Lyric Essentials: Juliana Roth Reads Ross Gay

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials, where we invite writers to read the work of their favorite poets. This month, Juliana Roth joins us to discuss the work of Ross Gay, contemporary poetry, literary citizenship, and how Gay’s poetry feels like a doorway to better understanding the surrounding world and ourselves. As always, we hope you enjoy reading as much as we did.


Ryleigh Wann: When was the first time you read Ross Gay’s work? Why did it stand out to you then?

Juliana Roth: I had a funny way into Ross Gay’s work, which is just to show my ignorance of contemporary poetry. I didn’t know much about living poets until my final year of college. I was working at this small lending library at my school called the Hopwood Room where once a week the MFA students would gather at this big round table across from my desk and a visiting writer would come sit with them and talk for an hour about their process and books. There was a little nook behind my desk where I would work during the sessions and listen in. I was having a really bad day, I forget why, so I was in my nook. Then all of a sudden I started to hear someone reading a poem, and the words really caught my ear, and then the conversation that followed lifted me right out of my mood. I came out from my nook and learned the poet was Ross Gay.

RW: Why did you choose to read these poems specifically?

JR: In “Becoming the Horse,” I love how I’m taken in to approach “the beast,” whether that is a literal nonhuman animal or any part of us (or our world, which is us) that is difficult to touch, at first tiny as a grass blade, then a fly, then a total transformation occurs. I feel the piece also opens up the possibility that we might change our behavior should we know ourselves or our animals more intimately (nose to nose, heart to heart). It’s a love poem, I think. A gesture towards radical honesty, which the poem seems to suggest might set us free from fear. If we are fully honest and see with true clarity, what is left to fear?

I think this carries into “Ending the Estrangement” where that proximity to what is feared is actually knowing the pain of your mother. The gesture at the end of the poem of singing along with that pain just feels liberating. And like we’re being guided in confronting death. Also a love poem, I think.

And then “Wedding Poem,” definitely a love poem, I think it’s safe to say. For me, the poem captures that sweet embarrassment and shyness that often appears in the face of true love. I imagine that bashfulness happens at any age, and the piece celebrates how simple it is to just let love in—once you do, despite how long it takes to get there.

Juliana Roth reads “Becoming a Horse” by Ross Gay

RW: How has Gay’s writing inspired your own?

JR: The generosity on display in his work is an important model for literary citizenship and maintaining personhood in a public profession. The acknowledgment he makes in Be Holding where he basically says all the poets that came before and all the books he reads, even friends and family, they are his work and in essence the collection belongs to them—that’s pretty significant. I think modeling that resistance to becoming capital and hyper individualism a creative market puts on you is what I hope to do as well. I also think the process he used for The Book of Delights freed me to write my newsletter because I give myself specific constraints not to overedit (there are even typos!), write without knowing in advance what my goal is for the letter, and also as I do the podcast I haven’t spent any money at all on production, so it is very handmade. I don’t think I have a radio voice or personality either—I’m just bringing on people who I admire and who are thinking about the world in interesting ways to chat and we just record our conversation.

Juliana Roth reads “Wedding Poem” by Ross Gay

RW: What have you been up to lately (life, work, anything!)? Got any news to share?

JR: Right now I’m in professor mode just getting us through midterms at the moment, but I did find out a few weeks ago that I was selected as an Emerging Writer Fellow at The Center for Fiction, which has been a whirlwind. Last week we got to meet the outgoing fellows and I spent just a few minutes so far with my cohort, but I’m so excited for the community and space to write. I can’t wait to see what work I create while I’m there. I also have a new short film premiering in a festival at Cinema Village on October 26th if there are any local readers who love old movie theaters. As far as life outside of my career goes, I’m just spending as much time as I can with my family right now, including my sweet dog Ziggy. Oh—I started learning to skateboard with a friend this past spring so we practice as much as we can. And I’ve been very into trying different varieties of pesto—hugely exciting, but my favorite so far has been a beetroot cashew. So good!

Read more from this interview at our Patreon.


Juliana Roth is a 2022-23 Susan Kamil Emerging Writer Fellow at The Center for Fiction and was selected as a VIDA Fellow with the Sundress Academy for the Arts. Her writing appears in The Breakwater Review, The Offing, Irish Pages, and Entropy as well as being produced as independent films that she directs. Her web series, The University, was nominated by the International Academy of Web Television for Best Drama Writing and screened at survivor justice nonprofits across the country. Currently, she teaches writing at NYU and writes the newsletter Drawing Animals (subscribe here: www.julianaroth.com/drawinganimals) featuring essays, interviews, doodles, and podcast episodes celebrating our interconnection with nonhuman animal life.

Ross Gay is an advocate for joy, love, and the pleasures of life. He is the author of four books of poetry: Against WhichBringing the Shovel Down; Be Holding, winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His first collection of essays, The Book of Delights, was released in 2019 and was a New York Times bestseller.

Inciting Joy is his most recently published collection of essays.

Ryleigh Wann earned her MFA from UNC Wilmington where she taught poetry and served as the comics editor for Ecotone. Her writing can be found in The McNeese ReviewLongleaf ReviewRejection Letters, and elsewhere. Ryleigh currently lives in Brooklyn. Learn more or read her work at ryleighwann.com

Interview with Margo Berdeshevsky, Author of Kneel Said the Night

For the release of her book Kneel Said the Night, Margo Berdeshevsky spoke with intern Kaylee Young-Eun Jeong about the weaving of myth and reality, poetry and prose, to explore themes of temporality, spirituality, and womanhood.

Kaylee Young-Eun Jeong: You begin the first part of this book with an epigraph from Alice Notley: “To be dead grows on one, sweetly. Not knowing what time it is.” How do death and temporality influence the writing of Kneel Said the Night?

Margo Berdeshevsky: When did we see it coming? I know that I am afraid. And I hide it. And I can’t. So do you. I no longer know what time to call ours, or if we have lost our way in the literal and in the nonlinear. We are living, right now—in war time, in a time of yes, global ache. What time is it when fascism is rising in so many countries, and it is not the 1930s, it is now. With ugly aggression comes cruelty, and yes, death, and yes, fears, and lusts for power, and illnesses we cannot control, even as we try to love one another sweetly, and smell the rain, and believe in our own creativity, still.

When I was growing up, I often thought I was blessed to not be in a country at war. That wars were history, not our now. But I grew to understand that the wars and hatreds and ruins have never ended. They have only remerged, vermin from under old stones, and this is in our time. We try to pay attention to other things. Gardens. Sunrises. Music. Poetry. But the truth is what it is. As I write elsewhere in the book, “I am the woman who asks, how close is death, how near is God.” That question has been a deep personal and philosophical quest for me—from the past, and most certainly in the now I share with my fellow humans and yes, with readers. I try to imagine endings, and beginnings. So I wrote Kneel Said the Night with such consciousness in my being, of a world I can’t escape, as a woman, as a cynic with her eyes wide open to the world that is—and as one who still reaches out hungry for love, or sex, and that thing with feathers Emily Dickinson wrote of. “Hope.”

KYEJ: Tell me more about the way you move fluidly between first, third and even second person narration.

MB: The book, as I moved into it in the opening chapter, and later in the notes at the end, is what I call a book of “half notes.” Breaths. Fragments becoming a whole. So it made sense to me to speak in those several modes, first, second, third…as a way to embrace different points of view. Maybe facets of a shattered crystal, I could say. I wanted to build stories and poems that would break through different walls and doors. And to do so, I needed to find voice in the different characters and images. To move with a spatial and poetic prose and a harsher one, to an articulation and unexpected imagery—and to find a self, and characters that could live inside each.

KYEJ: How did you go about creating the hybrid genre of the book, moving from poetry to prose and in between?

MB: Poetry, prose, and images. Yes, they happen as a result of my larger thrust. I have a love for the hybrid approach as an artist in different mediums. I don’t like to be stuck in a single box, and I find it very interesting as a reader, and an image maker and a word maker, to break forms and expectations. That way I surprise myself, and, hopefully, the one who receives the work I can offer. As I wrote in response to a quote by Zora Neale Hurston, reiterated in the final notes at the end of the book: “The single hour cannot be—eternity. But here is its gathering—for the book that is in your hands, now.”

KYEJ: How did you select the pictures you used, and how would you want your reader to appreciate them within the context of the language?

MB: I’m a collector of my own images. I photograph, I draw, I collage, I layer, I hunt. Sometimes I have a piece of an image but I don’t yet know what I might do with it, it’s sitting on my table, or in my files, and then I wear a different hat or magic cape one morning. And I’m making a poem or a story and I remember that visual image and I go looking for it and it begins to morph in my hands as I see how it could accompany what I’m writing or have already written. I never use an image for mere show and tell. I use it to jog the way the words land. I like ambiguity, sometimes, and I like contrast, to invite left brain/ right brain side by side. As this book came together in its overall intention, I began to know what belonged and what to use, or not use. For that, I have an inner yes/no/yes—and I listen to it.

KYEJ: Tell me about your choice to use mythic, abstract elements in conjunction with more mundane aspects of ordinary life, such as gardening or texting a lover.

MB: I’m smiling as I answer this. Because all I can say honestly is: that’s just how my head works! I like collage. I like to mix. I’ve often been attracted to what is mythic and to the surreal. I’ve read and studied myths and different spiritual paths. I’m a rebel when it comes to “systems of belief.” I feel I need and want and have the freedom to pick what works for me at a given time. And to select something other, later, or next year. I’ve believed, and lapsed, and believed anew. And I’ve lost my way. But I don’t want to get locked in a box I can never get out of.

Abstract? Not so much. I’m attracted to what moves me emotionally. And what moves me, and what I tell myself I believe in has changed over time. I want to be a “believer.” But I lose my way and have to come back around from a new or different source. I’ve traveled widely in my life, I speak a few different languages, and I’ve read and explored different cultures and creation stories and spiritual explanations for our lives. I’ve had respect for each of them. Each of them becomes part of how I wonder about and look at life. And then—I long for simplicity, and silence, and daily life to lean on. I haven’t always been able to make that happen. I haven’t often had a traditional life. So yes, a garden. And yes, a lover. And yes, a text, if it has something to say and is not just blah blah blah. The mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary are tools for me.

KYEJ: What is the significance of the religious and spiritual imagery in Kneel Said the Night?

MB: I think I speak to this question in several ways just above. Blessings are everywhere, and yet so damn hard to hold or trust in. As the “description” of the book ends, it asks “who holds the winning hand?” and “who will save us?” Word images come near me, like presences—spiritual, metaphorical, hard edged and soft—insisting that I include them somehow. I think that to deal with our times these days, the spiritual element is often the elephant in the room. Religion is personal and can be addressed in myriad ways, or not at all. But our truths and/or questions are voices in the book that I, and they, pursue.

KYEJ: Can you speak about the book’s different experiences of womanhood and the ways they intersect?

MB: I’ve long cherished Sojourner Truth’s words, “Ain’t I a woman?” Because it ain’t so easy. Because the cause of freedom and a woman’s rights to be—confront us now as then, and more and more than ever.

Being a woman often comes at a deep cost to the soul. In the book I speak through different narratives of a woman’s intimate desire(s.) And her quest to know if she has learned anything in a long or a short life. If she is or can be free. If abuse or rape or just being in this world in these times—can still allow her to “fly” (metaphorically speaking.) She asks what it is or may be to grow old in a woman’s body. What frightens her. What desire and the hungers for love have led her to. What she must risk, to be held. What or who does she belong to. Where can she travel to become free. Who holds her hand. Who influences her? Dead mothers, dead fathers, available or unavailable lovers, her own shape and flesh, fame, solitudes, illnesses, death itself, or something holy? Sometimes she is preyed upon. Sometimes she turns predator. But mostly, the women I speak of in their intimacies turn to the erotic and the mythic, the poetic, the mysterious, and even to ruin. Or, joy in the play and dances of life—all to survive. And to be a woman.

KYEJ: Can you speak to the recurring birds in this book?

MB: People have noticed my inclusion of birds in my writing elsewhere. I acknowledge it. The very fact that a bird may lift from the branch, from the earth, and that in my narratives earth is sometimes a place to escape or to be saved from, makes a bird an apt symbol for me.

Maybe too it’s what I mentioned at the beginning of this interview: as one who still reaches out hungry for love, or sex, and that thing with feathers Emily Dickinson wrote of. “Hope.”

KYEJ: What is the significance of the constant father figure-like characters throughout this work?

MB: I would not say that the father figure is the constant in the work, but yes, it is a hard presence, and/or an absence. Sometimes as mythically so, as one to reach for. Sometimes, frighteningly so, as one who permits abuse. Sometimes, merely as an old death. Sometimes, but rarely so, as the patriarchal deity who might answer a question, the question. (I must add that often in the book, the mother figure-like character is written and is a constant for good or for loss or for memory or for ghost …)

Order your copy of Kneel Said the Night today


Margo Berdeshevsky, born in New York City, often lives and writes in Paris. Her latest  collection, Before the Drought, is from Glass Lyre Press and was a finalist for the National  Poetry Series. It is Still Beautiful to Hear the Heart Beat is forthcoming from Salmon  Poetry. Berdeshevsky is author as well of Between Soul & Stone and But a Passage in Wilderness (Sheep Meadow Press). Her book of illustrated stories, Beautiful Soon Enough,  received the first Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Award for FC2 (University of Alabama  Press.) For more information, kindly see margoberdeshevsky.com.

Kaylee Young-Eun Jeong is a Korean American writer, currently studying English at Columbia University. She edits for Quarto, Columbia’s official undergraduate literary magazine. A 2019 Sundress Best of the Net finalist in poetry, her work has been featured in diode, BOAAT, and Hyphen, among others. 

Sundress Reads: Review of Body Facts

Joey S. Kim’s Body Facts deliberately and bravely navigates the unique confusion of first-generation Korean Americans, moving with poise through both personal and political histories of trauma and loss. The collection’s range of experiences spans both space and time, from reflections on Japanese-occupied Korea and the Korean War to painful personal memories of a childhood spent being othered by white classmates in suburban Ohio, from the speaker’s life under Trump’s America to imagined recollections of her parents’ lives in their homeland. Grounding the collection’s vast sweep of history and memory is the physical fact of the body, and the ways it is wounded and transformed as it tries to fit into a country that rejects and shames it, while also trying to remain true to a heritage to which it feels unmoored. Kim’s poems borrow from a variety of texts: tweets, memoirs, Shakespearean sonnets, and more are all deftly woven in with poignant visions of rice paddies and monsoons. This braiding of sundry images creates a collection that thoughtfully expresses the variegated nature of a hyphenated identity, of an American-born child of Korean immigrants. Body Facts opens a door to that identity, illuminating the extraordinary complexity within the body that contains it.

The collection’s titular poem, “Body Facts,” uses text from the racist, stiffly clinical “Oriental Peregrinations,” written by plastic surgeon D.R. Millard, who brought double eyelid surgery, or sangapul, to Korea during the Korean War. Though the poem begins with Millard’s words, it ends with Kim’s inclusion of personal, painful details of stomach skin that “looks elephantine after the weight loss of high school,” or the arm, wounded after “the skateboarding accident.” Here, she reclaims the body that was historically horrifically distorted through the racist white lens, allowing it to be a troubled teenager, a fully realized personality, instead of the generalizations of the “Orient,” of “thousands of mongoloid folds.” This is only the first of many times throughout the collection that we see Kim carve space for the Korean American identity in old, white texts. The poem “Y” gets its name from the “y” in English poet William Blake’s famous poem, “Tyger” (“Tyger Tyger burning bright”) and, like “Body Facts,” it begins with the source text but immediately veers into vivid, personal images of “the hostel near the central Seoul train station where / halmoni supported herself by selling snacks from a pushcart” or the “fluorescent TruGreen patina” of her Ohio childhood lawn. In doing so, Kim takes hold of and reinvents the literary canon that has traditionally excluded any non-white, non-male voices. Why? Because, she states simply in “Y,” “I am fearful of disappearing.”

Yet, Kim does not only make space for Koreanness in the midst of white texts. Body Facts is filled with whole poems consisting solely of collective memory, the collection opening with images of a fisherman and his wife, “Stomachs churning, dreaming / of white rice at dinner.” As she steadily and calmly describes the scene, we are reminded that these memories, too, belong to her, as she belongs to them—though she may never have been the fisherman or his wife, their shared Korean heritage runs through her body, in her blood.

This collective memory becomes more specifically personal as she recounts, secondhand, memories of her parents’ lives in Korea, even addressing them directly in poems titled “Umma (Mom)” and “Appa (Dad).” Such poems evoke the way immigrant parents often become the point their children anchor to for understanding of the greater tradition they come from. Our parents are the people who look like us when no one else in our United States suburb does, the people that hold the key to the heritage our bodies evince—it is as Kim says to her mother in “Umma (Mom)”: “Your womb is my first / memory… / I grew up attached to your shin.” But Kim also captures the distinct sense of distance created between even the child and the immigrant parent, as the parent often feels unhappy in their strange land, lost in their longing for their home. Guilt and want take root in the child’s heart, as reflected in the way Kim wistfully begins and ends “Appa (Dad)” with “Most days, I can’t find you.”

What does this guilt do to a young body, as it also experiences the shame of twisting itself to fit the pressures of American stereotypes and expectations? In “’China Doll’Sacrifice,” we see the answer, as Kim shows us the young, Asian, female body “told to suck in, / act weak for the boys,” “[swallow] the venom of their words,” and “let the poison, the palliative, / come back up.” The physical consequences of emotional, societal pressures are made severely known, reminding us of the ways abstract concepts such as identity can have real and painful effects when constantly in a state of upheaval.

And yet, the distance between the speaker and her heritage is not unbridgeable. Kim makes this clear. The first-generation experience of feeling rejected and isolated from our parents’ culture is reimagined in poems like “A Sijo Prayer”: “The mid-day tide rolls in, and I dream of my Korean ancestors. / Although their words are foreign, the water tugs me to join my hands.” Here, Kim suggests that our yearning is reciprocated, mutual, that our distant heritage is as drawn to us as we are to it. They want us there. And this wanting shows us that we do, indeed, belong to someone, somewhere.

Body Facts is available at Diode Editions


Kaylee Jeong is a Korean American writer, currently studying English at Columbia University. She edits for Quarto, Columbia’s official undergraduate literary magazine, and serves as a poetry reader for the Columbia Journal’s Incarcerated Writers Initiative. A 2019 Sundress Best of the Net finalist in poetry, her work has been featured in diode, BOAAT, and Hyphen, among others.

Sundress Reads: Review of Bath

The Sundress Reads logo is black and white and features a fluffy sheep drinking a mug of tea, reading a book, and sitting cross-legged on a stool.
The cover of Bath by Jen Silverman centers a photograph of a shadowy white woman with closed eyes and wet skin and hair. The image is in dark and blue tones and the title and author's name is in a silver, linear font that fades at the edges.

In an interview with Jerrod Schwarz included at the end of the collection, Jen Silverman explains that she “wanted to contend with a multitude of possibilities” surrounding baths. “You can be immersed or submerged. You can be bathed in sensation, you can be deluged in light.” Water surrounds us in bathtubs and fills us as we drink; the language of Jen Silverman’s Bath (Driftwood Press, 2022) similarly surrounds and fills.

The purpose of water and other liquids shifts throughout Bath. Water may “quiver like a fugitive” as it flashes a reflection. Speakers are “treading water” or use “each hand cupped / on a different set of promises.” Water creates “ocean-memory / sharp as brine” and sparks “the fountain of youth.”

Nevertheless, “the fountain of youth” has “a limit” and is described as “a steam-choked pool.” In Bath, water is not only a regenerator or refresher; baths are threatening and ominous, even deadly. This subversion is seen most clearly in Silverman’s twisting of baptism, a holy and divine type of bath. In “Bath 6,” “they dropped you in the river. They said / Praise Jesus, Praise Him. You bobbed up / half-drowned… Somewhere in / the river mud, you lost your God.” Or, similarly, in “Bath 3,” “you baptize yourself in sorrow, again and again. / You baptize yourself with bourbon and brandy.” Here, baths are not spiritual experiences, but a destructive power that traps and chokes.

Most poems take place in a specified location, like “Boston,” “Louisville,” or “Cairo.” These locations help differentiate poems that investigate similar themes and often include nameless characters. Silverman explains that “there’s a lot of truth to be found in the details—what a place looks and smells like, the quality of its light—but also the specificity of… language.” The setting, like water itself, is fluid and changing. The reader can’t know where the speaker most belongs, where they are most at home, or where they were raised. 

In “The Devil Dogs My Steps, but if it Weren’t Him, it Would Just be Someone Else,” the speaker of the poem is “living in Cincinnati.” She isn’t sure that Cincinnati is home—she even asks “if you can call this living.” But, in Cincinnati, the Devil “calls” and “lingers.” The Devil and the speaker walk and talk together, even as he oversteps and complicates. “He isn’t invited per se, / but also, / he isn’t not.” “The Devil says: / I like to come home because it reminds me / what a disaster we make / of what’s ours.” But where is home for the speaker of this poem, or the speakers of Bath? Does the speaker avoid home to avoid her created disasters, as the Devil suggests, or is home found in relationships, in all their chaos and their miracles? As “a beefy woman at the bar says: / I like to travel because it reminds me / how great it is to be home.”

From this perspective, the role of water seems to foster connection. For example, “when I shower, you sit on the floor, / only steam between us.” Water fills the space between people, and a father’s love for his newborn daughter in “Bath 8” “becomes a weather-system / of love.” A few weeks later “he has panic attacks / all the time.” Relationships, and the delight and terror they cause, are as necessary as drinking water. The speaker explains that they “can’t stop thinking / that I’m going to die.” “Groceries, laundry, / bills of course, / but even the good stuff / …that stuff too: / gonna die.” Death anxiety follows the delight of interpersonal connection; this becomes a metaphor for humanity’s relationship with water, where the very thing we need to survive can kill so easily.

In “Bath 11,” the final poem of the collection, the speaker wonders “how strange it is: all the ways we are given to make / family.” For all the heartache of community, the speaker does not isolate herself. She spends New Year’s Eve with a kind of family, and her “ex’s wife tells us about giving birth / to their daughter.” On one hand, the scene seems full of fractured connection: the ex that married someone else, the foreshadowing of “B and I… breaking up,” and “my partner… that has yet to arrive.” And yet, when asked “to explain all this, / …what could I say but: Love.” In all of this, Silverman keeps bathing, even in the face of every potential loss.

Bath is available at Driftwood Press


A white woman with red hair, round, tortoise shell glasses, and a blue coat sits on a stone bench against a stone wall and looks directly at the camera.

Hailey Small is based in Wilmore, Kentucky, where she writes lyric prose and watches gingko leaves turn soft each November. Hailey is a junior at Asbury University, working towards a BA in English and History. She enjoys working in Asbury’s writing center, where she partners with remedial English students to make academia and creative writing more accessible. Most recently, Hailey was published in The Asbury Review, where she also serves as the creative non-fiction editor, and anthrowcircus.com