Lyric Essentials: Janeen Pergrin Rastall reads “Weather Picture” and “Allegro” by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton.


Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Janeen Pergrin Rastall reads “Weather Picture” and “Allegro” by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton.

Janeen, I’m a total lover and believer in the power of the small poem and we’ve got that going on here in both the poems you’ve read for us today. Is brevity and concision typical of Tranströmer’s poetry? Are those characteristics something you implement in your own work?

Janeen: While Tranströmer does have some longer narrative pieces like “The Baltics”, brevity and precision are characteristics of his poetry. Tranströmer wrote, “I have tried to write as unsentimentally and nakedly as possible…” I, too strive for a stripped down poem. I try to write with immediacy; perhaps my decades of writing computer code could be to blame. I admire Tranströmer’s ability to create drama with so few lines. He wrote collections of haikus including this one:

Here’s a dark picture.
Poverty painted over,
flowers in a prison dress.

From The Great Enigma: New and Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton (New Directions, 2006)

Chris: Why did you choose to share these two poems together? Is there a similar essential feature present in both? Or, does each poem have its own unique essential elements?

Janeen: I chose these two poems to show Tranströmer’s use of language. Both poems are concise yet approachable and full of amazing imagery.  The subject matter and tone make his poems feel contemporary. “Weather Picture” is from an early collection, Secrets on the Way and is a classic example of how he captures a place, in particular the sea and islands of Sweden. Living across from Lake Superior, I connect with these landscapes. The line “a dog barking is a hieroglyph…” is such a perfect and unexpected simile. Reading his poems is like having synesthesia or living in a Dali painting. The world becomes hyperreal. Like so many of his poems, “Allegro” appears deceptively simple. Tranströmer played the piano and music was a vital part of his life. The poem could be seen as a joyous celebration of the Hayden’s compositions. Tranströmer was a psychologist. Is the poem also a prescription: wave music, a haydenflag against depression?  “Allegro” was published in 1962 shortly after Tranströmer’s trip to the Middle East, the building of the Berlin War and dark days in Vietnam, Hungary and Alabama. Perhaps the poem is a brave statement about how art can teach us to survive and protect us from the madness of the world?

Chris: “Allegro” is interesting to me because it has the potential to be horrific, especially with the couplet “The music is a glass-house on the slope/ where stones fly, the stones roll.” There’s no way this glass house is going to make it, but Tranströmer negates the whole scene when he states that each stone passes through the house and “each pane stays whole.” Which, it just dawned on me, is that a play on whole/hole? But more seriously, what do you make of this sort of duality of the home—a thing seemingly fragile yet it’s able to go unharmed?

Janeen: Exactly, Chris. He is waving his haydenflag, letting us know as the stones are flying at us, when we feel most vulnerable that we will be okay. We will not splinter, crack. We have music and art. We can take everything thrown at us, absorb it and remain unchanged.

Chris: You mentioned that reading Tranströmer is like living in a Dali painting. Is embracing the weird (for lack of better words) something that you always enjoy doing when you read poetry? Or is Tranströmer’s weirdness just particularly well done? And, if you enjoy embracing the weird, are there other poets who you enjoy reading that make you feel like you are in a Dali painting?

Janeen: I love poems that lead me to unexpected places. I also love Imagists. I have a list of poets’ whose books sit beside my bed. Some of them are: Czesław Miłosz, Charles Simic, Wisława Szymborska and Anna Swir.

Janeen Pergrin Rastall lives in Gordon, MI (population 2). She is hopelessly in love with Lake Superior, the great saltless sea. She is the author of In the Yellowed House (dancing girl press, 2014) and co-author of Heart Radicals (ELJ Publications, 2016). Her chapbook, Objects May Appear Closer won the 2015 Celery City Chapbook Contest. Her work has been twice nominated for a Best of the Net Award and for the Pushcart Prize. Visit Janeen at her author page:

Chris Petruccelli is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). His poetry appears in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, and Still: the Journal. Chris is currently severely hung over in East Tennessee.

Lyric Essentials: Chen Chen reads “Lone Star Kundiman (For the Guy Who Seized My Arm After I Accidentally Cut the Line for the Toilet in Austin)” by Patrick Rosal.


Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Chen Chen reads “Lone Star Kundiman (For the Guy Who Seized My Arm After I Accidentally Cut the Line for the Toilet in Austin)” by Patrick Rosal.

Hey Chen, before we get deep into this poem I’d like to start by saying that I’m a total sucker for long titles—I think it comes from my scientific background where for a while I’m pretty sure scientists were competing to give their articles the longest titles imaginable. This title takes the cake. So, first question, when it comes to a title are you a fan of the one worders—“Winter”—or obscenely long titles like the one you’ve read for us today?

Chen: Obscenely long. Yes. I mean, the title of my forthcoming book is When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. And recently I had a poem published called “I am reminded via email to resubmit my preferences for the schedule.” I love long titles. I love titles that are full, obnoxious sentences. But I also love the one worders. It’s so bold just to call a poem “Winter” or “Snafu” or “Poem.” Louise Glück has the plainest titles and she makes it kinda badass. So in my book I also have very short, humble titles. Titles all in lower case. Titles that require a magnifying glass. Molecular, nano titles. You know, for balance.

Chris: With the pop song references, the triumphant double slap redemption, and those final two lines I find myself terrified at what the narrator experiences, but also laughing and cheering on their vindication. Am I reading more humor into this piece than is actually present, or is that something you experience in this poem as well?

Chen: Definitely humor here. Which we can also think about in maybe a darker way—that the humor in the poem indicates or registers the (enormous) extent to which the speaker has experienced these racist microaggressions and so has come to see them as almost everyday. Well, because these incidents do happen all the time.

This discussion is making me think of a great moment from a great piece by Jacqui Germain: the phrase “c’est la vie” pops up in the middle of this piece, which is about being a black girl and hearing one’s white professor and white classmates casually throw around the n-word in the middle of a literature seminar. Because the texts feature that word. Because of whiteness. The phrase “c’est la vie” is so funny, the way it just shows up in the midst of all this awfulness. But the phrase is also completely serious. There’s a shrug the speaker of the piece seems to do, a shrug of “c’est la vie,” as in, “well this kind of thing happens and happens and here we are again here we go okay but not okay.”

As a queer Asian American, I do see and use humor as a coping mechanism, a survival tool, a form of awareness and knowledge that lets me be inventive in the face of a violation or erasure. Still, it’s not exactly healing, this kind of humor. It can be a band-aid on a gaping wound.

That’s what Rosal seems to be getting at: the fact that the speaker and the man he accidentally cuts in the line, both of them are dealing with a lack. The poem’s wrestling with these notions of strength versus power, compassion versus domination, healthy personhood/agency versus toxic masculinity. The speaker questions his own capacity for compassion. The man the speaker cuts clearly needs to question his lack of compassion, or patience, in that moment in the bathroom line. The speaker, as a Filipino American man, as one historically and presently oppressed, points out how exiting the bar in Austin doesn’t really solve anything. He still has to face a city, a state, a country that tends not to see people like him. The other guy, the white man, can go on to use the encounter as a chance to really learn something or to dismiss it as some random, irritating event. The other guy can literally go “c’est la vie” and be done with it. The last sentence of the poem, “No white boy left behind” is similarly complicated in its humor, I think.

 Chris: It seems that Rosal’s use of humor is doing a lot of work in this poem as it raises the questions you’ve pointed out in regards to race, oppression, and the need to evaluate one’s compassion and empathy (or lack thereof). In addition to the humor, what is Rosal doing in this poem that you find to be essential to you as a writer?

Chen: I’m struck by his use of the pronoun “you,” which shifts from being the guy in the bathroom line (“how you eyed me to my place with your little smark”) to being, perhaps, the reader, or some generalized person (“In Texas, you can sit in a diner…”). But that second kind of “you” doesn’t seem generic to me, doesn’t seem to be a synonym for “one.” The “you” is at once another “I” and a kind of “you” that inhabits an othered, racialized body. I read the lines, “you practice what it’s like to be the last man on earth/or the first one to land in a city where no one sees you” as a particular experience, an experience of being an Asian American man. I’ve felt this kind of invisibility and erasure. I’m living in a Texas city myself at the moment. Few Asian Americans here, probably far fewer than there are in Austin, Rosal’s setting for this poem. I love Rosal’s use of the “you,” how the gaze of the poem shifts, how the poem asks a reader to inhabit an Asian American perspective as both “I” and “you,” how the poem asks the person who was “you” in the beginning to try seeing things as this “you,” this person who’s “in a city where no one sees you.” And when someone does see you, it’s to put you back in your (unthreatening, obedient, invisible) place. I think also of Claudia Rankine’s use of the “you” in her book, Citizen. The disorienting, destabilizing possibilities of the second person.

Chris: Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene in this poem that stands out above the others? Is there a piece of this poem that is most important to you, or does it change every time you read “Lone Star Kundiman”?

Chen:  My favorite lines are: “Truth is, I couldn’t stop to consider how we both live/in a country mostly afraid of the difference between/strength and power.” I’ve been thinking and thinking about this difference, how these two words can mean radically different things. How power depends on hierarchies, binaries, absolutes, forms of domination. How strength is rooted in the difficult/lucky practice of love, community, open communication, vulnerability, an embrace of the unknown. Thinking this way is making me rethink a term like “empowerment.” Do we want to be powerful? Is power all about our own individual success? Does power always reproduce itself? Its assumptions and structures? Are we making real decisions or are we merely helping to perpetuate the world as we know it?
Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming spring 2017 from BOA Editions, Ltd. His work has appeared in two chapbooks and in publications such as Poetry, Gulf Coast, Phantom, Drunken Boat, and Poem-a-Day. A Kundiman and Lambda Literary fellow, Chen is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. For more, visit

Chris Petruccelli is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). You can find his poetry in Appalachian Heritage, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: the Journal, and elsewhere. Chris currently plays too much Civ V, nearly purchased the Sid Meier’s Civilization board game, and is searching couch cushions for enough change to buy a new desktop PC and a copy of Civilization VI.

Lyric Essentials: Kirun Kapur reads “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass.


Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Kirun Kapur reads “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass.

Kirun, I remember first being introduced to Robert Hass through his book Field Guide and getting absolutely floored. Sun Under Wood was really spectacular as well. I could read Hass all day. Do you remember your first run in with his work and what that was like? What makes Hass’ poetry so essential?

Kirun: My first encounter with Hass took place in the stacks of the University of Hawaii library. I was still in high school, but, occasionally, I could get permission to visit the University library for “research purposes.” I pulled Field Guide off the shelf at random, never having heard of the book or of Hass. I didn’t read him all day, but possibly all afternoon. The UH library was difficult to like. It was dark and cavernous and the lights in the poetry section never worked properly, blinking and buzzing. The only thing it had in common with the sunny, tropical exterior was that it was always humid. I read Field Guide, damply, sitting on the floor at the end of an aisle, angling the book to catch some light from the windows.

What’s essential about Hass has changed for me over the years, but what I remember from that first encounter is simply the way the opening poem captured me. The first line is “I won’t say much for the sea.” For someone living on an island (an island sentimentalized and exalted precisely because of the beauty of the sea) this was an extraordinary thing to say. I loved, immediately, his tone—seemingly frank, unsentimental, occasionally edging toward raw, even rude. “Here filthy life begins.”—another line I remember so clearly. I loved the way the delicacy and power of the ocean scene is entirely preserved, even heightened, by Hass’s bald tone. That tone allowed him to say anything and everything—from minute observations (“fins of duck’s-web thickness) to grand truths (But it’s strange to kill/ for the sudden feel of life. The danger is/ to moralize/ that strangeness”). I read the poem over and over, first marveling, then trying to understand the trick of it.

Chris: My favorite thing about “Meditation at Lagunitas” is how simple and universal it is. I have to admit I almost cry whenever I look at a photo of Robert Hass—he’s just so damn perfect. And his work is the same—so smooth, approachable, and calm. I always get choked up and swoony at “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” What lines or images do you most enjoy in this poem?

Kirun: Oh, there are many. The line “to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,” is such a pleasure to say, making a bramble of my mouth. The lines “After a while I understood that,/ talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,/ pine, hair, woman, you and I” are favorites, too, capturing so much of what I love about this poem—its scope, meaning, its perfect balance of intimate and abstract. Really, the whole second half of this poem kills me.

Chris: I love the quiet tension that Hass creates. “Meditation at Lagunitas” always seems so multifaceted and clever—part elegy, part ars poetica, a celebration of diversity and our inability to wrangle our minds and language around everything we experience. I’m fanboying. What are the elements in this poem that are most important to you as a writer?

Kirun: It’s hard to pick just one or two important elements, but recently, I’ve been interested in how far a poem can travel, how much space it can create in that journey. Meditation at Lagunitas travels such an incredible distance, moving from the abstraction of the beginning (“each particular erases/the luminous clarity of a general idea”) to the concrete nouns of the end (“shoulders,” “pumpkinseed,” “bread,” “blackberry”). It moves by turning inward—from the world of big ideas toward the most intimate world of private speech and feeling: first a personal talk with a friend, then the memory of an intimate love affair, and, finally, the self talking to the self in private revelations that send us back out into the world (“it hardly had to do with her.” “I must have been the same to her.”). When I read the poem, I feel that movement as a lowering of the voice, both the sense and the volume of my voice falling through the registers of sound and speech.  You can’t possibly say the first line, “All the new poems are about loss,” in the same manner as you say the last: “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry. The word “blackberry” has been transformed by the movement of the poem—by the end it is a platonic ideal, an intimate sensual object, a numinous religious relic; it is a word, a thing, an elegy and an immediate feeling, all at once.

Chris: One last question in regards to “pumpkinseed” as a name for the flitting orange fish, are there any names of things that you particularly love? Or do you have a name for something that you, a friend, or family member has created that you enjoy?

Kirun: I grew up in Hawaii, where the English is sometimes heavily inflected with a creole called Pidgin. Pidgin incorporates words from a great variety of languages—Hawaiian, Samoan, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese—reflecting all the cultures that have come to the islands. I love so many Pidgin words and phrases. “Hemajang,” for instance. It means completely messed up. As in, Kirun’s answers to your questions are all “hemajang.”
Kirun Kapur is the winner of the Arts & Letters Rumi Prize in Poetry and the Antivenom Poetry Award for her first book, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (Elixir Press, 2015). Her work has appeared in AGNI, Poetry International, FIELD, Prairie Schooner, The Christian Science Monitor and many other journals. She has taught creative writing at Boston University and at Brandeis University. She will be a visiting writer at Amherst College in the fall. Kapur has been awarded fellowships from The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Vermont Studio Center and MacDowell Colony. She is the director of the New England arts program, The Tannery Series, and serves as Poetry Editor at The Drum Literary Magazine. She was recently named an “Asian-American poet to watch” by NBC news. Kapur grew up in Honolulu and now lives north of Boston.

 Chris Petruccelli’s latest poetry can be found in Appalachian Heritage. New poems are forthcoming in Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel volume 19: Appalachia Under Thirty. His work can also be found in Cider Press Review, Connotation Press, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. Chris currently works, runs, and drinks whisky in east Tennessee.

Lyric Essentials: Becca Barniskis reads “St Mary Magdalene Preaching at Marseilles” by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.


Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Becca Barniskis reads “St Mary Magdalene Preaching at Marseilles” by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.

Becca, this is an awesome poem you’ve read for us today. Almost a year ago now I interviewed Adam Tavel who mentioned how he strives to read English language poetry written outside of the U.S. Is that something you make a priority as well?

Becca: More and more lately, yes. But when I first read this poem back in the 90’s I barely knew anything about any contemporary poets writing in the U.S. let alone outside the U.S. I just happened to stumble across Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry in a review and felt an immediate affinity for her work. I read the book this poem is taken from, The Magdalene Sermon and Earlier Poems (Wake Forest University Press, 1991), over and over. The rhythms and terseness of the poems really appealed to me. And the way she created mystery out of a familiar world. Her work made me feel like I could write poems finally, something I had not allowed myself to do since high school. Eventually I took a class at the Loft Literary Center here in Minnesota, enrolled in a graduate program and embarked on a whole lifetime of writing and reading and performing poetry of all kinds. And when I went back to this poem last week after not having read it for at least ten years, I realized that the tropes of sainthood, a woman “on the loose,” sexuality (disguised as hair), expressing nuanced political and historical ideas through a particular character and depiction of place—these are all things that I explore in my own poetry. I never set out consciously to do those things, but Ní Chuilleanáin’s approach definitely lodged in my writing brain.

Now all these years later, after my MFA and after having studied and read a very wide variety of contemporary poets, I wouldn’t say that I necessarily make it a priority to read English language poetry written outside the U.S., but I do make it a priority to seek out poets who are writing in ways that are unfamiliar to and surprise or unnerve me. And I think that it’s more important than ever for American poets to know the work of poets not from here. We are in a particularly conservative phase in American poetry—as if we have forgotten what it means to really push and experiment with language. Instead I see and hear poets really hung up on getting their point or personal experience across. Or they embark on very academic or moralistic projects that are extremely boring! Everyone knows that climate change sucks. Or that oppression is oppressive. Or that war makes people do evil things. We all struggle, balk, suffer, love, die, some of us more often and in worse ways than others. But when I read a poem I want it to tell me something new and to blow up tired rhetoric; to use technique and language that jolts me into new insights and associations. Poets need to work the medium of language more assiduously to help us see our human experience in new ways. That’s our job as poets: to constantly work and push our medium. Not to find a subject or way of writing that people like and then settle in to doing that over and over. We should be challenging ourselves and our audiences, not catering to them. Irish writers that I love like Beckett, Joyce, Ní Chuilleanáin, and most recently, Eimar McBride, do things with the English language that are exciting. And they also manage to be deeply subversive without devolving into self-conscious authorial posturing. There are many other writers out there, who, like the Irish, have used the language of their oppressors—English—to great effect in order to subvert the status quo and offer fresh perspectives and ideas.

Chris: I noticed an interesting thing going on with the use of commas in the middle of lines creating a division of the metrical feet. For instance, the line “And she breathes evenly, her elbows leaning” is one example, and the line, “On their stomachs, like breathless fish.” is another. I’m not sure I’ve seen or noticed that in U.S. poetry. I’m embarrassed to ask, but what’s going on there with that use of the comma? Does it change how you read the poem?

Becca: I hadn’t thought about how she’s using commas until you pointed it out. It is idiosyncratic and interesting once you start paying attention to them. Certainly in this poem the comma plays a role. In the lines you quoted the comma enacts the characters’ own pauses in their breathing while also slowing the line down for us as readers. The word “comma,” the image and shape of the comma all appear throughout this poem. You can see the hair that covers St Mary Magdalene as a profusion of commas, they act as little hooks catching at her, and in the penultimate stanza, there appears a “comma of ice” and finally those sepia feet of the water-weeds that flip altogether at the end feel like even more commas to me. I love how Ní Chuilleanáin evokes so much in such a short poem: the strange prison and the freedom that comes from being a female saint in the Catholic tradition—and Mary Magdalene in particular with all the associations of her being both “loose” and holy. Evoking such a deep and nuanced history in a twenty-three-line poem shows a kind of skill and efficiency to which I constantly aspire in my own work.

Chris: You mention that Ní Chuilleanáin’s approach is something you subconsciously strive towards and that she writes with an efficiency you admire. Are there other elements of this poem that you try emulate in your own work? What are the parts of this poem that jolt you?

Becca: I love its use of present tense. That gives it an immediacy that I find exhilarating and that makes the character of St Mary Magdalene seem alive right now—she’s not a dusty legend. I love the description of her day in small moments, not epic ones: she leans on her elbows and watches the boys in the piazza playing on their toy carts; she tucks her hair around her and gazes off into the distance, maybe thinking about the next morning and where to go next. She feels like a real person with an interesting inner life—not a caricature of a saint. There is nothing in this poem that goes over the material that I might expect to find in a poem about a saint who preaches. That surprising perspective on a “known” subject is very exciting to me and that is something I try to do in my own work.

I am also really taken with how this poem ends. It has always felt very mysterious to me the way that its focus and imagery unexpectedly shifts to the marshes in the distance. There’s shining water out there. Not yet frozen water-weeds that are lying collapsed and then flip suddenly “their thousands of sepia feet.” What is that about? Are the marshes and their waters a metaphor for the blemished human soul that shines through the weeds? Why is it important that the water is not yet frozen? Are those weed-feet alive and choosing to move or simply being manipulated by the tide/God/ruler and entirely passive, marching in step? Does Mary Magdalene think about her responsibility to move people to salvation, now, before her own ardor cools? I like how this part of the poem raises all these possible questions without easily landing on one simple explanation. They are not, however, each “THE QUESTION,” a triumph in itself; rather they are provocative, often mundane questions well-posed in the special language of poetry such that the reader has no choice but to begin to imagine answers to all of them.

I also really appreciate that the way that Ní Chuilleanáin describes those “suburban marshes” makes them seem like she could see them out her own window. Her description is accurate and closely observed—not too showy, but very stunning.

Chris: I dig your earlier comment about poets having to challenge not only themselves, but also their audiences. How are you doing that in your own writing? What sort of things are you writing about and challenging your readers with?

Becca: Well, for a long time I have been interested in characters in my poems. They have popped up repeatedly over the years in my work, sometimes issuing forth dramatic monologues, sometimes in conversation with other characters. Sometimes they just start talking. I appreciate the freedom that a character with its own voice can give me as the poet. I can talk as someone entirely unlike me, Becca. I can say things and imagine worlds that are not my own. I perform and improvise with musicians often lately, and I allow my characters to sing and say things spontaneously that are not the usual poetry one hears at a poetry reading. Like a genocidal blue-gill fish who wants all the other pan fish in the lake he lives in to die. Or a squirrel who wants to fly and reads from a pilot’s manual to learn. Or a person who buys a bag of poets at the gas station to snack on.

I recently completed an entire manuscript of “village” poems. The villages are each characterized by metaphorical, associative, political, historical, and technical-scientific dimensions. These are not ordinary villages—they’re in outer space, made of ice cream, carved in soap, populated by birds, inhabited by people who live to play football, full of bored people, or described only in relation to pancakes—I went all over the place. I was following a loose idea of “community” and who gets in and who stays out and how a community can form out of a conversation between two people or between the air and light. It isn’t a gimmick, it just was an idea I could not let go of. These poems baffle some because readers are not sure always how to take them. The poems are full of discontinuities. Some readers want me to tell them exactly what the politics are, or how these poems relate to me personally and then use that as their entry point. But the whole point as I see it is for me to not know how these poems relate to me personally—poetry that arises out of one’s unconscious is much more interesting and weird and lively! And sometimes it is best to not peer too closely at oneself. Also, I expect my readers to work a little at making their own meaning. And I strive to provide them with enough interesting raw materials to do just that.

I also completed another manuscript of poems, even more recent than the village poems, and this one is filled with saints. But not the usual kind. I grew up Catholic and have a very particular internalized sense of what it means to be a saint—I was sure I would be one for some time when I was young and I strove very hard to be holy. These poems that I have been working on allow me to explore objects and animals and politics and culture through the lens of sainthood. They are short poems in the voice of Saint Coffee Cup or Saint Batted Eyelash or Saint Telephone or Saint Egg or Saint Mutt or Saint Cow…they are amusing but also serious. I mean for them to be serious. It’s like Ní Chuilleanáin’s water-weeds’ thousands of sepia feet—they are lovely and swaying, almost seeming to ignore you, but they could drown you

Becca Barniskis has a chapbook of poems, Mimi and Xavier Star in a Museum That Fits Entirely in One’s Pocket (Anomalous Press) that is available also as a collaboration with musician Nick Jaffe in both vinyl LP and in digital formats. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals, most recently Sporklet, Handsome, The Boiler, and Mid-American Review, and she performs her poetry to live audiences regularly as part of the bands Downrange Telemetrics and Pancake7. She is co-author of the Teaching Artist Handbook and lives in St Paul, Minnesota. More at

Chris Petruccelli is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). His poetry appears or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Still: The Journal, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, and elsewhere. In his free time Chris enjoys drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes with older women.

Lyric Essentials: Chloe Honum reads “To Be My Father” by D.M. Aderibigbe


Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Chloe Honum reads “To Be My Father” by D.M. Aderibigbe.

Chloe, this is a really incredible poem you’ve shared with us today—very haunting. How did you become familiar with the work of Aderibigbe? Do you recall what it was like to first read his work?

Chloe: Damilola and I first connected about a poetry matter on Facebook. I looked up some of his poems and found them breathtaking. I think there’s both an intimacy and a mystery to his voice, and a sense of reaching out to communicate a deep piece of experience. I love when a poem makes me feel like someone is whispering something in my ear, that I’m being trusted to hold something important. His work gives me that sensation.

Chris: There is an interesting effect created in this poem with the repetition of “A doctor, two nurses.” The repeating phrase creates a revolving sense of time and the whole poem, made of these really tight, almost terse, lines establishes a sense of rigidity, but remains fluid. I’m not sure I even understand what I just said, but what do you make of Aderibigbe’s repetition and play with chronology? There’s so much going on in this really compact poem—it’s phenomenal!

Chloe:  I was drawn to the repetition, too. I like your idea about there being a revolving sense of time in the poem. Hospitals, in my experience, do give that sense. I remember being in hospitals as a kid, during family emergencies, and feeling suddenly at the mercy of a big system, with unfamiliar protocols. It did feel like time had changed its rhythm in a bewildering way.

“To Be My Father” is concise and exact, yet to me it has a dreamlike quality, too, like when the hospital workers ask the speaker “to fill their past / With my footprints.” For me, that moment evokes both the formal feeling of being at a hospital in a crisis and the deep wildness of human interaction in such situations.

Chris: What elements of “To Be My Father” are most essential to you as a writer?

Chloe: I admire the concision, the restraint coupled with the rendering of emotion, and the cinematic quality. I’m a greedy, somewhat impatient reader. I like it when poems go straight to the bloodstream.

Chris: Is that concision characteristic of all of Aderibigbe’s work? What other poems of his do you enjoy and where can we find more of his work?

Chloe: Yes, much of his work shares that concision. He has an ability to crystallize a moment yet remain fluid and tender. Many of his poems are intimate, or familial, in a similar way as “To Be My Father.” They’re at once enchanting and cutting, and always original. Take the opening to his poem “Pink,” for example. It’s a voice I want to close my eyes and listen to.

Because my father dips himself
into the vagina of a Swedish woman

and is never found again,
my mother’s heart dies.

I follow her, a chick follows the hen
it sees when crawling out of a hatched egg.

My sister follows her like a goat with a rope
fastened around its neck…

Aderibigbe’s chapbook, In Praise of Our Absent Father, was selected by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani for the APBF New Generation African Poets Chapbook Series. It can be purchased as part of a limited-edition nine-piece box set at:

More of his poems can be found online at the links below:

“Pink” and “Out of Water” (Hobart)–41

“In Praise of Our Absent Father” (Connotation Press)

“To Be My Father” and “Mirror” (The Normal School)

“Birth” and “Becoming My Mother’s Son” (The Cortland Review)
_________________________________________________________________Chloe Honum is the author of The Tulip-Flame, selected by Tracy K. Smith for the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize, a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, and the winner of Foreword Review’s Book of the Year Award and the Texas Institute of Letters Best First Book of Poetry Award. Her honors include a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. Raised in Auckland, New Zealand, Honum currently teaches at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Chris Petruccelli is making this post from somewhere in CT/RI. Nice. You can find his poetry in Connotation Press, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Still: the Journal, and elsewhere. His chapbook Action at a Distance is available from UIndy’s Etchings Press.

Lyric Essentials: Sandra Marchetti Reads “Eating Alone” by Li-Young Lee


Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Sandra Marchetti reads “Eating Alone” by Li-Young Lee.

Sandra, amazing poem you’ve read for us today. How did you come to know Li-Young Lee’s poetry? What was it like when you first experienced his work?

Sandra: Li-Young Lee was one of my early heroes in poetry, along with Sharon Olds. I’m honestly not sure how I came to his work, though it was probably in college and maybe at the hands of Richard Guzman, my first English professor, who helped me learn something about non-Western literature. Lee is an “Asian-American” poet, but he eschews that term. I have read everything of his now, as he writes sparingly, and in that way he has also been a guide to me (I don’t think of myself as particularly prolific).

When I first experienced his work, I felt this overwhelming sense of wisdom in his words. He knew something—though that’s another concept Lee himself would eschew! Encountering that sort of timelessness is powerful for a young poet, and it showed me what great poems could do (a mind melt!). At the time, and maybe still now, I felt a poem was received in some ways from another source, another voice. Lee has this expansive voice, that time travels but is fully grounded in the now. He speaks to the domestic and the fabulist in all of us.

Chris: The first strophe of “Eating Alone” is full of beautiful imagery and sounds. I love “The ground is cold,/ brown and old.” Are there particular moments in this poem that you especially enjoy?

Sandra: I needed to pick a short poem because I cherish every line of Lee’s. Maybe I cherish every line of “Eating Alone” because the poem is short. It is the perfect embodiment of what a poem can do. Looking back at it, scrutinizing the poem for this interview, I see myself striving to write this poem every day of my life. It’s compact, it’s sonic, it’s imagistic, it’s sensory, and the ending is a surprise—not heavy handed at all. It is beauty incarnate.

As for the line you quoted above, it’s a favorite of mine as well. It’s so sonic—those long “o” sounds. I’ve often thought, what if the line was: “brown, / old and cold”? That wouldn’t sound as nice at all. It’s like the “black old knife” in Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.” “Old black knife,” the typical order for those words, doesn’t do much for me at all. However, these greats see sound differently. They see the possibility in the words. I’ve even incorporated “cold, / brown and old” into a poem of my own (giving proper credit, of course). Other favorites? “Icy metal spigot”; the internal rhyme of “knee” and “creaky” in the second stanza along with “crazily” and “glazed” and all of the “l” sounds in that stanza that makes it stroll and roll along peacefully; and then the third stanza—all of the “e” sounds—“me,” “tree,” “see,” “lean,” “deep,” “green” leading into “steaming” and “sesame” in the last stanza. The “e” sound continues to the end, as not to jar us sonically. However, the image at the end is completely new, only a slight call back to the very beginning. The cooking image disrupts us, but the sound stays on course. This is the master at work. I love the colors of the poem: red, green, beige, chrome, pink. And the senses! If you look, all five senses are present in this poem, which is what truly fleshes the images. I also love magical realism—the image in the corner of your eye and when you turn to touch it, it’s gone. That temporal quality is a specialty of Lee’s. I could talk about the intricacies of this poem forever, but…

Chris: Five senses, color, and sonic quality all packed into a relatively short poem. Is that characteristic of all of Lee’s work? Do you try to emulate each of these qualities in your own writing? Or is there an element that takes precedence, as in sound over color, color over image?

Sandra: I think it is characteristic of Lee, though this poem is on the short side for him. Some of my other favorite poems of his are longer: “Dreaming of Hair,” “The City in Which I Love You,” “Always a Rose,” and even “Persimmons” come to mind as longer pieces that do some similar work as “Eating Alone.” I am partial to shorter poems, and I write shorter poems, which is probably why I picked this one. What I like about Lee’s longer works is his ability to weave—he is essentially writing lyric essay that includes family history, visual image, and a confluence of languages in those pieces. “Eating Alone” is a microcosm of all of those things. That is often what I attempt in my work: the world in one blade of grass, or one “young onion.”

I once did an exercise where I took my five favorite poems of all time (including this one by Lee) and the best five poems I felt I had ever written and did a close comparison between them. I was trying to figure out what I internalized from these poets I loved. From Lee, I have definitely learned how to use sneaky slant rhyme, and I have learned how to use color. Often, after readings, folks will comment on the colors present in my poems, which I am routinely surprised by—since I often let sound take precedence over color in my revision process. Image is sometimes what gets the poem going—you can see Lee is working off image here. His actions become recollection, and recollection eventually brings him back to the present moment. Sometimes I start that way, or sometimes I’ll hear a sound that sets me ticking.

Chris: You mentioned not being a prolific writer and neither am I (which that took me awhile feel okay about). Could you speak about your process a bit? What’s writing a poem like for you?

Sandra: I am not prolific, that’s for sure. I have gotten to a point where I’m writing maybe 20 poems a year which seems like a lot to my former self who could maybe muscle up a third of that. A good support system of poets who keep me writing can be credited for that. Lee is not prolific either, and I have heard him say of his memoir, The Winged Seed, that he demolished whole drafts of the book and started over. I cannot imagine! He said it was because those drafts didn’t “listen” enough, and they weren’t close enough to the source—the voice of God. So, he listened again, hoped to listen better, and re-wrote. I don’t often delete things I write, but I do have a hard time listening. I have a hard time snatching moments to write. I compartmentalize and write only during “writing time” which seems like it’s almost never. So, I work really hard over breaks. This summer I am working on my poems a couple times a week (which is quite a bit for me). I send out poems for publication during the school year, revise, and maybe draft a few things. Most of the drafting, though, comes when I have a break from work.

I have found that allowing myself to draft poems as notes has helped to take the pressure off. I used to write out a whole draft on notebook paper, but lately I have been drafting in notes, and filling in the rest when I have time to sit down. I think one of the differences from when I was a beginning writer to now is that I can work from a silhouette—an outline—and make a poem of that. I’ll go back sometimes to the notes months later to flesh out the piece. It’s like a place marker, or a bookmark.

Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications (2015). She is also the author of four chapbooks of poetry and lyric essays, including Sight Lines (Speaking of Marvels Press, 2016), Heart Radicals (ELJ Publications, 2016), A Detail in the Landscape (Eating Dog Press, 2014), and The Canopy (MWC Press, 2012). Sandra’s poetry appears widely in Subtropics, Ecotone, Green Mountains Review, Word Riot, Blackbird, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. Her essays can be found at The Rumpus, Words Without Borders, Mid-American Review, Whiskey Island, and other venues. Currently, she is a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at Aurora University outside of her hometown of Chicago.

Chris Petruccelli misses the cold of Fairbanks and the slammin’ meals prepared by his buddies August and Elle. He is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance, and his poetry appears or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. In the next week he will begin brewing mead. Wish him luck.

Lyric Essentials: Bianca Lynne Spriggs Reads “Sky Seasoning” by Shel Silverstein

Spriggs Headshot

Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Bianca Spriggs reads “Sky Seasoning” by Shel Silverstein.

I don’t even know where to begin, Bianca. So much fun and so many feels. Shel Silverstein needs no introduction, but what about your relationship with his poetry and other work? When did that start and what was that like?

Bianca: I was born in ’81, so narrative was introduced to me through the world-building of authors and artists like Jim Henson, Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, and Shel Silverstein. Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic were formative in that, for the first time perhaps, I was introduced to the power of simple pen-and-ink drawings accompanied by poems. But at a sub-textual level, this was how I began to learn about poetry, how accessible and pleasurable it could be. I have been drawing since I could hold a pencil, but in terms of writing, through Silverstein, I was learning long before I even knew I would be a poet, if not so much as to wield, perhaps begin internalizing how word choice, syntax, and rhythm all work together to create memorable experiences for a reader. I wouldn’t really be exposed to that knowledge again until I started reading Shakespeare in high-school English classes and not much later, Hurston. But the fluidity and potential of language began, for me, with Silverstein.

Chris: So, how about this poem in particular. Of all things Silverstein what made you decide to read “Sky Seasoning?”

Bianca: “Sky Seasoning,” is a kind of ars poetica, isn’t it? A poet has an encounter or experience or we make an observation, and then somewhere in working through that maybe mundane thing, what often feels like some kind of combination of being in the right place at the right time or just dumb luck, the experience becomes heightened. Made new. Palatable. Delicious. Worth tuning over and over again in our mouths. Worth savoring. So, I love this poem for that reason. It makes me feel closest to Silverstein in terms of the creative process.

Chris: I’ve never heard poetry sound so tasty—I wish writing was like that for me. Can you speak more about your own creative process? Also, are there any specific lines or rhymes in “Sky Seasoning” that are particularly delicious?

Bianca: My own creative process sometimes feels a little schizophrenic because I’m a multidisciplinary artist and I write in more than one genre, so it just really depends on what I’m doing when. But whatever it is, when I’m making new work, the process is always fairly isolated and I protect that radio silence. I don’t know if you’re a Doctor Who fan, but I love how the Doctor talks about time as “wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.” In other words, it’s nonlinear. As a teaching/working artist who spends a lot of her time working from home or the studio or on the road, time is more fluid to me than regular business hours where we’re all expected to be productive between brackets of time. I’ve learned to seek out or create pockets of time where I can access that silence, usually on late nights or weekends. So, these days, I don’t have much of a social life and I don’t even watch much television anymore but when I do, I’ll have something in my hands even then like a series of drawings I’m working on. I don’t know how to just sit still anymore and not have something to do with my hands. I also enjoy experimenting which means for every successful work I share with an audience, there is a graveyard of botched pieces somewhere on my desktop. I hoard those and often recycle them later into franken-poems. Even “bad” work teaches me something and I know I have to get through so many crappy pieces to get to the good ones.

In this poem, I like in particular, the repetition of “delicious.” The novelist A.J. Verdelle always says, “Repetition is holy,” and for me, because a poem is basically a confined space, when a poet uses a word again and again in such close proximity to itself, it calls attention to the word and the sensation the word seeks to create. So, I like the emphasis on “delicious” because of its urgency and the suggestion that the mundane has been transformed so completely into the exquisite.

Chris: You mentioned accessibility earlier. Is that a quality that makes a poem more successful? Being inaccessible probably wouldn’t be a good thing, but I would say there is a fair amount of esoteric poetry around.

Bianca: Agreed. I suppose it takes all kinds. But I feel like so much depends on taste when it comes to art. In terms of my own taste, I like poetry like I like my eggs—fairly straightforward. If I order a fried egg in a restaurant, that’s what I expect to have brought back to the table, not a soufflé. Some people are going to enjoy the soufflé because they enjoy the complexity over that of a fried egg. That said, in its simplest cooked form, let’s talk about the quality of a single egg. Where it comes from—Walmart, the local grocery, the farmer’s market. How you choose to prepare it—boiled, fried, over-easy, basted, scrambled. You can add a little butter, sea salt and pepper and dill to enrich the flavor. Mix it one way, you get an omelet, mix it the other, you get the soufflé. Personally, I like to be able to recognize my dish and savor each unique working part even when put together.

My point is, I feel the same way about poetry. For me, when it is shared with an audience, art becomes a conversation. In that sense, I prefer straightforward content with strong, fresh, and surprising imagery. I like tension. I like nuanced syntax. I like thoughtful line endings. I don’t like language to get in the way of the poem. If the poet is sharing the poem, then I assume they are initiating a conversation with me. I would rather not have to bushwhack my way through coded language or form to get to the point. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to work at all for the piece or not learn something new, but I would prefer that that work come from the complexity of the idea driving the poem and not what contains the poem. The idea behind the poem should feel multifaceted, rich, resonant, and it should billow. Maybe this sounds rather narrow, but I would rather spend time focusing on the poem’s content and not the poet—which for me, is what happens with those more esoteric poems. Drawing attention to how the poem is arranged over the content seems masturbatory. And function and form should be balanced. Basically, I just wanna eat the egg, okay, not the plate it’s served on, and I certainly don’t want to find a strand of the chef’s hair in it.

Chris: How about contemporary poets—who sates your appetite for rhythm and poetic umami?

Bianca: I always enjoy reading and am constantly learning from the work of Patricia Smith, Kim Addonizio, and Mary Oliver. But I really can’t crow enough about my Kentucky poets-in-arms. First, I am always over the moon about Bulgarian poet, Katerina Stoykova-Klemer. We are at work together on co-editing a second poetry anthology, but her own work is always thrilling to read and I learn something new every time I read one of her poems. She’s a master of pure, deceptively modest content delivered in the tightest of lines. And my goodness, Kathleen Driskell. Her collection, Next Door to the Dead revolves around living in a converted church next door to a graveyard that ended up still being in use. I have a taxidermy collection, so this book is of course, right up my alley anyway. But I really admire the mysteries in Kathleen’s content, the heavy muscle in her imagery, and also how she just makes writing poems look so damn effortless. And of course, there is Ada Limón, who Kentucky gets to claim as one of the home team now. I was at a reading with Ada a couple of weeks ago in Louisville, and of course, Bright Dead Things, her most recent collection, is an absolute triumph, but she read some brand new material that just had us all absolutely captivated. You know it’s too real when the whole room lets out a collective breath at the end. Ada maintains this tightrope walker’s agility to balance between narrative and lyric, and while she doesn’t flinch away from deep sorrow, she doesn’t torture the reader either. Her work feels inclusive. Like we’re all in this together. So, maybe I’m gushing, but these poets keep my pulse racing and my pen moving.


Bianca Lynne Spriggs is an award-winning poet from Lexington, Kentucky. She is the author of four collections of poetry including the recent,Call Her by Her Name (Northwestern University Press) and the forthcoming, The Galaxy is a Dance Floor (Argos Books). She is the co-editor for, Circe’s Lament: An Anthology of Wild Women Poetry (Accents Publishing) and the forthcoming Undead: A Poetry Anthology of Ghouls, Ghosts, and More (Apex Publications). You can find more about her poetry, collaborations, and multimedia work

Chris Petruccelli escaped Fairbanks and is doin’ mighty fine in East Tennessee. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: The Journal, Nashville Review, and elsewhere. Check out his chapbook Action at a Distance from UIndy’s Etchings Press.

Lyric Essentials: Gabrielle Bates Reads “The Times” by Lucille Clifton

Gabrielle Bates Headshot

Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Gabrielle Bates reads “The Times” by Lucille Clifton.

I love learning how poets found the work that inspires them. Do you remember when you were first introduced to Clifton’s poetry? What about this particular poem, any specific memory?

Gabrielle: When I graduated from high school, one of my dad’s friends (a badass female attorney), gave me a stack of poetry books. Clifton’s 1988-2000 selected Blessing the Boats came to me in that stack. As a seventeen-year-old, I knew I loved words, but as far as poems go, I’d only read collections by ee cummings and Pablo Neruda. Clifton’s work opened my eyes to poetry that dared to 1) reach beyond cleverness for clarity and 2) write from a female perspective about real-world issues, both public and private.

Despite studying creative writing in both undergrad and graduate school, I can’t remember ever being taught Clifton’s poetry. All the critical reading and thinking I’ve done in her relation has been on my own.

Poets have long looked to their own bodies to answer the question, “What is poetry?” Emily Dickinson said, famously, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” A. E. Robinson said something like “If it raises my hackles enough that I might cut myself while shaving.” For me, I know what I’ve read is poetry if it makes me clutch a part of my own collarbone as if it were something worn and in danger of falling off.

Last September, something told me to grab Blessing the Boats off my shelf before leaving for a seminar on San Juan Island. When I reached the last line of “The Times” (“these too are your children    this too is your child”), something broke in me. I saw Tamir Rice. I saw Trayvon Martin. And beyond those specific lives hovered all the others—the untold masses who have been murdered for nothing more than the fact that their very existence made a white person feel suspicious or afraid. A white person like me.

This poem—particularly that last line—is a statement against all that seeks to dehumanize or desensitize us.

I decided I needed this poem with me always, so I walked into the woods and didn’t come out until I had it memorized.

Chris: The lines right in the middle of the poem, “If this/ alphabet could speak its own tongue/ it would be all symbol surely;” create an intricate image—symbols speaking in symbols. What do you think this image contributes to the poem?

Gabrielle: Ahh, yes, an incredibly intricate image. Endlessly complex. (Can you believe people often think of Clifton as a writer of “simple” poems? Shame on them for mistaking clear syntax and brevity for simplicity).

The way I see it, this is where the poem pivots into the realm of ars poetica.

Language does not have a physical, mortal body. We do. There’s bound to be something lost in the translation of a body’s experience into a’s, b’s, and c’s. The way I see it, Clifton’s deep disappointment and emotional fatigue in this poem apply firstly to the endless onslaught of racial violence against children, and secondly, to the inability of language to do anything other than approximate experience and reflect back on the person who wields it. The two are related.

As someone whose own poems often rely heavily on image, I see Clifton grappling with the limits of language in this section of the poem, specifically the limits of objective correlatives (sup, Eliot?). There is a danger, not just a difficulty, implicit in this limit. If language in its purest form renders living beings (the cat, the spindle fish) and dead beings (the dust) immediately upon naming into pat symbols, what does that mean for the murdered child? For humanity? For elegy?

These are the sorts of questions I see Clifton circling around.

What would it look like to give language total agency, removing the human from the equation? Clifton can’t even really conceive of this hypothetical—Who can?—so her thought experiment breaks down before our eyes. In the end, our shared humanity is all there is, all that matters.

Chris: It’s interesting to see a poet speak about the limitations of language, and Clifton doesn’t mince her words—as you said, she’s brief and utilizes clear syntax. What do those devices (brevity, clarity, concision) add to this poem, or Clifton’s poetry in general?

Gabrielle: My poems seem to be sprawling larger and larger these days (a side effect of working for a literary journal that only publishes long work, no doubt), so it’s important for me to come back to poets like Clifton who do so much in a small amount of space. To remind myself it’s possible.

One aspect of Clifton’s style I admire is her ability to achieve surprising effects using fairly commonplace diction and whole units of syntax. She’s perfectly capable of writing what she calls “clever” poems with fragmentary syntax, uncommon words, and obscure literary allusions, but she chooses not to. She doesn’t get off on excluding readers without PhDs, and I admire that. Her brevity and clarity invite both the poet and the non-poet to enter, experience, and be changed.

Like Clifton, while I can appreciate a poem whose primary function is to tickle my intellect, I am not very interested in writing such poems. I am drawn to poems that grab for the gut, the throat, the bones. I want a poem to take off at a gallop from the first line and leave me flailing wildly at the edge of a ravine, not knowing how this fur got in my teeth. Clifton and I write very different poems, but we’re both interested in unsettling effects. “I try to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” she says. I think that’s maybe the highest goal poetry can have.

Chris: You mentioned Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. “The Times” is a poem that seems to be born from, and grappling with, politics of identity and what it means to be black in the United States. Is the most essential poetry that which is “political?” Or is all poetry inherently political?

Gabrielle: I’ve been thinking about the inherent politics of poetry a lot lately, especially in relation to race. Unfortunately, the word “political” is often used to describe poetry as if the word is synonymous to “bad.” As if one must choose between making a political stand in one’s poem and utilizing craft techniques—political content or language innovation. It’s an absurd distinction.

I believe, as Jericho Brown points out in his essay “Love the Masters,” all art is political in that it either supports or critiques the status quo. Because we are all raced beings, whether we consider ourselves to be or not, all our poems are in conversation with racial issues. I tend to read and write every poem, whether it mentions race explicitly or not, through this lens.

Chris: Are there writers writing today that affect you in the same way Clifton does—make you reach for your collarbone?

Gabrielle: Of course! In fact, the vast majority of the poetry I read and adore is contemporary. Entire books that immediately come to mind are Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, Beth Bachman’s Do Not Rise, Roger Reeves’ King Me, Richard Siken’s Crush, and Judy Jordan’s Carolina Ghost Woods. Individual poems: “It Was the Animals” by Natalie Diaz, “The Boxers” by Andrew Feld, “Veronicas” by Carolina Ebeid, and “Cold Comfort in October” by Keetje Kuipers. But there are so many more. So, so many more.

Gabrielle Bates is a Southern poet and writer living in Seattle, where she serves as coordinating editor of The Seattle Review and twitter editor of Broadsided Press. She is an Indiana Review Poetry Prize finalist, winner of Gigantic Sequins’ poetry comic contest, and her work appears or is forthcoming in Best of the Net 2015, Black Warrior Review, New South, Rattle, Guernica, Southern Humanities Review, The Journal, Radar Poetry, and Thrush, among other journals. She will graduate with her MFA in poetry from the University of Washington in June 2016. Find her at, on Twitter (@GabrielleBates), and on Instagram (@Gabrielle_Bates_Stahlman).

Chris Petruccelli has successfully survived and escaped Fairbanks, Alaska. He’s back home in Tennessee, still breathing, still writing, and his poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. You can check out his chapbook Action at a Distance over at University of Indianapolis’ Etchings Press. In his free time Chris continues to enjoy drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes with older women.

Lyric Essentials: Sarah Ann Winn reads “A Display of Mackerel” by Mark Doty

SARAHWINN headshot

Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Sarah Ann Winn reads “A Display of Mackerel” by Mark Doty.

Sarah, I’m having trouble saying this any other way so I’ll just say it plain: Mark Doty’s poetry is damn good. Do you remember your first Doty experience? What was it like for you to discover his work?

Sarah: My first Doty experience was during an Elizabeth Bishop class back in grad school. My mentor, Jennifer Atkinson, had mentioned that I “might like” him, and I sobbed my way through School of the Arts that night. It felt so close to the bone to me. I had recently lost my grandfather, who raised me, and who adopted me when I was 13, so those poems were painful to read at times, but they went bravely and eloquently down a road I knew I would be traveling. It was comforting in a time that I was feeling very alone to be reminded that grief can be expressed through beauty. I think that’s the job of poetry, and I was in the presence of a master.

Chris: Bishop is one of my favorite poets. I’m not sure how she does it, but all of her work feels fortified. That might be a weird word for it, but I think it’s the right one. I can sense that in Doty’s poetry as well. What do you think he’s expressing in “A Display of Mackerel?”

Sarah: I think that “A Display of Mackerel” is almost the outcome of the School of the Arts philosophy—the entire book seems to be posing the question of “Considering how brief our time on this planet is, what were we put on this earth to do with all of our might?” Not just as poets, but as people. The conclusion here seems to be Notice and Participate. I think what “A Display of Mackerel” points towards is that our job is to be part of the world, reflecting it, and doing our best to shine as a participant. Enter into your community seems like a big message in this poem.

Chris: You mentioned it’s the beautiful expressions of grief in School of the Arts that make Doty a master of poetry. What are the moments in “A Display of Mackerel” that incite those same notions?

Sarah: It’s hard to read a Mark Doty poem and not encounter an idea of how fleeting life is. He transcends the immediate reality quickly, conflating the fish with a Tiffany window, to the art made by a jeweler, to ideas of what beauty is for, which then takes us to what WE are for as human beings. (Fish markets are not places where I’d expect to encounter a discussion of mortality and life’s purpose, but clearly, any outing with Mark Doty can turn metaphysical.) As with his poems about grief, the poem is a meaningful exploration of how to reframe the idea of the lonely and suffering artist into something productive and beautiful.

Chris: “A Display of Mackerel” covers an incredible amount of ground. How is it that this poem handles all this complexity—the metaphysical, the quick transcendence, commentary on community/human interaction—and doesn’t lose the reader?

Sarah: I think that one of Doty’s strengths is showing how everything is part of everything else. We move seamlessly between the ideas of our temporary passage through this world and that of the mackerels’. It’s a natural conclusion to arrive philosophically where he does if we align ourselves with the fish—who doesn’t want to be a “flashing participant?”

Chris: I am, unfortunately, not very well versed in Doty’s poetry. I think I’ve only read parts of Fire to Fire and some of his other writing here and there. Does all of Doty’s poetry wrangle with the metaphysical?

Sarah: I think his grappling with the metaphysical is what makes him a great poet. He may not do it in every poem, but there is always an underlying idea that our time on earth is brief. Not every poem arrives at the same conclusion, of course, but there’s a definite urgency to his poems, which might be part of his appeal to me.

Chris: I know you recently saw Mark Doty and Aimee Nezhukumatathil give a reading. Would you like to gush and make all our readers jealous?

Sarah: Gush is the right word! I live close enough to DC that I can take advantage of some of the wonderful opportunities the city offers. The event was at the Philips Gallery, and hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Theater.  They both read poems inspired by the gallery’s special exhibit, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks. (Highlights of which included poems inspired by paintings by Klimt, Van Gogh, Magritte, etc.) I’m fascinated by ekphrastic writing, and love art, so this evening felt like all of my favorite things packed into a two-hour event.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s work is so funny and personal. It distills huge ideas in moments, which makes her an excellent counterpart to Mark Doty, since his poems of the night seemed to focus on smaller details and magnify them into a universal truth. I stood in line twice waiting for them sign my books, like the fan-girl that I am, and I was the next to last person in line in Mark Doty’s signing line, as the night drew to a close. He was as kind and patient with me as if I had been the first person in line, showing no signs of being eager to be done with the night. I’m so grateful, because (of course) I was as impatient as anyone else to tell him what his work meant to me (and share a dog story.) It was a really amazing night. How often do you get to meet your poet heroes?
Sarah Ann Winn’s poems, prose, and hybrid works have appeared or are upcoming in Five Points, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Massachusetts Review, Passages North, and Quarterly West, among others. Her chapbooks include Field Guide to Alma Avenue and Frew Drive (forthcoming Essay Press, 2016), Haunting the Last House on Holland Island (forthcoming Porkbelly Press, May 2016) and Portage (Sundress Publications, 2015). Visit her at or follow her @blueaisling.

Christopher Petruccelli is an associate poetry editor at Stirring: A Literary Collection and has successfully survived his first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Action at a Distance, is available from UIndy’s Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with older women.

Lyric Essentials: Daniel Crocker Reads “How to Watch Your Brother Die” by Michael Lassell


Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Daniel Crocker reads “How to Watch Your Brother Die” by Michael Lassel.

Daniel, you recorded reading this poem a few years ago back in 2013 with the caption, “One of the best poems ever written.” I reckon it’s not lost its impact. What was it like to discover this poem? Do you remember when you first came across “How to Watch Your Brother Die?”

Daniel:  I can’t remember exactly where I read it. I think I was taking an independent study in LGBT literature when I was introduced to it. Either way, I remember it hit me hard the first time I read it. Although I think I’m a pretty emotional person, I’m not always a very emotive person. I’m not ashamed at all to say I cried the first time I read this and several times reading it since.

I remember those times in the ’80s and even the ’90s. There was so much fear and misinformation. There was Reagan. Of course, homophobia was wide spread at the time. It’s hard to believe now that a disease killing so many people would be politicized and framed as some sort of moral failure, but that’s just how it was then. This poem took all of that political discourse and made it personal in a beautiful, powerful and painful way. It’s hard to ignore a poem that has that much power in it.

Chris:  Lassell’s poem certainly isn’t holding any punches. It’s a powerful piece dealing with a wide range of emotions. What do you think is key to the poem’s ability to handle so much fear, hate, loss and confusion and not become overwrought?

Daniel: I think for a poem like that, the key is to just tell it like it is. That is, your audience is going to know if you’re just trying to manipulate them emotionally. If you got something, and you just tell it plain, then the impact is like a comet. It just hits you. It’s a hard writing habit to learn. It took me years. I can’t speculate how Lassell did it, but I will anyway. Probably, he just had this important thing to say and he just said it without over thinking it or trying to make it “poetry.” Instead, he wrote something right to the point and powerful.

Chris: How does “How to Watch Your Brother Die” compare to Lassell’s other poetry? Is all of his work charged with identity politics?

Daniel: It’s not. He writes in a lot of different genres and in a lot of different ways. To me, somehow, that makes this poem even more special. It’s in my top five poems of all time, and that’s saying something. I’ve read a lot of poems.

Chris: Do you think more poets and writers would benefit from following that advice—telling it plain? Or does it work best in a specific time, place, and medium?

Daniel: For the most part, I like the ones that tell it plain. That said, many of my favorite poems are lyrical and many of my favorite poets write lyrical poems–and those can be just as powerful and moving. In general, the more brutal the subject matter, the more power “plain” language can have. I put plain in quotes there because while it’s certainly easy to follow, there are also some very beautiful lines in “How to Watch Your Brother Die.” I just don’t want to confuse accessible language with boring language as those are two different things.

Poetry is so complex and there’s such a variety, so many different types right now, that it’s easy to get excited about (even though every year or so we all hear that poetry is dead–it’s not). I don’t want to be one of those writers who advocate a certain style as being better than others because it really just depends on what the poet can do with whatever style they write in.

Chris: You discussed the emotional weight of “How to Watch Your Brother Die” the effectiveness of telling it like it is. What other mechanisms are at work in Lassell’s poem that qualifies it as “essential?”

Daniel: It’s a part of history. It was written early on, at the start of the AIDS epidemic. It’s kind of hard to imagine what that time was like if you aren’t  old enough to remember it. There was so much confusion and fear. Parents were keeping their kids home from school because they didn’t know if you could catch it from a water fountain or what. There was so much misinformation. The sex talk I got as a kid, was basically my Dad handing me some pamphlets on AIDS and telling me to read them. There are several good documentaries on this, and I would suggest How to Survive a Plague as a good place to start.

Back to the poem itself–it does so many thing so brilliantly. First, writing in second person forces the reader into empathy. Writing it from the point of view of the straight brother also made it easier to relate to for most people. Again, there was so much fear and homophobia at this time. Rather than angrily rail against it (though there is certainly anger in the poem), Lassell invited people into a world they may have known very little about. He humanized the epidemic for a lot of people who wouldn’t or couldn’t (for political, religious, just plain homophobic reasons) humanize it for themselves. So not only is it a great poem as far as poems go, but it’s also an important poem–which, as far as I’m concerned, makes it immortal.

Chris: Thank you for sharing and reading such a powerful poem. I keep thinking about the scar and all that it represents–rage, both physical and emotional pain, and, ultimately, it becomes a symbol of forgiveness and love for Lassell’s brother. What’s your favorite line or image? Maybe picking one is tough—go for two.

Daniel:  Mine has to be the scar as well and for all of the reasons you said. I also love this, “Think that/ you haven’t been kissed by a man since/ your father died. Think,/  “This is no moment not to be strong.” From a technical perspective, I love those bold line breaks. More than that, I like what it says about traditional masculinity. Those attitudes are changing though, and that’s a good thing.


Daniel Crocker is the author of three collections of poetry, a novel, and a short story collection. His recent chapbook, The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood is available to download for free at the Sundress Publications site.

Christopher Petruccelli is an associate poetry editor at Stirring: A Literary Collection and is currently trying to survive his first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared in Connotation PressStill: The Journal, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Action at a Distance, is available from UIndy’s Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with older women.