Lyric Essentials: Sarah Lilius reads Anne Sexton

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week poet Sarah Lilius joined us to read poems written by Anne Sexton, and discuss the nature of confessional poetry and how there is an intense intimacy when being open in your work. Thank you for tuning in!

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: During our correspondence, you’ve mentioned that Anne Sexton is your favorite poet. As you’ve grown as both a poet and an individual how has Anne Sexton influenced you? 

Sarah Lilius: When I was younger, I was always struck by how confessional Sexton’s poetry is. I’m sure that her work has definitely influenced mine over the years. I find myself writing from my own experiences and it’s often therapeutic, much like hers was intended to be at first. Much of my work is drawn from my experiences as a woman and as someone who has faced mental health struggles. I think of Anne Sexton as my favorite poet not only because I love her work, but because I always come back to it for inspiration. I think
Sexton’s poetry is refreshing not off putting because it’s confessional.

Sarah Lilius reads “Her Kind” by Anne Sexton.

AH: On a similar vein to the previous question, as you’ve grown older or more experienced, has your view of Anne Sexton and her work shifted?

SL: Some of my viewpoints towards Sexton changed after I read her daughter’s memoir (Searching for Mercy Street: My Journal Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton by Linda Gray Sexton). On the one hand, the book strengthened the argument for me that mental illness should be taken seriously and treated adequately. The stigma of mental illness is a dangerous societal problem that ruins lives. I think access to education about mental health issues and mental health care is crucial to help the situation. Despite the negative allegations surrounding Sexton, I think her work is important to the poetry canon because it still adds a strong female voice. On the other hand, I’m torn by the viewpointof Sexton painted by her daughter. Should we revere someone that harms their children? I think I need time to process how I feel about this issue.

Sarah Lilius reads “Wanting to Die” by Anne Sexton.

AH: What compelled you to choose these specific poems? 

SL: I chose “Her Kind” because I know what it feels like to be a “different” kind of woman. When I was growing up, especially as a teenager and young woman, I often had different ways of looking at things, of understanding the world. I’m still like that today; it could be the poetry life inside my mind. Also, I like the tone of the poem which is confident and haunting. In general, it’s easy to be misunderstood when you’re a woman. Others tend to pigeonhole women into categories or to stereotype us and then treat us how they think is appropriate. I like the language and imagery that Sexton uses, such as, the witch in the neighborhood, the cave stanza which reminds me of a woman in a kitchen, and the last stanza which shows a woman being drove around in a cart. The last stanza has a feeling of escape and freedom and then she writes, “a woman like that is not ashamed to die,” and I think this line leads into the other poem I picked, “Wanting to Die.” Sexton owns the very idea of death and is unafraid what others will think of her when she does take her own life.

I chose “Wanting to Die” because of the frank, specific nature of the language and how the idea of wanting to die is taboo in our culture. The lust of wanting to commit suicide is something that consumed Sexton and ultimately destroyed her. She lost the struggle, but I like to think of myself and hopefully many others as being able to resist that incredible feeling, to get the help we need and live out our lives. The fact that Sexton started writing poems as a form of therapy is interesting and poignant to this matter. Poetry is an important art form used to express oneself and to interpret the world. Poetry couldn’t save Anne Sexton and I think we, as poets, can learn from that.

AH: What do you admire most in Sexton’s poems? 

SL: I most admire Sexton’s unabashed sense of self in her work and also the images she chooses. Often her poems seem just commonplace but then she will hit the reader with an obscure image or great sound, and I love that. My favorite Anne Sexton poem is “The Truth the Dead Know” because the grief she expresses feels concrete and almost like a living thing. I think grief poems are the hardest to write and this poem always hits it for me especially after my father died. “I am tired of being brave” she writes. This sentiment feels perfect.

Sarah Lilius is the author of five chapbooks including GIRL (dancing girl press, 2017) and Traffic Girl (Ghost City Press, 2020). Her first full-length poetry collection is forthcoming from Indie Blu(e) Publishing. Some of her publication credits include the Denver Quarterly, Court GreenFourteen Hills, Boulevard, and forthcoming in the Massachusetts Review and New South. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net Prize. She lives in Arlington, VA with her husband and two sons. Her website is

Further reading:

neil young gives me heart palpitations in the living room,” published in perhappened

Ode to COVID-19,” published in Global Poemic

Hominidae or Homo Sapiens,” published in Willawaw Journal

Anne Sexton was born in Massachusetts and is seen as a face of the confessional poetry movement. She was a trailblazer who was seen as very autobiographical in nature, as she wrote about intimate details of her life, such as depression, her interpersonal relationships, and thoughts of suicide. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for her collection Live or Die.

Read her work here.

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi has had work appear in Into the Void Magazine, Mud Season Review, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She currently reads for Mud Season Review and EX/POST Magazine, is the Playwriting & Director’s Apprentice at New Perspectives Theatre Company, was a Brooklyn Poets Fellow, and is the co-Editor in Chief of Juven Press. She can be found at

Lyric Essentials: Brice Maiurro reads James Tate

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, poet, editor and community organizer Brice Maiurro joins us to read James Tate and explore the often overlooked world of the strange and whimsical within poetry. As always, thank you for reading!

Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read James Tate for Lyric Essentials?

Brice Maiurro: Tate, for being a writer who has received a lot of accolades, is not someone that I hear people reference very often, and he’s been a very important poet to me. I remember being in a bookstore, picking up a copy of Return to the City of White Donkeys and the first poem I read was “The Memories of Fish”. I loved it. What a strange and whimsical idea for this man to make fun of these fish, only to feel deep regret the next day for his behavior. The ending is the kicker too “he had mocked their very fishiness, for which there can be no forgiveness.” His work has a magic to it. There’s something punk rock to this attitude of “fuck it, I’m gonna write about a guy who is mean to fish.” 

He often dismantles the ideas of poetry needing lyricism, needing stark imagery, needing a noticeable cadence or rhythm. Tate’s poetry puts you in the poem where you have to find the poetry of the situation. Not in beautiful words but in beautiful magical situations. He uses narrative prose to take you out of your day.

Brice Maiurro reads “The Memories of Fish” by James Tate

EH:  Do you have a particular connection to Tate’s collection City of White Donkeys where these two poems are found?

BM: It’s the first collection I ever read by Tate, I mostly read it on the light rail on my way to and from work. I was working at my Mom’s cupcake shop on 16th Street at the time. I think of James Tate as being a hall pass for me into being strange, especially to find the strange, and thus at times the divine, in mundane everyday situations. 

I grew up in the suburbs of Denver, in Lakewood. Went to T.J. Maxx and King Soopers with my Mom and sister on the weekends. Took girls on dates at Southwest Plaza mall. I spent a lot of time counting ceiling tiles and daydreaming. My Dad ran a shoe store called “Just For Feet” where I’d be stuck in his office for hours with nothing to do, so I wrote poems. I guess my poetry comes a lot out of waiting and boredom, and that’s something I see in James Tate. He seems like he’s just entertaining his shower thoughts.

I tend to tell people I see poetry as a math equation. Where you create a strange problem and then solve it. For example, in “Beautiful Shoeshine”, Tate seems to have asked himself “what if I had an airport entirely to myself?” He drops himself into this airport all alone, then he finds a shoeshine man, then he realizes he’s not alone, but the people around him are moving too fast to be seen, then in the poem he says, again with the good ending lines “I must not be traveling enough these days.” So here we have the problem of being alone in an airport, and Tate somehow manages to solve the equation by finding in the situation a commentary on a culture that moves so quickly, maybe doesn’t take enough time to rest and relax and breathe, all the hypercapitalism we’re so familiar with, but in a sad moment, our narrator in the poem decides not that the culture is broken, but that he must not be doing enough. I love this.

Brice Maiurro reads “The Beautiful Shoeshine” by James Tate

EH: City of White Donkeys is a peculiar journey into surrealism poetry—something Tate is known for. Your work also contains narrative forms, often playfully as well—do you ever draw inspiration or connection from Tate into your own writing in particular?

BM: I absolutely draw inspiration from Tate, going back to the idea that he gave me permission to bring surrealism into everyday scenarios. I have a poem where I talk to God at a Denny’s over a cup of coffee, I have a poem where I’m doing the dishes and all of a sudden I am taken into the astral plane, I have a poem where a man cuts off one of his fingers accidentally while chopping carrots and the first thing he decides to do is play his piano. Tate’s work resonates deeply with my own experience. Specifically the idea that while we’re in the muck of our everyday lives, we are so many other people and places and things. Also the humor. Humor is not as simple as just laughing. I find humor as a sense of solidarity, sometimes a way of honoring the absurdity of life, sometimes a way to process trauma, including our collective trauma. I believe humor is as valuable a tool in a poem as any other literary device.

EH: And lastly, is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with our readers?

BM: I’m working on a manuscript. The working title is “and i open another door and”. Same weirdo poems as always. Finding myself influenced now though by the softness of Ocean Vuong and the syntax and visual elements of e.e. cummings’ poems. With the poems, I’ve been considering liminal space a lot, and the acknowledgment of not having the answers. I’ve been reacting to the tenets of white supremacy as well and challenging the ways I might embody some of those identities and how I can work through that. One of the tenets of white supremacy is either/or thinking. The poems in my new collection don’t claim to have answers as much as capture my feelings and thoughts around not knowing. The title itself kinda leans into the idea of being between moments, and in a limbo, which I know during COVID is a very real experience for a lot of people, myself included. 

The press I work with, South Broadway Press, is doing a lot of plotting and scheming too. We have a March edition on the theme of Language of the Earth. Our editor Chloë Thompson created the concept, which we’ll also be exploring in our February and March open mic series. We’re also looking into publishing a full-length poetry manuscript and launching a chapbook contest. We have a big team now, seven of us, and it’s been great to see our minds and hearts come together to create an identity for this very new press.

James Tate is an American Pulitzer Prize winning poet known for his whimsical, surrealist, and well-loved absurdist poetry. He is the author of over twenty poetry collections, including The Government Lake (2018), The Ghost Soldiers (2008), Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994) which won the National Book Award, Selected Poems (1991), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award, Distance from Loved Ones (1990), Constant Defender (1983), Viper Jazz (1976), and The Oblivion Ha-Ha (1970). His many accolades include an Academy of American Poets chancellorship, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Poetry, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Tanning Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He taught at University of Massachusetts in Amherst for five decades, and died in 2015.

Further reading:

Purchase Return to the City of White Donkeys by James Tate.
Read this in-depth interview with Tate in the Paris Review.
Watch Tate read a selection of his poetry in 2013 in Poets & Writers.

Brice Maiurro is Brice Maiurro is a poet from Earth. He is the Editor-in-Chief of South Broadway Press. His work has been compiled into two collections, Stupid Flowers and Hero Victim Villain. He has been featured by the BBC, NPR, The Denver Post, Boulder Weekly, Suspect Press, and Poets Reading the News.

Further reading:

Stay updated with Maiurro on his website.
Read this interview with Maiurro featured in Westword Magazine, honoring him as a Colorado Creative.
Check out Maiurro’s indie press, South Broadway Press.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at:

Lyric Essentials: féi hernandez Reads Natalie Diaz

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, Sundress author féi hernandez reads Natalie Diaz for us while reflecting beautifully how it feels to experience, write, read, and become poetry. Thank you for reading!

Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Natalie Diaz for Lyric Essentials?

féi hernandez: When I finished reading Natalie Diaz’ “When My Brother was an Aztec” I had an otherworldly impulse to turn back to the title page and two inches beneath the title write: “Natalie Diaz is God and I’m dead in her heaven.” I went to my room from the living room and put my sneakers on and went out for a run, I wanted to fly. With the statement I wrote didn’t mean to aggrandize or over sensationalize a fellow spell casting poet, nor do I not see the God in myself or in other writers that have changed me like Danez Smith or Patricia Smith or Ocean Vuong, but it was heavenly to find a place to rest, one where I could always be safe and be clearly seen. Every poem struck my bones like precise lightning, electrifying my spirit to write. I had finally found tracks that could teach me to be a better hunter and simultaneously prey. Natalie Diaz unfurls, demystifies a lot of the usually tangled or overgeneralized notions of identity, which is what my work is determined to do. Specificity. Through Natalie Diaz’ work I felt closer to my ancestors, I felt my voice more capable of bringing them to life through my written word. Every poet, new and old, needs to experience the work of Natalie Diaz.

féi hernandez reads “Blood Light” by Natalie Diaz

EH: What connection do you have to the particular poems that you chose to read?

fh: “Blood-Light” reminded me of internal and external turmoil I’ve experienced with my own family and interestingly, with myself. I am “brother” to myself in this poem as much as I am the narrator whose words/ alacranes, “In them is what stings in me – / it brings my brother to the ground,” in this case “brother” is my family. The way light and darkness works in this piece reminds me of the flick-of-the-light combustion that erupts in these moments of contention where, “The only light left is in the scorpions – / there is a small light left in the knife too.” This flash of war happens in 14 couplets. Couplets: love, family, ties, commitment, and togetherness all amidst the falling apart, the violence, the hurt. The last couplet destroys me: “One way to open a body to the stars, with a knife. / One way to love a sister, help her bleed light.”

As for “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” all I will state are two very long things: 1. Aside from the title taking up its well deserved smarts and space, the first line sets up the poem perfectly: “ Angels don’t come to the reservation.” 2. The dichotomy of the reservation/ native land and the outsider, intrusive Anglican colonizers are pit against against each other over and over. For example: Saint Gabriel and Gabe, an Indian who stays in the reservation after a POWOW who “Sure he had wings, / jailbird that he was. He flies around in stolen cars. / Wherever he stops, / kids grow like gourds from women’s bellies.” What matters here is Gabe, his life, and not some “white god”/ angel who was part of the history of destruction bestowed upon the world, but in this case the reservation. My favorite line of the poem is “You better hope you never see angels on the rez. If you do, / they’ll be marching you off to / Zion or Oklahoma, or some other hell they’ve mapped out / for us.” Clearly tying this all back to violent histories in the United States and warning their people to avoid any “angels,” the colonizers they are. This poem specifically grounds me in the work I aspire to create which can capture the historical tensions not just in content, but in the decisions I make in the writing, like foiling concepts and characters and what they represent.

féi hernandez reads “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” by Natalie Diaz

EH: Diaz’ has said that myth, to her, is—in contrast to written histories—“the truest of truths.” You too, write about myth and identity, particular to your nonbinary, non-white, radical immigrant experience. Can you speak to your relationship with myth and truth in this vein?

fh: The spiritual blends right in with myth. I grew up with so many stories that were supposed to instill fear in me like La Llorona, or highway spirits, or tales of the devil, but to me they felt the closest to my own truth: being trans, non-binary, being a childhood arrival from Chihuahua, México, growing up in Inglewood, Spanish my first tongue, and being displaced from so much: first the land and people I was born from (Pi’ma, Tarahumara, and trans-Atlantic ancestors), a nationalistic identity of Mexicanness, and being loudly queer growing up in the hood. I am La Llorona, wailing for all that’s been lost even if it’s been from my own volition. I am the devil: misunderstood, demonized, ostracized, a snake. I am a highway spirit begging someone to take me home, wherever that is. My truth is the biggest folklorist, makeshift truth for many people that may not understand how I’m “trans” if I have a full beard and my transition doesn’t look like the trans that’s traditionally accepted as demonizable. I agree with Natalie Diaz that the truest of truths are the stories, myths, left behind. I am, in that way, made of things that can fly, are magical and glow in the dark, things that can transmutate, disappear and appear, and I’ve never been more close to the truth of life. Myths are my favorite dance and where most of my ancestor-unearthing work with my family has begun.

EH: Lastly, your debut poetry collection from Sundress, Hood Criatura was recently released. Is there
anything else you are working on right now (in relation to that book or not) that you’d like to share with readers?

fh: I am currently working on a book of illustrations that will follow the chronological trajectory of Hood Criatura (Sundress Publications, 2020)! I’m really excited to bring to life my poems visually!
I am also working on a book of personal essays and my second full length poetry manuscript, but
shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone!

Natalie Diaz is a queer, Mojave poet, activist, and educator, born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She is the author of When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012) and Postcolonial Love Poem (Graywolf Press, 2020). She has earned several accolades, including the 2018 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, a Lannan Literary Fellow, a Native Arts Council Foundation Artist Fellow, a Bread Loaf Fellowship, the Holmes National Poetry Prize, a Hodder Fellowship, a PEN/Civitella Ranieri Foundation Residency, as well as being awarded a US Artists Ford Fellowship. She is an enrolled member in the Gila River Indian Tribe and currently teaches at the Arizona State University Creative Writing Program.

Further reading:

Purchase When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz, from Copper Canyon Press.
Read a recent interview with Diaz from PEN America.
Watch this reading and conversation with Diaz about “Postcolonial Love Poem” from The Greene Space.

féi hernandez (they/them) was born in Chihuahua, México and raised in Inglewood, CA. They are a trans non-binary visual artist, writer, and healer. féi is the author of Hood Criatura, published by Sundress Publications, 2020. Their writing has been featured in Poetry, Oxford Review of Books, Frontier, NPR’s Code Switch, Immigrant Report, Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity (Columbia University Press, 2019), Hayden’s Ferry Review Issue 64, BreakBeat Poets Volume 4: LatiNEXT, and PANK Magazine. féi is a certified Reiki and Akashic Records practitioner who utilizes a decolonial approach to ancestral energetic healing. They collect Pokémon plushies. féi is the Board President of Gender Justice Los Angeles and is a Co-Founder of the ING Fellowship. 

Further reading:

Purchase Hood Criatura from Sundress Publications.
Read more about Hernandez in this interview with VoyageLA.
Stay updated with Hernandez and their work by following them on Twitter.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at:

Lyric Essentials: Donna Vorreyer reads Katie Ford

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, Donna Vorreyer reads us Katie Ford and discusses the tender, reverent nature of her poetry and why she considers Ford one of the greats. Thank you for reading!

Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Katie Ford for Lyric Essentials?

Donna Vorreyer: Katie Ford, for me, is simply one of our best poets, a touchstone poet for me. But she works quietly. Although she is well-respected and praised, she isn’t on social media, and she’s not an “it” poet in the sense that you hear people talk about her all the time. Her poems reveal a reverence for the physical and the spiritual worlds, but also a willingness to question and challenge the wisdom of both. Her astute attention to the longings of the heart and her deft use of space and inquiry bring me back to her work again and again.

EH: You chose poems all published in different collections of Ford’s – what drew you to these specifically?

DV: Each of her collections is very different. Deposition, which includes “Last Breath Deposition” is deeply rooted in Christian iconography and story while being incredibly personal. The book begins with a definition of “deposition” that gives the reader a full picture of what is being addressed. Not simply the legal statement of testimony, but the other meanings: the action of putting down, laying aside, or putting away, as of burdens; and the taking down of the body of Christ from the cross, or a representation of such in art. The spiritual and the personal. I never get tired of reading these poems, their long sentences all running together to resemble a voice tumbling headlong into both prayer and confusion. “Last Breath Deposition” is one of many “last breath” titles in the collection, which has as its centerpiece 14 poems that accompany the stations of the cross. This particular poem’s first utterance “Please I am forthright” knocks me off my feet every time I read it. It’s a plea to be believed, to be judged as worthy of believing. Then the declaration in the middle – “I knew then there was knowledge in me” – brings Eve to mind, which is reinforced by the “he” at the poem’s end throwing “what came/from on high far from us.” And whether that he is a beloved, or Adam, or God, the speaker is left with her knowledge, her loneliness, an emptiness like the quarry.

Donna Vorreyer reads “Last Breath Deposition” by Katie Ford

“Song of Sadness” from Blood Lyrics performs a similar seemingly impossible marriage of concerns: the struggle to find peace and faith while caring for a fragile newborn and living in a violent world where in another famous poem from this book “Foreign Song,” she begins “To bomb them, / we mustn’t have heard their music…” These poems are very different in form from Deposition (and the book that came between them, Colosseum). Ford has traded long, unpunctuated lines for shorter ones, most poems only a page in length, some with a sort of postscript on a facing page that serves both the larger body of a poem and stands on its own. Her constant reinvention of form, suiting it to the function of the poem, is admirable and something that I marvel at in all of her work. “Song of Sadness” links despair to the body in its first line, then the body to the water from which it is made, tells the reader to serve only this salt in the body of a beloved, of a child before listing all of the things in the world that kneel in praise of something. To me, this poem seems like an ars poetica – the last lines – “Don’t say it’s the beautiful / I praise. I praise the human, / gutted and rising” describes how I feel when I read all of her poems.

Donna Vorreyer reads “Song of Sadness” by Katie Ford

EH: Both your poetry and Ford’s have an honest and tender quality to approaching topics of truth and grief. Do you find yourself inspired or influenced by Ford’s writing with your own?

DV: I am honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as Katie Ford, honestly. I can say that she has been a big influence on me in two ways. First, I was very lucky to have taken a class with Katie in 2006 while she was writing Colosseum. At the time, I had never published a poem, and I didn’t know whether or not it was something I should continue pursuing. Katie’s gracious teaching gave me confidence, and her openness about her own process gave me an insight into the world of a “real” poet’s mind. I vividly remember hearing her share lines from the poem that would be “Colosseum” with our class, and it inspired me. Second, I admire that she is unafraid to write from a place of tenderness and spirituality and doubt. In a poetry world where people are always looking for the “next thing,” her masterful explorations of both societal and personal tragedy teach me to write what speaks to my heart. 

EH: Lastly, you just released another collection from Sundress in 2020 – To Everything There Is – congratulations! Is there anything else you are currently working on that you’d like to share with readers?

DV: Thank you! I’m pleased that the new book is finding readers, but I am writing new work. It was difficult to be mired in elegy for so long. Though grief doesn’t go away, the need to write it down in order to accept it thankfully diminishes. My newer poems seem to be addressing the different aspects of aging, especially as a woman. Issues of the body, of isolation, of changing relationships, of usefulness are all finding their way in. 

Katie Ford is an American poet and professor of English at University of California, Riverside. She is the author of the collections Deposition (Graywolf Press, 2002), Storm (Marick Press, 2007), Colosseum (Graywolf Press, 2008), Blood Lyrics (Graywolf Press, 2014), and If You Have to Go (Graywold Press, 2018). She received the Lannan Foundation Fellowship in 2008.

Further Reading:

Purchase Ford’s Deposition from Graywolf Press.
Watch Ford read from her collection Blood Lyrics for Public Poetry.
Learn more about Ford on her page at

Donna Vorreyer is the author of To Everything There Is (2020), Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016) and A House of Many Windows (2013), all from Sundress Publications, as well as eight chapbooks. Her work has appeared in Rhino, Tinderbox Poetry, Poet Lore, Sugar House Review, Waxwing, and other journals, and she serves as an associate editor for Rhino Poetry. Recently retired from 36 years in public education, she can’t wait to see what happens next.

Further Reading:

Purchase Vorreyer’s newest collection To Everything There Is from Sundress Publications.
Learn more about Vorreyer in her recent interview with Entropy.
Read three poems by Vorreyer in Split Lip Magazine.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at:

Lyric Essentials: Hayley Mitchell Haugen Reads Kari Gunter-Seymour

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week we have Hayley Mitchell Haugen reading poems from Kari Gunter-Seymour while diving deep into the Ohio poet laureate’s most recent book, A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen. As always, thank you for reading!

Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Kari Gunter-Seymour for Lyric Essentials?  What in particular drew you to choose these poems from Gunter-Seymour’s collection, A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen?

Hayley Mitchell Haugen: This year I was honored to publish Kari Gunter-Seymour’s collection, A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen through my press, Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, creating a wonderful opportunity for me to engage with Kari’s work. Before I published the book, poet George Franklin selected her poem “Trigger Warning” as the prize-winning poem for Sheila-Na-Gig online’s spring 2020 poetry competition.

To me, this poem is indicative of Kari’s work and represents everything I am looking for as an editor and reader of poetry.

Hayley Mitchell Haugen Reads “Trigger Warning” by Kari Gunter Seymour”

First, voice is very important to me. I like to know up front in a poem who is speaking, but I am also drawn into a poem when that voice has a sense of urgency, not just that the speaker has a story to share, but that she must tell her story. In “Trigger Warning,” a mother is struggling to come to terms with her son’s experiences at war and his subsequent PTSD:

November is the month my son dreads.
Too many dead in November, he says.
When they come to him now, it’s as
full body experiences, rapid-fire,
built of muscle memory, bile in his mouth,
propellant fumes, exit wounds, zippered bags.
I cradled them, until
there was just nothing there.

As the poem begins, I am immediately moved by the pain of the son, for which the mother has a limited “frame of reference” outside of her own loss of her father or beloved dogs. As the speaker looks out her window and finds a brief moment of comfort in the images of nature, the deer “dappled / by light as they forage for acorns, / capped confections, hidden / beneath tapestries of coppered leaves,” as a reader I am not simply being told of an experience, but I am living this moment with the speaker. To me, these moments depict a poet at the height of her craft, fully engaging me in the physical environment of the poem, but also leading me smoothly into the emotions that follow. What I appreciate most about Gunter-Seymour’s work is that these emotions are always well-earned by her speakers. In “Trigger Warning,” the mother confesses,

What I am afraid of, is never finding
the brave heart my son had been,
the farm boy, the quipster,
the Ren & Stimpy impersonator
who boarded the plane, now camouflaged
in anxiety meds and a skeletal body.

I cannot read these lines without feeling the mother’s unique yearnings, and these feelings gain depth and meaning through Gunter-Seymour’s exquisite craft of poem, as the remaining stanzas continue to weave images of loss, nature, and memory, all “triggered,” the final moment of the poem argues, in the same manner as the speaker’s unspoken guilt, “unreeling from our darkest places, / the awful wait for the agonal breath.”

Hayley Mitchell Haugen Reads “Planting by the Signs” by Kari Gunter-Seymour

“Planting by the Signs,” though differing in content and themes, is another of Gunter-Seymour’s poems that highlights her skillfulness as a poet. As a poetry professor, I constantly encourage my students to embrace universal themes through the personal experiences expressed in their work. Sometimes they understand this concept, but often they do not, and I see this lack of reach in many of the submissions I receive as an editor as well. “Planting by the Signs” illustrates this skill beautifully. The poem begins in reflection, the speaker recalling her grandmother’s wisdom for planting potatoes “‘cause the signs is right.” Through her own connection with the land, the speaker comes to “respect her [grandmother’s] study of the stars, / the astrological systems she relied upon” for many of her agricultural, domestic, and motherly duties. Expressing this appreciation through its rich imagery of the first five stanzas, the poem works well as a personal piece and could probably end on that note of memory. Gunter-Seymour, however, pushes beyond the personal when she brings in Michael Bloomberg’s ignorant comments about farming and the “stunted corn stalks” that are “saturated in GMO’s and fusty air.” The land, whether we understand the signs or not, is at the mercy of all of us.

EH: As a fellow Ohioan, do you find a personal connection between your own poetry and Gunter-Seymour’s?

HMH: My connection to Ohio, where I teach for Ohio University, and north-eastern Kentucky, where I live, comes via Los Angeles, where I came of age as a poet, so I do not feel a personal connection to Kari’s poetry due to any shared sense of place. I certainly connect to Kari’s work as a woman and a mother, however, and through knowing Kari I have been introduced to the work of many Ohioan and Appalachian writers through her Women of Appalachia Project and Women Speak anthologies. I credit Kari for expanding my appreciation of the many talented writers in our region.

EH: Lastly, is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with our readers?

HMH: I have two collections in the works. The first is a chapbook titled The Little Book of Being. These A-Z titled poems are what I think of as occasional poems. They are inspired by the interesting experiences of others or by those little moments in life where the poems just jump out and beg to be written. My larger collection, The Blue Wife Poems, explores depression in women from both an historical and personal perspective. In addition to writing and teaching, I am currently putting together a special book for Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, titled Pandemic Evolution, featuring poets’ responses to the diorama art of Matthew Wolfe. Matthew photographed his art for the first 100 days of the Covid-19 pandemic. The book will be published in March, a full year from the start of the pandemic in the United States.

Kari Gunter-Seymour is the current Poet Laureate of Ohio and works as the founder/executive director of the “Women of Appalachia Project,” an arts organization she created to address discrimination directed at women from the Appalachian region. A ninth generation Appalachian, she is also the editor of the anthologies “Women Speak,” volumes 1-6 and “Essentially Athens Ohio.” A retired instructor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, she holds a B.F.A. in graphic design and an M.A. in commercial photography, with her award winning photography has been published nationally. Her poetry appears in several publications including, The NY TimesPBS American PortraitVerse Daily, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, Stirring, Still, CALYX , The LA Times. She is also a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee.

Further reading:

Purchase A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen from Shelia-Na-Gig.
Read Gunter-Seymour’s announcement as Ohio’s new poet-laureate.
Watch Gunter-Seymour read for Sundress Publication’s Poets in Pajamas series.

Hayley Mitchell Haugen holds a PhD in English from Ohio University and an MFA in poetry from the University of Washington; she is Professor of English at Ohio University Southern in southeastern Ohio. Light & Shadow, Shadow & Light from Main Street Rag Publishing Company (2018) is her first full-length poetry collection, and her chapbook, What the Grimm Girl Looks Forward To is from Finishing Line Press (2016). She edits Sheila-Na-Gig online ( and Sheila-Na-Gig Editions.

Further reading:

Visit Haugen’s literary journal, Sheila-Na-Gig.
Purchase Haugen’s collection What the Grimm Girl Looks Forward To from Finishing Line Press.
Read four poems of Haugen’s here.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at:

Lyric Essentials: Sara Deniz Akant Reads Hala Alyan

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, we listen to Sara Akant read poems by Hala Alyan and discuss being a poet in New York and collapsing the boundaries of immigrant–specifically Middle Eastern–stories in American writing. Thank you for reading!

Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Hala Alyan for Lyric Essentials?

Sara Akant: Here’s the thing about Hala’s work: it rips up my heart, and immediately makes me feel more like myself. There’s this idea in poetry, that language can transport you to a different world, offer a site or location you’ve never entered, or perhaps a sensibility you haven’t experienced before. But what I gain by reading Hala is a powerful grounding in the mind and the body instead: a return to some internal awareness that I already own. Her poems are filled with raw, stark confessions that refuse to adhere to borders, boundaries, or barriers, and they’re delivered in a bold cadence that sounds like the closest thing to truth as it sweeps through the blood: “There was no family emergency. There was no migraine. I took the twenties. I made him up. I made it all up.” 

When I read these lines out loud, I always change the ending a bit. I say: “I made him up. I made the whole — thing — up.” Because by the time I reach that line, I’m fully convinced that what I’m reading is coming from my own imagination, and these words are made for my breath. So there is a creepy sense of self-cleavage, or blurring: some forced form of twinning going on. To put it simply, Hala’s poems make me feel more held and more heard.

I suppose it helps that I know Hala as a person. But in reality, we’re not twins at all. She is Palestinian-American; spent her childhood between countries, and then as an Arab navigating the suburbs of Oklahoma. I’m Turkish-American, and I spent most of my life in the same apartment in New York. Of course, we hold magnetic affinities that are impossible to reduce to language: our hyphenated identities, being the first-born daughter of our Middle Eastern fathers, and our gendered experiences of otherness, both in this country and abroad. 

But when I read Hala’s poems, I know her words are collapsing these boundaries — not just for me — but for all of us. She is telling a story that refuses to succumb to simplistic thinking around race, family, gender, love, pain, or nationality. Her poems unabashedly complicate and rename the landscape for anyone who has felt abandoned by two-dimensional language, or politically disavowed. So Hala’s work is urgent for me personally, and it also carries the energy that I want to share with readers right now.

Sara Akant reads “New Year” (pt. I) by Hala Alyan

EH:  Is there a reason you read explicitly from The Twenty-Ninth Year? What drew you to these particular selections from the book?

SA: Summers are always hard for me, but especially August. Last summer (what does that even mean? I think I mean the summer of 2019), I felt especially displaced and despondent. Upon returning from a trip through Turkey with my father, I found myself unable to shift back into writing, and working, and New York. I knew I had a manuscript to start, but I just couldn’t get on the floor and do the push-ups. I had been between languages and locations, both tourist and citizen, and I was jet-lagged. I couldn’t remember what my voice sounded like. Circumstantially (or did I choose it?) this was also when I lay up in bed and read The Twenty-Ninth Year. The words in the book gently grabbed my hand and snapped my thoughts into place. I could hear myself again. My cultural or emotional hang-over suddenly felt like a monster I could own–an asset as well as a burden–and I began to write. This happens every now and then with a particular book. In August of 2019, The Twenty-Ninth Year was that book.

“New Year” and “The Worst Ghosts” are poems that appear consecutively, about halfway through. “New Year” is a small, dense prose paragraph composed of seemingly outright confessions. It lies, spits out the truth, and then spins masterfully on those words; it turns on its promises and on itself. You’re never quite sure where you are in the poem; whether the speaker is apologizing, is actually on your side, or is about to cut you down again. In a sense, I read it as a poem about gaslighting–the subtle and not so subtle ways that we can gaslight ourselves and others–how we can both betray and be betrayed by our own shame and guilt. “I still dream of what I did to you”: what could be more fucked up, and true? Hala is a clinical psychologist, and it’s hard to beat her at her own game, but I think about abuse a lot, too: abusive relationships, abusive language, manipulation, and the myth of vindication. I really love writing that admits to its own crimes; refuses the binary between victim and offender.

Sara Akant reads “New Year” (pt. II) by Hala Alyan

“The Worst Ghosts” also plays with form, and interrupts itself in a totally different way. It’s polyvocal on the page, entering and then abandoning thoughts through a series of interlocking breaths and planes. It captures the iterative, unfinished pain of simultaneity that comes with constant loss and dislocation. The poem slips through your hands and exposes cracks in the narratives that we tell ourselves and others. When the pretty blue-eyed boy appears at the end, you know you’re doomed. It pays tribute to those incongruities and holes.

Sara Akant reads “The Worst Ghosts” by Hala Alyan

EH: Lastly, is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with readers?

SA: I’m still working on the series of poems I began when I first read The Twenty-Ninth Year. It’s a collection that’s been morphing both slowly and in bursts, but its overall project is to complicate the slippery language of ancestry, translation, and surveillance. At first, I imagined the book as “an elliptical bestiary,” in which a series of fragmented texts orbit around a group of (non)fictional women, both self and other, named and unnamed. But as I’ve shifted away from that direct focus on naming, it’s become hard to know where one manuscript ends, and the next begins. It’s easy for me to get obsessed with structures, adding layers upon layers of poems and framing techniques, because I love thinking about a book as an object, even as it’s continuously dashing away from that stickiness or unity.

When the pandemic hit and we went into quarantine, Hala and I decided to write a “poem-a-day” together. In a large way, this daily creative jolt saved me, especially when it became clear that nothing else would. I’ve translated this tactic into other projects: non-fiction-a-day, dissertation-a-day, etc. Dailiness is great because it takes the emphasis off the finished product, and puts it on the practice, which is also a relationship. I learn so much by reading the work of my friends and communicating like that. Something about knowing both the person and the voice behind a piece of writing offers the grounding and direction I need to, I don’t know, keep going? Stay alive? The secondary result is that I have many more poems than I know what to do with right now, but more importantly, an increased gratitude for the writers that have (directly or indirectly) helped me continue to create.Since we’re on the topic–another fun thing is the Backyard Reading series that Hala and I started in October. We talked about doing it for years, but finally pulled it together and held three energetic, IRL, covid-safe events this fall. It felt extra meaningful to be able to hold the space for something collective amidst all the entropy; and was amazing to read with writers from other creative communities, including poets like Jive Poetic, Theo Legro, and Anthony Thomas Lombardi. The vibe has been really cozy and supportive; full of life.

Hala Alyan is a clinical psychologist and acclaimed cross-genre writer residing in Brooklyn. She is the author of the forthcoming novel The Arsonists City, as well as the historical fiction novel Salt Houses (2017), which won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Arab American Book Award, and was a finalist for the Chautauqua Prize. She is also the author of four award-winning poetry collections: Atrium (2005), Four Cities (2015), Hijra (2016) and The Twenty-Ninth Year (2019) which was named the most anticipated release of 2019 by The Rumpus and LitHub. Her work has been published by the New Yorker, the Academy of American Poets, Lit HubThe New York Times Book Review, and Guernica

Further reading:

Purchase Alyan’s most recent poetry collection The Twenty-Ninth Year from Mariner Books.
Watch Alyan speak at TedxBrooklyn.
Explore more of Alyan’s work at the Poetry Foundation.

Sara Akant is a Turkish-American writer and educator. Her first collection Babette (Rescue Press 2015) won the Black Box Award in Poetry, and her chapbook Parades (Omnidawn 2014) won the Omnidawn Chapbook Prize. Recent work appears in The Iowa Review, New Sinews, and at The Paris Review. She currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Baruch College online.

Further reading:

Purchase Akant’s poetry collection Babette from Rescue Press.
Read this interview “To Mark the Infinite Language of the Body” with Akant from Heavy Feather Review.
Explore more of Akant’s published works on her website.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at

Lyric Essentials: Emma Hine Reads Elizabeth Alexander

Thank you for joining us this week for Lyric Essentials! Emma Hine joins us to read Elizabeth Alexander and explores how poetry can give us the tools to communicate, thrive, and connect with one another during a time of political healing.

Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Elizabeth Alexander for Lyric Essentials?

Emma Hine: I’ve loved and regularly returned to Elizabeth Alexander’s work for years, but I’ve been thinking about her especially during the past few weeks. Partly, this is because my first encounter with her poetry was actually at Obama’s first inauguration, standing in the foot-numbing cold on the Washington Mall—a memory that has felt both terribly distant and wonderfully potent for a long time since. Then, in 2017, I heard Alexander in conversation with Maria Popova at an event hosted by the Academy of American Poets at Housing Works. She was talking very explicitly about the role poetry could play in the current political climate and its rhetoric of hate and distrust; she said, “We’ve got something better than that spew that comes out; we’ve got something more precise; we’ve got something that names one another; we’ve got something that sees one another. We’ve got something that connects people instead of separating them. This is what we’ve got, so let’s use it. Let’s believe in it.”

I can’t get over this description of poetry as something that precisely names and sees and connects us, and in my experience with Alexander’s work, this definition seems especially true. Many of Alexander’s poems feel profoundly familiar to me—poems I wish I had written or was able to write—and reading them makes me feel both seen and named. At the same time, across her body of work she is speaking to an identity and to experiences that I have no personal knowledge of but still feel like I can inhabit fully as a reader. I feel connected.

And I’ve had the privilege of seeing firsthand how Alexander’s poems connect with other readers and make them feel seen and named. At the Academy of American Poets, I produced four years of the annual Dear Poet Project, where students wrote letters in response to individual poems. In 2018, one of the included poems was Alexander’s “Tending,” and scores of students sent in letters about how this piece affected them personally. A sixth grader from Sacramento wrote, “It felt like the poem was speaking to me, even though my life was nothing like the life that you described. It really felt like you were speaking to me.” This is how her poems make me feel, too.

Emma Hine reads “Autumn Passage” by Elizabeth Alexander

EH: What drew you to choose these two poems of Alexander’s, specifically?

EH: I love how muscular and lyrical these poems are, how tight the syntax is, and yet how much room they still make for wildness. “On suffering, which is real” is just such an incredible way to start a poem, and then to move into the gorgeous specificity of a toddler’s voice before taking us out, again, to an almost sublimely adult understanding of death—I return to “Autumn Passage” both as a lesson in craft and a lesson in feeling. The same goes for “Equinox,” which, at fifteen lines, is structured like a long sonnet, with its three thematic sections and the final pivoting couplet. This ending is also something I return to often, for how it holds both love and unabashed honesty, and how sonically that last line just lifts from the page.

If we’re talking about the Alexander’s poetry as a vehicle for naming, seeing, and connecting, I should add that I had a lot of trouble selecting which poems to read—partly because I love so much of Alexander’s work, and partly because recording someone else’s poems in my own voice felt like an invasion of intimacy and of identity. Alexander’s “Stray,” for instance, is a poem I read often, but when I tried to record it for this series, my voice seemed to rob it of some of its power and privacy. In a similar vein, many of my favorite poems by Alexander—“Apollo,” say, and “Haircut”—speak specifically to her experience as a Black woman; I didn’t want to impose my own voice on these poems in the recording, but I hope anyone reading this interview will seek out this work as well.

Emma Hine reads “Equinox” by Elizabeth Alexander

EH: Is there a personal connection with Alexander’s writing that inspires your own work as a poet?

EH: Her work has definitely inspired mine, through what it has taught me about craft and language and kindness. She’s one of a few poets I turned to most often while writing Stay Safe—along with Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Tracy K. Smith, Ada Limón…. Like I said, there’s something about both the precision and freedom in her language and syntax that I find fully captivating, and familiar in the best poetic sense of the term—familiar because it needed to exist and therefore feels right when it does, not because it’s like anything we’ve already seen.

EH: Lastly, is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with our readers?

EH: Thanks for asking! About two-thirds of the way through Stay Safe is a long, lyrical prose poem sequence, which was the last part of the book to come together for me. This sequence is set in space, on a fleet of generation ships centuries after the loss of Earth. While I was submitting Stay Safe to publishers and contests, I started working on a novel set in this same world, partially because I couldn’t let go of the idea and partially just as a distraction from submission anxiety. It’s been two years now, though, and I’ve recently finished a first full draft! I’m excited to continue working it, but I’m also excited to start writing poetry more consistently again soon.

Elizabeth Alexander is a widely recognized poet, memoirist, playwright, and cultural advocate from Harlem. Alexander is the author of eleven collections of poetry, of which American Sublime (2005) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Most recently, she published the memoir The Light of the World, which earned 2015 best book of the year pick by Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Gilbert, and several others and was a New York Times bestseller. She recited her poem “Praise Song for the Day” for Obama’s 2009 inauguration, making her only the fourth poet to read at a Presidential Inauguration. Dr. Alexander worked as a professor at Smith College, Columbia, and Yale for 15 years, and currently president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder in arts and culture, and humanities in higher education.

Further reading:

Purchase Alexander’s poetry collection Praise Song for the Day.
Watch Alexander read “Praise Song for the Day” and discuss then and now for Library of America.
Read this profile on Alexander’s memoir The Light of the World in The Washington Post.

Emma Hine is the author of Stay Safe, which received the 2019 Kathryn A. Morton Prize and is forthcoming from Sarabande Books in January 2021. Her poems have recently appeared in The BafflerCopper NickelThe Paris Review, and The Southern Review, among others, and her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Guernica, and Poets & Writers

Further reading:

Preorder Hine’s debut collection Stay Safe from Sarabande Books, available January, 2021.
Visit Hine’s contributor page for the Academy of American Poets to read her lesson plans for teaching poetry.
Read Hine’s poem “Dipping Achilles” in The Missouri Review, which was a finalist for the 2016 Jeffery E. Smith Editor’s prize.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at

Lyric Essentials: Barbara Costas-Biggs Reads Jane Kenyon

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, we welcome Barbara Costas-Biggs who reads Jane Kenyon for us and offers a moment of solace and emotional check-ins through poetry during an exceptionally chaotic time. Thank you for reading!

Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Jane Kenyon for Lyric Essentials?

Barbara Costas-Biggs: My mind immediately went to her.  I read her a lot—for inspiration or to find a moment of calm in this crazy world.  I feel a connectedness to Kenyon’s poems, the way she works things out with particular attention to the natural world.  When our children were very small, my husband and I moved into his grandmother’s old farmhouse in eastern Kentucky and thought we’d make a go of it as (very) small scale organic farmers.  Really, we had a large garden and a few cows and chickens, enough to keep friends and family in eggs and vegetables.  It felt very foreign to me, this new way of life we had chosen.  I think that’s when I really started to want to understand her work better.  In prepping for this interview, I read a lot of old articles about her, went back into her books and her own words.  One thing I think that people who aren’t more familiar with her think is that she wrote nice little poems about nature, and that her work might not stack up against the work of her husband (which is a crazy notion that I hadn’t really thought about myself, but the idea is out there).  Here’s one of Donald Hall’s responses when asked about their stylistic differences: “Yeah,” he’d say, “her style is a glass of water – a 100-proof glass of water.” I think that sums it up pretty well.

EH: Was there a particular reason you chose the poems “The Pear” and “Heavy Rain” from Kenyon’s expansive oeuvre?

BCB: It might be a bit of a cop-out, but I think I chose The Pear because I recently had a birthday, my 44th, and there is so much in this poem that resonates with me right now.  This wild year has had me all over the place.  I’ve spent 2020 all over the emotional charts, and I know many others have, too.  This poem, 10 lines & 53 words, is a powerhouse.  In it, I read desperation and fear, but also a warning of sorts in that last stanza.  I spend too much time worrying and thinking on the things that I have lost, and when Kenyon writes “and you may not be aware/ until things have gone too far”, it gives me pause.  It’s a reminder to me that the desolation she also speaks of in the poem can be stemmed with a bit of self-preservation and emotional check-ins.  I know that this is a deeply personal reading, and that not everyone might see it that way, and that’s ok. 

Heavy Summer Rain might be my very favorite poem, so choosing that one was easy.  I think again, she is working with the natural, looking for ways that the world (and ourselves) can “right itself”. And also again, her work with vowels is just so lovely: “Everything blooming bows down in the rain”.  It’s almost an incantation, asking to be repeated in a holy way. The images in this poem are just so clear to me, like my own backyard.  Knowing where the deer bed down, watching the poppies that my husband’s grandmother planted fall in a storm.  And that middle stanza, the one that takes a personal turn, is just too perfect. “I miss you steadily, painfully”, exactly like the falling rain.

Barbara Costas-Biggs reads “The Pear” by Jane Kenyon

EH: Your simple, almost anecdotal yet powerfully emotionally resonant poetry style seems to share some of those elements with Kenyon’s work. Do you find a particular inspiration from her poetry?

BCB: Oh, yes, and that is really much too kind. I think I have probably answered this question before getting to it officially.  There are two writers that I feel a special kinship with.  Kenyon, obviously, and also Barbara Kingsolver.  I think it’s because they write so much about place and relationship to that place.  I have spent most of my life in Appalachia, and I don’t think you can live here without feeling a strong connection to the hills and dales. I can’t imagine trying to write without bringing in mayapples, river trout, sycamore trees.  For me, like Pound said, the natural object is always the adequate symbol.  I met and studied with the poet Cathy Smith Bowers while I was working on my MFA, and she gave me wonderful advice: Always go back to Jane. And I do. When I get stuck in a poem or in my head, I pull out Kenyon and try to get back to work.

Barbara Costas-Biggs reads “Heavy Summer Rain” by Jane Kenyon

EH: Lastly, is there anything you are working on now that you’d like to share with readers?

BCB: I’m slowing putting together a second collection of poems (which seems funny since the first one is still unpublished!), and I’m also expanding a chapbook that I wrote which contains poems about my father and his death.  It’s called The Other Shore, and was recently a finalist for the Washburn Prize from Harbor Review.  My father was a music fanatic and a guitarist, and the title comes from an arrangement of Good Shepherd by Jefferson Airplane.  Music plays a large part in those poems.  I also have 4 poems forthcoming in The Appalachian Review.

Jane Kenyon is an acutely midwestern American poet, born, raised and educated in Ann Arbor Michigan. In her lifetime as a translator, poet and essayist, she published four collections of poetry and championed the art of translation, translating Anna Akhmatova’s poems from Russian to English. The wife of poet Donald Hall, Kenyon’s poetry is distinctly focused on rural and naturalist themes while addressing depression and melancholy, as is famously outlines in her acclaimed poem “Having it out with Melancholy.” She was the poet laureate of New Hampshire when she died of leukemia at just 47 years old.

Further reading:

Read this review and short biography of The Poetry of Jane Kenyon from The National Book Review.
Purchase The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon from Graywolf Press.
Watch this extensive profile of Kenyon and her husband, poet Donald Hall, from Bill Moyers.

Barbara Costas-Biggs is a poet and librarian from Appalachian Southern Ohio. Her work has appeared recently or is forthcoming from Appalachian Review,  Lost Balloon, Northern Appalachian Review, Mothers Always Write, Glass, Ghost City Press, 8Poems, and others. Her poem “Naked in the Macy’s Changing Room, Trying to Think About Anything Other Than the Election” won the Split This Rock Abortion Rights poetry contest in 2017, and her chapbook, The Other Shore, was a finalist for the Washburn Prize from Harbor Review.  Her MFA is from Queens University of Charlotte, and her MLIS is from Kent State.

Further reading:

Read Costas-Biggs poem “Naked in the Macy’s Changing Room, Trying to Think About Anything Other Than the Election,” winner of the 2017 Split This Rock Abortion Rights poetry contest.
Read Costas-Biggs’ blog on her personal website.
Follow Costas-Biggs on Twitter to stay updated with newly published works.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at

Lyric Essentials: Madeleine Barnes Reads Michelle Maher

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week Madeleine Barnes reads poetry from Michelle Maher and discusses maternal lineage, relationships, and inspiration. Thank you for reading!

Erica Hoffmeister: You were eager for the opportunity to share Michelle Maher’s poetry with our readers. Can you share why that is?

Madeleine Barnes: Michelle Maher is my mother! It’s a privilege to know her through her poems. I admire her as a person and an artist. In the poem “For My Mother,” May Sarton writes: “Today I remember / The creator, / The lion-hearted.” Sarton honors her mother as creator, committing her artistry and courage to memory. My mother is the lion-hearted woman who gave my sisters and me life, andthe author of an incredible debut poetry collection, Bright Air Settling Around Us (Main Street Rag, April 2020). When I was growing up, I don’t think I appreciated how much creative energy goes into motherhood, and how difficult it is to make time for writing while raising kids and working full-time. I don’t know how she ever slept. So it was really exciting when our first books were picked up for publication around the same time last year.

She’s not on social media and she’s averse to self-promotion, but her writing makes an impact on people. I want her work to reach as many people as possible because there’s so much we can learn from it. A few years ago, Toi Derricotte selected one of her poems as the winner of the Patricia Dobler Poetry Award. At the award reading, I had this experience where I both could and couldn’t believe the reader was my mother—her poems are a heartbeat. Her voice is the first poem I ever heard. In her work, I recognize the marker of poetry: a life not only lived, but deeply felt. She taught me that our legacy is who we love, who we support, and the meaning we make out of our lives.

Madeleine Barnes reads “To Return is to Carry” by Michelle Maher

EH: In our emails, you expressed the difficulty in choosing just a few poems of Maher’s to read for us–how and why did you end up reading the poems that you did?

MB: In the end I chose poems that ask difficult questions and address topics like grief. Her poems have the power to help a lot of people. “What would it mean to see with the eyes / of a woman recently returned from the dead?” she writes in “To Return is to Carry.” The speaker’s vision is a “flame that sears away everything inconsequential.” When we’re confronted with mortality, what truly matters rises to the surface. “To return is to carry a thirst so deep it seems like grief,” she writes. This line helps me recognize how loving life and loving the world is similar to complicated grief. What will outlast us? What would it be like to come back from the dead? A man walks past the woman and ignores her, assuming that she has nothing to offer him. My mother’s poetry honors people who are overlooked, and people who can’t do anything for us. The poem closes with the repeated question, “What lasts? What lasts?” It’s a question that all of us have to face, and the answer depends on the individual.

“Deep Blue Bowl” is a lesson in grief. After someone we love dies, we still feel their presence everywhere. This poem does something important—it addresses an incredulousness that can accompany grief. When the speaker sees an image of her mother, she senses that she’s is happy in the afterlife, and this feels upsetting. “Really? I want to say. / You left me with boxes of photos / and no one to call who will be interested / in my day, down to its tiniest detail. / I want to be somebody’s child again.” I feel anguish reading these lines. She captures how hard it is to feel left behind after someone so integral to your life dies. How could they leave us? Don’t they know how much we miss them? Even if we sense that they’re okay, we might selfishly wish they were still with us. I’ve read a lot of wonderful poems about grief, but to me, this one is stands out because it captures a moment in the grieving process that we don’t talk about enough, and it’s related to anger. The pain we feel over someone’s absence is directly proportionate to the amount of love we feel for them. The image of the deep blue bowl, and the feeling of being under something cosmic and heavenly, is so powerful.

Madeleine Barnes reads “Deep Blue Bowl” by Michelle Maher

EH: You and your mother write, collaborate and create together – even writing about each other and connecting familial threads throughout one another’s poetry. What positive impact do you think you and your mother have on the writing community as a writer’s family of women?

My relationship with my mother as a poet is one that is founded on love and joy in each other’s accomplishments. She always rejoiced in my successes, and this showed me how to celebrate others. Now that I’m an adult, we’re artistic peers and collaborators. We’ve gone through hard times, and we’re not perfect in any way, but there’s a fundamental love and respect that seeps through. Our first community is our immediate family, and hopefully we carry collaboration and support into the wider world. We made a decision a long time ago to always have each other’s backs and support one another no matter what, because living any other way would be intolerable. It’s not a rivalry or a zero-sum game where “whatever you have takes away from what I have.” That mindset is extremely destructive. She says it would be strange to compete with me—she doesn’t see that as her role as a parent. We both had graduate school experiences where writers tried to tear each other down, and that competitive mindset is toxic. It destroys mutual health and friendships and support systems and love. So, we make the choice to continually lift each other up, knowing that support, encouragement, and community is what lasts.

She recently told me that she’s never been to a funeral where people say, “Oh, this person won this and that prestigious award.” What they remember is what that person contributed, who they loved, who they supported, and what meaning they made from their life. I think there’s sometimes a valorization of selfishness in art—we’re taught that it’s commendable if you put your art above how you treat people, and selfishness is somehow complex and admirable—she and I are both tired of that, especially under our current administration. We prioritize art and how we treat others, and we don’t buy into the scarcity mindset. We don’t agree on everything, but we never look at each other in a way that’s disappointed or stressed out. A win for her is a win for me. We want to lift other people up, too!

EH: Lastly, is there anything you are working on now that you’d like to share with our readers?

MB: We’re mulling over the idea of a collaborative chapbook—poems in response to each other, and in response to the urgencies of this extraordinary time that we’re living through. Our goal is to have it ready to submit by summer 2021.

Michelle Maher is is a professor of English at La Roche College and the author of the poetry collection Bright Air Settling Around Us. Her work has appeared in the journals Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Chautauqua Literary JournalThe Georgetown ReviewAtlanta ReviewU.S. 1 Worksheets, and others. Her poem, “At the Brera, Milan” won the 2012 Patricia Dobler Poetry Award, a national contest sponsored by Carlow University.

Further reading:

Purchase Maher’s debut poetry collection Bright Air Settling Around Us from Main Street Rag.
Read more of Maher’s poetry featured in Cordella Magazine.
Read this interview with Maher in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Madeleine Barnes is a poet, visual artist, Mellon Foundation Humanities Public Fellow, and PhD student at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Her debut poetry collection, You Do Not Have To Be Good, was published by Trio House Press in July 2020. She is the author of three chapbooks, most recently Women’s Work, forthcoming from Tolsun Books. She serves as Poetry Editor at Cordella Magazine, a publication that showcases the work of women and non-binary writers and artists. She’s the recipient of two Academy of American Poets poetry prizes, the Princeton Poetry Prize, the Gertrude Gordon Journalism Prize, and the Three Rivers Review Poetry Prize. Visit her at

Further reading:

Purchase Barnes’ collection You Do Not Have to Be Good.
Read an interview with Barnes and Maher in The Brooklyn Review.
Check out Barnes’ feature in Sundress Publications’ The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed series.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at

Lyric Essentials: Amanda Galvan Huynh Reads Sara Borjas

Thank you for joining us this week for Lyric Essentials! Amanda Galvan Huynh joins us to read Sara Borjas and discusses Latinx Heritage Month, Xicanx writer identities, and the power in rewriting our own narratives.

Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Sara Borjas for Lyric Essentials?

Amanda Galvan Huynh: During the last month, I’ve been spending more time with Latinx voices. Coincidentally, it’s also Latinx Heritage Month. So, there might be a subconscious longing for home as I’ve been reflecting on my writing as a Xicanx writer. In the reflection, I notice that I still struggle with being “Mexican” enough and with my understanding of identity. I think this is one of the reasons I chose Sara Borjas’ poems as she unflinchingly confronts the Pocha label—and embraces it. Her book is definitely one that I wish I would have had as a young adult. Sometimes, as a Pocha, you just get lost, and it’s reassuring to know there’s a voice, like yours, writing in the world—that someone has written these beautiful words for a reader like you. Her poems are also teaching me to be braver and unapologetic in my writing. In both of our works, there are similar themes and issues, but our approaches take different shapes. It’s refreshing to watch how others are in conversation with similar ideas, and how we’re collectively trying to bear witness to our family’s lives.

EH: Was there any particular draw to these specific poems that you chose?

AGH: It was difficult to narrow down which poems to read! Originally, I had picked out eight. Where to even begin with these poems—I feel like I just have to reiterate that I have been in my feelings a bunch lately and am a little homesick. With that, I’m going to start with “Míja” as this poem roots itself in longing—longing to be named, to be called, to be claimed, to be tethered to a mother. There’s warmness in the word míja that’s loving and endearing—something magical when you are surrounded by family. It’s like being called into being—into fulfilling the míja role—being awoken in the self. The poem also records subtle resistance to assimilation as míja remains on the familial tongue versus replaced by the English equivalent: my daughter. For myself, I know this feeling of being called míja and what that invokes in me.

For “Lies I Tell”, this reimagines a life. I think everyone can relate, at one point or another in their life, of wanting things to be different. Whether it’s wanting a different name, family, job, love, [insert your desire here]—“Lies I Tell” focuses on the specifics of one’s outlook. Sometimes the information we take in like shows, stories, Snapchat, Instagram, and other medias makes this longing easy. At times, our memories alter what we want to believe. This poem settles in between the awareness of realizing the kind of life you have been given and writing another life into existence. As writers, we are given a kind of power to rewrite our stories and claim our narratives. But we are also capable of revealing those truths for the lies they are.

Amanda Galvan Huynh reads “Lies I Tell” by Sara Borjas

EH: As a Mexican-American writer from the Southwest, what does Borja’s Heart like a Window, Mouth Like A Cliff mean to you?

AGH: In writing, it is important to see your reflection. Her poems were the first ones I saw myself. Of course, it’s not identical as there are some nuances that are specific to Mexican Americans living in California versus Mexican Americans living in Texas. Together, we share a culture but have different landscapes for each of our lives. This speaks to the many facets of the Xicanx experience. There will be overlaps within our stories even with the long distance between California and Texas. Especially, when you look at the ganas passed down from generation to generation.

Amanda Galvan Huynh reads “Mija” by Sara Borjas

EH: Lastly, is there anything that you are working on that you’d like to share with readers?

AGH: Right now, I am working on my PhD at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Just last week I made my first mini zine for a project—it was exciting to step out of my comfort zone as I don’t consider myself a good artist. My drawing skills are at the stick figure level, but I did have the fleeting thought: Not bad. Maybe I can make poetry comics or poetry mini zines. Something on the back burner but my curiosity and wonder has been piqued!

Since the pandemic started, it has taken me several months to get back into creating. It’s been a real thing for me to recognize and name. But, I have slowly surrendered to it. The most recent piece of writing I finished was a chapter of nonfiction. Over the last few years, I have been outlining, organizing, and trying to find a thread into a memoir idea. Now, I’ve moved into finding my writing style as a nonfiction writer. It’s a clunky jump for me—I’m trying to embrace the mistakes and identify my editing and revising tendencies. While I write by hand for poems, I write by computer for nonfiction—I’m still editing by hand though.I’m also still writing poems. I’m creating new work centered on intersectionality, interracial relationships, biracial and multireligious family systems and dynamics. So, my work still revolves around identity, but now it is in relation to a loved one. I’m exploring what it means to hang on to your identity while being in love with someone. How can two identities remain independent but coexist? How can you leave enough room for each other? How can you be without diminishing or losing you or your partner’s self? What do we compromise on? And when we compromise what is lost or what is gained? What parts of ourselves do we surrender in order to keep the peace within a new family? Or maintain order in our own?  So many questions I still do not have answers to, but questions I’m trying to answer for myself.

Sara Borjas is a Xicanx poet and fourth-generation Chicana from Fresno, California and the author of the acclaimed debut poetry book Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff, which won a 2020 American Book Award. She is a 2017 CantoMundo Fellow, a 2016 Postgraduate Writers Conference Fellow at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a 2013 Community of Writers Workshop at Squaw Valley Fellow, as well as the recipient of the 2014 Blue Mesa Poetry Prize. Borjas is active in liberation, decentering whiteness, and reclaiming her pocha identity. She currently lives in Los Angeles and teaches Creative Writing at University of California, Riverside.

Further Reading:

Purchase Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff by Sara Borjas.
Read this interview with Sara Borjas in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Listen to Borjas read at Writers for Migrant Justice for Poetry.LA in 2019.

Amanda Galvan Huynh (she/her) is a Mexican American writer and educator from Texas. She is the author of a chapbook, Songs of Brujería (Big Lucks September 2019) and Co-Editor of Of Color: Poets’ Ways of Making: An Anthology of Essays on Transformative Poetics (The Operating System 2019). Amanda has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. She was a 2016 AWP Intro Journal Project Award Winner, 2018 Best of the Net Winner, a finalist for the 2015 Gloria Anzaldúa Poetry Prize, and a finalist for the 2017 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. Her poetry can be read in print and online journals such as Hayden’s Ferry ReviewPuerto del SolThe Southampton Review, and others. Currently, she is a doctoral student in English at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

Further Reading:

Purchase Huynh’s chapbook Songs of Brujería from Big Lucks.
Read this write-up of Songs of Brujería from Poetry Northwest
Watch Huynh read her work for Rigorous Magazine from last year’s AWP conference.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at