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.

Lyric Essentials: Jenny MacBain-Stephens Reads Sarah Nichols

Lyric Essentials

In an installment fit for October and Halloween, Jenny MacBain-Stephen shares Sarah Nichols’ work with us and talks about her own experience with found poetry. Thank you for reading and supporting the Lyric Essentials series!

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

Jenny MacBain-Stephens: I chose to read “Little Sister Remembers Helter Skelter” and “Little Sister’s Sister.”

I’ve always been a fan of Sarah Nichols’ poetry. Her poems are surreal, creepy, and multi-layered.  Her chapbook Little Sister (from Grey Book Press, 2018) does not disappoint in these areas.

Jenny MacBain-Stephens reads “Little Sister Remembers Helter Skelter” by Sarah Nichols

RS: Sarah Nichols’ chapbook Little Sister, where these poems come from, is a collection of found poetry. Sarah uses the novel Violin by Anne Rice as her chapbook’s source material. What is your own experience with found poetry?

JMS: I was new to experimenting with found poetry until I participated in several month-long poetry challenges over various Octobers (called “The Poeming”) the past couple of years with a group of other poets, facilitated by E. Kristin Anderson and Samantha Duncan and Sarah Nichols.

Nichols was one of the poets who participated in these as well. An author is picked (like Anne Rice or Stephen King), and then each poet is assigned a book by that author to create a poem a day and publish it in a private closed group on social media every day in October.

Because it is October, the authors are usually horror-related or maybe focused on science fiction. It is an awesome experience. We always review the rules about using another writer’s words to create something new, and each poem is attributed. I’ve created many poems using this method now, and I thoroughly enjoy it.

Jenny MacBain-Stephens reads “Little Sister’s Sister” by Sarah Nichols

RS: What do you admire about Little Sister as a whole? 

JMS: I love the musical references in the chapbook (the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” P.J. Harvey, Joy Division,) and even though the Little Sister is “Little,” she seems off and a little violent and the reader also doesn’t even know if she is real sometimes. The speaker is distrustful of her but also at times says things like “She is my own breath.” There are images that play with mental hospitals, and God, and evil, and sex, and I love the idea of playing with those boundaries.

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

JMS: I did. In “Little Sister Remembers Helter Skelter,” the first line is, “I don’t believe in confession. I was a little abomination, girl.” If you read this line faster and skip over the comma a bit, it sounds like the reader is talking about herself, rather than addressing the “girl.”

And this little change up for me is symbolic of these poems—is the Little Sister a separate entity or are the girls the same?  Is one person severed into little dark pieces? I think so.

A poet from Connecticut, Sarah Nichols has published four chapbooks, including How Darkness Enters a Body (2018) and Dreamland for Keeps (2018). Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Dream Pop, Memoir Mixtapes, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Rogue Agent.

Further reading:

Read an interview with Sarah Nichols in Speaking of Marvels
Purchase How Darkness Enters a Body from Porkbelly Press
Get Little Sister from Grey Book Press

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens lives in the Midwest and is the author of four full-length poetry collections: Your Best Asset is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016), The Messenger is Already Dead (Stalking Horse Press, 2017), We’re Going to Need a Higher Fence, tied for first place in the 2017 Lit Fest Book Competition, and The Vitamix and the Murder of Crows, which is recently out from Apocalypse Party. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is also the author of ten chapbooks. Recent work can be seen at or is forthcoming from The Pinch, Black Lawrence Press, Quiddity, Prelude, Cleaver, Yalobusha Review, Zone 3, and decomP.

Further reading:

Visit Jenny’s website
Purchase The Messenger is Already Dead from Stalking Horse Press
Read Jenny’s work in Yalobusha Review

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: Megan Merchant Reads Laura Van Prooyen

For this installment of Sundress Publication’s Lyric Essentials series, we’re joined by poet Megan Merchant, who reads two poems by Laura Van Prooyen. Megan shares the ways the poems resonate with her own experience as a mother, why the collection they belong to is one of her favorites, and details about her own upcoming projects. Thanks for reading!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems?

Megan Merchant: There are poems that I come across that spark a little sucked-in breath of resonance or awe. These two, in particular, caught me in that way—they drew my attention from the machinery of the poem to the visceral way that I was experiencing it in that moment, especially in the last few lines of “Undoing Her Hair,” when the poet confesses, “She can’t believe / she ever thought / this girl belonged to her.” To borrow the phrase “they stopped me in my tracks” falls short of describing their impact and importance to me as a reader, mother, and poet.

Let me try it this way—I’m learning how to play the ukulele. It’s my first venture into music and music theory—which escapes me. I can hear and intuit when something is working, or when it’s off, but understanding the Circle of Fifths feels unattainable. However, once I learn a song, really learn it, so that becomes part of my body, then there’s the moment at the very end, when the last note or chord is winding into silence and the music is still vibrating my ears and the small bones of my chest—that moment is the closest I can come to explaining how these poems make me feel. They make me want to unpack everything and move into that space that was just opened by a shift in frequency. 

Megan Merchant reads “Undoing Her Hair” by Laura Van Prooyen

RS: In our emails, you mentioned that you picked Our House Was on Fire out of your list of favorite poetry books. What makes this one of your favorites? 

MM: I keep the same few books close to my desk, even though I can move through their poems by memory. They are not a reference, but more of a reassurance, or a community of sorts. I will pick them up, read a page, think, Look what this poet did—it is remarkable, then start to negotiate with the white space in front of me. 

Some of what has claimed space in that pile has to do with life-timing. I came across Our House Was On Fire when my youngest son stopped speaking. Our lives became a swirl of doctors, sleepless nights, and a narrowing into a diagnosis. I was writing through it all, but wondering how I would work those poems into a collection without overwhelming a reader, while also sustaining their impact. I wasn’t sure how much to divulge for the sake of clarity and still guard his privacy. Meanwhile, life was moving forward and poems about other aspects were wandering into the collection I was working on, asking for equal space. 

I picked this book because of the way it flows together as a whole. I was very taken with how her poems, which vary widely in their subjects and images, play off of each other, how they build and root deeper as they progress. For me, the poems about her child are interspersed in a way that feels like everything else is suspended by that gravity. And while she entertains other preoccupations—loneliness, love, heartbreak, memory, the natural world, and domestic life—that dull ache of motherhood is always just under the surface of image and sound. In raising a child with a diagnosis, I’ve learned how that becomes subtext to absolutely everything—to mundane food prep, to navigating relationships, to quiet moments between intimate partners, to hawks and ravens shadowing the trees. It’s more than background—its patterned into the fabric. Her book is a physical manifestation of that.

RS: “Plum” offers an intimate, rather unsettling look at so-called “domestic” moments, like the shadow puppet theater put on by the speaker’s daughters and her husband painting the walls of the bathroom. How do you think Van Prooyen makes these poems accessible even to readers who, for instance, may not have children or be married or otherwise involved in that kind of traditionally “domestic” life?   

MM: There’s a willful abstraction at play, one that creates a layering of meaning in these poems. Take, for example, the last few lines: “In the dark / the sound of your painting mimics breath, / and I listen: grateful we are together even like this.” Her placement of “even” both holds the line and breaks it wide open. Throughout the book, she offers enough footholds so that the intended moments carry weight and have impact, but also offer enough freedom for interpretation. Instead of narrowing down, the poems expand. Also, within the domesticity and themes of motherhood, there are the fingerprints of tenderness, loss, fear—all very relatable human experiences. These feel more like codes in our DNA than in our life designs.

Megan Merchant reads “Plum” by Laura Van Prooyen

RS: Has Laura Van Prooyen’s work influenced your own? And, going along with that, do you have any projects you’re currently working on that you’d like to tell us about? 

MM: I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be influenced in this distressing time in history, where we are being targeted by constructed narratives specifically designed to play upon our emotional states and beliefs in order to sway our thinking.

However, one beautiful aspect of influence in art is that it’s not trying to sell you a life philosophy, or membership to a limited way of thinking—it is asking you to engage critically and be open to possibility. It’s showing you how one voice found an authentic way to express what it means to be human in this world. It’s not asking you to parrot, or steal—but to be bold enough to open to your own expression. In order to do that, though, you have to first be awake and able to simultaneously hold dynamic and opposing facets of thinking and being.

Laura Van Prooyen’s collection achieves this with grace and heart. I am grateful to have found this poet and her work, to have the opportunity to engage with it and, in doing so, gain insight into how another mother shapes language and imagery to express her experience with what can be overwhelming concepts—love, loss, vulnerability, memory, and strength.

As for my own work, I have a few projects that are currently competing for time. I’ve been working closely with my editor at Stillhouse Press, doing line-by-line edits for my forthcoming book, Before the Fevered Snow. That will come into the world in March 2020.

I’ve also just finished reading submissions for Pirene’s Fountain‘s “Bridging Divides” and will be working with the incredible staff at Glass Lyre Press to help bring that into the world. But, right now, my favorite project is working with my father to transcribe my grandfather’s letters home from WWII. He was prolific, so there are hundreds of letters, but almost all written in pencil and most on aged and torn paper. The work is a bit tedious, but I’m getting to know him and his history, as well as the details and mentality of war, in a very beautiful way.

Laura Van Prooyen is a poet from San Antonio, TX. Her first poetry collection, Inkblot and Altar, was published in 2006 by Pecan Grove Press. Our House Was on Fire, her second collection, won the 2015 McGovern Prize from Ashland Poetry Press and the 2015 Writers’ League of Texas Poetry Book Award. Van Prooyen earned her MFA in Poetry at Warren Wilson College and now teaches in Miami University’s Creative Writing MFA program.

Further reading:

Visit Laura’s website
Purchase Our House Was on Fire from Ashland Poetry Press
Read more of Laura’s poetry in The Adroit Review and Frontier Poetry

Megan Merchant lives in the tall pines of Prescott, AZ, with her husband and two children. She holds an MFA degree in International Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and is the author of three full-length poetry collections with Glass Lyre Press: Gravel Ghosts (2016), The Dark’s Humming (2015 Lyrebird Award Winner, 2017), and Grief Flowers (2018), along with four chapbooks and a children’s book, These Words I Shaped for You (Philomel Books). She was awarded the 2016-2017 COG Literary Award, judged by Juan Felipe Herrera; the 2018 Beullah Rose Poetry Prize; and most recently, second place in the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. She is an editor at Pirene’s Fountain and The Comstock Review. You can find her work at

Further reading:

Read Megan’s poetry in Mothers Always Write
Read two of Megan’s poems in Rattle: “The Years We Lived in the Desert” and “Road Closure, Aleppo”
Read an interview with Megan in Little Myths

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: Jennifer Martelli Reads Marie Howe

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For this episode of Lyric Essentials, we’re thrilled to welcome Jennifer Martelli, who reads for us two poems by Marie Howe. We discuss the personal feel of Howe’s poetry, and Jennifer tells us about the ways in which Howe’s work has impacted her own. As always, many thanks to our readings for their support of this series!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems in particular? What do you admire about them?

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Jennifer Martelli: It was so difficult choosing two Marie Howe poems! One of the many things I admire about Howe’s poems is that they invite the reader into a space, a room, where it’s as if I’m having coffee with her. The poems are conversational in that they emphasize syntactical rhythms—the way we speak. There isn’t a false musical step in any of her poetry (to my ear), and yet, these are not poems that follow a metrical pattern. So how do they work? How do they maintain their structure? I guess a better question would be, how do I tell you a story? It has to begin and end; it has to inform. A master poet, Marie Howe turns that into something I listen to, a room I want to be in with her. So, the two poems I chose were the two I felt exemplified this. 

Jennifer Martelli reads “How Some of It Happened” by Marie Howe

“How Some of It Happened,” from her second collection, What the Living Do, tells the story of her brother’s fear, his medical horror, and finally ends with a philosophical truth. This poem, though, changed how I read, and more importantly, how I write a poem. Look at the fourth couplet:

            We found a pile of sharp and shining crystals in the upstairs hall.
            So you understand, it was terrible

I italicized “So you understand” because it is brilliant: who is the you? It’s us, it’s me—the speaker, the sister, wants us to understand the accuracy of her brother’s terror. She’s not using the “you” to tell the brother—he knows what happened! The pronoun is more than just a useful trope—it’s integral to the urgency of the poem. It is a moment of intimacy between the speaker and the poet. “Come here, I need to tell you this, how some of it happened.” This charges the poem and the book with integrity, clarity, beauty, and grace. This is a challenge I give myself every time I sit down to write: to whom am I writing this poem, and why?

Wow—I love that poem.

Jennifer Martelli reads “Magdalene—The Seven Devils” by Marie Howe

I chose “Magdalene—The Seven Devils,” from Howe’s most recent collection, Magdalene, for much of the same reason: I believe that I am the “you” Howe is addressing.

            The second—I was different from you: whatever happened to you could
            not happen to me, not like that.

This is a list poem, but a list that is in flux or distracted from its last item, which is its truth. In many ways, it is how we write poetry—or how I write poetry.  It takes constant revision to get to the truth. So, here, the voice is Magdalene (which is a contemporary, or eternal, voice), inviting me in and then proceeding to try to tell me the truth—and that’s it, isn’t it? Telling the truth? I admire Howe’s piling on of the “devils”—some are downright funny (the aphid, the obsessive touching, the laundry) and some are painful. I felt a real identification towards the end of the poem, as well, with the introduction of the mother’s dying and her death. The only other time the poem addresses me, the “you,” is the final item on the list:

            The underneath. That was the first devil. It was always with me.
            And that I didn’t think you—if I told you—would understand any of this—

If we think of the word stanza as meaning “room,” then this is what Howe does in this poem: she creates all these rooms where she’s telling me something in a language I know. This is how I write a poem.

RS: In our emails, you mentioned that Marie Howe was one of your first teachers and poets that you heard. Can you elaborate a bit about your relationship with her and her work?

JM: I lived in Cambridge from 1990–1996. At that time, Marie Howe was living there, as well as Lucie Brock-Broido and Mary Karr. They would have workshops in their homes—their kitchens, living rooms, little Harvard offices. They’d Scotch-tape the announcements on the windows of the Grolier Book Store—£50.00 for a workshop, £100.00. Amazing—six weeks with these master poets! Marie’s workshop was my first and one that I returned to many times. She urged me to apply to Warren Wilson College for my MFA (I loved WW, but the experience of sitting with her and Lucie and Mary was as good as any MFA). These workshops were ruthless and honest and loving.

When I met Marie, she was working on What the Living Do, or perhaps just starting it? Anyway, when I walked into her house, I had absolutely no relationship with the poetry being written and read at that time. The most contemporary would have been Plath, whom I love, but that’s where it ended. I needed to hear poetry, and that meant reading and going to readings. I’d been writing “poems” or “Poems”—stilted, with very little truth, just lots of poetry. I’ll never forget the first time I got it—I remember the poem (though I can’t find it), but it was in the voice of Lady MacBeth. I was sitting in Marie’s living room, she was nursing a bad cold, and she said, “That’s it! That’s what it sounds like!” It was a visceral understanding. It was syntactical more than metrical.

RS: You also mentioned that Howe’s work has had a huge influence on yours. How so?

JM: Howe’s influence has been on this kind of listening and telling. I’ve learned from her about the music of the sentence, which, in poetry, has to work with line breaks, right? I try to think about whom I’m inviting into the poem, and why. What do I want/need to tell you? Why is it important? And who is the “I”? I’ve really tried to avoid being gratuitous with “you.” I also learned the importance of spacing on the page; I like those spaces around lines and stanzas.

I think her greatest influence has been to read and to listen to poetry. When I’m not reading poetry, I have a much harder time writing. My poems seem so precious! I’ve been lazy since the spring, so I did #TheSealeyChallenge (a book a day in August)!

RS: In that vein, is there anything you’re currently working on that you’d like to tell us about?

JM: My book My Tarantella came out last fall from Bordighera Press, so I’m still doing readings. This was a weaving of the Kitty Genovese story with my life, and then, the intrusion of Donald Trump. It’s about violence, about silencing women, about trauma. The urge to write this was sudden and intense and intruded on another manuscript, which I just “finished”—maybe. This newer/older manuscript is about my long-term sobriety: what happens to the recovering alcoholic 30 years in? It’s about shame, about the seeds of this disease. Also, I’m writing these poems about Geraldine Ferraro (like Kitty Genovese, an Italian-American from Queens), so I’m back to women, trauma, the 80s. These poems are very new and kind of blend the misogyny in My Tarantella and the craziness of addiction, but we’ll see what happens!

Marie Howe is the author of the poetry collections The Good Thief and The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. Her 1997 book What the Living Do is viewed by many as an elegy to her brother John, who died in 1989. Her most recent work is Magdalene: Poems, published in 2017 by W.W. Norton. She is the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and others.

Further reading:

Visit Marie’s website
Listen to Marie speak about her work in this NPR feature
Read Marie’s interview about Magdalene: Poems in The Millions

Jennifer Martelli is the author of My Tarantella (Bordighera Press), selected as a 2019 “Must-Read” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. Her chapbook, After Bird, was the winner of the 2016 Grey Book Press open reading period. Her work has appeared in Verse Daily, Cutthroat, The Bitter Oleander, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Iron Horse Review (winner, PhotoFinish contest). Jennifer is the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry. She is co–poetry editor for Mom Egg Review and co-curates the Italian-American Writers Series at I AM Books in Boston.

Further reading:

Visit Jennifer’s website
Read Jennifer’s poetry in MORIA, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Psaltery & Lyre 
Purchase My Tarantella (Bordighera 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. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Tafisha Edwards Reads Carrie Lorig

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We’re so excited to welcome poet Tafisha Edwards for the latest installment of Sundress’ Lyric Essentials series. Tafisha reads work from Carrie Lorig’s The Blood Barn and tells us what about Lorig’s work caught her by surprise, what she admires about the book’s unconventional structure, and much more. Thanks for reading!

Tafisha Edwards reads “The Blood Barn” by Carrie Lorig

Riley Steiner:
Why did you choose this poem for your reading?

Tafisha Edwards: This iteration of “The Blood Barn” is positioned behind the book’s front matter. I chose it for the same reason it arrested me on my initial and consecutive reads—I was not prepared to answer any questions, no matter where they may have appeared in the text, much less questions about the lyric. My assumptions about my own knowledge of my mind, its composition and capacities are laid bare—the power of this poem for me is in its own assured voice. The ramifications of the question “What happened to the lyric?” are an atomic atrocity, collectively inherited, though not equally dispersed.

RS: What was your experience like reading the poem out loud?

TE: My mouth felt full of words, an obvious and incomprehensible statement. Well, yes, I read the poem aloud into a machine and one can hear my breath, my mouth perform the labor of speech. But there was a heaviness in my jaw while I read and I found myself leaning into the physicality of reading aloud. When I read, “I listened to tradition / canon say that this is why we must continue to preserve and praise memory / as if it were the only thing / the oldest thing capable of song / of beauty / of meaning,” I couldn’t decide on how it should be read, only that it should be read intentionally, should resist the urge to do anything but give respect to each word; there was no sole way to lend another voice to the poem.

RS: In our emails, you mentioned that The Blood Barn is not traditionally structured. Since our readers will only be hearing your reading of the poem and not seeing it on the page (not in this blog post, at least), can you talk a little about what that unconventional structure looks like?

TE: I was not prepared to enter The Blood Barn the first, second, or third read because some of the conventions of a book of poems are upheld—title/cover/copyright pages—and some are absent. I didn’t realize how passive a reader I could be until I didn’t have a table of contents to reference—no way to create any meta-narratives to guide my reading. I surrendered to the experience of understanding. The Blood Barn is more interested in an attentive reader, not the reader who cannot cede control during the experience. Lorig’s work requires your presence.

RS: What do you admire about The Blood Barn (the book) as a whole, and about Carrie Lorig’s work?

TE: Before the poet J.B. recommended The Blood Barn, they allowed me to drift through their copy of the book. What I quickly came to admire is the book’s visual physicality—the way you move through multiplicities of pages, texts and para-texts—because it required I fully engage with the line, with punctuation, with the units of breath and thought.

Should you read The Blood Barn, there will come a place where the lines “This will never look like a poem / to you / or end” are in front of you, and you will have to walk over the ice of those lines and test how well your assumptions about poetry stay afloat. Lorig does not leave room for the reader’s ego—the work is urgent, your attention is required, your body is required immediately, for the book must be read, right now, there is no ideal time to take a break. There is pain, and seldom stillness.

Whenever I encounter Carrie Lorig’s work I think of the momentum of words, how vital they are when grouped together. They hold all of our liminalities of body and mind.

Carrie Lorig is the author of The Pulp vs. the Throne, The Book of Repulsive Women, Nods, and Reading as a Wildflower Activist. She collaborated with Sara Woods for the chapbook stonepoems and Nick Sturm for the chapbook Labor Day. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Black Warrior Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Yalobusha Review, the Atlas Review, Fanzine, Entropy, and many other publications.

Further reading:

Visit Carrie’s website
Purchase The Blood Barn (2019) from Inside the Castle
Read an interview with Carrie in Heavy Feather Review about The Pulp vs. the Throne 

Tafisha A. Edwards is the poetry editor of Gigantic Sequins and author of The Bloodlet, winner of Phantom Books’ 2016 Breitling Chapbook Prize. Her work has appeared in Poetry Northwest, Bettering American Poetry Volume 2, Washington Square Review, Winter Tangerine, and other print and online publications. Her other works have appeared in Tidal, Vice, Cosmopolitan, and other publications. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland’s Jiminéz-Porter Writers’ House, and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. 

Further reading:

Visit Tafisha’s website
Read Tafisha’s poetry in Winter Tangerine,  Jellyfish, Split This Rock, and The Offing
Read a review of Not Without Our Laughter, a 2017 poetry anthology by Tafisha and the other members of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective, and purchase the book here from Mason Jar 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. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Teri Cross Davis Reads Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton

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For this installment of Lyric Essentials, we’re joined by poet Teri Cross Davis, who shares her thoughts about work by Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton. Teri tells us about her relationship to the protagonist in Brooks’ poem, why she loves teaching Lucille Clifton’s poem, and much more. Thank you for reading and supporting this series!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose each of these two poems for your reading?

Teri_4097Teri Cross Davis: The music of these two poems are like songs constantly playing in the background of my mind. As a dark-skinned Black woman, I can identify with Chocolate Mabbie. To read this poem and hear the hurt of colorism, I could sadly relate. But I also appreciate Brooks writing a poem about colorism, calling it out in the Black community and the validation it gave me to read of someone talking about such a personal experience. The hopefulness of a young heart, first loves, how excited Mabbie is to see Willie Boone. Her excitement reaches through the poem and it just soars. How can you not be swept up and away by it?

RS: I love the rhythm in “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie.” What are some of your favorite moments from this poem?

TCD: The lyricism of the poem—”lemon-hued lynx,” “cut from a chocolate bar,” “hush in heart,” “Mabbie on Mabbie to be”—these are hallmarks of Brooks’ work for me. The resiliency of Mabbie, the support and love she must find within herself—all of this speaks to my experience as a Black woman in America.

Teri Cross Davis reads “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie” by Gwendolyn Brooks

RS: In our emails, you mentioned that you’ve taught “poem in praise of menstruation” for over ten years. What makes it one of your favorites to teach? What do you think students of poetry (or anyone, really!) can learn from it?

TCD: This poem is a reclamation, wresting back the power of the period from the shame normally associated with menstruation. Leave it to Ms. Clifton to dig deep, tie the experience of being female and menstruation to a more global scale and give it a cosmic significance. When I taught this poem, the students would tell me how powerful it made them feel and how excited they were to talk about periods with no shame or stigma. This poem is always a moving experience for me, and I love to read it and feel this connection with more than half the world’s population. I think this poem teaches that one should not be ashamed by what is natural, be it periods or loving someone of the same sex, to not buy into restrictive or patriarchal societies trying to shame you for who you are.

Teri Cross Davis reads “poem in praise of menstruation” by Lucille Clifton

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

TCD: Between Clifton and Brooks, these two women’s words have shaped me as a poet and as a woman. To know their work so intimately (I quote “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie” and “poem in praise of menstruation” to myself often; these words are imprinted on the fabric of me), and to walk around with them like talismans in my head. These poems and these two poets (among others: Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, etc.) let me know there is a place for me as a Black woman poet in this country, that the path has been laid out before me, and I can see the guide marks to follow.

Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas. She published her first poem at age 13 and continued to write throughout her teenage and young adult years, publishing her first poetry collection, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945. In 1949, she published Annie Allen, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Brooks went on to publish many more collections and a two-volume autobiography. She was the first Black author to win the Pulitzer and the first Black woman poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.

Further reading:

Read (or listen to) the 2017 NPR story that celebrated Brooks’ 100th birthday
Read an interview with Brooks from the 1960s, printed on
Purchase The Whiskey of Our Discontent, an award-winning collection of essays about the impact of Brooks’ work

Lucille Clifton grew up in Buffalo, New York. Two of her books, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980, and Next: New Poems, were chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize; Clifton was the first author to achieve this two-finalist accomplishment. Maryland’s poet laureate for eleven years, Clifton also wrote acclaimed children’s books and served as a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She received a National Book Award in 2000 for her poetry collection Blessing the Boats: New & Selected Poems 1988-2000. 

Further reading:

Read the New Yorker‘s tribute to Lucille Clifton
Read (or listen to) NPR’s story on Clifton’s feature on Clifton’s life and work, along with three of her poems
Purchase The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 from BOA Editions

Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of Haint (Gival Press, 2016), winner of the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry.  She is a Cave Canem fellow and a member of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective. She has received fellowships to attend the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Hedgebrook, Community of Writers Poetry Workshop, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is the recipient of a Meret Grant from the Freya Project and a 2019 Sustainable Arts Grant. Her work can be read online and in many journals, including: Academy of American Poets, Auburn Avenue, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Gargoyle, Harvard Review, Kestrel, Little Patuxent Review, Natural Bridge, North American Review, MiPOesias, Mom Egg Review, Pacifica Literary Review, Poet Lore, Poetry Ireland Review, and Tin House. She is the poetry coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and lives in Maryland with her husband Hayes Davis, who is also a poet, and their two children.

Further reading:

Read two of Teri’s poems from Beltway Poetry Quarterly
Purchase Haint (Gival Press, 2016)
Read a 2018 Q&A with Teri from Little Patuxent Review

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: Georgia Pearle reads francine j. harris

GPearle Headshot9.jpgFor this installment of the Lyric Essentials series, we’re welcoming poet Georgia Pearle, who reads work from francine j. harris. Georgia shares why she appreciates the ambiguity in harris’ work as well as the joy that comes in seeing the different ways that poetry can resonate with each of us. Thanks for reading!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose this poem for your Lyric Essentials reading?

Georgia Pearle: Simply: because I love it. That sound. Those rhymes. Good god, that perfect staccato.

Also: because I meant to review the book that this poem came from, I loved it so dearly, it ached with me in such a way, and I got that review accepted by more than one publication but couldn’t deliver my edits in time. I couldn’t deliver my edits in time because I was spending far too much time on a bus (five or so hours a day), single parenting, trying not to get kicked out of a Ph.D. program, overworked, and very broke, so I suppose this feels like a small token of penance to “play dead” because, damn, I loved that book and wanted to champion it, but I couldn’t pull it off at the time.

Georgia Pearle reads “in case” by francine j. harris

RS: What do you admire about francine j. harris’ work in general? How did your relationship with her work begin?

GP: I love her syntactic ambiguity and her refusals, especially. Her work seems unafraid to drop her readers into her own world of poem and let them squirm there, let them deal with it. How often in workshops did I hear people demand a particular sort of explanation from poems—“I can’t tell who this speaker/this figure/this person is” or “I can’t tell where/why we are in this place,” or “what is (blank) supposed to mean,” as if a poem, even a storied poem, should provide that sort of obvious spelling out over its own music.

I love her line breaks, how they make meaning hover and shape-shift. They remind me of those paint jobs I used to see on so many cars back home in ‘Bama—you know the ones that look green from this angle, purple from that, and some shimmering something else when you watch them dead-on? It’s a particularly purposeful slipperiness, a way of being many thoughts at once. Similarly, I love her punctuation, those periods that halt the reader and keep them moving simultaneously. And the way she pushes enjambment to its limit, breaking lines mid-word until meaning splits into so many multiplicities.

I love her fracturing of narrative. I found her when I was attempting to work out these narrative poems that were still also fractured, dealing with violence and trauma and sexuality in the Deep South, that were attached to place and yet trying to detach from place, and I kept hearing people ask me to clarify the poems. Her work helped me consider clarity in other ways: sonic clarity makes its own sort of meaning, doesn’t it? And, too, the juxtaposition of certain images, the repetition of those images, don’t they accrue to something explicit and exacting, even when that thing is difficult to paraphrase? They do. Of course they do.

RS: Could you talk about your interpretation of the relationship between the three sections of this poem? Why do you think harris chose to group them in this way?

GP: Well, to start there’s that gesture to the corona, that gesture to the crown, in the linkage between the three. The end and the beginning of each section mirror each other, but shift each other, a reflective trinity that begins with this justification of pleasure and joy and this reaching toward cleansing spaces and community/communion then pauses at otherness and whiteness before moving on to more we-ness in blackness.

In the first section, clit, of course, carries its usual meaning, that small bud of desire (which we now know is much larger than the visible tip), that source of pleasure and desire and agency, but there’s the sonic similarity to “clip,” too, as in clip of a gun, this gesture toward protection/female weaponry, just as the repetition of the phrase “in case” gives us this sense of both containment and hope.

In the second section, it’s impossible for me not to pick up the resonances of all these white images—the supposed preciousness of whiteness, historically, the ways in which our country has historically protected white citizens in idea and in actuality through legalities and through military force and through the supposed rightness of peace and the means of which that “peace” has been bought. There’s no mistaking the violence of the whiteness in this stanza, or its conflation with quietude and silence.

And in the third section, the loudness of repetition: “our mouths,” again and again, and “our shut up. our / shut up. our shut up.” What resounding refusal to silence. If this poem felt necessary when I first encountered it a few years ago, it has only gotten more necessary in the interim.

RS: Throughout the poem, but especially in the third section, listening to the words out loud brought harris’ use of rhyme and rhythm to my attention in a way that I think was much more striking than reading the poem on a page would’ve been. What was your experience like of reading this poem out loud versus reading it in print?

GP: What I found reading it was that I actually hated feeling like I had to choose its emphasis. It’s better on the page, more complicated than I think I made it as I read it aloud. I recorded it a few times, trying each time to get more of the lost ambiguity, or rather the many-ways-of-meaning, back into it. Of course, I don’t trust that my reading struck in the same ways or the same places that harris would have struck it in her own reading of it. But maybe that’s the pleasure of reading someone else’s work, once they’ve released it into your hands. Seeing all the varied ways it can strike you each time you approach the thing, that’s part of the joy.

RS: Has harris’s work influenced your own? If so, how?

GP: Honestly, I wish her work would influence me more. I find her poems unmooring in the best possible way, breaking from polemics, willing to procure the profane for us and reclaim it, and willing to do the same with the supposedly holy. In preparing for this, I reread her poem “how to take down an altar.” Everyone should read that one, too. Who doesn’t need the reminder to “Move / the Angels by their buttocks, not their wings”?

francine j. harris grew up in Detroit, Michigan. She graduated with an MFA in Poetry from the University of Michigan in 2011 and published her first book, allegiance, the following year. Her second book, play dead, was published in 2016. Her work has appeared in literary magazines including Ploughshares, Poetry, Rattle, Boston Review, and many others. harris received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2015 and currently the writer in residence at Washington University in St. Louis.

Further reading:

Purchase play dead from Alice James Books
Purchase allegiance from Wayne State University Press
Read an interview with francine in Divedapper

Born and raised in the Gulf South, Georgia Pearle is an alumna of Smith College and holds an MFA in Poetry from Lesley University. She has been a coordinator of the VIDA Count, a senior editor for Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, and her poems been published with Women’s Studies Quarterly, Kenyon Review Online, and Ninth Letter, among others. She recently finished a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Houston.

Further reading:

Visit Georgia’s website
Read three of Georgia’s poems from
Read Georgia’s essays in The Houston Chronicle and OffCite

Riley Steiner is a recent graduate of 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: Sam Albala reads Harryette Mullen

Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 4.32.02 PMWe’re thrilled to welcome Sam Albala for this installment of Lyric Essentials. Sam reads two of her favorite poems by Harryette Mullen and shares with us why she appreciates them. Read on for her insight into what makes Mullen’s poetry accessible and how that poetry has inspired her own work. As always, thank you for your support of this series!

Riley Steiner: What drew you to choosing these poems?

Sam Albala: I have always loved Harryette Mullen.

I was a student the first time I heard her perform. She told a story about inspiration being this almost mystical object running past the physical world, and having to catch it before it went away. In my head, I was sitting on a farm in the Midwest watching this ball of light and power rumble by like a supercharged tumbleweed (which I might be impacting that word due to her tanka diary Urban Tumbleweed, but it still fits). The story stuck, and I’ve heard other writers talk about inspiration in that way.

These two poems felt most powerful to me simply because they are relatable when it comes to a relationship to self, other, and creativity. Mullen is funny, smart … she lingers in the mind. It also seems to me that a lot of her work, these poems too, can be approached with your story instead of trying to relate to an assumed version of the writer’s story. Not all poems or poets feel like that. Sometimes you are reading poems written by a college literature professor and you cannot shake the tone, experience, or history of a college literature professor from the work.

I appreciate that the poems are personally accessible.

Sam Albala reads “Elliptical” by Harryette Mullen

RS: “Elliptical” is ambiguous in who its speaker is addressing. Do you have an interpretation of who “they” might be? Why do you think Mullen chose to write the poem this way?

SA: I saw “they” in multiple ways. On a simplistic level, I imagined it as a court case transcript with all the evidence, details, facts, etcetera, left out. On a personal level, the speaker versus they can be any interaction between an oppressor versus oppressed. A person in power and a person with less authority. However, it is impossible to know which one is which.

The narrative is a standard one that most of us go through when we deal with conflict. While it is toxic to tell another person’s story, to point fingers without accepting responsibility, we still have to identify and understand where our thoughts and emotions come from in order to better direct them to better action. We also need to see how and if we can defend our own story by figuring out the connection with others. In this way, the speaker is sorting through being both the oppressor and the oppressed. Or, rather, figuring out their relationship and feelings between themselves and the “they.”

RS: What was your experience like when you were recording the 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: When I wasn’t thinking too much, the recording turned out best. I was nervous I was breathing too loud or needed to slow down or that I was losing my voice.

I speak into microphones a lot on a regular basis … I fear losing my voice a lot … it never happens, but I always think it is happening. With both poems, I wanted to channel Mullen’s wit and confidence. I did slow down, speed up, and play with moving the recording device closer and further because I was nervous about how it might have sounded. I think I always know, and always have to relearn, that it is best in recording and reading out loud to practice often, but to not be in your head while you are in the middle of the action. That’s when you stumble.

Sam Albala reads “Sleeping with the Dictionary” by Harryette Mullen

RS: As a writer and lover of words in general, I really enjoyed “Sleeping with the Dictionary.”As a poet yourself, how do you feel about this poem? Do you relate to it at all?

SA: I love everything about this poem. The innuendo and the intimacy I, and I believe many poets, feel when it comes to their relationship with language. We can’t get enough. We want to be able to get it right, to practice, to know it better than we think possible. There is a play on words and playing with words. We are always trying to take words to bed with us, trying to pick them apart and get a better connection with them. I love that!

I have also, a time or two, literally spent time with a dictionary in bed, trying to find different ways to relate to sections of words. There was a band I was performing with last year who challenged me to write a poem that was both sultry and subtle. There was a month or two spent highlighting all the words I found romantic, sexy, or soothing in a small travel dictionary. It is a fun exercise in building your own relationship with words. It might also point out what words you subconsciously avoid, neglect, or forget about on a regular basis.

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

SA: Very much so. I fangirl around her sometimes. Being a fangirl is a side effect of being influenced by her work.

So it is a tangent but, a few years ago, I was on a retreat in New York, and I gave her some baby carrots. She was talking about being hungry and I gushed to have the opportunity to give her my snack. I doubt she remembers me or my name, but I won’t forget that small interaction.

Idolization with poets seem to happen—with me, anyway—when I hear a poet I like perform their work. I feel inspired by her relationship to music, though. I have a strong connection to music and always try to involve it in my life. Mullen’s tanka diary, and how place influences her work, is something I strive for. I also love how her personality seems to shine through, without ego. I think readers can enter the work without seeing “other.” Her writing is accessible to writers and readers of many different backgrounds.

I want my writing to show a little bit of who I am and what I see without alienating anyone. If an experience I write about is foreign, I hope it is still something that readers feel they can walk around in and catch glimpses of.

Harryette Mullen is a poet from Los Angeles, California. She was born in Alabama and raised in Texas. After graduating from the University of Texas, she went to to receive her doctorate degree from the University of Santa Cruz. Her books of poetry include Tree Tall Woman; Trimmings; S*PeRM**K*T; Muse and Drudge; Sleeping with the Dictionary; Urban Tumbleweed; Blues Baby; Recyclopedia: Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, Muse and Drudge; and Broken Glish: Five Prose Poems. She has also published essays in MELUS Journal and Meridians, among others, along with a book of essays and interviews entitled The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed To Be (University of Alabama Press, 2012). Her poetry is known and acclaimed for its experimentation with structure and wordplay. Mullen currently teaches creative writing and African-American literature at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Further reading:

Purchase Sleeping with the Dictionary from the University of California Press
Purchase Urban Tumbleweed (Graywolf Press)
Read poems by Harryette Mullen on the Poetry Foundation website

Sam Albala is a poet tethered into the warm, comforting arms of mountains. Often found gobbling horizons and babbling about road trips, tea, and anatomical hearts, Sam is eternally pondering connections, both lost and found. Her writing has appeared in Genre Arts, Stain’d Magazine, Be About It Press, Spit Poet, Boulder Weekly, BUST Magazine, Mental Floss, 8th Street Publishing, South Broadway Ghosts Society, Punch Drunk Press, Sonic Boom, Gambling The Aisle, Synapse, Lamplighter, and more.

Further reading:

Visit Sam’s Contently page
Read three of Sam’s poems from South Broadway Ghost Society
Read two of Sam’s poems from Punch Drunk Press

Riley Steiner is a recent graduate of 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.