We Call Upon the Author to Explain—Layla Lenhardt

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

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

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

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

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

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

MH: Any advice for others picking cover art? 

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

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

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

MH: What are your main sources of creative inspiration? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother Tongue is available from Main Street Rag

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

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