexuality in its earnestness, to point fingers where they should be pointed, is important to me. I try to pull forth those raw moments in life and work through them with words in a way that remains authentic.

Last year, in 2019, I had the incredible fortune to visit Cape Cod and study with her in her weeklong juried intensive workshop. The lessons were fantastic, and I definitely left with a new outlook on craft, specifically looking at line breaks and titles. Just being selected for it gave me a validation that I was in desperate need of. There were eleven other poets, all incredibly talented and with truly varied writing styles, and we are all still in contact with each other.

One important thing I learned that has helped me immensely is that our heroes are really just human beings. Marge is a tough gal, and she takes a little time to warm up to new people. She doesn’t suffer weakness well, so she can come off a bit harsh. It was funny because, again, I saw so much of myself, how quickly l get frustrated with people and feel awkward. But it also brought out the protector in me a bit. When one of my fellow poets felt slighted or judged, I felt defensive of them. Here we are, all of us in all our levels of success or failure, awkwardness or need, merely mortal after all. Few things give you permission to write and be imperfect like seeing how absolutely normal your heroes are.

One of my favorite moments was when we all read at the local library, the twelve poets sharing the stage with Marge Piercy, and at one point I looked over at Marge, who was watching us read. Her whole face beamed with pride. That smile of respect is like the best drug I’ve ever had. It makes doing the hard work feel worth every minute. By the end of that week, we’d all written more, learned how to edit ourselves better, made some goals to work toward, and knew that ultimately we all wanted each other to be better writers. I have written more, felt better about the quality of my writing, and been bolder sending work out for publication in the past year than in any year previously.

For all writers, it turns out Marge Piercy has the best advice: the strength poets need and use “is rooted in the plentitude of love.” For each other and for our imperfect selves. Oh, and also, fiber…seriously, don’t be afraid of it.


Marge Piercy is the author of 17 novels and 19 books of poetry. A multitalented writer, she’s written work that encompasses a wide variety of genres, including drama, poetry, speculative fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. She’s received four honorary doctorates, and in 1991, she won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in the UK for her book He, She, and It. She lives and works in Cape Cod and continues to advocate for antiwar, feminist, and environmental causes.

Further reading:

Visit Piercy’s website
Read a feature about Piercy in Moment
Read Piercy’s essay for the New York Times‘ Writers on Writing series

Jonie McIntire, author of Beyond the Sidewalk (NightBallet Press, 2017) and Not All Who Are Lost Wander (Finishing Line Press, 2016). She will be releasing her third chapbook, Semidomesticated (NightBallet Press), later this year. She hosts two monthly poetry reading series, Uncloistered Poetry and Art & Performance Poetry, and has been the poetry editor for Springboard, a teen literary journal, for the past three years. The recipient of an Arts Commission Accelerator Grant, she has poems published in journals across the country and even stamped into cement in Toledo, Ohio, as part of the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo’s Sidewalk Poetry series.

Further reading:

Visit Jonie’s website
Purchase Beyond the Sidewalk from NightBallet Press
Read a feature in Toledo City Paper about Jonie’s work with ToledoPoet.com

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Mike Hackney Reads Sharon Olds

For this installment of Lyric Essentials, we’re joined by Mike Hackney, who shares a poem by Sharon Olds. Mike shares how his desire to learn from challenging poetry led him to choosing Olds’ work for this series, along with his admiration for her work and her refusal to compromise her principles. Thanks for reading!


Riley Steiner: Why did you choose this poem to read for Lyric Essentials?

Mike Hackney: I selected “I Go Back To May 1937” because it was a sort of confession that I related to, an ars poetica of sorts, and I am always interested in poems about the writing process or about being a writer. Plus, it is fairly accessible, and I think a lot of people can relate to it. Mainly, I chose a poem by Sharon Olds because I am wrestling with her right now and want to gain some clarity, some understanding of her through this interview process. This piece resonated with me, while other poems by Olds have not. However, I am getting closer to gaining a complete admiration and respect for her work.

Mike Hackney reads “I Go Back to 1937” by Sharon Olds

RS: What do you admire about Sharon Olds’ poetry in general?

MH: She shares her pain on the page for everyone to see. I appreciate the bravery it takes to do such things. But, to answer this question fully, let me begin with a story: When I was an undergraduate in creative writing, my final project one year was to write a thirty-page paper on a poet of my choice. I considered Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams, all fine poets in their own right. I finally settled on Ezra Pound because he seemed the most complex and difficult to understand at the time; I wanted to really challenge myself and ultimately learn something through the writing process. It would have been easy to select one of the others, but I guess I chose the road less traveled by (to quote a phrase by Frost himself). My admiration for Pound came through my learned understanding of him and how he worked. Incidentally, I got an A on the paper but failed the final exam that term because I managed to tie every essay question back to Ezra Pound, even when there was no relation. My professor at the time, noting my obsession, allowed me to take the exam over, and I managed to answer the questions the second time without referring to Pound. I got an A in the class… 

In my spare time, I read a lot of poetry criticism, book reviews, and essays on poets and poetry. Sharon Olds has popped up a couple times in my reading. She controversial and quite popular in certain circles, and at first I didn’t understand what all the hype was about. I always felt as if I were reading highly stylized Grimms’ fairy tales when I read her poems. There seemed to be a mock tone, an insincerity about her at times, as if she capitalized on situations that were embellished. I felt that she paled in comparison to, say, Sylvia Plath. I chose Sharon Olds because I felt I had something to learn here. It seemed, most often, I would miss the point of her greatness and talent. But the more I read of her, the more I admire her for what she is. She seems to lack technique in many ways, but she makes up for it with raw emotion.

I also admire Olds a lot for the stance she took in 2005 when invited to a White House luncheon by Laura Bush. Olds declined the invitation, stating, in essence, that she could not break bread with the current administration because she didn’t believe in the war with Iraq, and she felt that the administration was making decisions counter to the wants and needs of the American people. I appreciate Olds for that. She would have garnered a lot of attention and possibly sold a lot of books by attending. She declined on principle. She was heroic in that instance. I have the letter in a nightstand drawer. It is easily accessible online. I hope that answers the question.

RS: I noticed there is a sort of “ticking” sound in the background of your reading, sort of like a metronome. Was this something you used to accompany your reading? If so, what is your purpose for using it?

MH: So, I just learned how to use the recording equipment that is available online. It is all very new to me. The program I chose just happened to have this ticking noise that I could not get rid of—an effect that would not go away. Eventually, after several recordings of the poem, I decided that I rather liked the dissonance in the background. I came to view it as part of the overall presentation. I think it adds something to the reading. Although I’m not sure exactly what.

RS: Do you have any current writing projects (poetry or otherwise) that you’d like to tell us about?

MH: I am in the midst of finishing a book-length manuscript of poems, which I hope to have published by the end of 2020. I think it might be my strongest work yet. It will be my first full-length publication since 2012.


Sharon Olds graduated with degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University. She is the author of more than ten books of poetry and the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. From 1998 to 2000, she served as New York state’s poet laureate. She currently teaches at New York University.

Further reading:

Purchase Olds’ most recent book, Stag’s Leap
Read an NPR book review of Stag’s Leap
Read a conversation with Olds in Lit Hub

The author of multiple poetry collections and a novel, Mike Hackney studied Creative Writing at Bowling Green University and earned his MLS from the University of Toledo. He is the recipient of grants and awards from the Toledo Arts Commission and the Ohio Arts Council. His poetry has been published in a wide range of literary journals, including Prairie Margins, The Insider, and the Cornfed Angel.

Further reading:

Purchase Mike’s book Mid-Western Shoes: Your Poetic Self All Over Again
Read Mike’s poem “How to Write a Poem” in THEthe Poetry
Visit Mike’s Facebook page

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. She’s published her creative work in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Jennifer Jean Reads W.S. Merwin

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! For this installment of the series, we’re joined by poet Jennifer Jean. She talks about two of her favorite poems by W.S. Merwin, along with the unique perspective her work in translation gives her when reading his poetry, the importance of supportive writing communities, and much more. Thanks for reading!


Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems to read?

Jennifer Jean: My selections here represent Merwin’s formal evolution: “Air” (from 1963) contains punctuation and “Vixen” (from 1998), like most of Merwin’s latter poetry, does not. I don’t eschew punctuation in my own work, but I recognize that doing so requires virtuosic control (i.e., understanding) of language. It requires immense trust that there’s enough in the syntax, the allusions, the sound of the syllables—and more—to ferry the reader, to convey both music and sense, without the usual notational indicators. If I had written “Vixen,” Merwin’s “…the sentences / never caught in words warden of where the river went” would have become the more conventional: “…the sentences / never caught in words. Warden of where the river went.” Lack of punctuation allows for a single line to better hold its integrity as a unit of thought even though it contains two sentences—or even the end of one sentence and the beginning of another.

I wonder if Merwin’s lifelong work in translation gave him this control? If so, I’m hopeful. I’ve been co-translating poems originally in Arabic and it’s shifted my approach to, and feel for, English. I suppose it’s also shifted my view of poets who heavily translate! Which is nice. This means I’ve a new means to explore Merwin, whose work I’ve loved for almost twenty years.

Jennifer Jean reads “Air” by W.S. Merwin

RS: Did you discover anything new about these poems after reading them out loud, as opposed to reading them on the page?

JJ: I encountered Merwin’s “Air” in graduate school when I had to choose a poem to memorize for a craft class. When reading it aloud for Sundress, the words were tasty and familiar. I don’t remember if this is what it did to me originally, but I bet this poem gave me permission to lob a lovely heightened word like “immortelles” into the mix with simpler language. As well, I bet it gave me permission to cut connector or transitional verbage so that the sense of each thought just barely touches the one that follows. Because there’s only one enjambed line (the second), the poem seems made of a series of almost aphoristic statements—when, really, it’s made of regular-sized sentences. This arrangement is delightfully disconcerting! Especially when read aloud.

“Vixen” is amazing in that it conveys the character of the animal in fleet, long lines. It’s the title poem for Merwin’s collection The Vixen, which engages with seasons and nature and creatures in extended, contemplative, organically musical lines. Every poem is in awe of its subject. How did he sustain this awe?! Because an out loud reading enables me to embody the poem—to actually put the poem in my body—when I recorded it, I was reminded very strongly that this sustained state of awe is (yes!) possible for me too.

Jennifer Jean reads “Vixen” by W.S. Merwin

RS: What do you admire about W.S. Merwin’s work in general?

JJ: I’ve always enjoyed Merwin’s spare lyrics as antidotes to my (often overly) dense prosey-poems. His free forms are the antithesis of Dickinson—they breathe, they’re sane—but they convey the same depth of notion and emotion.

RS: How did you first discover his poetry?

JJ: As an undergrad, I wanted to know who Sylvia Plath knew—she was an obsession, but eventually became a leaping-off point. Merwin and Plath knew each other through Plath’s husband Ted Hughes. I tried to read Hughes, but he bored me. However, Merwin seemed to offer that ineffable quality that the best poetry provides: a Lucille Clifton–like glimpse into the transcendent. I was hooked!

About poetry communities—I think Plath’s community was totally toxic. She journaled constantly about a searing jealousy of—especially—fellow women poets like Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton. She was also jealous of men like Merwin. She did not have a support system amongst her peers! She had a scarcity mentality (which may not have been unjustified at the time…). I’ve noticed that nurturing mutually supportive poetry communities, both local and virtual, keeps the awe and the fun and the joy in my writing life. I would hate to not have anyone to celebrate. And I know my writing would be worse off without the input of the talented poets that I know. I hope emerging writers study Merwin, that they “study the masters” (including the way that Lucille Clifton meant it) but that they also find ways to create and nurture strong writing communities.


W.S. Merwin is the author of more than twenty poetry collections. The recipient of a long list of major poetry awards and fellowships, he also published books of translation, plays, and books of prose, including two memoirs. From 2010 to 2011, he served as Poet Laureate of the United States. His most recent collection is Garden Time (2016) from Copper Canyon Press. Merwin died in March 2019.

Further reading:

Purchase Garden Time from Copper Canyon Press
Merwin’s very first collection of poetry, A Mask for Janus, is at Yale University Press
Read a 2017 article about Merwin and his poetry in the New Yorker

Jennifer Jean is the author of The Fool (Big Table), and her awards include: a 2020 Peter Taylor Fellowship from the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop; a 2018 Disquiet FLAD Fellowship; a 2017 “Her Story Is” Residency, where she worked with Iraqi women artists in Dubai; and a 2013 Ambassador for Peace Award for her activism in the arts. Jennifer’s poems and co-translations have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Rattle, Waxwing Journal, Crab Creek Review, The Common, and more. She’s an administrator at the Boston Book Festival and an editor at Talking Writing Magazine.

Further reading:

Visit Jean’s website
Read Jean’s work in Poetry Magazine
Read one of Jean’s poems—and a Q&A about it—from Broadsided Press
Read a selection of poems that Jean co-translated from Arabic in The Common

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. She’s published her creative work in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Juliet Cook Reads Tory Dent

In this installment of Lyric Essentials, we’re joined by Juliet Cook who shares the poetry of Tory Dent. Cook talks about how Dent was writing during her own struggle with HIV/AIDS, and the mortality imposed by the disease. We cover important ground on self-expression and the way Dent’s work, in particular, has a sense of the sacred.


Riley Steiner: Why did you choose this particular poem to read for Lyric Essentials?

Juliet Cook: I chose a poet I loved years ago, Tory Dent. I don’t remember exactly how I first encountered her. I think I found one of her books (What Silence Equals or HIV, Mon Amour or both) at a public library near where I used to live that offered the best contemporary poetry section I’d ever encountered. Then I purchased her last book, Black Milk, which ended up being published the same year she ended up dying. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time.

I knew she had passed away quite some time ago, but when I looked her up online to remind myself when, I found out that when she died, she was the age that I am now.

I chose a poem from Black Milk because I didn’t want to select one particular poem from one particular poet I’m aware of right now.  I really like lots of poets and poetry now, but I didn’t desire to narrow it down to one. So, instead, I chose a poet who I remembered being moved by and wowed by in the past. I re-read the poem first to make sure I still liked it, because sometimes my tastes change over time and also I have memory issues. When it comes to poetry books and movies and so on, I can remember if I really liked something and felt strongly about it, but I can’t remember the details of exactly why. Just that it resonated with me, generated strong feelings, and moved me in certain ways. If that was a while back, I need to re-read/re-watch/re-consider and interpret it in the present instead of the past.

As it turned out, I still really liked Dent’s poetry.

I’ve always had a tendency to be drawn to personal, emotional, un-calm, unsettling poetic expression, sometimes to the extent that some might perceive it as over-the-top or oversharing. With that said, the thing about Dent’s poetry is that even though some might perceive it that way stylistically, I doubt it was over-the-top, since she wrote it while in pain, suffering, and in the throes of death via HIV/AIDS.

Her poetry strikes me as both highly emotional and extremely well crafted at the same time, which I admire.

It’s not as if this particular poem, “The Part of Me That’s O,” was my one favorite from the book—I like a lot of the poems within the book—but most of the poems in the book are quite long, so I chose to read one of the shorter ones that I liked. The title poem in the collection is about thirty-five pages long, for example. I don’t remember if I felt this way in the past, but in recent years, I tend to prefer shorter poems of one page or less. But my mind makes exceptions if a longer poem really draws me in, such as on ongoing dark story poem by Frank Stanford or these long, elaborate, interconnected end-of-life poems by Tory Dent.  

Juliet Cook reads “The Part of Me That’s O” by Tory Dent

RS: What do you admire about Black Milk as a whole?

JC: Dent strongly expresses what she feels drawn and driven to express for her own personal reasons. Not for any popularity contest or bestseller reasons.

She expresses herself openly, specifically, uniquely, and creatively in the limited amount of time she has left.

Her poetry is both personal and specifically crafted at the same time.

“What’s most terrifying resounds as wings, swooping closer,
those angels that operate as passive spectators while heinous events
take place. And if prayers ever do reveal themselves as answered,
it’s the stumps of our amputated limbs we thank them for,
our most natural, instinctual capacity to love ruined, pitted, abolished.

Hence, I refuse to look upward,
upward to a canopy of presupposed atonement.
What were once prayers for readiness to reckon with disappointment
become angry, incriminating prayers, prayers of ultimatum.
Those prayers, those useless elocutions from our humiliated hearts,
evolve into, or rather grow up into, articulations of atheism,
pronouncements of love retracted, of love regretfully spent.
We express instead, spitting upward and out,
aiming to reach the hemlines of their robes, war-waging rage
on our enemy angels. They prolong our torment and revel in it.”

–from Tory Dent’s poem “When Atheists Pray”

RS: You mentioned that you first encountered Tory Dent’s work years ago. Has your interpretation or understanding of this poem changed at all from then until now?

JC: I don’t remember exactly what my interpretation or understanding was when I first read it. I just remember that I was drawn to how she expressed herself and felt strongly about it and that is still true.

It feels scared and enraged at the same time. It feels horrific but terribly real.

RS: Has her work influenced your own in any way?

JC: I have tended towards over-the-top and negative in a lot of my poetry, largely because that’s how my brain works—but since I also tend to enjoy reading that sort of content, it has probably influenced my own creativity over time.

To me, Tory Dent is an example of a poet who says what she needs to say, for her own personal, inward-focused reasons, but also broadens her personal reasons into a large scale.

With me, most of my poems are inward-focused, and part of me likes that; but another part of me might like to be able to broaden them out a bit more, without dulling them down. I don’t want my poems to be overly obvious, but I also don’t want them to be so abstract or so stuck inside my own brain that they only make sense to me.

When it comes to poetry by Dent and others I admire, I love it when uniquely original work that emerged from another writer’s brain is able to strongly resonate with my brain, too.

There are many people for whom poetry does not resonate much at all, but for me, it’s a primary form of expression, both reading-wise and writing-wise, even if a lot of people don’t relate to it.

“…a purity superimposed upon a purity like a testudo
forming a bulletproof sky which ultimately fails to protect,
as art fails, to provide shelter from the mammal in us:
from the carnivorous, the banal, the rupturous, the pitiful.
There will be no birthing, but a series of swallowings
until gaunt from longing I will have settled into a state of impoverishment
normalized finally by some property of physics that adapts
the disassociated to the hemisphere: like E. coli in water, I will live.
My erotic impulses curtailed so many times that in ringlets they will lie
like sheaved hair, as fertilizer fulfilling its wishes…”

–from Tory Dent’s poem “The Part of Me That’s O”

While working on answering these questions about Tory Dent’s poetry, I searched my past posts about her on Facebook, out of curiosity. I didn’t even know if there would be any past posts.

As mentioned previously, I think my tastes change over time to an extent, but maybe not as much as I thought, because when I typed Tory Dent’s name into the Facebook search bar to see if I’d ever mentioned her on Facebook before, what I found was that I had posted various lines from her poems back in 2012—and that some of those lines are the same lines I’m referencing in this interview in 2019!

What I also found was that a main reason I was posting some of her poem lines in 2012 was because she had a written poem in honor of Marie Ponsot, a poet who had suffered from a stroke and aphasia—and in 2010, I had also suffered from a stroke and aphasia.

For a while, with Ponsot’s aphasia, her own poetry didn’t make sense to her anymore, which in my mind seems like a total horror story, and one that I was worried about encountering for a while. I was worried: what if my own poetry didn’t make sense to me anymore? What if poetry in general didn’t make sense to me anymore, and what if I couldn’t even write it anymore? Fortunately, I only had that issue going on for a relatively short amount of time (a few months). I still have memory issues, but thank goodness my own poetry (and other people’s poetry) makes sense to me, whether or not it makes sense to a lot of other people.

“Peace became associated with that essential vanishing point.
Peace used to mean simply a sheet of paper and a pencil.
Now to associate peace with something else, such as myself, for instance;
Myself as once I came to know myself, both future tense and past.”

–from “Immigrant in My Own Life'” (for Marie Ponsot) by Tory Dent


Tory Dent published three volumes of poetry: What Silence Equals (1993); HIV, Mon Amour (1999), and Black Milk (2005). She is the winner of a James Laughlin Award and was named as a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Dent’s work was also published in numerous anthologies, and she was awarded grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the PEN American Center, and other organizations. Along with poetry, Dent wrote about art for magazines and exhibitions. She died in 2005.

Further reading:

Purchase Black Milk
Listen to poet Adrienne Rich discuss Dent’s work in this NPR story
Read Dent’s obituary in the New York Times

Juliet Cook‘s poetry has appeared in a small multitude of magazines. She is the author of numerous poetry chapbooks, recently including From One Ruined Human to Another (Cringe-Worthy Poets Collective/Dark Particle, 2018), DARK PURPLE INTERSECTIONS (inside my Black Doll Head Irises) (Blood Pudding Press for Dusie Kollektiv 9, 2019), and Another Set of Ripped-Out Bloody Pigtails (The Poet’s Haven, 2019). She has another new chapbook, The Rabbits with Red Eyes, forthcoming in 2020 from Ethel Zine & Micro-Press.

Cook’s first full-length individual poetry book, Horrific Confection, was published by BlazeVOX. She’s also included in a full-length collaborative poetry book, A Red Witch, Every Which Way, with j/j hastain, published by Hysterical Books in 2016. Her most recent full-length individual poetry book, Malformed Confetti, was published by Crisis Chronicles Press in 2018. 

Cook also sometimes creates abstract painting collage art hybrid creatures.

Cook’s tiny independent press, Blood Pudding Press, sometimes publishes hand-designed poetry chapbooks and creates other art.

Further reading:

Visit Cook’s website
Purchase Heaven We Haven’t Yet Dreamed, a brand-new anthology featuring Cook’s work, from Stubborn Mule Press
Browse works published by Blood Pudding Press

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. She’s published her creative work in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Jessie Janeshek Reads Olena Kalytiak Davis

Welcome to the next episode of Lyric Essentials, where we’re excited to talk with poet Jessie Janeshek about the work of Olena Kalytiak Davis. Janeshek shares how she relates to Davis’ poetry, tells us about the time she heard Davis read at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and speaks about the ways in which Davis’ poetry has influenced her own. Thanks for reading!


Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems to share with us?

Jessie Janeshek: “The Outline I Inhabit” is one of my favorite poems, so that one was a given, and I was just happy to share it. I also wanted to include something representative of Davis’ more overtly experimental work (which is more what I’m discussing in the rest of these questions), so I went with “small quilled poem with no taste for spring.”

Jessie Janeshek reads “small quilled poem with no taste for spring” by Olena Kalytiak Davis

RS: What do you admire about Davis’ work?

JJ: I admire—and also relate to—Davis’ ability to fuse the experimental and the traditional. Although my work has often been described as “experimental” (whatever that’s meaning these days), my training in poetry is pretty traditional. I was a literature major as an undergraduate and, though I wrote on my own, I didn’t take a creative writing workshop until I started my MFA. I knew I had much to read and learn before I threw my hat in the ring. I still have much to read and learn now.

Knowing and understanding traditions of poetry strengthens your own work—even if you aren’t using those traditions explicitly in your work—and makes you a more informed, appreciative reader of others’ poetry, past and present.

Davis, however, does use traditions of poetry explicitly, and her engagements with them are fascinating and rewarding. It gives me pleasure to be challenged as a reader and to consume contemporary work that revisits and reappropriates literary pasts. Davis pushes poetic traditions (forms, tropes, themes, etc.) in ways that feel current, feminist, and also authentic to her voice and aesthetic. Her work is strikingly intelligent without being pompous, fresh yet aware of its history, funny, and true.

RS: How did your relationship with Davis’ work begin?

I was recommended Davis’ first book, And Her Soul out of Nothing, by someone at Emerson College during my MFA studies. (I’m pretty sure it was one of my teachers, Peter Jay Shippy, who recommended her work to me, but I’m not one hundred percent sure.) So I bought her book and read it and ended up really liking it. I then bought her second collection, shattered sonnets, love cards, and other off and back handed importunities, which had come out pretty recently at that point. I continued reading her work throughout my graduate studies and included her with writers I used to contextualize my own poetry in the critical introduction to my creative dissertation at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

In summer 2014, my boyfriend and I were visiting Paris, and he pointed out that a few poets were reading at Shakespeare and Company that night. I started freaking out because it was Davis and another one of my favorite poets, Charles Simic. We attended, of course, and it was awesome to see them, especially because it had been a lucky surprise. A day or two later, we were at the Palais de Tokyo art museum, and we saw Davis and, I think, her daughter. I was scared to go up to talk to her, so I didn’t. I’m still mentally kicking myself for that one because I was really stupid. My loss.

Jessie Janeshek reads “The Outline I Inhabit” by Olena Kalytiak Davis

RS: What are some of your favorite words or lines from these poems?

JJ: I’ve been repeating the last six lines of “The Outline I Inhabit” to myself since about 2004. I’ve never been to Alaska, but I have taken a lot of dreary solitary walks, and I can easily imagine the speaker on this cold, dark, road, feeling kind of beat-up, their brain humming “just like an old refrigerator.” I think the iambic pentameter of the Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway line also helps with that:

Walking down Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway.

I’m not thinking about composition.
I’m not delineating anything.

Walking down Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway.

I’m feeling terrifically heavy.
I’m feeling as well grounded as the dead. (Davis, And Her Soul Out of Nothing)

I didn’t record this poem because it seemed like it would be a bit long, but I love the end of “this is the kind of poem I’m done writing, or, a small pang in spring”:

turns out, I am the cock of the rock. gallinaceous and pugnacious and
(pang): I guess,
a little disappointed.

like beckett in spring, ping,
like beckett in spring. (Davis, shattered sonnets, love cards, and other off and back Handed importunities)

Throughout her second collection, Davis engages with spring (in the sense of “spring” as it has been created by the tradition of lyric—and particularly pastoral—poetry: the season of young love and frisky shepherds, hope, rebirth, innocence, simplicity, and/or etc.). These lines stick with me because the idea of Samuel Beckett (at least as he is known through his writing) having hope in spring and being let down is both absurdly funny and also kind of sad, like Beckett’s work and a lot of Davis’s work. The sounds (“spring,” “ping,” “pang”) are great, too. I actually used “like beckett in spring. ping” to caption a facebook photo of me unsmiling but wearing hot pink marshmallow Peep bunny ears, which seemed to me a fair visual interpretation of the line.

RS: Has Davis influenced your own work? If so, how?

JJ: Yes, I think so. She’s definitely one of the writers who has taught me that it’s okay to write “difficult” poetry if that’s what you feel called to do, even if such “difficult” work isn’t in vogue. I keep putting “difficult” in scare quotes because, well, difficulty in literature seems to scare people away sometimes. Maybe I’ve just been reading poetry with my college students for too long, but I find that people sometimes get turned off when they don’t know exactly what’s happening in a text right away. I’m kind of the opposite. If I can figure out what’s going on in a poem (or a song or a movie or a TV show) immediately, I usually don’t have much desire to stick with it because what’s the point?

Tangentially, Davis has also influenced me in the sense that both of our projects depend on pre-existing traditions/a pre-existing body of knowledge. My work is nostalgic (and when I say that, I mean both the pleasure and pain of nostalgia), exploring both cultural and personal nostalgia. The cultural nostalgia I frequently engage with and reappropriate is that of the “golden age” of Hollywood and its shadow side, film noir. I would imagine my poems are “better” if you know something about that stuff when first entering them; however, I hope they’re also inviting, challenging, and enjoyable if you don’t know much about the conventions, people, histories, and politics of that era. I strive to write poems that will be exciting whether or not you know much about where they’re coming from, but I also hope—as I hope is the case with Davis’s work—a reader with questions will take the chance to research some of what’s being talked about in the work, using the work as an excuse to learn more about something new.


Olena Kalytiak Davis is a Ukrainian-American poet and the author of four collections of poetry: And Her Soul Out of Nothing (1997); shattered sonnets, love cards, and other off and back handed importunities (2003); On the Kitchen Table From Which Everything Has Been Hastily Removed (2009); and The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems (2014). She’s won a Pushcart Prize and several fellowships for her work, along with the Brittingham Prize in Poetry.

Further reading:

Purchase And Her Soul Out of Nothing from the University of Wisconsin Press
Read this New Yorker review of The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems
Listen to a conversation with Davis from the podcast series Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (And Other People)

Jessie Janeshek‘s three full-length collections are MADCAP (Stalking Horse Press, 2019), The Shaky Phase (Stalking Horse Press, 2017), and Invisible Mink (Iris Press, 2010). Her chapbooks include Spanish Donkey/Pear of Anguish (Grey Book Press, 2016), Rah-Rah Nostalgia (dancing girl press, 2016), Supernoir (Grey Book Press, 2017), Auto-Harlow (Shirt Pocket Press, 2018), Hardscape (Reality Beach, forthcoming), and Channel U (Grey Book Press, forthcoming).

Further reading:

Visit Janeshek’s website
Purchase Janeshek’s latest collection of poetry, MADCAP, from Stalking Horse Press
Read Jessie’s review of the work of an earlier Lyric Essentials poet, Nate Logan

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Saida Agostini Reads Dorianne Laux and June Jordan

For this episode of Lyric Essentials, we’re joined by poet Saida Agostini. Agostini reads work by Dorianne Laux and June Jordan and shares her deep appreciation for the “richness and rigor” of these poems. Agostini discusses how that appreciation has evolved over the years (she’s read Jordan’s poem over a hundred times!). Many thanks to her for joining us, and thank you, readers, for supporting this series!


Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems to read for Lyric Essentials?

Saida Agostini: I love poems that evoke powerful, unexpected emotions, that demand your presence. Both Jordan and Laux’s work have a hungry, unstinting immediacy that I can’t ignore.

RS: Was there a reason that you chose to group these two poems together, specifically?

SA: I was taught from a very early age that desire was something unmanageable, ugly—a force that must be tamed. Jordan’s body of work calls out black women’s desire as a revolutionary force, the foundation of any real work, to build a freedom that we can hold and feel. Quite frankly, I want that. I want to be in my body and not just feel safe, but revel in the wonder of my skin and feel its glory. Laux’s poem speaks to this desire, what it means to luxuriate in want, to put my hand against a lover’s skin and sit in knowing with them. I think these poems are about a kind of reclaiming, a naked and unabashed commitment to let our erotic selves (as Lorde calls it) guide us to freedom. 

Saida Agostini reads “The Shipfitter’s Wife” by Dorianna Laux

RS: What was your experience like when you were recording these poems? For instance, did you already have a pretty good idea of what the poems would sound like, or did you try out different intonations? What was your thought process behind the way you read them out loud?

SA: I was first introduced to “A Poem about My Rights” in high school. I was part of a theatrical team that would perform poems in competition with other schools, so I’ve actually read this poem aloud over a hundred times. I would argue that in some ways I grew up with this work. I don’t think I even intellectually understood the poem fully until I was in my late twenties, but emotionally I connected with it immediately. I always get caught in Jordan’s cadence, her call to own her name, how she writes such an expansive, broad world that is also deeply intimate. Reading it in 2019 gave it a different texture—to read it as a 38-year-old black queer survivor of domestic and sexual violence in a country led by a white supremacist—found me reading the work as a battle cry, a prayer, and prostration. 

Similarly, with Laux’s work, it felt like reading a prayer. I kept thinking about her focus on labor, the gentle uncovering of a lover’s day—and then that line “Then I’d open his clothes and take / the whole day inside me.” Oh! That line slays me to this very moment.  I wanted to just pause and take that line in. 

Saida Agostini reads “A Poem About My Rights” by June Jordan

RS: Did you discover anything new about these after reading them out loud, as opposed to reading them on the page?

SA: How could I not? There is such a richness and rigor in their collective works. Jordan’s poem is so dense and fiery, it’s easy to overlook the incredible nuance of her work—even when you read it aloud over a hundred times. I was struck by her proclamation “I am the history of rape.” What does it mean for our history to be defined by sexual violence and trauma? What are the artifacts of this history, what does it mean to build a world where we don’t flee these realities but honor how we saved ourselves?

RS: How did you first discover these poems? Have they (or the poets who wrote them) had any influence on your own work?

SA: As I mentioned, I was first introduced to “A Poem About My Rights” in tenth grade. I discovered Laux in college. I write in the tradition of black and brown queer women who are unapologetic in their desire and freedom. I write to claim our history: the fantastic, the beautiful, the unconquerable nature of our love. 


Dorianne Laux lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the author of What We Carry (1994), Smoke (2000); Facts about the Moon (2005), and The Book of Men (2011). Her work has won the Oregon Book Award, the Paterson Prize, and the Pushcart Prize, and she’s been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.

Further reading:

Visit Dorianne’s website
Pre-order Dorianne’s upcoming collection, Only As the Day is Long
Read an interview with Dorianne in The Rumpus

June Jordan was a Jamaican-American writer and activist. She was born in Harlem in 1936 and went on to earn her B.A. from Barnard College. She taught at numerous universities, including Yale University, Sarah Lawrence College, and New York University. Her award-winning work including poems, lyrics, plays, journalism, essays, and speeches. Jordan died in 2002 in Berkeley, California.

Further reading:

Explore a website dedicated to Jordan and her work
Read Jordan’s obituary in the New York Times
Purchase Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan from Copper Canyon Press

Saida Agostini is a queer Afro-Guyanese poet and activist. Her work is featured in Origins, the Black Ladies Brunch Collective’s anthology, Not Without Our Laughter, the Baltimore Sun, pluck!, The Little Patuxent Review, and other publications. She has received support for her poetry from Cave Canem, the Blue Mountain Center, and other institutions. She is presently working on a collection of poems, just let the dead in.

Further reading:

Read Saida’s work in Origins
Read three of Agostini’s poems in Beltway Poetry Quarterly
Read an interview and Q&A with Agostini in the Washington Blade

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Nate Logan Reads James Tate

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! In our latest installment, Nate Logan shares two of his favorite James Tate poems. He talks about his appreciation of the “deceptive simplicity” that underscores Tate’s poetry and the ways in which Tate’s work has influenced his own. Thanks for reading!


Nate Logan reads “Consolations After an Affair” by James Tate

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems for Lyric Essentials?

Nate Logan: For me, these poems were relatively easy choices. “Consolations After an Affair” is my favorite Tate poem and my all-time favorite poem. “I sat at my desk and contemplated all that I had accomplished” was the last poem Tate wrote. If you’d asked me to pick three poems, I couldn’t say who I’d put the bronze medal on. “A Wedding,” maybe? Can “I Am a Finn” and “I Am Still a Finn” count as one? 

RS: What do you admire about James Tate’s work?

NL: I’m not the first person to say this, but the deceptive simplicity of Tate’s work always invites me in. In On James Tate, Lee Upton writes: “The banal that we are presumably to control in daily life proves, if not entirely uncontrollable, to be possessed of near-demonic force. That is, in his poems the banal asserts itself.” I love that. Tate’s speakers are in our almost-world: they encounter people and situations that are slightly off, but not so off that I can’t imagine it happening in real life. Even though Tate abandoned writing about his waking life early on, the poems are not devoid of our collective lives.

Nate Logan reads “I sat at my desk and contemplated all that I had accomplished this year” by James Tate

RS: It wasn’t until I started reading about James Tate that I found out that “I sat at my desk…” was the last poem he wrote before he passed away in 2015 after a long illness. Do you think this poem reflects anything about that time of his life?

NL: I never had the opportunity to see Tate read live or take a class with him. I’ve heard various stories about him and am friendly with other poets who did have him as a teacher and/or see him read. I’ve watched some videos online where he appeared frail, but that’s the extent of my personal knowledge of him.

“I sat at my desk…” was discovered in Tate’s typewriter after his death (there’s a picture of it in his last book, The Government Lake). The poem reads as a meditation on age, which seems as natural a topic as any for a poet in his 70s. But still, that singular voice is there. “I ate / a cheeseburger every day for a year. I never want to do that again.” And the end of the poem, it made me tear up the first time I read it: “A policeman stopped me on the street and said / he was sorry. He was looking for someone who looked just like / me and had the same name. What are the chances?” That last sentence, “What are the chances?” is a perfect summary of Tate’s work. I ask this at the end of every Tate poem, not as a way of measuring suspension of disbelief, but as a way to express wonder at what I just read.

RS: Has his work influenced your own in any way?

NL: Oh, certainly. It’s flattering whenever a poet or reader says my work reminds them of Tate. I don’t care to write from my waking life either, so my poems are also filled with situations and speakers from a world like our own, but not exactly. Readers have also told me that my work contains an understated thread of humor, which is also a staple of Tate’s work.

RS: Is there anything you’re currently working on that you’d like to tell us about?

NL: Currently, I’m just writing poems in the routine I established during my MFA. I do have a few poems written with Clu Gulager as a protagonist, which may turn into a chapbook-length manuscript, but he doesn’t need my help making fans.


James Tate is a poet from Kansas City, Missouri. Over the course of his career, Tate published more than 20 collections of poetry. He won the National Book Award for Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994) and the Pulitzer Prize and William Carlos Williams Award for Selected Poems (1991). His final collection, The Government Lake, was published three years after his death in 2015.

Further reading:

Read a feature about James Tate in the New Yorker
Read a review of The Government Lake in The Paris Review
Purchase The Government Lake

Nate Logan is the author of Inside the Golden Days of Missing You (Magic Helicopter Press, 2019). He’s editor and publisher of Spooky Girlfriend Press and teaches at Marian University.

Further reading:

Purchase Inside the Golden Days of Missing You from Magic Helicopter Press
Read a review of Inside the Golden Days from Barrelhouse
Read Nate’s work in The Indianapolis Review and Rabid Oak

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.