Interview with Sarah Renee Beach, Author of Impact

Front cover of "Impact" by Sarah Renee Beach—a photo of a shattered window.

On the release of her debut chapbook Impact, Sundress intern Annie Fay Meitchik and writer Sarah Renee Beach discuss themes such as forgiveness and grief. Here, Beach shares her insights about poetry as catharsis after tragedy.

Annie Fay Meitchik: Can you speak to the use of erasure throughout Impact?

Sarah Renee Beach: Excavating the past is tricky under any circumstances, but when you add traumatic memory to the mix, it’s an entirely different beast. It’s difficult to rely on your own account of what happened, so you go looking for corroboration where you can find it. I turned to documents to help ground myself—or to provide a fact from which to work—but the documents themselves present a challenge in that they can complicate, contradict, obscure, or compound what little memory you have. My hope is that the erasures throughout the collection mirror this process of excavation both its illuminations and its failures.

AFM: When dealing with traumatic content, were there instances of self-censorship beyond the stylistic use of erasure?

SRB: I’m not sure self-censorship is the term I would use. In any event, there’s a multitude of perspectives and experiences, which makes silences, retractions, and obfuscations necessary aspects of any writing and editing process. A complete and accurate account will always elude us. Poetry gives us the ability to point to these voids and to give them texture, rather than smoothing over them and delivering a polished point of view. I think it was important for me to incorporate that texture, because—while this was a collective experience that could have been told from many different angles—I have only my perspective to draw from. And even that is a flawed, warped, and biased thing.

AFM: What does an epistolary form allow you to achieve or explore that you wouldn’t have with a different form of writing?

SRB: I find that the epistolary form points to the relational aspect of writing and allows for a level of intimacy that can be harder to tap into when the intended audience is less specific. It highlights what knowledge is shared, what can be offered, and what one wishes to receive. In Impact, the epistolary form gives voice to a perpetually unmet desire to connect, to share knowledge, to give and receive, showing how traumatic events both create and sever connections between the survivors as well as the deceased. I’m sure there are other ways to communicate this, but I chose the form of letters and that seemed to fit.

AFM: Can you share the intention behind writing “New Normal” in two columns?

SRB: I wrote this one many years ago, so it’s tough to remember exactly. I know I liked how the physicality of the two columns mirrored the kind of schism being discussed in the poem. It also creates a kind of hallway down the middle, your eyes darting side to side as you make your way down the poem. I think all of that was accidental, though. I believe I set out to write a contrapuntal and that’s how it eventually ended up.

AFM: In the poem, “Lucky,” there is the line: “Her name means God’s Princess,” which subtly recognizes yourself in the third person. Could you speak to what informed this choice and who the “I” is in the final line: “The heart quivered each time I escaped over the sill and under the pane”?

SRB: This poem speaks to dissociation, so the third person narration hopefully highlights that kind of unembodied experience of trying to escape yourself and your surroundings. Even in the throes of this kind of self-destructive propulsion, though, there are moments of return. The “I” in the last line is indicative of a return to the present and the body and making a conscious decision to keep fleeing rather than turning back.

AFM: Impact explores forgiveness and grief—do you see these things as being distinct from one another or overlapping?

SRB: For me, they were not only overlapping but intertwined. Sudden and tragic loss triggers very complicated emotional combinations, all of which are compounded when the experience is collective. The lack of discreteness and the way blame and anger get absorbed into the communal grieving process necessitates a movement towards forgiveness as well as acceptance—the fifth and final stage of grief. I don’t see Impact as making it to this destination so much as gesturing towards it on an individual level, grasping for a resolution perpetually out of reach.

AFM: With the incorporation of legal questioning, do you see your book contributing to a larger conversation about the way people are treated in the legal system?

SRB: Our legal apparatus, the way it operates out of sight and out of mind for so many people, is fascinating to me. None of us really knows how impersonal and indifferent it is to human complexity and emotion until we are embedded into it. Your story, your memory, your pain all become useful in this necessarily dispassionate way. With this book, I only hoped to shed some light on that experience. In the aftermath of a tragedy like the one my book explores, this is just one of the many processes set into motion, a kind of churning survivors are pulled into and spit out of. Not the whole story, but certainly part of it.

AFM: Can you speak to the recurring references to Frida Kahlo’s work? How do they relate to the goals of your collection?

SRB: I’d been looking for a touchstone, for an example of an artist making art from tragedy in a way that resonated with my experience of it. What struck me most about Frida Kahlo—and what has me turning to her art and writing again and again—is that she isn’t translating an experience or telling a story so that an outside observer can understand it. Her art, to me, shows the incorporation of a tragedy into a lived life, one that has not been overcome but endured. That felt revelatory to me as someone who for many years felt rushed through processing and pressured to package the event as something I’d learned and grown from, a story I could quickly and succinctly recite. Frida helped me to resist the pull towards narrative reduction and to honor the complexity. As Hayden Herrera noted in her biography of the artist in the quote that serves as Impact’s epigraph: …the accident was too ‘complicated’ and ‘important’ to reduce to a single comprehensible image. I couldn’t agree more.

AFM: Who do you hope your collection reaches?

SRB: If not ourselves, we all know someone who has experienced tragedy, or we’ve read about something tragic that happened to someone somewhere. I hope Impact speaks to what we like to call “unimaginable.” Because, really, what’s more conceivable than human and mechanical error, violence, a fatal crash? It’s living in the aftermath that we fail to imagine and, thus, reimagine. In that way, I hope it reaches anyone who might otherwise struggle to behold another’s pain, to resist the urge to transform it into something beautiful or useful or meaningful.

Impact is available to download for free on the Sundress website.

A photo of the author of "Impact," Sarah Renee Beach, standing in front of some greenery.

Originally from Southeast Texas, Sarah Renee Beach completed her MFA at The New School. Her poetry can be found in White Wall ReviewRust + Moth, and anthologized in Host Publications’ I Scream Social Anthology Vol. 2. She currently lives in Austin, TX. More information about her work may be found at

A black and white photo of Sundress Intern, Annie Fay Meitchik.

Annie Fay Meitchik is a writer and visual artist with her BA in Creative Writing from The New School and a Certificate in Children’s Book Writing from UC San Diego. Through a career in publishing, Annie aims to amplify the voices of marginalized identities while advocating for equality and inclusivity in art/educational spaces. Her work has been published by Matter Press, 12th Street Literary Journal, and UNiDAYS. To learn more, please visit:

Lyric Essentials: Matthew Johnson Reads E. Ethelbert Miller

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials, where we invite authors to share the work of their favorite poets. This month, Matthew Johnson joins us to discuss the work of E Ethelbert Miller, place-based writing, and baseball in poetry and how surprising topics and discuss much broader themes. As always, we hope you enjoy as much as we did.

Ryleigh Wann: When was the first time you read E. Ethelbert Miller’s work? Why did it stand out to you then?

 Matthew Johnson: I first came across E. Ethelbert Miller’s work while I was a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro, so around 2018-2019. I don’t remember how exactly I first saw his name, but I was immediately drawn to his poetry collection by the title itself, If God Invented Baseball; I found it to be creative, as well as his choice for a cover photo, which featured a picture of the legendary Negro League pitcher, Satchel Paige, who is one of my favorite all-time athletes and individuals to have studied and read about. Years later I bought the book, but I initially read it through an inter-library loan; I remember the librarian kinda having this puzzled look when I told them the title of the book, as well as the title of the movie I was checking out at the same time, The Last Black Man in San Francisco. I was really struck by the fact that here was a poet using the sport of baseball to talk about childhood, home, race, politics, and place. Since the ancient Olympics, sports have not just been purely about sports, and at the time, I had seen and read countless articles, documentaries, and non-fiction books about sports mixing with other topics, but not in a poetry book, so to go this collection for the first time was a vastly different experience from the literature I was reading and studying at the time.

RW: How has his writing inspired your own? 

MJ: I was fairly new to the publishing world when I came across Miller’s work. Prior to reading If God Invented Baseball, while I had written poems with a focus on different topics around sports, I had yet to come across an author who dedicated a whole collection of poems based on these similar topics. After reading Miller’s work, it instilled in me a spirit that, ‘yeah, people would be interested in reading about these types of topics if you write about it.’ But, while he talks about these athletes who a lot of people know about, Miller personalizes it to his upbringing and background, which I think is important and allows a writer’s voice to come out. I don’t think it can just be about the athlete or sport; the writer needs to be in there somehow, and Miller does a great job at that. It also stirred in me to go out and research and find like-minded readers and writers. There are a bunch of great magazines out there where athletics and literature blend together (e.g, The Sport Literate, The Under Review, Clinch, The Twin Bill, Words & Sports Quarterly, Aethlon).

RW: Where would you recommend new readers of E. Ethelbert Miller’s work start out? What other similar poets do you recommend? 

MJ: Several poems by E. Ethelbert Miller can be found on Poetry Foundation and, so I think that would be a good place for readers to get started with his work and style. I greatly enjoyed, If God Invented Baseball, and even if you’re not a baseball fan, readers could still take pleasure within it. Two poetry collections I read within the past several years that are a little similar would be, Joe DiMaggio Moves Like Liquid Lightning by Loren Broaddus and Aisle 228 by Sandra Marchetti. These poetry collections, like the work of Miller, use baseball to discuss broader themes that don’t just pertain to sports. I especially enjoyed the aspect of place in their works as they are both writers from the Midwest. I thought each presents that part of the country in an intriguing light to someone who is very unfamiliar with it, as I have only lived on the East Coast.

Matthew Johnson reads “Before Ball Four” by E. Ethelbert Miller

RW: You’re the author of the recent publication, Far From New York State (New York Quarterly Press, 2023). What was the process of creating this collection like? How did you reflect on place, history, and your own experience while writing these poems?

MJ: Having moved around a bit, I have always been fascinated by the idea of regionalism. In the final semester of my graduate career, I was in an early American Literature class and for the final presentation, my topic focused on the works of Washington Irving. I had heard of his famed characters, Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane, and the Headless Horseman, but I never really read his work until then, and I greatly enjoyed reading his Sketch Book. And it was through research, I kinda went down a wormhole and was inspired by artists and writers of New York, and not from the city, but from the rest of the state. Even though New York City is wonderful, there’s a whole bunch of state and experience and beauty north of it, including the parts where I am originally from (New Rochelle in Westchester County). I wanted to write about these experiences, and I looked inward as well as outward, specifically to my parents, who spent the majority of their lives in Westchester County (New Rochelle and Mount Vernon) and have told me countless stories of their childhood and early adulthood. And though my experience wasn’t as vast as theirs, I did have some, including when I returned to New York in adulthood to work in journalism in Oneonta (between Albany and Binghamton). So I wanted to talk about these histories, as well as the histories of the people who inspired me, including in the form of literature, music, and sports.

Read more from this interview at our Patreon

E. Ethelbert Miller was born in the Bronx, New York. A self-described “literary activist,” Miller is on the board of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive multi-issue think tank, and has served as director of the African American Studies Resource Center at Howard University since 1974. His collections of poetry include Andromeda (1974) and How We Sleep on the Nights We Don’t Make Love (2004), among others. The mayor of Baltimore made Miller an honorary citizen of the city in 1994. He received a Columbia Merit Award in 1993 and was honored by First Lady Laura Bush at the White House in 2003. Miller has held positions as scholar-in-residence at George Mason University and as the Jessie Ball DuPont Scholar at Emory & Henry College. He has conducted writing workshops for soldiers and the families of soldiers through Operation Homecoming and is the founder and director of the Ascension Poetry Reading Series, one of the oldest literary series in the Washington area.

Purchase If God Invented Baseball here.

Matthew Johnson is the author of Shadow Folks and Soul Songs (Kelsay Books) and Far from New York State (New York Quarterly Press). His forthcoming chapbook, Too Short to Box with God, is scheduled for a November 2024 release through Finishing Line Press. His work has appeared in Front Porch Review, Roanoke Review, Northern New England Review, South Florida Poetry Journal Up the Staircase Quarterly, and elsewhere. A former sports journalist and editor (The USA Today College, The Daily Star in Oneonta, NY), he has also been a Sundress Publications Residency recipient and a multi-time Best of the Net nominee. An M.A. graduate of UNC-Greensboro, Matthew is currently the managing editor of The Portrait of New England and the poetry editor of The Twin Bill. You can view more of his work and his social media platforms at his website:

Purchase Far from New York State here.

Ryleigh Wann (she/her) hails from Michigan and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. She earned an 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 ReviewThe Shore, and elsewhere. You can visit her website at

Interview with Heather Bartlett, Author of Another Word for Hunger

The cover of a book, showing a white background with a feminine silhouette in black. On top of the silhouette are bold words in orange, "Another Word for Hunger." The word "poems" appears below the title, and Heather Bartlett's name is printed at the bottom right.

Ahead of the release of her new book of poetry Another Word for Hunger, Sundress intern Mack Ibrahim and writer Heather Bartlett discussed themes such as desire and human connection. Here, Bartlett lays it all out on the table in a raw, honest, and insightful way.

Mack Ibrahim: Is there a connection between your collection’s title Another Word for Hunger and your poem’s title “That Kind of Hunger”?

Heather Bartlett: If I were to make a list of synonyms for hunger, it would start with desire. “That Kind of Hunger” is a poem about exploring desire in its simplest form. The speaker in that poem is still young enough that she isn’t constrained by gender norms or societal expectations, even if the reader is keenly aware that these forces exist within the poem. So, the speaker plays the role of the prince when she plays fairytale. She climbs the tree and admires the princess. She doesn’t yet know what is going to change, what is going to be lost, and what the consequences of certain kinds of desire will be as she outgrows this moment.

MI: What is the significance of saying “my lover,” such as in “Tonight I Am,” versus “my love,” such as in “I Spy”?

HB: Distance. Tense. A lover is in a present-tense physical relationship. In “Tonight I Am,” the speaker is so close to her lover that she begins to imagine them as one. But a love, well a love can be anyone, past, present, or future. In “I Spy,” the speaker is so far removed from all these loves that she is watching/missing/admiring them all from a computer screen.

MI: In terms of structure, why is “red | wolf” not included in the three sections of this collection?

HB: The book’s epigraph, “There are things lovely and dangerous still,” comes from a poem by June Jordan. I view “red | wolf,” in many ways, as speaking to that line and its resonance in the collection. The poem draws on the familiar—Red Riding Hood and the Wolf—to begin to explore the roots and meanings of hunger. I let this poem stand on its own because it serves as a prelude. This poem opens the door to the collection.

MI: Can you speak more about your use of parentheses in “red | wolf” and “Mockingbird”?

HB: Sometimes there are two voices speaking at once in a poem. They speak to each other. They speak over each other. They interrupt each other. They give meaning to each other. I’m using parentheses to make space for these voices.

MI: You write powerfully about a few key experiences with your mother. How would you say your relationship with her has influenced your writing?

HB: There are instances in the collection in which the mother figure is based on my relationship with my own mother, yes. She did teach me how to spot the constellations. She did brush the knots out of my wet hair every morning (Hi, Mom). But the mother in these poems is really an amalgamation of influential voices and forces, not just mothers, or parents, or even people in just my life. The mother in these poems represents a larger voice and force. The relationship I explore between mother and daughter in these poems is speaking to a much larger form of hunger—the need to be loved and accepted and valued in the world. So many in the LGBTQ+ community have people in our lives who struggle to accept or understand us when we come out. So many of us live in places where our lives are being devalued. The mother and daughter in these poems are trying to find their way toward something better.

MI: How do the different kinds of love—your feelings for your mother and for your partners in Another Word for Hunger influence each other?

HB: Love is a kind of hunger, isn’t it? It takes on many forms, but it’s always rooted in the desire to be Seen and Recognized. I think I’m seeking a form of that in every relationship, in every poem. It’s miraculous when we find it. And it’s devastating when we don’t.

MI: How would you describe the intersection of spirituality and queerness within your poetry?

HB: I think there is something quite spiritual about the process of coming out. In order to get there, we need to come to know ourselves so fully, so clearly. That process of self-reflecting, self-recognizing, and self-accepting is one of discovery. In the collection, I explore this in a few ways. One of the biggest is through the series of “Eve” poems. Much like the mother figure in the collection, Eve is not simply one figure. She isn’t just Eve who bites the apple; she is many things at once—a symbol of spirituality, of femininity, of “otherness.” She is an idea, a feeling, a version of the self. Throughout the collection, Eve morphs from an external figure into a vital part of the speaker’s own self which she comes to recognize and nurture.

MI: You describe the body and physical touch as signs of intimacy and love. What would you say about the moments where intimacy and love don’t intersect?

HB: Intimacy is a form of longing and of searching. Sometimes it comes out of love and connection. Sometimes it comes out of loneliness and grief. To me, these are equally strong forces.

MI: What do you believe this collection says about loneliness and the desire for acceptance?

HB: Loneliness and desire are not mutually exclusive. They’re parts of one another. They’re born out of the same hunger. We can feel everything all at once and still keep looking for more.

Order your copy of Another Word for Hunger today!

Heather Bartlett, a white woman in a black blouse, peers into the camera with a soft smile.

Heather Bartlett is a poet, writer, and professor. Her poetry and prose can be found in print and online in journals such as the Los Angeles Review, Ninth Letter, RHINO Poetry, and others. She holds an MFA in poetry from Hunter College and is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the State University of New York College at Cortland, where she teaches in the Professional Writing Program and directs Cortland’s visiting writers series, Distinguished Voices in Literature. She is the founding editor of the online literary magazine Hoxie Gorge Review.

Mack Ibrahim, a non-binary person with glasses and short hair, grins. They wear a floral black and red top with black jeans and sit with their arm propped on their knee.

Mack Ibrahim is a second-year at Wheaton College in Illinois. They are majoring in English with a Writing concentration and minoring in American Ethnic Studies. Their hobbies include obsessively reading the webnovel Omniscient Reader’s Viewpoint, going to concerts, and making memes for their D&D group.

Interview with Tennison S. Black, Editor of A Body You Talk To: An Anthology of Contemporary Disability

Following the release of our new e-anthology A Body You Talk To: An Anthology of Contemporary Disability our Editorial Intern Max Stone spoke with editor Tennison S. Black about the importance of sharing and amplifying work by disabled writers, their editorial vision for the anthology, the story behind the title, the inclusion of visual art in the collection, and more.

Max Stone: Could you talk about the title of the anthology? Why this title? Where did it come from and how do you see it unifying this collection of work?

Tennison S. Black: The thing about me that few realize is that I have to coach myself through chronic pain to complete basic tasks. Sometimes I’m really kind to myself, “Okay, here we go. You’ve got this.” And sometimes I’m irritable with the pain or outright inability to accomplish what I want, “Just do it. Oh for fu**’s sake.” But the thing is that I talk to my body all the time. Opening a car door requires a conversation in my mind, “Focus on the ring finger and let it do the work—don’t use the thumb—okay maybe just hook it then turn your shoulders and it’ll work as leverage.”

My primary disability seems hell-bent on taking out my hands, especially. Though I’ve had this disease since 2001, in recent years it’s increased the toll and I seem to be steadily losing my access to the use of my hands. So I talk to them a lot. But also to my knee, my left hip, my shoulders, neck, and spine. I guess it depends on the task but I coach my parts toward cooperation.

In the summer months there’s something about the way my bedroom door was originally hung and so when it swells in the heat, it’s really difficult to open. Every day is hard, but when you combine that with a flare in my hands, I can easily get stuck in my room because the doorknob and the strain of opening the door causes me extreme pain but also because I just can’t pull hard enough to get it to open anymore. At some level my instinct is to sit on the floor and have a good cry until I’m rescued. But no one is coming to rescue anyone else, it seems, and also, that’s not who I want to be in this life—I don’t want to give up. Except when I really really do. The way I bridge the difference is to talk to—I don’t know—the arm, the hand, the disease that puts me in that position, myself for eating something the night before that I know could cause me additional pain—all of it. The hot summer air and humidity that causes my door to do this. The inability to pay for someone to fix it—yes and yes and yes. So I have one of those bodies that you have to talk to just to get through the day. From opening a can or jar, yes even with tools, to carrying my bag, to pulling on my clothes, I need a coach so I coach myself. And in this way, I’m not alone.

MS: Why was it important to put together an anthology of poetry on contemporary
disability at this current moment?  

TSB: I haven’t always been good at saying I’m Disabled. It’s not in my nature to disclose my feelings or my struggles. There are a lot of reasons for this, but mostly I think it came from raising my kids as a single parent with no family or friends, and feeling utterly terrified that if anyone knew the amount of pain I was in on a daily basis, or how much I was struggling, I’d lose my kids. Now, that may seem irrational today, but I can’t overstate how alone I was in those years, and how I was just trying not to die. So it took a lot for me to even begin to understand my own disability, and what it may mean to be Disabled in the world, and also what to do with that information. I was trying to just get by, walking to food banks—got evicted, and on and on. Anyway, I’m not always great at it, and I struggle still, but I feel like I need to do better.

There’s not yet been a time when being Disabled wasn’t a radical act. Yet Disabled writers are still routinely excluded in many presses and open calls. Listen, there are several incredible anthologies of this type so we’re not breaking new ground here but until it’s routine and expected that a certain percentage of writers in every anthology are openly Disabled, we all (meaning presses) have work to do. As for Sundress, this won’t be our last effort toward this end, it’s just our most recent. But I still hear from publishers that Disabled writers are “difficult,” or that we “can’t handle touring and promotion,” and that we’re just “too much,” so we still have a long way to go.

MS: How do you see these poems contributing to the conversation on disability and creating more space and empathy for disabled people in the world? 

TSB: Not all of the work in this anthology is about being Disabled except in as much as everything everyone does is influenced by their identity—Disabled and non-disabled alike. But this anthology is not necessarily intended to focus strictly on the experience of Disability as much as it’s intended to offer one more outlet, one more space for Disabled people to speak their minds or to place their art. It’s another marker saying that we’re here. In some cases these artists and writers are responding to other Disabled writers and artists. But in many cases they’re just representing themselves and saying hey, I want to be included in the conversation, please. And what else is there?
MS: Talk a little bit about your editorial vision for this book; what considerations did you make when choosing which poems to include? A variety of different voices, disabilities, intersecting identities, and poetic forms are represented; was this a conscious, deliberate choice that you made? 

TSB: If I could have accepted every submission, I would have. But what was my vision—I mean here we sit in this world with fascism rising all around us, trying to gobble up and kill everything good. My daily vision is to defy that push, to offer space where people can be in love and in sorrow, in pain and in hope with each other. And to offer that space up to those who are living in defiance of all that is horrid and terrible in the world.
MS: Are there specific poems by different poets that you think speak to or resonate with
each other? If so, which ones and how do they conversate, both in terms of content and

TSB: There are many pieces in this anthology that speak to one another. I’d prefer not to point them out because first I want the reader to have room here. But, too, I want every writer and artist herein to know that I value their work, none above any other, but with immense gratitude nonetheless for each. They’re all special to me and I chose them for that reason alone.
MS: The COVID-19 pandemic is a recurring theme in this anthology. Can you expand on the intersections of disability with the pandemic and the choices you made in selecting poems relating to the topic? Also, did you have an idea of how much of a presence you wanted the pandemic to have in the book going into it? 

TSB: There hasn’t yet been enough said about the impact of the pandemic on our community. Personally, I spent the pandemic with a medically suppressed immune system because it was either that or lose my ability to walk as my disease ravaged my joints. And in fact, it took multiple specialists AND me losing my ability to walk for several months to finally agree to do it because of the pandemic. But my story is far from unique or extraordinary. If you faced the pandemic with a disability, you likely had increased pressure in all of the ways that everyone else had—just more so. From loneliness to financial pressure, to physical challenges and worries amid a potentially deadly pandemic to which many of us were more susceptible—especially to the worst outcomes. I didn’t feel that I could approach the topic of disability at this stage and not also talk about the impact of the pandemic—something many of us are still facing, even if most people have decided it’s over.
MS: Several art pieces are also included in the anthology. Can you speak about your thought process in choosing these pieces? 

TSB: Honestly, if it weren’t for capitalism, we’d all be able to lay around and make art and write and tell stories. And I wouldn’t want to be a part of extricating one of these from another. Wherever my writing is, there will always be room for art. And I hope to include art in every editorial effort I undertake. My thoughts in the selection process here were to include pieces that spoke to or advanced the narrative of the whole and some of those were more visual than others.
MS: Disabilities that aren’t visible are often overlooked and ignored. How do you see A Body You Talk To tackling this issue and making such disabilities, and the people who experience them, more visible and acknowledged?  
TSB: For twenty years I was invisibly Disabled. My disabilities have only become really visible in the last few years, and even then, they again can be invisible to those who don’t understand what they’re seeing. Like so many of us, I have been screamed at for parking in an accessible parking space, or for using the accessible stall in the restroom. I’ve been asked by a very prominent Disability rights advocate why I was there at a disability event and how they could know I was Disabled because I didn’t look disabled to them. It’s awful to be put in these positions so I just don’t think we need to justify ourselves. We don’t owe our medical information to anyone. It’s not really for me to make other Disabled people more visible but to offer them a platform to make themselves more visible (if they choose) is something I can do. And acknowledgement might be nice but what I want is universal accessibility. I want us all to be able to get in and out of buildings and to get around the world without so much difficulty or the need to justify ourselves to others. A Body You Talk To is a place for some Disabled writers and artists to be heard and to publish their work. That alone is, I hope, enough. It’s a room. The real work belongs to the writers and artists contained therein.

A Body You Talk To: An Anthology of Contemporary Disability is free and available to download on the Sundress website

Tennison S. Black (they/she), a queer and multiply disabled autistic, is the author of Survival Strategies (winner of the National Poetry Series, UGA Press 2023). Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in SWWIM, Hotel Amerika, Booth, Wordgathering, and New Mobility, among others. They received an MFA at Arizona State University. They are the Managing Editor at Sundress Publications and Best of the Net. Though Sonoran born, they reside in Washington state.

Max Stone is a poet from Reno, Nevada. He has an MFA in poetry and a BA in English with a minor in Book Arts and Publication from the University of Nevada, Reno. He was born and raised in Reno, but has lived in various other places including New York City, where he played soccer at Queens College. He is the author of two chapbooks: Temporary Preparations (Bottlecap Press, June 2023) and The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful (Ghost City Press, forthcoming July 2023). His work has been published by & Change, just femme and dandy, fifth wheel press, Bender Zine, Black Moon Magazine, The Meadow, Night Coffee Lit, and elsewhere.

Interview with Joy Ladin, Author of Impersonation

Following the republishing of her book Impersonation, Joy Ladin spoke with Doubleback Books editorial intern Pema Donnelly about the revision process of republishing, as well as how her gender transition and relationship with God and religion inspired her poetry.

Pema Donnelly: In your author’s note at the beginning of Impersonation, you talk about what revising was like for you. Could you talk a bit more about what it was like to work with these poems that were coming from all different stages of your transition?

Joy Ladin: My first response to re-reading the book after it was accepted by you was shock. Over the years since its publication, I had occasionally reread individual poems that became regulars at readings. But I hadn’t read it as a whole since the first edition was published in 2015. In addition to being struck by the need for an organization that would make it easier to see the connection between the relations to gender expressed when I wrote each poem, there were a number of poems that simultaneously seemed to cry out for revision, and feel too foreign to re-enter imaginatively. They were my poems, I remembered writing them, but after years of living as rather than struggling to become and grow into myself, they didn’t feel like mine any more. 

As I worked on them, I realized how much my relation to gender when I wrote them had shaped my poetics. Poetics grow out of the problems we are wrestling with when we write—they are ways of using language to explore, or clarify, or navigate, or avoid, or resolve those problems. For example, the earliest poems in Impersonation were written when I was in the closet, hiding my trans identity behind a dissociated male persona. That created two poetics-shaping problems: though I wanted to write poems that were coherent and in some ways true, because I wasn’t present in my body or life, I had little vivid experience, feelings, or even memories to draw on, and because I was in the closet, I dared not say anything that revealed my gender dysphoria or female gender identification. These problems led me to write persona poems about feelings, experiences, and memories that weren’t mine, but which indirectly reflected an unspeakable sense of dislocation, loss, and (internal) exile which, after fifteen years of living as myself, seem like a bad dream. That made it excruciating to revise those poems – to once again approach writing as something that couldn’t reveal or even be about me.  

There are three other poetics-defining relations to gender represented in the book. The poetics of my pre-transition poems were defined by trying to explore or express my struggles with gender in ways that are so abstracted that no one would recognize them. The transition poems were driven by a bundle of exciting new (to me) problems. I was trying to speak from a female subject position I hadn’t yet embodied, and to create language for feelings, fears, and losses that, so far as I knew, no trans poet had yet expressed. I was also, for the first time, trying to write as myself, the person I knew myself to be but had not yet grown into—a problem that lead to me writing a lot in what I think of as the prophetic second-person, as a future voice addressing my struggling, unformed self. Writing about a process of becoming I was in the midst of made it impossible to reach what I now think of as endings or conclusions—like fragments of existential rainbows, the poems begin and end in the middle. And finally, even as I was trying to express the excitement and ecstasy of becoming, because my transition was bound up with the breakup of my home, family, and marriage, I needed to do so in a way that acknowledged the sufferings of those I loved – sufferings I caused by finally being true to myself. I couldn’t revise these poems until I gave up trying to force on them a clarity and conclusion that, I realized, negated the problems that summoned them into being. The only section that was easy to revise was the last one, poems about living as, rather than becoming, an openly trans, female-identified person. Even though I don’t write much about that these days, that relation to gender, and representational problems that grow out of it, are much closer to those I live today. 

PD: You mentioned that the “Transit of Venus” sequence felt very ambitious. What does this sequence mean to you, and how do you feel about it in relation to the book now?

JL: The “Transit of Venus” section represented what were then completely new ways of writing for me—writing about feelings in the present (actually, after 45 years in the closet, openly writing about my feelings was new to me); writing about my life in the midst of living it, rather than fictional lives or abstracted reflections of bits of my life; and what was then a new practice of writing poems composed solely from language sampled from women’s magazines, something which became a staple composition technique, but which then was an effort to learn what it meant to write from a female subject position, as a woman. Those poems were also among my earliest efforts to create language to express transgender experiences and interiority, particularly for the tumultuous emotions surrounding gender transition and the process of becoming. But in the personal sense, the most ambitious aspect of these poems was that they weren’t only efforts to represent and express transgender experience—they were efforts to imagine becoming myself and, in a real sense, my first experiences of being myself. To me, they were crucial parts of gender transition; in fact, I considered their earliest drafts as the beginning of my transition—a crucial test of whether I could write poetry as myself, and so—apologies for being so dramatic, but this was how I thought – of whether I could actually live as myself, or needed to die in order to end my life as a man. 

PD: During the revision process, did any favorites emerge for you? Were there any surprises to revising? For instance, a poem you initially liked didn’t make the final cut, or the opposite, a poem you didn’t like initially made the cut with a few changes?

JL: My biggest surprises came when I went back to poems I cut out of the original manuscript—I have musician envy, so thought of them as outtakes from the original sessions—and found previously unpublished poems some, including “Unmaking Love, “Reincarnation,” and “Letter to the Gender Critical,” and the “Stories” sequence, that seemed relevant and strong enough to include. 

I was also surprised that the father poems in the “Post Mortem” section felt important to me after all these years, and by the sharpness and vividness of some of the “Mind-Body Problem” poems, such as “Photograph 1934” and “To Say You Lived— they reminded me of  a kind of concentration and distillation of image I left behind when I left the closet.

It was a relief to cut three poems I included in the original book even though I had misgivings about them – “Still a Guy,” “She,” and “Exegetical Fingers.” Leaving them out made the book better.

PD: One of my favorite poems while reading Impersonation was “Filibustier”. I think it stands out as one of the more overtly political poems in the collection as well. Was there any specific moment that inspired this piece?

JL: I don’t remember a moment that inspired “Filibustier.” It grew out of techniques I learned during the study of modernist American techniques that became my dissertation and book, Soldering the Abyss: Emily Dickinson and Modern American Poetry, in which I examined how Dickinson would fuse language representing different discourses together in ways that turned them into metaphors for one another. She does it much more concisely and mind-blowingly that I do, of course, but that technique gave me a way to express the intensely ambivalent experience of exploring gender transition while still being in the closet without veering, as I often did at the time, into shame or self-hatred. I suddenly realized that, like gender transition, voting (the metaphorical discourse that makes up most of the poem) is an act of self-expression that is done in private, a self-defining choice no one else witnesses or knows, a way of trying to change the world that may mean a lot to the individual (my mother was a devoted member of the League of Women Voters, and came from a refugee family that saw voting as a gift and sacred responsibility) but which is imperceptible to others. I feared that gender transition would cut me off from society. As I expanded the voting metaphor, the poem surprised me by speaking about gender transition in a way I hadn’t imagined—as a private commitment that would strengthen my social participation, a prophetic glimpse of what happened years later after I started living as myself.

PD: A lot of your poems tend to incorporate God or religious references in some way. What is your relationship to religion & how would you say it has changed & evolved over the course of writing Impersonation’s poems?

JL: I’ve written a lot about my relationship to God and religion (two different things!) and how they are bound up for me with my trans identity, including chunks of my memoir of gender transition, Through the Door of Life, which I wrote before Impersonation, and a book-length work of trans theology, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, which I wrote after it. Long story short, though my family wasn’t religious, I have always had a sense of God’s presence that sustained me through decades of gender-related suicidal depression. My family didn’t talk about God, and I learned as soon as I started taking writing workshops in junior high school that American poets aren’t supposed to talk about God either, unless we occasionally want to do so skeptically or angrily. So though I’ve always written poems with the word “God” in them, for most of my poetic career, I kept my actual relationship with God, like my female gender identification, in the closet. As I did about gender in my pre-transition poems, I wrote about God from a distance, in ways that make God seem like an idea I’m questioning rather than someone who feels like an important part of my life. You can see those closeted techniques for talking about God in several poems in Impersonation, including the first, “A Story About God,” and the last, “Making Love,” in which God is part of a metaphor for queer sexual ecstasy. But in “Gender is Not the Only Transition,” the sequence that makes up much of the post-transition section and was written after most of the rest of the book, I come close to directly representing parts of my actual relationship with God (though still through the veil of the voices to which the poems in the sequence are attributed).

PD: Finally, if you could, what would you like to say to those who are becoming? 

JL: “All beginnings are hard”—that’s a Jewish saying that applies directly to becoming. Becoming new or truer versions of ourselves is hard, because it means living through a series of beginnings. Every time we come out to someone, it’s the beginning of a new relationship. Every time we re-examine our ways of living or thinking or talking or acting from the perspective of the selves we are growing into, it’s a new beginning. When I was in the throes of becoming, everything felt like a beginning: dressing, walking, talking, seeing old friends, going to the bank, sitting on the subway, kissing, waking up as myself rather than to male persona I had to suffer and maintain, even my emotions, felt new, beginnings of a life and self I was just discovering, making up as I went along.    

Because all beginnings are hard, becoming takes toughness, courage, resilience, and hope—and it also takes compassion toward oneself and those who are affected by our becoming. We have to learn to enlist the most grown-up parts of ourselves in caring for the newborn parts of ourselves. As toddlers teach us when they are learning to walk, becoming takes falling down, getting hurt, pulling ourselves up, lurching forward again. 

Most of all I want to tell those who are becoming that though the world may not be ready for you, though it may seem utterly hostile to you, it needs you—because you, and only you, can be the person you are becoming.

Impersonation is available to download for free from Doubleback Books

Joy Ladin has long worked at the tangled intersection of literature and trans identity. She has published ten books of poetry, including her latest collection, Shekhinah Speaks (Selva Oscura Press, 2022); 2021 National Jewish Book Award winner The Book of Ana (EOAGH); and Lamda Literary Award finalists Impersonation and Transmigration. A new collection, Family, is forthcoming from Persea in 2024. She has also published a memoir of gender transition, National Jewish Book Award finalist Through the Door of Life, and a groundbreaking work of trans theology, Lambda Literary and Triangle Award finalist, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective. Her writings have been recognized with a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship, among other honors. Many of her poems, essays, and videos of her presentations are available at

Pema Donnelly is a poet and interdisciplinary creative born and raised in Southern California. In her work, she explores representing queer joy, silver linings, and aspects of her own mental health journey. Today, Pema attends the University of California, Irvine, where she studies English and Education. When she is not studying, you may find her visiting your local estate sales or spending time with her senile tuxedo cat, Rose.

We Call Upon the Author to Explain—Layla Lenhardt

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

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

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

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

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

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

MH: Any advice for others picking cover art? 

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

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

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

MH: What are your main sources of creative inspiration? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother Tongue is available from Main Street Rag

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

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

Lyric Essentials: Kelly Weber Reads Sara Henning

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials, where we invite authors to share the work of their favorite poets. This month, Kelly Weber has joined us to discuss the poetry of Sara Henning and world building in poetry, evocative imagery, and memory’s relationship with lyricism. As always, we hope you enjoy as much as we did.

Ryleigh Wann: How has Sara Henning’s work inspired your own?

Kelly Weber: Henning’s collection was one of many I read as I was thinking about ways to build a sort of complicated family mythology in my first published book, We Are Changed to Deer at the Broken Place. She writes in an unflinching way about trauma and weaves the narrative structure of memory with a lyricism that moves so deftly on the page. There’s such an emotional honesty and directness with luscious sound play and distinctive imagery in her work.

RW: You’re the author of the recent publication, We Are Changed to Deer at the Broken Place (Tupelo Press, 2022). What was the process of creating this collection like? Where did your interest in mythology or formal poetry begin?

KW: This collection really grew out of trying to find a lyric shape and articulation for asexuality and aromanticism, and a lot of the book’s wrestling with the sonnet form and some of its amatonormative traditions are part of the crisis of that book. For a long time I struggled with traditional poetic forms and their restrictions–I still haven’t found a way to write into the sestina that feels genuinely inspiring, for example. But with this book, I realized I loved inventing my own formal changes on the page, like writing a poem with the ampersand as its primary and only piece of punctuation, or really skewing and strangling the traditional sonnet crown into something that was interesting to me. Ultimately the process of creating this collection was about finally finding what was interesting to me about the lyric poem on the page. The thematic concerns followed the formal experiments I was trying, and gradually the themes and shape of the book emerged from there.

Kelly Weber reads “The Truth Only Starlings Will Speak” by Sara Henning

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

KW:The Truth Only Starlings Will Speak” reminds me of the vivid, evocative description in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”–one of Henning’s many fine skills as a writer is her ability to articulate an image with such lush verbs and word choice. Images in that poem like “lymph nodes feverous / in their recursion. Bending to this rapture” are so perfectly observed in both sound and image. This poem is exemplary of her ability to slow down a narrative moment and find the highest lyric pitch within it. Too, she does this brilliantly in “Terra Inferna,” a poem I also love for the girl and the mare “wild enough / to end everything,” the power and agency within those figures. There’s also so much agency and power in “Once, I Prayed in the Water”–a poem that so beautifully celebrates the speaker’s desire, her autonomy, her sense of eroticism and pleasure and living life to the fullest that leads to that sudden, stunning turn to an elegy for the mother, the burial of the person the speaker once was, and a meditation on how “all things   beautiful & terrible / begin to burn.” I love the tension of the water and the fire in this poem, their yoking together through shine.

Kelly Weber reads “Once, I Prayed in the Water” by Sara Henning

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

KW: I’m so thrilled that my first book, We Are Changed to Deer at the Broken Place from Tupelo Press, is now out in the world, and I’ve been busy with readings and events and workshops in support of that release. I’m also excited for my second book, You Bury the Birds in My Pelvis, coming out this fall with Omnidawn Press. It’s a lot happening at once but I’m so grateful for all of it.

Read more from this interview at our Patreon.

Sara Henning is the author of Burn (Southern Illinois University Press, 2024), Terra Incognita (Ohio University Press, 2022), and View from True North (Southern Illinois University Press, 2018). She was awarded the 2015 Crazyhorse Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize, the 2019 Poetry Society of America’s George Bogin Memorial Award, First Prize in the 2020 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award (Passaic County Community College), and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship in poetry to the 2019 Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her work has appeared in journals such as Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southern Humanities Review, Witness, Meridian, and the Cincinnati Review. She is an assistant professor of English at Marshall University.

Find her website here.

Purchase her latest collection Terra Incognita here.

Kelly Weber (she/they) is the author of We Are Changed to Deer at the Broken Place (Tupelo Press, 2022) and You Bury the Birds in My Pelvis, winner of the 2022 Omnidawn First/Second Book Prize (forthcoming October 2023). She is the reviews editor for Seneca Review. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in a Best American Poetry Author Spotlight, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Southeast Review, Salamander, The Journal, Passages North, Foglifter, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Colorado State University and lives with two rescue cats. Find them on Instagram and Twitter at @KellyWeberPoet

Visit her website here.

Purchase their debut collection We Are Changed to Deer at the Broken Place here.

Ryleigh Wann (she/her) hails from Michigan and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. She earned an 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. You can visit her website at

Interview with Athena Nassar, Author of Little Houses

The cover of a book with the illustration of a girl of Egyptian descent with a gray head scarf and dark red lipstick against a black background. The girl's neck transitions into a brick wall which forms part of a house, and there are various pieces of different houses and buildings where her shoulders would be. The title, "Little Houses" is written in tan letters, and the authors name, "Athena Nassar" is written in light gray letters below the tile.

Ahead of the release of her debut full-length poetry collection, Little Houses, Athena Nassar spoke with Sundress Publications editorial intern Nicole Bethune Winters about her poetic choices, poems that were particularly difficult to write and those that Nassar is most connected to, as well as immigration, colonization, and the influence of Egypt, the [American] South, and Puerto Rico on this collection.

Nicole Bethune Winters: Did the organization of the manuscript into different “houses” come before or after deciding on the book’s title? What was the desired effect of presenting the collection in this way?

Athena Nassar: I had divided the sections into houses before I decided on the title of the collection, but the title fell into place soon after. I frequently return to questions of home and belonging throughout the collection, and after having completed the collection, I realize that I was asking myself whether it is possible to make a home out of the body. These houses function as isolated compartments of the self. Each house has its own identity and its own traumas.

NBW: Can you tell me more about the choices you made in poems like “Coming of Age” and “athena as the Garden of Eden”?

AN: The poem “Coming of Age” was conceived after this one time where my brother and I lost our dog when our parents were away. Although I don’t claim to be much of an “animal person,” the knowledge that my family was counting on me to take care of this living thing for a few hours and I failed was very jarring to me. The harsh enjambment and the lack of punctuation, which results in the sentences running into one another, is supposed to replicate a sort of heaving. In this poem, the speaker is submerged in a river searching for their dog who may have drowned, and by the end of the poem, it’s almost as if the speaker herself becomes this drowning dog gasping for air.

NBW: Speaking of “athena as the Garden of Eden,” there is a series of these “athena aspoems that run throughout the second and fourth houses of the collection. What function did you intend for these poems to serve?

AN: Being that these are persona poems, they are meant to function as a departure or an escape from the speaker’s reality, but in some of these poems, the speaker’s reality still manages to slip through. My poem “athena as princess peach,” where the speaker’s “crown has been mauled by a kitchen blender,” is one poem where this slippage occurs. On the other hand, the speaker in my poem “athena as villanelle” successfully escapes from the imposing patriarchal system and assumes another, more dominant role.

NBW: Capitalization seems to play a role in Little Houses—can you tell me more about the reasons you chose to employ it in some instances and not others? Was there a rule that dictated this throughout the collection or was it poem-specific? AN: There wasn’t necessarily a specific reason why I decided to capitalize some poems and leave other poems lowercase. I made those decisions based on what I thought looked the best on the page. Although, I do make sure to capitalize cities, places, and names most of the time.

NBW: Are there any poems that were particularly difficult to write/finish? Is there a specific poem that you feel most connected to?

AN: I wouldn’t say there were any poems that were difficult to write—there were just some that needed to be put away for a while before I could get at the meat of what I had to say. One scenario I can equate this to is when you have an argument with someone, and then you go home, and you think, well, I could’ve said _ , or _. Occasionally, I needed to return to the argument in order to flesh out, and sometimes rewrite, the poem. My poem “the performance,” for example, was one piece that was put away for a year before it occurred to me that it was a poem about reclaiming my sexuality as a woman of color. Suddenly, the “Hottentot Venus” entered the narrative, and it just clicked.

I am connected to all of these poems, but if I had to choose a few that I am most connected to, they would probably be “athena a s princess peach,” “Georgia bleeds,” “Avareh,” and “so i let you be a canvas.” I wrote “athena as princess peach” as a senior in boarding school, and although it does carry a lighthearted tone, it definitely reflects a time of my life when I was first being introduced to the value of agency, as well as questions like who is given power and who is not. “Georgia bleeds” is a piece that I toiled with for a while, but it evolved into a prose poem that encapsulates my upbringing in the South, as well as my Arab heritage, and it will forever be one of my favorites.

NBW: Does the visual component of your poems play a role in how you format them? If so, what aspects of a piece stand out to you the most, or what do you primarily fixate on while you’re writing?

AN: The visual component of my poems are largely impacted by the subject matter. My poem “ghost girls,” for example, has these caesuras scattered throughout the poem, because the speaker is being carried with the wind. In fact, the speaker is the wind itself. These girls cannot be held or felt, and I depict this in the format of this poem. As far as what I tend to fixate on while I’m writing, I am very conscious of the “flow” of the poem. With each line I add, I usually go back and read the whole poem outloud to myself. The flow of a piece is usually the result of a number of things working simultaneously—alliteration, enjambment, percussive sound, visceral imagery, and the selection of the “best” words. There are a few words in particular that I was drawn to in the process of writing the collection: pour, swallow, body, smoke, and tongue, among others.

NBW: In most of the poems, the speaker writes in first-person, yet in a few, like “Dreams Won’t Feed You Forever,” there is a departure from this. What is the desired impact of this perspective shift?

AN: I would say that the majority of these poems are largely autobiographical, and I frequently assume the role of the speaker, but I chose to create some distance in “Dreams Won’t Feed You Forever,” because this is a poem that focuses on my aunt grieving the loss of my grandmother.

NBW: Relationships appear to be constantly evaluated throughout the collection—where do you see the speaker in regards to their relationships with family, culture, and society?

AN: I am a major homebody. I go home to visit my parents in Georgia every chance I get, and this nostalgia seeps into the voice of the speaker in a lot of these poems. I do love my home and where I was raised, but in poems like “Little Houses” and “Georgia bleeds,” I also reflect on the contempt I have for Georgia’s history and its current political climate. The speaker vacillates between these feelings of nostalgia and contempt throughout the collection, and in most poems, the speaker feels both of these things simultaneously.

NBW: In Little Houses, you touch on immigration and colonization directly in some instances, but more subtly in others. What role did these shifts in address play in the writing of this collection?

AN: My father is an immigrant who was born in Cairo, Egypt. He won his visa in a lottery after being disowned by his mother for marrying my mom, who is not Egyptian or Muslim. My father’s background, him going from being the descendant of pharaohs to being disowned and having to be at the mercy of the US immigration system in order to stay here to study, majorly influenced the statement that I wanted my collection to make. My mother, on the other hand, i half Black and half White. In the South during the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan burned a six foot cross in my grandparents’ yard, threatening them to leave the town or be killed, because they were a biracial couple. They eventually decided to move to Puerto Rico, and as a result, my mother was raised there. All of these places weigh heavily on my collection—Egypt, the South, and Puerto Rico—because they are such a large part of where I come from and who I am.

NBW: There is an abundance of strong imagery in this collection—yet I noticed a specific reoccurrence of fruit-related images. Was this happenstance, or an intentional thread woven throughout these poems?

AN: I do tend to gravitate towards fruit imagery, I think, because the settings of a lot of these poems are very lush, warm places, and I feel like the fruit of a place is a huge symbol of the place itself. When I was a child, my father would always come back from the grocery store withthese large gallons of mango juice, which he would refer to as “the nectar of Egypt,” and I began to associate mangoes with Egypt and also my ancestry and my culture. Aside from the symbolic nature of fruit, there is also so much that fruit can contribute to a poem’s atmosphere—it can drip, it can tear open, it can stain, and so on.

Order your copy of Little Houses today!

A woman with a medium-dark skin with long dark hair, wearing a black long-sleeve shirt and black pants seated in a black chair, one arm is resting on the back of the chair and the other is draped into her lap, in a gray room with a grayish wood floor.

Athena Nassar, author of Little Houses (Sundress Publications, 2023), is an Egyptian-American poet, essayist, and short story writer from Atlanta, Georgia. Her work has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, The Missouri Review, The McNeese Review, New Orleans Review, Zone 3, The Los Angeles Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, PANK, and elsewhere.

Nicole Bethune Winters is a poet, writer and multi-faceted artist, though her primary love is working with clay. Her first book of poetry, brackish was published by Finishing Line Press, and her work has appeared in Backlash Journal, Wildroof Journal, and Seaborne Magazine. When she isn’t writing or wheel-throwing, Nicole is likely at the beach, on a trail, climbing, or exploring new landscapes with her dog. She currently resides in Southern California, where she works as a full-time artist from her home studio.

We Call Upon the Author to Explain—Raena Shirali

"We Call Upon the Author to Explain" is written in large serif letters. "Explain" is underlined and written in teal, while the rest is written in black on a white background.

summonings by Raena Shirali is a poetry collection with prismatic points of view, all screaming for society’s scapegoats to be seen as human again, for their blood—shed in the name of fear—to be seen at all. One of the poems, “at first, trying to reach those accused” describes the author researching the stories of the accused witches and trying to embody them, so much so that she swallows matchsticks, pages, wax, desire, and inevitably herself. The last lines are “i mouthed a name i’d never heard & felt her / like my own ghost. there was no magic: it was not profound.” This interview is a conversation on craft, but really it is an extension of this searing poem. It is about the horror Shirali swallowed in order to utter summonings.

Marah Hoffman: You say in the foreword that your book must be “grounded in the inevitable failure to embody the Other.” Readers can see this grounding in phrases like, “i’m too young / to be telling your story, & privileged.” Can you describe your understanding of ethos in telling these stories and explain how you sought to suffuse this ethos into your speakers?

Raena Shirali: Yeah, absolutely. Such a good question to start off on, and thank you so much for asking it. Ethos is a good word to start thinking about this. I think of it as credibility outside of only writing what you intimately know. That was a nice framework to go into these questions with. I think of the “write what you know” adage to be really limiting, and that is not how I approached the subject matter of this book. So, I modified it. I think ethos is not writing only what you know but speaking truthfully about what you can and cannot know. Letting those gaps in your ability to understand a phenomenon as grave and dire and horrific as this one exist—maybe those gaps are where the ethos comes in.

MH: I love your understanding of the word and what it implies. If we only wrote what we knew, the stories of those without the ability to share them would be lost. That’s why docu-poetry is so important.

RS: It’s so true. Every time I talk to someone about this, they ask, “How does fiction writing play in here?” I don’t think the artistic imagination should stop with only what you experience yourself. Whole genres would get demolished by a narrow understanding of ethos.

MH: You are so honest about what you are seeking to accomplish with your collection. You make it clear all the points of view you are using, and that the book doesn’t necessarily contain answers to the tragedies. Just summonings. Hence the title. 

RS: Thank you for saying that. I’m glad it’s working. Always good to hear.

MH: Of course. My second question is about one of my favorite poems, “ghazal against [declining to name the subject].” In this poem, the title, punctuation, and use of brackets subvert the expectations associated with formal verse. The piece is emblematic of the entire collection’s refusal to express in shackles. There is intentionality in the way you utilize formal elements. Would you care to speak about your process for integrating (and extracting) formal elements?

RS: I love the phrasing in this question of “refusing to express in shackles.” One of the beautiful things about being interviewed is that people will say to you the things you have been trying so hard to express but haven’t found the clearest language for. This was one of those moments.

Your question speaks to me for a couple of reasons. It taps into the tension at the heart of writing the book—making these decisions around what formal components are and are not included and subverted. I decided I can’t do this without being extremely honest, extremely forthcoming. This is a huge preoccupation in the writing.

There are a few things to point out in your question. One is the use of brackets. Throughout the collection, brackets refer to research being included from anthropological sources. In this poem, it refers to a part of a quote from Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others. Here, by virtue of brackets being a formal component, it’s explicitly commenting on the theory of looking at violence that is not occurring to you. For me, brackets were an interesting way of showing my work but not to get credit for showing my work, more like showing my work as a way to bring the reader into the web of research I was living in. That formal choice came pretty late actually. I wasn’t sure I was going to use brackets or include this more theoretical language. But it became necessary. There was too much in my head that was not clear in a given poem.

Another important thing to point out is capitalization. Only the names of women who’ve been accused of being witches are capitalized here. That was a very intentional decision to make it clear that they are given more respect. They are real, brave, absolutely vulnerable voices. Everything that came from me felt like it needed to be lowercase.

There’s that play between formal cohesion and experiment throughout the book. The last thing that I’ll say about the ghazal is that it’s one of only a few poems in traditional form included in this text, and that’s because I tend to focus on form more through rhyme and music and sound, rather than through formal constraint. That goes back to ethos. The form itself imposes a constraint, but it only holds briefly. This poem is also a rare example where the subject, women who have been accused and tortured, is named. So the constraint exists, fleetingly, and it, too, is a failure that must necessarily be followed by its dissolution.

MH: Thank you for answering so many parts of that question. It’s clear that your thinking was expansive. Even the capitalizing of letters, it all speaks to the way you are amplifying these women.

RS: A lot of that is where the power of revision comes in. I think that’s so important to say in interviews. This is a very intimidating book. It’s intimidating for me to look at, and it was intimidating for me to revise. There was so much intentionality. Everything has some philosophical meaning behind it. Hopefully, that comes across. But I just want to reiterate that this comes from relentless revision.

MH: I can attest that it does come across. My next question also highlights your intentionality.

Point of view is an element that contributes to the power of the text. Considering the varying POVs that summonings adopts, I kept having one word come to mind—alchemic. The frequent yet fluctuating use of the first person plural strikes the root of the collection, which is that we must see ourselves as “we.” We must believe “Any woman’s death diminishes me,” the Adrienne Rich quote that set the scene for the collection. One of my favorite instances of this POV is, “they’ll think by us i mean daayans but you know i mean us : women : mistaken for all kinds of foliage. grasping root. wilting petals. Gentle weed.” Can you explain your goals/motives in using POV?

RS: I think it’s important to say that the first poems I wrote for this collection were personal poems, from the perspectives of daayans, the witch hunter and village priest, the villagers, and the mountains. That came from a prompt that I gave myself to write a personal poem from every part of the landscape that I was encountering in the research. I asked myself, “What does this act of violence look like from in the distance, from above?” I was doing a lot of kaleidoscopic thinking: painting a scene, trying to tell all sides of the story. In terms of why women are hunted, it’s not just misogyny. There are these long-standing inequities that people are desperate to justify. I didn’t want to write a book that was just surface-level. The first way that I thought I would go deeper was point of view.

Once I started doing that, it became clear to me that it’s impossible to access every single part of this landscape. That is where the inevitable failure entered into the project more broadly. Then POVs closer to my own came in as well as poems that are highly lyrical. Thinking about the different speakers isn’t the only method for coming to understand what I’m talking about, and it’s not all I’m talking about. I’m not just discussing India. The poems are cross-cultural.

The shifting POVs felt like the best way for me to encapsulate for a reader what it felt like to write the book, to dip in and out of research. You know how it is. You read something horrible, and then you carry it with you for the rest of your day. It affects the way you interpret the imagery around you, and then of course it’s there with you when you sit down to write.

You also had a great observation about the collective. There is an arc in the book intentionally toward using collective pronouns more, toward the spirit of that quote from Adrienne Rich. The last line of the last poem is that “no one follows us home.” It’s a prayer for all women or anyone who identifies as a woman or anyone who doesn’t feel safe in public, frankly. It’s for us and by us collectively.

MH: As a reader, I noticed the arc of the collective really shifting my thinking. I think it disrupts the reader’s ability to compartmentalize. As you said, the horror sits with you. For the daayans, the pain is constant. The pain we get from reading is only temporary, so the least we can do is feel it.

RS: I completely agree.

MH: My next question gets at the specific symbolism you use to highlight the themes of the text. There are many recurring symbols throughout the collection; my favorite among them is blood. A woman’s blood, specifically menstrual blood, is often a source of shame. Yet you embed strength and identity within it. Can you speak to your choice to use blood as a dominant symbol?

RS: The first thing with blood has to be menstruation. There’s a lot of fear of women’s sexuality and menstruation within the mythologies that inform the cultures where this takes place. There are ideologies I read about that quite explicitly say, “A woman is considered impure if she is menstruating near an image of the gods.” Women are not supposed to go near, into, or around temples on their period. There’s the notion that a woman who is naked and bleeding in public is suspicious and could be a witch. There are those specific and necessitated mentions of the word blood because it is part of the research. But also, I think blood is really important because it is part of what renders the subject of this book more real. I think about Salem first when I’m thinking about a Western audience for this book, which is very different than thinking about an Indian audience. I’m initially considering what kinds of tropes and rumors we have culturally about witches and how often is the visceral reality that someone’s skin is being punctured part of that. There are common myths that will feel familiar to readers. There’s a line that says, “If we float, if we float” which literally refers to a tradition, both in Indian and Western witch hunting, of filling a woman’s pockets with stones and putting her in a body of water and if she sinks, she’s not a witch, but she’s dead; and if she floats, she’s a witch, so you kill her. Those mythologies cover up the reality of the person underneath them. They’re being drowned. There’s a submersion that becomes almost figurative in lore, and not a lot of addressing the true horror. A lot of Indian women who are tortured for this are beheaded. There is a bloodletting and a lynching and a very real violence inflicted on these people. Including blood so often was probably me being a bit heavy-handed, but with a set of realism-fueled intentions.

MH: The subject matter demands there be bloodshed on the pages.

RS: I think so too. There are stories in the back matter of the book. Like the story of a 63-year-old woman who was dragged from her home and tortured and beheaded. These stories do not exist within a Western author’s mythic imagination, and that felt like something to take advantage of. They do exist within some Indian writer’s and reader’s imaginations, and that too felt like something to take advantage of. I wanted to remind people that it’s not some woman whose feet are facing backward, whose braid is wrapped around her waist, who ate husband’s heart. It was an old, innocent woman who was defenseless and was murdered. A big part of me pushing against the idea of witchiness being cool was me using the word blood so often.

MH: Your language definitely encourages readers to see the subjects as women, not witches.

RS: Our position as women is to live in a state of constant shame, in India and in America. That is a reality in both places. There is a defiance in the naming of it as opposed to owning it or claiming blood is sexy—some sort of positive affirmation version of it. There is power even in acknowledging blood is part of our reality, and we exist in a state of constant shame. That’s part of why we are not safe.

MH: Yes, blood needed to have a presence in the collection. This conversation actually leads us into my next question about how gender exists within the text. Because your collection is concerned with the very real issue of witch-hunting, gender is an important topic. One standout quote about gender is, “here, there is no archetype ungendered.” How did you grapple with notions of gender while composing the collection? 

RS: The context within which the word “woman” is being wielded points to a series of Indian and American archetypes, myths, rumors, hierarchies, all of which result in women being victimized. And I want it to be clear that my intention in using the word “woman” is absolutely not to exclude anyone—whether that’s folks who identify with the word, or folks who don’t. In the later poems of the book—when my point of view enters more explicitly and so, too, does the Empire as a setting—I’m referring to anyone who does not feel safe in public spaces. I mean it to be an encompassing word.

Language is not perfect. I think that is one of the tropes of the book. We are so limited in our abilities to understand the highly complex phenomena that dictate the way we move through space and live our lives and write and read and research and have empathy or resist empathy. The word woman is just one word. I’ve encouraged listeners on tour to replace this with a word that they feel most seen by. In some poems, the word woman is very important, and in some poems the word woman is there for cohesion. Who is safe and who is not safe is different in each of these contexts. It’s part of steeping the reader in the discomfort of the research. It’s not pleasant to read how women are seen as less than, to track an evolution of their knowledge being suspicious rather than connected to the environment. The word woman is the word in the research, and so it’s the word here.

MH: I love listening to you discuss language because as I said earlier, intentionality was a word that kept coming to mind while reading. The voices in the poems make the diverse forms of oppression clear. I think that is unifying. Everyone will be alarmed by the suffering. You can’t read the book and not see that it is bringing everyone to the same understanding of pain. 

RS: I think that the word alarm is really important. I thought the book had to be as alarming to a reader as it was for me to be a reader of the research. That was why I decided to include research itself. I thought, “Oh, I have to replicate this.” Research needs to be part of it, or the stories would only be artifice and nothing would point to the way we talk about these phenomena culturally. These are stories that we trade in, so the language that we use to even trade in them is really important to replicate and eventually interrogate. But first I had to replicate it. 

It is important to note too that this isn’t isolated to India in modern day, in our moment. There are countries in Africa that still have a practice of witch hunting. In some cultures, they are more suspicious of children than women. It’s not always the same. Each place creates its own culture of suspicion, fear, and accusation. It is a way to make peace with living. There is a collective need for a scapegoat, something to explain why life is so awful. How that looks different in different cultures is such a fascinating apparatus to engage with. This book touches on so little of that. It’s a far more widespread, current phenomena than this book could ever hope to address.

MH: There are myriad searing images of female suffering throughout summonings. I personally felt haunted by these images as a reader. What was your emotional journey with this book?

RS: Searing is a good word. I felt seared. I feel seared, perpetually. I think that researching it was a really complicated emotional rollercoaster to go on daily, to pull myself out of whatever otherwise pleasant day I was having and sit with a 400-page book on the social hierarchies in tea plantations in West Bengal. Outside of the research being mentally taxing, it was emotionally searing.

The trick for me is that I write best when I am so enraged or disgusted with an inequality that I cannot possibly move on. That is the most surefire way to get a poem to come out of me. That was true in my first book too. In this book, my struggle was staying focused when I wanted so badly to look away. To get asked, “What’s for dinner?” in the middle of reading and then have to come back to a passage about a woman being killed as part of a land dispute was difficult. The research process, as a result, felt incredibly active. Every word felt like a decision, a decision to continue. Putting the books down felt like how dare I, because I can walk away from this and they can’t. I resisted the need for a break because of exactly what we’ve been talking about, because it feels wrong to complain that reading about a phenomenon is grueling when the phenomenon itself is someone on Earth being tortured.

In many ways, it being grueling is what kept my compass pointing North in terms of ethos, because the ethos was there in the research the entire time. That made certain poems have to exist, like “lucky inhabitant.” The more I researched, the more I realized the experience of the research is part of what the book is trying to capture for readers. I want readers to feel forever altered by what they learned in the text, because it has forever altered me.

summonings is available at Black Lawrence Press

Raena Shirali is the author of two collections of poetry. Her first book, GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), won the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award, and her second, summonings (Black Lawrence Press, 2022)won the 2021 Hudson Prize. Winner of a Pushcart Prize & a former Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University, Shirali is also the recipient of prizes and honors from VIDA, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, Cosmonauts Avenue. Formerly a Co-Editor-in-Chief of Muzzle Magazine, Shirali now serves as Faculty Advisor for Folio—a literary magazine dedicated to publishing works by undergraduate students at the national level. She holds an MFA in Poetry from The Ohio State University and is an Assistant Professor of English at Holy Family University. The Indian American poet was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, and now lives in Philadelphia.

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

Lyric Essentials: Anthony DiPietro Reads Diane Seuss

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials, where we invite writers to read the work of their favorite poets. This month, Anthony DiPietro joins us to discuss the work of Diane Seuss and line length in poetry, the intersection of play and rules, and insight regarding the perks of writing prompts. As always, we hope you enjoy reading as much as we did.

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

Anthony DiPietro: Diane Seuss taught at The Frost Place in 2017 while I was assisting the director, and I had the chance to study in her class. Before we all arrived in New Hampshire, while she was reading my packet of work, I was reading her book Four Legged Girl. When she arrived, she walked up to me to check in, and the director introduced us. She told me she dug my poems, which really bowled me over, and all I could say was “I like yours too.” Later in the week, she gave a reading and afterwards signed my copy of her book with a kind note and a lipstick kiss on the title page. I went on to read just about everything she’s written.

When I was first discovering her poems, I was drawn to her play between titles and first lines as well as her often long lines that run together. There’s almost a tease sometimes that this poem will be one long sentence. What that’s really about is an exuberance of voice, a confidence. She jumps headlong into a poem, and you just have to go along for the ride. If you look at “Either everything is sexual,” sometimes she chooses to end the sentence with a period, and that stop has certainty–a certainty of tone if not of fact. Other times, she strings sentences together with commas, including the final question that ends the poem, as if the momentum of her poem-story won’t let her reach a full stop. Sometimes there are fragments parading as sentences, which would suggest an incomplete thought, but she has a way of eventually coming back to complete every thought later, which is super satisfying. I think I saw her playing on the page, and it reminded me that when we write, we can sometimes return to our kindergarten self: we know no rules when we’re first learning to write or draw or sing. Creativity is just for expression. I’m making it sound like she doesn’t care for rules, but she’s also said that she selects each word with the care of a jeweler–and that is immediately apparent in any Diane Seuss poem. She’s making choices everywhere. You see them and you feel them on a gut level. Ultimately, I feel a kinship to Diane Seuss because she’s doing what I imagine all great poets do, or maybe it’s just the clan of poets in what I consider my lineage, which is to turn the raw material of our life, our biography, into a mythology. To do that is to generate image systems we keep drawing from. And to sound slick doing it.

Anthony DiPietro reads “[I fell on an incline]” by Diane Seuss

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

AD: I chose poems that I felt had something in common with my own work. “I aborted two daughters,” reminds me of my poem “A few years ago, I got a ticket for being exposed” which starts with me naked on a beach where I shouldn’t have been naked. I wrote it after reading Dolly Lemke’s poem “I never went to that movie at 12:45” in Best American Poetry 2010, where her liner notes say, “I have pretty much laid out all my faults, mistakes, and negative attributes for everyone to read.” I took those instructions as a prompt to enter directly into the vein of confessional poetry. Alongside the bigger sins, Lemke and I both pepper our lists with mundane references–coffee, shopping, shoes, sugar. In Seuss’s first line, the poem appears to respond to that same impulse: I’m about to tell you the worst thing about me (or the worst thing I’ve ever done). But in fact the poem goes to completely unpredictable places.

The same could be said for the poem “Either everything is sexual, or nothing is.” I love a poem that sets itself up that way: such an absolute, black and white statement that it can only be a false hypothesis. The title reads as a demand for an argument, and the poem answers that demand. And more than an argument, it becomes a sort of manifesto–or am I just projecting here? Sex ranks first on my list of writerly obsessions, so it’s possible. And this argument or manifesto takes the form of this positively luscious, exuberant list of images. I love list poems; I think every poem I write is based around some form of list. Around the time I met this poem, I was beginning to think of my aesthetic as embracing the idea that more is more–which is supposed to be against the rules in poetry–but I believe that a queer or camp aesthetic is built on an over-the-top quality. I have tried to write as over-the-top as this poem goes, and I can’t get there. I’m beat.

The third poem, “I fell on an incline,” I chose because of the way the poem travels. With almost impossible compression, the poem literally criss-crosses the continent while also time traveling to memories from different decades. I’m often reaching for a similar effect in my poems. When it works, it feels like you’ve actually traveled all these places, like you’ve danced yourself dizzy. You’ve been dropped off somewhere disorienting, but it turns out to be nirvana. The self-address in her last three words of this poem are signature Diane Seuss, just fully and unmistakably her voice. I can’t quite put into words where that little gesture takes me, but I get there every time I read it.

Anthony DiPietro reads “[I aborted two daughters]”

RW: Seuss’s latest poetry collection is made up entirely of sonnets. What do you think the benefits of writing formal poetry can be? How does your own writing interact with different forms, musicality, meter, etc.?

AD: One poem in that book begins, “The sonnet, like poverty, teaches you what you can do / without.” Which apart from being a brilliant line break seems to be a clue about one of the reasons she’s drawn to the form. I’m definitely aligned with Seuss in this–I like to make use of forms.

I believe that a good prompt brings together an expansive element to help you generate words and ideas, plus at least one constraining element, something that limits you. Without the limiting element, you might be making a grocery list rather than writing poetry. Writing in forms, or against a form, however you choose to think of it, is a constraining element. It becomes the box that you try to think outside of. When you start to write up against those limits, you suddenly find yourself saying what you didn’t expect to and wouldn’t have otherwise, which gives the poem a pulse of surprise or discovery. 

That being said, as much as I’m a fan of forms, I don’t want something too strict, particularly a strict meter. I want my cadence to feel like mine. Musicality is not what I consider my strength or natural gift. Some poets have an ear for the music in the language, some write by ear and only later bring in sense–the logic, the drama, whatever meaning-making is happening in the poem. I’m quite the opposite. Sense comes first, and at some stage I revise to make sure its music works. Possibly, for this reason, I’m drawn to contemporary forms that invite you to test their limits and try to break them. For example, I find sestinas too dense, so I invented a form that borrows the sestina’s patterns but has 18 lines rather than 39.

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

AD: Most exciting is that my debut poetry collection, kiss & release, is under contract to be published in 2024. While I wait for that, I’m working on another poetry book. I’m playing with persona in a different way from my past work, which is great fun. And I’m planning to attend one or more writing residencies next year to get some more focused time with that manuscript. Something a little more unexpected is that I’m also working on my first screenplay, a gay romantic comedy. We were just talking about forms, and romantic comedies are another example. They’re totally formulaic but seem to be able to hold an infinite number of combinations of characters and circumstances that lead to different results–some are more funny, some are more romantic, sometimes one partner has to grow, sometimes both, etc. You have to understand the form deeply to be able to do something new within it. That’s why I’ve been writing this since I think 2019. Also it became a little harder to finish when, in life, I got to the ending of my own romantic comedy when I met my partner in 2020 and moved in together last year.

Read more from this interview at our Patreon.

Diane Seuss is poet, teacher, and the author of five books of poetry, including frank: sonnets (Graywolf Press, 2021), winner of the 2022 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (Graywolf Press, 2018), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry; Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf Press, 2015), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), recipient of the Juniper Prize for Poetry. Seuss lives in Michigan.

Purchase her collection, frank: sonnets, here.

Anthony DiPietro is a gay Rhode Island-born writer and arts administrator now living in Worcester, MA. He earned a creative writing MFA at Stony Brook University, where he also taught courses and planned and diversified arts programming. He now serves as deputy director of Rose Art Museum. His first chapbook, And Walk Through, a series of poems composed on a typewriter during the pandemic lockdowns, is now available, and his full-length poetry collection, kiss & release, will appear from Unsolicited Press in 2024. His website is

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. Follow her on Twitter @wannderfullll or read her publications at