Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! Today we’ve chatted with educator and poet Sunni Brown Wilkinson about Lisel Mueller’s work, revealing what you’ve been reading in your work, and connecting writing to occupied spaces and histories. As always, thank you for tuning in!
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: How and when did you first discover Mueller’s work?
Sunni Brown Wilkinson: I’d seen Mueller’s name around on the internet for a while on poems I really liked, and then about a year ago a poet friend posted ‘Alive Together’ on her Facebook page one day and wrote about how much honor she gave that single poem, how profound it is. I went to the library a week or so later and checked out the book Alive Together, Mueller’s newer and selected poems, and fell in love with her work. I’ve been exploring her poetry ever since.
AH: Mueller’s work is often said to engage with history and folklore, with both personal and private lives. As a writer, do you relate to this inspiration, and if so, how?
SBW: I very much relate. One of the things I love most about Mueller is the way she celebrates the domestic life as a vibrant, necessary space, but also connects that space with history and specific historical or artistic figures. It’s as if she’s constantly braiding together moments in her day, things she touches and people she loves, with something she read about a composer or a study on bees or a meditation on Monet. She sees how things intersect.
And her own family history of fleeing Germany at the onset of WW II at age 15 with her parents and, from the safe harbor of America, watching her native country implode, informs nearly every poem, if not contextually than in spirit. Where we come from and the road of our past, the marvel of being able to live the life we do, are themes that seem to hold onto the hands of nearly all of her poems.
AH: How has Mueller’s work inspired you?
SBW: My mentor in grad school, Christopher Howell, once said, “Your work should reveal what you’ve been reading.” I love how Mueller does this so openly in her writing. She writes directly about Mary Shelley, Patricia Hearst, science magazines, composers, fairy tales. Each poem is a portal into this living space where other great minds work and mourn and live. She keeps a humility about her own genius by admiring the genius and discoveries of others.
Her poem “Reading The Brothers Grimm to Jenny” is just heartbreakingly lovely. The line “Jenny, we make just dreams/ out of our unjust lives,” and the image at the end of herself holding “the golden key” for her daughter, whose understanding of the world is rooted in her mother’s words, reveal this person who knows the worst of the world and still believes in the magic. And who reverences the childlike belief that good will conquer all. She both questions and celebrates that.
There’s a warmth, a curiosity, and an admirable dexterity of the mind that comes through in every Mueller poem. She’s equally comfortable writing about her grandmother’s gold pin, bees, roadtripping down the highway, and picking raspberries as she is writing about classical music and composers, Monet, the Queen of Sheba. Why wouldn’t you want to hang out with someone like that? She’s interested in everything! She’s down to earth and deeply perceptive. Her language is electric and accessible. If we could choose a BFF dead poet, mine would be Lisel Mueller. She reminds me to stay curious, read gobs, and live purposefully in my own quiet
AH: What have you been up to lately? Got any exciting news to share (about life, writing, anything!)?
SBW: I recently started writing essays. I’m taking a very slow route to putting together a
collection, but I’ll get there. I’ve already got the central ideas in place and am tinkering
with the parts. It’s also coming up on Halloween, so that means we’re reading scary stories at our house and going for hikes in the foothills and having fires in the fire pit and making lots of soup, so life is good!
Lisel Muller was an American poetry born in Germany. After fleeing Nazi Germany at age fifteen with her family, Mueller became interested in memory and history within poetry, which led her to produce prolific work. She is the author of the Second Language (1986) and The Need to Hold Still, among many other books.
Read more about her at Poetry Foundation.
Read her poem “Afterthoughts by the Lovers.”
Find her in-depth obituary in The New York Times.
Sunni Brown Wilkinson’s most recent work can be found in Western Humanities Review, Coal Hill Review, New Ohio Review, Ruminate, and South Dakota Review. She is the author of The Marriage of the Moon and the Field (Black Lawrence Press, 2019) and The Ache & The Wing (winner of Sundress Publications’ 2020 Chapbook Prize). Her work has been awarded New Ohio Review’s NORward Poetry Prize, the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize, and the Sherwin W. Howard Award and was runner-up for the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize. She teaches at Weber State University and lives in northern Utah with her husband and three sons.
Find Sunni’s collection The Marriage of the Moon and the Field here.
Read two of her poems here.
Find an interview with Sunni here.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a multimedia artist and writer. She has had work appear in Barren Magazine, Hobart, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief at both Mud Season Review and Juven Press, and reads for EX/POST Magazine. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com