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.

celeste doaks reads Hannah Lowe

biopic2In this installment of Lyric Essentials, we have the pleasure of welcoming poet celeste doaks to the series. celeste reads two poems by British poet Hannah Lowe, “Dance Class” and “B-Boy Summer,” and shares her insights about how these poems help “excavate” childhood moments and how diving into these everyday moments can help us grow. celeste tells us why she is drawn to Hannah’s poetry and why she believes other readers relate to it as well. Thank you very much, celeste, and as always, thank you to our readers for supporting this series!

(Editorial note: celeste prefers her name stylized lowercase.)

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

celeste doaks: While there are many poems I could’ve chosen by Hannah Lowe for this series, these two stood out to me both as metaphorical and aural gems. Often, I think when the literary world views work that’s simple, they tend to overlook it or think of the work as simplistic, reductive. Especially when it comes to narrative poems. However, Hannah’s work has internal rhymes that are working on a complex level. She is attentive to sound and how that governs a poem’s internal structure. And lastly, I wanted to share her wonderful work with an American audience who may have never heard of her. When I met her on my UK book tour, I found her to be delightful—both on the page and in person.

 celeste doaks reads “Dance Class” by Hannah Lowe

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

cd: One of my favorite lines in “Dance Class” describes who I assume is the dance instructor:  “And Betty Finch … / swept her wooden cane along the rows.” This line is such a strong image, but also the wooden cane seems to clank against the floors as she moves along each row. I can almost hear it! And when a visual can conjure sound, I think this is when you know a poet has been successful in their conceit. In “B-Boy Summer,” the descriptions are razor-sharp.

When the narrator talks of  “caps and shell-toe trainers” or “baggy jeans and neon laces,” I get an instant visual that ironically matches the hip hop uniforms that black boys also donned in the Midwest. “Loaded / with desire to be a boy” is just so psychically heavy for me. The use of “loaded” made me think of weapons, but also connotes a general heaviness which is in tension with the childhood admiration here. I also love how this poem is loaded with muscular verbs like “rocked,” “springing,” and “fling.” Those words come alive all by themselves. And the poem’s magnificent return to itself starting with the early line of “Beautiful boys / in the flower garden rocked to the noise” to the penultimate line of “loving boys who never saw me / in the silent garden” was perfect.

celeste doaks reads “B-Boy Summer” by Hannah Lowe

RS: What do you admire about Hannah Lowe’s work in general?

cd: Hannah’s work is very much about memory and childhood, intersecting with race, gender, and class. This resonates with me and my work. Her poems also take time to investigate the everyday, minutiae that makes up our lives. That’s what Neruda did and therefore elevated the mundane to a kind of holy status. By examining our childhoods as adults, we have a chance to return to various sites of embarrassment, excitement, and awkwardness.

Humans can truly begin to evolve by fleshing out these moments. So honestly, one of the reasons I love Hannah’s first book Chick is because it echoes many of the themes in my first book Cornrows and Cornfields. My poems take a trip backward to excavate and sometimes reinvent, those memories. Many of my favorite female contemporary poets such as Sharon Olds, Patricia Smith, and Dorianne Laux have done the same in some of their early poems. I think it was Cicero who said, “Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.” I truly believe that and enjoy poets who at one point see childhood as a foundational site for memories.

RS: As I read them, both of these poems tell us about the speaker’s feeling of difference from the people around her and her desire to belong in those worlds where she feels like an outsider. I think poetry can be a powerful way to bring feelings and situations like these to light. What’s your reaction to those themes within these poems — do you think Lowe is successful in conveying them? What effect do they have on the reader?

cd: It’s funny you used the word “difference” here. Hannah Lowe is a mixed-race British woman who had a Chinese-Jamaican father and an English mother. It might seem to readers that the two of us are as diametrically opposed as Superman and Kryptonite; however, those differences are exactly why I’m drawn to her. As a black female in America, I can see my otherness in her otherness. However, there are also moments in which Hannah’s work transcends race, gender, and class constructs. When Hannah’s narrator says, “but I was never a B-Girl, just a body / growing,” I recall my girlhood growing up around men and boys and wanting to possess some of that authority in the world.

As a young black girl growing up in the Midwest, I also craved that equality and freedom (that Hannah wants) without fear of physical danger or societal scrutiny. Even though this poem is very gendered, I know every human can remember a moment when they wanted to be a cool “insider.”

Poetry can indeed become a way to translate and transcend your own helpless moment. I live for poetry like this. And of course, I think Hannah’s successful in her attempts, but I’m clearly biased! Hannah can suspend a moment in time the same way Gwendolyn Brooks does when she talks of “And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall” in her poem “kitchenette building.” I believe every reader enjoys being drawn into new worlds that have a “familiar” feeling or reading experiences that they can map their own perspectives onto.

Hannah Lowe is the author of the poetry collections Chan (2013) and Chick (2016), published by Bloodaxe Books. In 2015, she published a memoir entitled Long Time, No See. Her chapbooks include The Hitcher, R x, and Ormonde. Hannah’s most recent work is The Neighbourhood, published in January 2019 by Outspoken Press.

Further reading/listening:

Purchase The Neighbourhood from Outspoken Press
Visit Hannah’s website
Listen to Hannah’s long poem “Borderliners” from BBC Radio 4

Poet and journalist celeste doaks is the author of Cornrows and Cornfields (Wrecking Ball Press, UK, 2015). She is also the editor of, and contributor in, the poetry anthology Not Without Our Laughter: Poems of Humor, Joy, and Sexuality (Mason Jar Press, 2017). Her chapbook, American Herstory, was Backbone Press’s first runner-up prize winner and will be published late Summer 2019. Her journalism has appeared in Huffington Post, Village Voice, Time Out New York, and QBR (Quarterly Black Book Review). She is Pushcart Prize nominee and her poems have been published in multiple online and print publications such as The Rumpus, Chicago Quarterly Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Baltimore Magazine, Bayou Magazine, and others. In the fall of 2017, she was the recipient of a Rubys Literary Arts Grant. Doaks is the University of Delaware’s Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing for 2017-2020. In her very spare time, she enjoys co-hosting the literary podcast Lit!Pop!Bang!

Further reading/listening:

Read celeste’s poem “American Herstory” from Split This Rock
Visit celeste’s website
Purchase Cornrows and Cornfields from Wrecking Ball Press
Listen to Lit!Pop!Bang! on Apple Podcasts

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.



Erika Moss Gordon reads Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

UnknownIt’s time for a new installment of Lyric Essentials, and for this round, we’re excited to welcome Erika Moss Gordon to the series. Here, Erika talks about her admiration for Rosemerry Trommer as both a friend and a writer and discusses how Trommer’s work invites the reader in to see the beauty in the “everyday treasures” that her poetry illuminates. Thanks for reading!

Riley Steiner: I really enjoy that both of the poems you chose involve the speaker addressing their own self — in one poem, a younger version of that self, and in the other, the personification of their physical body. I think it’s so interesting to see the speaker’s view from farther away, what they say to their own self when they’re a bit removed. What do you admire about these poems that made you choose them for your reading?

Erika Moss Gordon: Rosemerry’s expression of the vulnerable human experience is an invitation to be a part of her own emerging story. Her poetry moves gracefully between the divine and the mundane, and reminds us daily that the two are inextricably intertwined — or better yet, that they are the same thing. It was difficult to pick just two of her poems, but I picked these recent pieces because of how personal they are, and how much I can relate to both — as a woman and as a mother. It all goes so fast, doesn’t it?  And how rich it all is. And heartbreaking. And beautiful.

Erika Moss Gordon reads “A Woman Addresses Her Body” by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

Erika Moss Gordon reads “Time Bend” by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

RS: What do you like about Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s work? How did you first discover her poems?

EMG: I met Rosemerry almost fifteen years ago in a prenatal yoga class (which is another reason I wanted to share specifically one of her pieces about parenting). We were both pregnant with our first-borns (who are about to turn fifteen in September. Yikes!). Rosemerry has written a poem a day since 2005 — a poem every day for over fourteen years! What a gift, and a beautiful practice that I truly believe will go down in history. And when you read her work you’ll see … it’s absolutely wonderful stuff. She really does find a poem inside every rotation — and the gems she continues to unearth will knock your socks off. And it reminds the rest of us that our lives are full of everyday treasures, too.

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

EMG: Her work has influenced me so much. I also write about the everyday, and Rosemerry has been such an inspiration as time marches on and as the layers shed and shed, or as her website reveals … as the veils fall and fall. She has been a mentor both in writing as well as in the spoken word. She is also an enormously gifted performer. Watching her is watching a master. She taught me about what it means to bring words to life — about the shared experience, and about how much more juicy it suddenly becomes when we invite others in. There is a generosity in her art, and this spirit of collaboration lifts everyone around her up.

RS: On a related note, what are you currently working on?

EMG: I have been fortunate to stumble upon a collection of my father’s journals from the 1970’s, and I am currently in the process of transcribing them. I was very close to my dad who passed away seven years ago, and he was a tremendous writer. In all honesty, I’m not sure how this is all going to look. Even putting it into words is a little frightening. But my fantasy is that I will still get to work on an intimate writing project with him after all this time.

Erika Moss Gordon lives in Ridgway, Colorado, with her two children, where she writes poetry, works for a film festival, and teaches yoga. Erika’s writing has appeared in Mountain Gazette Magazine, Fungi Magazine, Telluride Watch, Telluride Magazine, Telluride Inside and Out, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Salmonberry Arts, and 99 Poems for the 99 Percent, a collection of poetry. Her most recent book, Phases, was winner of the Fledge Chapbook Award, published by Middle Creek Publishing in 2016. Her first chapbook, Of Eyes and Iris, was published in 2013 (Liquid Light Press).

Further reading:

Visit Erika’s website
Order Phases from Middle Creek Publishing
Purchase Of Eyes and Iris from Lulu or Amazon
Read four of Erika’s poems at Colorado Poets Center

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer is the author and editor of the books Naked for Tea, Even Now: Poems and Drawings, and Holding Three Things at Once, which was Colorado Book Award finalist. Her poetry has been published in many literary journals, including Rattle and Spectrum, and anthologized in An Elevated View: Colorado Writers on Writing, Poems of Awakening, and Poetry of Presence. She served as the first poet laureate of San Miguel County, Colorado, from 2006 to 2010, and as Colorado’s Western Slope Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017. In 2006, she began writing a poem a day, and has continued the project ever since.

Further reading:

Visit Rosemerry’s website
Dive into Rosemerry’s poem-a-day project, “A Hundred Falling Veils”
Watch Rosemerry’s TEDx talk, “The Art of Changing Metaphors”

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.

Aaron Abeyta Reads Yehuda Amichai

unnamedIn this latest installment of Lyric Essentials, Aaron Abeyta shares his thoughts on four of his favorite poems by Yehuda Amichai. He discusses his love for Amichai’s work and the ways in which Amichai’s poetry explores “what it means to be human,” often using vivid images of childhood and everyday life in his observations of humanity that have captivated readers for over fifty years. As always, thank you for reading and supporting this series!


Aaron Abeyta reads “The Box” by Yehuda Amichai

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these particular poems?

Aaron Abeyta: Amichai, in general, is one of my literary heroes, and his [book of] selected poems, where these poems appear, never leaves my bag; it’s my blankie, haha. As for these poems in particular, i chose them because they are among my favorites. The complexity of the everyday, the way that imagination is shaped in childhood and called upon in adulthood, the way that an apple, or a memory or a box or whatever, can be this conduit to a deeper appreciation and understanding of what it means to be human. In summary, i chose them for their simplicity and their complexity, but mostly i chose them because i love them.

Aaron Abeyta reads “My Father in a White Space Suit” by Yehuda Amichai

RS: Yehuda Amichai is such a historically influential and established poet—widely translated, published, and reputed outside his home country of Israel. Has his work influenced your own in any way?

AA: What draws me to Amichai, other than the amazing poems, is his understanding of faith and how that can contribute to any poem or text. So, in this regard, being a writer that calls upon faith, memory, home and family, i believe that i am kindred, or at least “get it,” when i read his poetry. I was exploring these themes before i first read his work, but his mastery and seamless use of the poem as vehicle has definitely given me something to aspire to.

Aaron Abeyta reads “Inside the Apple” by Yehuda Amichai

RS: I love these lines from “Inside the Apple”: “I trust your voice / because it has lumps of hard pain in it / the way real honey / has lumps of wax from the honeycomb.” It uses such a vivid and beautiful comparison to describe emotion in a way that feels very genuine—to me, “lumps of hard pain” is a perfect description of the sound of grief in a voice, and I never would have put that phrase to it before I heard it in this poem. What are some of your own favorite lines or phrases in these poems?

AA: I would defer to my answer to question one, expand upon it, perhaps. I have a way of annotating poems where i will identify lines, commas, images, whatever i feel is perfectly rendered. The poems i chose were poems where the entire poem was annotated; i.e., the entire poem, every comma, caesura, break, etc. was perfect. As to the images, i especially like how Amichai, when discussing something of import to an adult, uses his “escape routes” and moves the poem back to childhood. Any line or image that does that, always seamlessly in my estimation, is what makes me love his work. The line you pointed out doesn’t do that necessarily, but i love images that make you look at something in a way that transforms it. For instance, every box i look at now is somehow made more meaningful by Amichai. Same goes for the honeycomb … that image belongs to him now … it’s no longer honeycomb, if that makes any sense.

Aaron Abeyta reads “The Diameter of the Bomb” by Yehuda Amichai

RS: While reading about Amichai, I came across a quote of his in which he described his belief that all poetry is political. Do you agree with this statement?

AA: Short answer … yes … i agree. I agree because what we chose to omit, by the act of omission, is as political as it gets.  If i were to write about lollipops (i don’t believe i would … but who knows?), then that is political because i chose to write about that subject when i clearly could have written about something with more import. However, if the lollipop poem is “good,” then i have rendered it into something new, and it can then be the vehicle for a message that others didn’t or couldn’t anticipate. Put another way, we are always sending messages, through poetry or otherwise, and i suppose i believe that all messages are important and therefore political.

Aaron A. Abeyta is a Colorado native and professor of English and the Mayor of Antonito, Colorado, his hometown. He is the author of four collections of poetry and one novel. For his book colcha, Abeyta received an American Book Award and the Colorado Book Award. In addition, his novel Rise, Do Not be Afraid was a finalist for the 2007 Colorado Book Award and El Premio Aztlan. Abeyta was awarded a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship for poetry, and he is the former Poet Laureate of Colorado’s Western Slope, as named by the Karen Chamberlain Poetry Festival. Abeyta is also a recipient of a 2017 Governor’s Creative Leadership Award. Aaron has over 100 publications, including An Introduction to Poetry, 10th ed.Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, & Drama, 8th ed., Conversations in American Literature: Language, Rhetoric, & Culture, The Leopold Outlook, Colorado Central Magazine, The High Country News, and numerous other journals.

Further reading:

Visit Aaron’s website
Watch an interview with Aaron for the 2017 Governor’s Creative Leadership Awards
Purchase colcha from the University Press of Colorado
Purchase Rise, Do Not Be Afraid

Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) is a poet from Israel whose work is renowned across the world. He is the author of Now and Other Days (1955) and the collections Poems (1969) and Selected Poems of Yehuda Amichai (1971). Amichai’s other work includes two novels and a short story collection. His poems are globally acclaimed and have been translated into forty languages.

Further reading:

Discover more of Amichai’s poems in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai
Read Amichai’s poems at the Poetry Foundation
Read a review of Amichai’s work from The New Yorker

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.

Amy Strauss Friedman Reads Jessica Walsh

ASF Head Shot.jpgIn this interview, Amy Strauss Friedman shares a fun story about how she met Jessica Walsh and tells us why reading her poetry for the first time gave her goosebumps. We discuss two of Walsh’s poems from her newest book, The List of Last Tries: “Bitter” and “Night Garden.” Below you’ll find Amy’s readings of these poems and her thoughts on their themes of difference, rejection, and the search for connection.

Riley Steiner: What drew you to choosing these poems in particular?

Amy Strauss Friedman: Jessica Walsh highlights the ways in which we all feel we don’t fit in through the narrative she constructs; she fashions a gothic, dark, disconnected character who taps into our own insecurities. Our neighbors don’t like us. Our towns don’t want us. Complex people, those who don’t fit the cookie-cutter “norms,” are outcasts. We immediately relate to the girl-turns-woman narrator in this book, who ends up orphaned and assumes that even her parents couldn’t bear her. We are all aspects of her struggle.

The two poems I chose emphasize the narrator’s perceived differences between her and the world around her, the ways in which she works to scorn others before they scorn her. The first is a relatable summer camp experience, the second is a result of the narrator’s earlier experiences with rejection. Being discarded hounds her; it becomes her identity. There are many references to bugs in these two poems, as well as elsewhere in the book, as the narrator digs into the earth for connection that she doesn’t seem to find above ground.

Amy Strauss Friedman reads “Bitter” by Jessica Walsh:

Amy Strauss Friedman reads “Night Garden” by Jessica Walsh:

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

ASF: I’ll start with the second question first because the answer is very funny. Jessica and I taught English at the same community college for five years before we knew about each other. One day Facebook suggested I send her a friend request, so I checked out her profile. I found myself saying, “Wait, what? She and I are both poets and both English teachers and both work at the same school and don’t know each other? How is that possible?” So, I sent her a friend request and then asked if she’d like to meet for coffee on campus. We did so, and I loved her immediately. We went to throw away our coffee cups after our conversation, and both of us just stood over the four or so bins, not knowing where to deposit our cups. We burst into laughter. Compost? Recycle? Trash? Paper? Jessica looked at me and asked, “How many advanced degrees does it take to get rid of coffee cups?”

As to her work, I picked up her first full-length collection, How to Break My Neck, not sure what to expect. There are times where I have loved poets but not their work, and vice versa. But Jessica’s work was excellent. Her poems gave me goosebumps. How they jump into an issue without introduction without losing the reader; that’s a terribly difficult feat to accomplish. How she uses alliteration and line breaks to draw a reader into the ethos of her world. I feel scarcity in her work in the best way. No unnecessary words. No fillers needed to bridge stanzas. An immediate curiosity about message that holds our attention.

I decided soon after reading and being wowed by her first book that I wanted to review it, and I began to star my favorite poems. When two-thirds of the book was starred, I knew I needed a new approach to questions about her writing. Jessica never loses sight of her message, and creates characters worthy of lengthy novels while doing them justice in short form.

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?

ASF: I’ve been lucky to hear Jessica read poems on several occasions, so I knew I couldn’t mimic her style. She reads directly without airs, lets the poem be the performance, and knows from where all her influences and intentions come. I don’t know all of the backstories that create her style of reading, so I put that out of my mind and read them aloud the way they sounded in my head. They tell stories so forcefully that they need little help from me.

RS: “Bitter,” in particular, is striking to me with its air of defiance. Thinking back on when I was younger, I can identify with both girls: the one who acts “as required by popular girls,” and the speaker, who defies those standards. I definitely remember feeling like there were certain mysterious “requirements” to be popular in those middle-school-age days, and also feeling like I’d never figure out what those were. Do you identify with the speaker of this poem at all? Do you think this defiance manifests itself as we grow older?

ASF: I always consider it a bad sign when people peak in middle school. There are very few people I knew as popular in middle school who have ended up wildly successful as adults. The nerds, the outcasts, the misunderstood; they’re the ones to watch as they grow. And among the requirements for popularity when I was young were generally terribly permissive parents who wanted to be their children’s friends. It was usually a particular form of dysfunction that encouraged kids to grow up too fast. Today that happens more readily due to the Internet. But many parents still work to limit those influences. So, I saw the narrator as a person ripe for success one day, who already understood that fitting in with Stepford children was absolutely the wrong path to take. She taunts them. She goes out of her way to discomfit them. And in making herself repulsive to them, she becomes far more interesting.

Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry collection The Eggshell Skull Rule (Kelsay Books, 2018) in which she applies a doctrine in tort law as a guide to personal relationships, and the chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016) in which she examines disconnection from each other, and ourselves. Amy’s poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared in PleiadesRust + MothThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her work can be found at

Further reading:

Read Amy Strauss Friedman’s “What Happens to a Voice Too Long Unused?” in Rust + Moth
Purchase The Eggshell Skull Rule
Read an interview with Amy about her 2016 chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander

Jessica L. Walsh is a Professor of English at Harper College in Chicago. She is the author of How to Break My Neck and The List of Last Tries (Sable Books, 2019) along with the chapbooks The Division of Standards and Knocked Around. Her poetry has been published in literary magazines such as Tinderbox, Sundog, StirringRHINO, and many others.

Further reading:

Read Jessica Walsh’s “Reliquary” in Whale Road Review
Visit Jessica’s website
Purchase How to Break My Neck

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.

Niki Herd Reads Layli Long Soldier

Niki Herd Tucia Image 2

In this conversation, Niki Herd talks about how Layli Long Soldier’s work exposes the link between difficult language and obscured meaning; how it feels, especially for minorities in the United States, to have that language used in something that resembles an apology; and why it is important to keep writing.  Only Long Solider could have written WHEREAS, Herd says, and, when she brings it into the classroom, “It’s great to share that awe of craft with students.” Thank you for joining us!



Jessica Hudgins: I’m often conflicted about this series, because when a poet reads, we get to hear their voice but we don’t get to see the poem on the page. So, to start, can you describe what this poem looks like? How are the lines and stanzas arranged?

Niki Herd: The poem is the tenth of twenty-one WHEREAS statements. There is no title and the poem is comprised of three stanzas. The text in the first stanza is fully justified and begins with “WHEREAS I shy. Away from the cliché….” The stanza presents itself visually in the form and language of the document—in this case The Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. A quick Google search online illustrates the form Long Soldier has reframed. The second stanza remains in this form, but functions more like a block quote as the stanza is centered and smaller than the previous. Breaking from the formal constraints of legislative form, the final stanza is made up of phrases broken up by large caesuras that enact through text what Long Soldier calls the “pigeonhole.”

JH: Long Soldier also experiments with the sentence. She breaks the verb phrase “I shy away,” with a period every time it appears in the poem, and the line, “Where I must be firmly positioned to receive an apology the spot from which to answer,” seems to contain two sentences, “Where I must be firmly positioned to receive an apology,” and, “Where I must be the spot from which to answer.” What was this like when you were recording the poem? Did you already have a pretty good idea of what the poem would sound like, or did you try out different intonations and pausing at different places?

NH: Yes, Long Soldier breaks sentences within lines at “I shy. Away…” and other places as well. Her use of unconventional syntax illustrates the difficulty of language, but also conveys the difficulty of narrative; meaning becomes less transparent as disruptive syntax forces the reader to stop and begin again in unexpected ways. The US Government has lacked transparency in their relationship to Native Americans. Long Soldier uses the syntax of the line/sentence to illustrate this—and does so powerfully. In recording it, I wanted the pauses to stand in for the punctuation, but not dramatically so. The poem was recorded several times and eventually I chose the one that sounded the most organic.

JH: I want to stick with that last sentence I quoted. Being in the position to receive an apology is a central concern of this poem and of Whereas in general. Just by standing in front of the person who wronged them, a person offers, “Do you have something you want to say to me?” This position also requires knowing how to respond to an apology, if it were to come. But what the poet says she’s working with is “that stained refusal to come clean.”

NH: That “stained refusal to come clean” is a position many of us minorities understand all too well. bell hooks says that “[s]tandard English is not the speech of exile. It is the language of conquest and domination.” If this is what standard English represents, then how is this violence further masked behind the formal and legalese nature of a Congressional document that no attention was brought to? It’s a duplicitous endeavor. As Long Soldier notes earlier in the collection, Native Americans “were offered” this document, but no legal claims can be brought against the American government. The collection highlights the position of the one holding the power to apologize, but is unable to do so justly.

JH: I’m having trouble phrasing a question about this that isn’t just, “Why write?” So, instead, how has Layli Long Soldier’s work influenced your own?

NH: Rukeyser said that “poetry can extend the document,” but I see Long Soldier inhabiting and repurposing the document in such a way that it seems no other poet but Long Soldier could have written WHEREAS—it’s this level of inventiveness, but also this individuality of poetic identity I admire. Long Soldier’s ability to use syntax to create new and complex meaning reminds me of other poets who have done the same with documentary work—poets such as Solmaz Sharif and Juliana Spahr, for whom I share a deep respect. Last semester, I taught three collections, and WHEREAS opened up the most possibility for my students in terms of what a poem can do. It’s great to share that awe of craft with students. There’s also a certain amount of direct fearlessness in this project I’m drawn to. The whole collection implicates Obama, but there’s that line in the poem where Long Soldier specifically signals the former president’s famous campaign slogan, saying “yes I can    shake my head wag      my finger too….” The Congressional Apology took place on Obama’s watch and there aren’t many poetry collections that call him out. And though I was an Obama supporter— it’s refreshing to see a whole book go against the grain.

Why do this work? Because the forces that be are counting on our silence. Every time we write, we choose not to acquiesce; we choose not to make the work of violence and subjugation any easier.


Niki Herd’s poems have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Obsidian, The Rumpus, and North American Review, among other journals and anthologies. Herd is the author of a collection of poems, The Language of Shedding Skin, and she recently finished co-editing, along with poet Meg Day, the latest Unsung Masters volume featuring the poetry of disability activist Laura Hershey. She is at work on a meditative essay about memory, gender, and the act of speaking, as well as a collection of poems about violence in America. Herd currently lives in Texas where she is completing her Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston.

Further Reading:

“An Introduction to Niki Herd” at Tupelo Quarterly
Interview with Niki Herd at Houston Public Media
Read Niki Herd’s poem “Kin”

Layli Long Soldier is the author of Chromosomory (2010), a chapbook, and of WHEREAS (2017), the full length collection where you can find the poem Niki Herd read for this interview. WHEREAS won the National Book Critics Circle award and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Further Reading:
Layli Long Soldier at On Being
Natalie Diaz Reviews WHEREAS at the New York Times
Purchase WHEREAS

Jessica Hudgins is a poet and teacher currently living in Mansfield.


Timothy Ogene Reads Lenrie Peters

Timothy Ogene 12-16---2bPhoto credit: Clare McKenzie

In the this interview, Timothy Ogene reads a poem by Lenrie Peters, a Gambian poet and surgeon. The poem begins with the line “The first rose of the season,” and is the eighteenth in Peters’ 1967 collection Satellites. In this conversation, Ogene discusses how Peters’ work shows us that moments of silence can be moments of growth, and how Peters’ work offers us a model for writing that is at once optimistic and realistic about what Ogene calls “the violence of subjugation.” Thank you for joining us!

Timothy Ogene reading a poem by Lenrie Peters:

Jessica Hudgins: This poem feels really resolute to me. The heavy beats in each line, and those last two lines, especially. What draws you to this poem?

Timothy Ogene: Maybe he intended it. Maybe not. But the number assigned to the poem, 18, and what the poem suggests, ‘Of that which is to come/ In the power/ Of subdued fragrance,’ makes me think of Time and Maturation, how the later, no matter how delayed, is birthed by the former.
I’m drawn to the force and power of that promised ‘first rose of the season’, how it is revealed ‘layer by layer’ through the mechanism of concealment ( ‘Like the foetal head/ Inside an egg’). It is a poem that manages to stay optimistic while speaking to the violence of subjugation; that raises the imagery of birth and promise, calling on the reader to hold that image, but also drawing attention to the enigma of waiting.

JH: The poem makes me think of time, those beats like a ticking clock, and the easy way Peters moves forward — there’s nothing confusing about it, no word I don’t understand, but I feel like I haven’t fully grasped each moment, and then the next is here. That “subdued power” comes from saying exactly what you mean, and doing only exactly what you do: the rose will bloom because it’s a rose. Is this a political poem?

TO: Yes, Time is at the core of this poem. The time of maturation and the time of liberation, the time of waiting and of silence, and the time of bursting forth and glowing in full colors.  Lenrie was writing at the point when the fire of Independence was sweeping across Africa, when young writers and intellectuals saw themselves as voices of freedom and promise, voices whose ‘subdued power’ lie waiting to release their ‘fragrance.’ Read in that context, of pan-Africanist thought and nationalist sentiments, it is political. But it is also a poem that allows itself room for extraction and transplantation, to be read outside its pan-Africanist frame and significance, to be read merely as a song of hope, an ode (if you may) to the power of waiting, a warning that waiting and silence are not sites of emptiness. That they are, contained in their essence, sites of gestation. Silence, the poem seems to say, does not imply erasure. Growth happens even in silence, and it is Time that eventually gives force to voice.

JH: And I also read a lesson about poetry in the last two lines — how has Lenrie Peters influenced you work?

TO: You’re right. There’s something about those two lines. A gentle reminder that it’s all about the process, the act of waiting, of honing, of patience, of keeping watch for the right time and season, of knowing that one’s ‘fragrance,’ closed off or ‘subdued,’ will find expression somehow. That’s the way I see and read it. But there’s something more about Peters’ work that I find interesting. It is his ability to simultaneously approach and detach from the political, to perform what I call a poetics of extraction, where a single poem or line offers itself as a political cry but also self-standing work of beauty.



Timothy Ogene is a poet and novelist. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and a visiting research fellow at Brown University.

Further Reading:

Visit Timothy Ogene’s website
Read three poems by Timothy Ogene at Numero Cinq
Purchase Timothy Ogene’s book Descent & Other Poems at Deerbrook Editions

Lenrie Peters (1932-2009) is a Gambian poet, novelist, and surgeon. He is the author of four books of poetry, including Satellites, which includes the poem discussed in this interview, and a novel, The Second Round. Peters worked for the BBC from 1955-1968, chairing its Africa Forum and broadcasting on several programs. He had a surgical practice in Banjul, and from 1979 to 1987 served as the president of the board of directors  of the National Library of the Gambia and Gambia College.

Further Reading:

Watch a 2006 interview with Lenrie Peters
Read several poems by Lenrie Peters (this link leads to a blog, there may be mistakes in the transcriptions)
Purchase Lenrie Peters’ book Satellites at Bolerium Books

Jessica Hudgins is a poet and teacher currently living in Georgia.