Lyric Essentials: Jonie McIntire Reads Marge Piercy

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! In this latest installment, Jonie McIntire reads two of her favorite poems by prolific writer Marge Piercy. Jonie tells us about the ways she sees herself in Piercy’s writing, the joy she finds in reading these poems aloud, and her experience studying with her hero, Piercy herself, in 2019. Thanks for reading!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose to read these two poems?

Jonie McIntire: While I am sure these two are not the most celebrated poems of Marge Piercy’s, I have found myself returning to them over and over again. With “Ascending Scale,” I remember the first time I read this poem in Stone, Paper, Knife, that I immediately recognized both of these women in myself. So moved by seeing the loss and desire in someone else that you want to reach out to them, meet their eyes, insist that they are truly not alone, that they need to hold on.

There’s a work ethic in Piercy’s poems, and in the woman herself, that resonates throughout. Not to succeed beyond others, but always to be working hard, to return to a base that is who we are at heart. A constant return to authenticity. We do this work throughout our lives. Go in a direction and hunker down, work hard, succeed, but it’s so easy to lose our way. I think of my own life and how many iterations of woman I’ve been—businesswoman, mother, student, artist. How all of those involved the desire to succeed, the strange obligations and stresses that go with trying to fit into each role in a way that makes your achievements visible. And how that longing to be better and more, to fit someone else’s ideal, is so isolating, such a constant thrumming loss.

Jonie McIntire reads “Ascending Scale” by Marge Piercy

This poem also struck me as a lovely metaphor for feminism, for the ways in which women can so easily lose each other in our struggles to make ourselves known and respected. “If I should lose you like a gold earring in a motel bathroom … then we will fail as everyone expects.” We fraction ourselves as feminists, pick our sides and hunker down, claw for scraps of respect and let pettiness pit us against each other, but when we lose our big picture, when we lose each other, we lose. We as women need to be “rooted in the plentitude of love.” It is the only thing that will give us the strength to stand together.

“Eat Fruit” makes me smile. I enjoy the act of eating—the tastes, the smells, the textures, the bitter skins, the pulpy messes. I have messed myself with plums over bathroom trash cans, broken off pieces of cheese irresponsibly large and nibbled through each tight curd. And I have a relationship with fiber which any nutritionist would be jealous of. My poor children get slipped flaxseed and chocolate chip cookies, kale and beet quiche, even chocolate-covered haystacks made of pure Fiber One cereal. I take colon health very seriously.

But beyond the wise words of staying regular, there’s such corruption in this poem, such delicious intrigue. Silliness but patience. This love of being human, of desiring simple things, of accepting your silliness and sloppiness and being absolutely at peace with yourself for it. I love the descriptions of other people—the customs agents and their desires and disappointments, the guy with the salami. I’ve met them. The fruit-smuggler doesn’t resent them, simply understands their role. It’s that patient understanding that strikes me over and over again. Patient understanding of self, of others. And yes, I know the taste of an “extremely sophisticated pear,” and it’s delicious.

RS: What do you admire about Marge Piercy’s work? How did your relationship with her work begin?

JM: To begin with, Marge Piercy never stops working. Just look up her writing achievements. She must write in her sleep. Incredible and admirable body of work. But I didn’t really know about her until I met Gina Mercurio, who used to run a feminist bookstore, People Called Women, in Toledo, Ohio. I had just moved to town to attend the University of Toledo, had just found the bookstore, and mentioned that I liked poetry. Clearly, Gina, said, I needed to read Marge Piercy. She was right, of course. She pointed out some other writers to look into, and they all had their important voices, but I heard so many of my own thoughts in Piercy’s writing. An instant connection with the way she looked at things—sometimes defiant, sometimes resigned, sometimes silly or sexy or angry—but always with this need to understand.

RS: I loved the expressive tone you used while reading both your poems. “Eat Fruit,” especially, seems like it lends itself well to a playful sort of voice. What was your thought process behind reading these poems aloud? For instance, did you already have a pretty good idea of what the poems would sound like, or did you try out different intonations?

JM: I’ve shared these poems a few times. Everyone who knows me well has heard them. I am unapologetic about loving what I love. And they are a joy to read aloud, especially “Eat Fruit.” It has the immediate language, the recognizable situations, and the lightheartedness that works so well spoken out loud. A crowd-pleaser every time. “Ascending Scale” might be a little harder to understand just hearing it aloud. I don’t know. I understood it immediately. Frankly, I don’t care if anyone else gets it or not. I like to read it. Its plea for us to stay together, its love of the woman so bruised and the speaker who wants to help and the you we are rushing to return to. A love poem, really, asking to be shared.

Jonie McIntire reads “Eat Fruit” by Marge Piercy

RS: Has Piercy’s work influenced your own in any way?

JM: As I practice writing, I work to get closer and closer to her level of authenticity. I appreciate confessional poetry for its rawness, but there’s too much ego to it—a relishing in shame or defiance. I appreciate poetic forms for their difficulty and mastery, but in reading them I often feel lost or tricked or still hungry. What she does is neither of these, though she writes openly about difficult things and is thoughtful about how they are constructed. She uses these poems to understand herself and the world around her, to argue back and fight when needed, to forgive and show love.

I never feel like she’s written a poem to impress someone. And while that may not seem like a big deal, it’s massive to me. There’s a permission in her poetry that allows us to be imperfect and to love our imperfections. In my own writing, the struggle to write without constant and oppressive judgment never seems to end. Nobody cuts me down as quickly and completely as I do. So the influence of this tireless work ethic and this voice that allows the writer to write, to say anything and everything, is my mantra. I see that I can write about everyday life and write things that are worthwhile, but that doing them with honesty and authenticity will take work.

There’s also a fearlessness in her subject matter. Shame is useless when you are trying to get real work done, so she’s ditched it. That bravery, to write about rape and abortion, about sexuality in its earnestness, to point fingers where they should be pointed, is important to me. I try to pull forth those raw moments in life and work through them with words in a way that remains authentic.

Last year, in 2019, I had the incredible fortune to visit Cape Cod and study with her in her weeklong juried intensive workshop. The lessons were fantastic, and I definitely left with a new outlook on craft, specifically looking at line breaks and titles. Just being selected for it gave me a validation that I was in desperate need of. There were eleven other poets, all incredibly talented and with truly varied writing styles, and we are all still in contact with each other.

One important thing I learned that has helped me immensely is that our heroes are really just human beings. Marge is a tough gal, and she takes a little time to warm up to new people. She doesn’t suffer weakness well, so she can come off a bit harsh. It was funny because, again, I saw so much of myself, how quickly l get frustrated with people and feel awkward. But it also brought out the protector in me a bit. When one of my fellow poets felt slighted or judged, I felt defensive of them. Here we are, all of us in all our levels of success or failure, awkwardness or need, merely mortal after all. Few things give you permission to write and be imperfect like seeing how absolutely normal your heroes are.

One of my favorite moments was when we all read at the local library, the twelve poets sharing the stage with Marge Piercy, and at one point I looked over at Marge, who was watching us read. Her whole face beamed with pride. That smile of respect is like the best drug I’ve ever had. It makes doing the hard work feel worth every minute. By the end of that week, we’d all written more, learned how to edit ourselves better, made some goals to work toward, and knew that ultimately we all wanted each other to be better writers. I have written more, felt better about the quality of my writing, and been bolder sending work out for publication in the past year than in any year previously.

For all writers, it turns out Marge Piercy has the best advice: the strength poets need and use “is rooted in the plentitude of love.” For each other and for our imperfect selves. Oh, and also, fiber…seriously, don’t be afraid of it.

Marge Piercy is the author of 17 novels and 19 books of poetry. A multitalented writer, she’s written work that encompasses a wide variety of genres, including drama, poetry, speculative fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. She’s received four honorary doctorates, and in 1991, she won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in the UK for her book He, She, and It. She lives and works in Cape Cod and continues to advocate for antiwar, feminist, and environmental causes.

Further reading:

Visit Piercy’s website
Read a feature about Piercy in Moment
Read Piercy’s essay for the New York Times‘ Writers on Writing series

Jonie McIntire, author of Beyond the Sidewalk (NightBallet Press, 2017) and Not All Who Are Lost Wander (Finishing Line Press, 2016). She will be releasing her third chapbook, Semidomesticated (NightBallet Press), later this year. She hosts two monthly poetry reading series, Uncloistered Poetry and Art & Performance Poetry, and has been the poetry editor for Springboard, a teen literary journal, for the past three years. The recipient of an Arts Commission Accelerator Grant, she has poems published in journals across the country and even stamped into cement in Toledo, Ohio, as part of the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo’s Sidewalk Poetry series.

Further reading:

Visit Jonie’s website
Purchase Beyond the Sidewalk from NightBallet Press
Read a feature in Toledo City Paper about Jonie’s work with

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Mike Hackney Reads Sharon Olds

For this installment of Lyric Essentials, we’re joined by Mike Hackney, who shares a poem by Sharon Olds. Mike shares how his desire to learn from challenging poetry led him to choosing Olds’ work for this series, along with his admiration for her work and her refusal to compromise her principles. Thanks for reading!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose this poem to read for Lyric Essentials?

Mike Hackney: I selected “I Go Back To May 1937” because it was a sort of confession that I related to, an ars poetica of sorts, and I am always interested in poems about the writing process or about being a writer. Plus, it is fairly accessible, and I think a lot of people can relate to it. Mainly, I chose a poem by Sharon Olds because I am wrestling with her right now and want to gain some clarity, some understanding of her through this interview process. This piece resonated with me, while other poems by Olds have not. However, I am getting closer to gaining a complete admiration and respect for her work.

Mike Hackney reads “I Go Back to 1937” by Sharon Olds

RS: What do you admire about Sharon Olds’ poetry in general?

MH: She shares her pain on the page for everyone to see. I appreciate the bravery it takes to do such things. But, to answer this question fully, let me begin with a story: When I was an undergraduate in creative writing, my final project one year was to write a thirty-page paper on a poet of my choice. I considered Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams, all fine poets in their own right. I finally settled on Ezra Pound because he seemed the most complex and difficult to understand at the time; I wanted to really challenge myself and ultimately learn something through the writing process. It would have been easy to select one of the others, but I guess I chose the road less traveled by (to quote a phrase by Frost himself). My admiration for Pound came through my learned understanding of him and how he worked. Incidentally, I got an A on the paper but failed the final exam that term because I managed to tie every essay question back to Ezra Pound, even when there was no relation. My professor at the time, noting my obsession, allowed me to take the exam over, and I managed to answer the questions the second time without referring to Pound. I got an A in the class… 

In my spare time, I read a lot of poetry criticism, book reviews, and essays on poets and poetry. Sharon Olds has popped up a couple times in my reading. She controversial and quite popular in certain circles, and at first I didn’t understand what all the hype was about. I always felt as if I were reading highly stylized Grimms’ fairy tales when I read her poems. There seemed to be a mock tone, an insincerity about her at times, as if she capitalized on situations that were embellished. I felt that she paled in comparison to, say, Sylvia Plath. I chose Sharon Olds because I felt I had something to learn here. It seemed, most often, I would miss the point of her greatness and talent. But the more I read of her, the more I admire her for what she is. She seems to lack technique in many ways, but she makes up for it with raw emotion.

I also admire Olds a lot for the stance she took in 2005 when invited to a White House luncheon by Laura Bush. Olds declined the invitation, stating, in essence, that she could not break bread with the current administration because she didn’t believe in the war with Iraq, and she felt that the administration was making decisions counter to the wants and needs of the American people. I appreciate Olds for that. She would have garnered a lot of attention and possibly sold a lot of books by attending. She declined on principle. She was heroic in that instance. I have the letter in a nightstand drawer. It is easily accessible online. I hope that answers the question.

RS: I noticed there is a sort of “ticking” sound in the background of your reading, sort of like a metronome. Was this something you used to accompany your reading? If so, what is your purpose for using it?

MH: So, I just learned how to use the recording equipment that is available online. It is all very new to me. The program I chose just happened to have this ticking noise that I could not get rid of—an effect that would not go away. Eventually, after several recordings of the poem, I decided that I rather liked the dissonance in the background. I came to view it as part of the overall presentation. I think it adds something to the reading. Although I’m not sure exactly what.

RS: Do you have any current writing projects (poetry or otherwise) that you’d like to tell us about?

MH: I am in the midst of finishing a book-length manuscript of poems, which I hope to have published by the end of 2020. I think it might be my strongest work yet. It will be my first full-length publication since 2012.

Sharon Olds graduated with degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University. She is the author of more than ten books of poetry and the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. From 1998 to 2000, she served as New York state’s poet laureate. She currently teaches at New York University.

Further reading:

Purchase Olds’ most recent book, Stag’s Leap
Read an NPR book review of Stag’s Leap
Read a conversation with Olds in Lit Hub

The author of multiple poetry collections and a novel, Mike Hackney studied Creative Writing at Bowling Green University and earned his MLS from the University of Toledo. He is the recipient of grants and awards from the Toledo Arts Commission and the Ohio Arts Council. His poetry has been published in a wide range of literary journals, including Prairie Margins, The Insider, and the Cornfed Angel.

Further reading:

Purchase Mike’s book Mid-Western Shoes: Your Poetic Self All Over Again
Read Mike’s poem “How to Write a Poem” in THEthe Poetry
Visit Mike’s Facebook page

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. She’s published her creative work in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Jennifer Jean Reads W.S. Merwin

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! For this installment of the series, we’re joined by poet Jennifer Jean. She talks about two of her favorite poems by W.S. Merwin, along with the unique perspective her work in translation gives her when reading his poetry, the importance of supportive writing communities, and much more. Thanks for reading!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems to read?

Jennifer Jean: My selections here represent Merwin’s formal evolution: “Air” (from 1963) contains punctuation and “Vixen” (from 1998), like most of Merwin’s latter poetry, does not. I don’t eschew punctuation in my own work, but I recognize that doing so requires virtuosic control (i.e., understanding) of language. It requires immense trust that there’s enough in the syntax, the allusions, the sound of the syllables—and more—to ferry the reader, to convey both music and sense, without the usual notational indicators. If I had written “Vixen,” Merwin’s “…the sentences / never caught in words warden of where the river went” would have become the more conventional: “…the sentences / never caught in words. Warden of where the river went.” Lack of punctuation allows for a single line to better hold its integrity as a unit of thought even though it contains two sentences—or even the end of one sentence and the beginning of another.

I wonder if Merwin’s lifelong work in translation gave him this control? If so, I’m hopeful. I’ve been co-translating poems originally in Arabic and it’s shifted my approach to, and feel for, English. I suppose it’s also shifted my view of poets who heavily translate! Which is nice. This means I’ve a new means to explore Merwin, whose work I’ve loved for almost twenty years.

Jennifer Jean reads “Air” by W.S. Merwin

RS: Did you discover anything new about these poems after reading them out loud, as opposed to reading them on the page?

JJ: I encountered Merwin’s “Air” in graduate school when I had to choose a poem to memorize for a craft class. When reading it aloud for Sundress, the words were tasty and familiar. I don’t remember if this is what it did to me originally, but I bet this poem gave me permission to lob a lovely heightened word like “immortelles” into the mix with simpler language. As well, I bet it gave me permission to cut connector or transitional verbage so that the sense of each thought just barely touches the one that follows. Because there’s only one enjambed line (the second), the poem seems made of a series of almost aphoristic statements—when, really, it’s made of regular-sized sentences. This arrangement is delightfully disconcerting! Especially when read aloud.

“Vixen” is amazing in that it conveys the character of the animal in fleet, long lines. It’s the title poem for Merwin’s collection The Vixen, which engages with seasons and nature and creatures in extended, contemplative, organically musical lines. Every poem is in awe of its subject. How did he sustain this awe?! Because an out loud reading enables me to embody the poem—to actually put the poem in my body—when I recorded it, I was reminded very strongly that this sustained state of awe is (yes!) possible for me too.

Jennifer Jean reads “Vixen” by W.S. Merwin

RS: What do you admire about W.S. Merwin’s work in general?

JJ: I’ve always enjoyed Merwin’s spare lyrics as antidotes to my (often overly) dense prosey-poems. His free forms are the antithesis of Dickinson—they breathe, they’re sane—but they convey the same depth of notion and emotion.

RS: How did you first discover his poetry?

JJ: As an undergrad, I wanted to know who Sylvia Plath knew—she was an obsession, but eventually became a leaping-off point. Merwin and Plath knew each other through Plath’s husband Ted Hughes. I tried to read Hughes, but he bored me. However, Merwin seemed to offer that ineffable quality that the best poetry provides: a Lucille Clifton–like glimpse into the transcendent. I was hooked!

About poetry communities—I think Plath’s community was totally toxic. She journaled constantly about a searing jealousy of—especially—fellow women poets like Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton. She was also jealous of men like Merwin. She did not have a support system amongst her peers! She had a scarcity mentality (which may not have been unjustified at the time…). I’ve noticed that nurturing mutually supportive poetry communities, both local and virtual, keeps the awe and the fun and the joy in my writing life. I would hate to not have anyone to celebrate. And I know my writing would be worse off without the input of the talented poets that I know. I hope emerging writers study Merwin, that they “study the masters” (including the way that Lucille Clifton meant it) but that they also find ways to create and nurture strong writing communities.

W.S. Merwin is the author of more than twenty poetry collections. The recipient of a long list of major poetry awards and fellowships, he also published books of translation, plays, and books of prose, including two memoirs. From 2010 to 2011, he served as Poet Laureate of the United States. His most recent collection is Garden Time (2016) from Copper Canyon Press. Merwin died in March 2019.

Further reading:

Purchase Garden Time from Copper Canyon Press
Merwin’s very first collection of poetry, A Mask for Janus, is at Yale University Press
Read a 2017 article about Merwin and his poetry in the New Yorker

Jennifer Jean is the author of The Fool (Big Table), and her awards include: a 2020 Peter Taylor Fellowship from the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop; a 2018 Disquiet FLAD Fellowship; a 2017 “Her Story Is” Residency, where she worked with Iraqi women artists in Dubai; and a 2013 Ambassador for Peace Award for her activism in the arts. Jennifer’s poems and co-translations have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Rattle, Waxwing Journal, Crab Creek Review, The Common, and more. She’s an administrator at the Boston Book Festival and an editor at Talking Writing Magazine.

Further reading:

Visit Jean’s website
Read Jean’s work in Poetry Magazine
Read one of Jean’s poems—and a Q&A about it—from Broadsided Press
Read a selection of poems that Jean co-translated from Arabic in The Common

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. She’s published her creative work in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Juliet Cook Reads Tory Dent

In this installment of Lyric Essentials, we’re joined by Juliet Cook who shares the poetry of Tory Dent. Cook talks about how Dent was writing during her own struggle with HIV/AIDS, and the mortality imposed by the disease. We cover important ground on self-expression and the way Dent’s work, in particular, has a sense of the sacred.

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose this particular poem to read for Lyric Essentials?

Juliet Cook: I chose a poet I loved years ago, Tory Dent. I don’t remember exactly how I first encountered her. I think I found one of her books (What Silence Equals or HIV, Mon Amour or both) at a public library near where I used to live that offered the best contemporary poetry section I’d ever encountered. Then I purchased her last book, Black Milk, which ended up being published the same year she ended up dying. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time.

I knew she had passed away quite some time ago, but when I looked her up online to remind myself when, I found out that when she died, she was the age that I am now.

I chose a poem from Black Milk because I didn’t want to select one particular poem from one particular poet I’m aware of right now.  I really like lots of poets and poetry now, but I didn’t desire to narrow it down to one. So, instead, I chose a poet who I remembered being moved by and wowed by in the past. I re-read the poem first to make sure I still liked it, because sometimes my tastes change over time and also I have memory issues. When it comes to poetry books and movies and so on, I can remember if I really liked something and felt strongly about it, but I can’t remember the details of exactly why. Just that it resonated with me, generated strong feelings, and moved me in certain ways. If that was a while back, I need to re-read/re-watch/re-consider and interpret it in the present instead of the past.

As it turned out, I still really liked Dent’s poetry.

I’ve always had a tendency to be drawn to personal, emotional, un-calm, unsettling poetic expression, sometimes to the extent that some might perceive it as over-the-top or oversharing. With that said, the thing about Dent’s poetry is that even though some might perceive it that way stylistically, I doubt it was over-the-top, since she wrote it while in pain, suffering, and in the throes of death via HIV/AIDS.

Her poetry strikes me as both highly emotional and extremely well crafted at the same time, which I admire.

It’s not as if this particular poem, “The Part of Me That’s O,” was my one favorite from the book—I like a lot of the poems within the book—but most of the poems in the book are quite long, so I chose to read one of the shorter ones that I liked. The title poem in the collection is about thirty-five pages long, for example. I don’t remember if I felt this way in the past, but in recent years, I tend to prefer shorter poems of one page or less. But my mind makes exceptions if a longer poem really draws me in, such as on ongoing dark story poem by Frank Stanford or these long, elaborate, interconnected end-of-life poems by Tory Dent.  

Juliet Cook reads “The Part of Me That’s O” by Tory Dent

RS: What do you admire about Black Milk as a whole?

JC: Dent strongly expresses what she feels drawn and driven to express for her own personal reasons. Not for any popularity contest or bestseller reasons.

She expresses herself openly, specifically, uniquely, and creatively in the limited amount of time she has left.

Her poetry is both personal and specifically crafted at the same time.

“What’s most terrifying resounds as wings, swooping closer,
those angels that operate as passive spectators while heinous events
take place. And if prayers ever do reveal themselves as answered,
it’s the stumps of our amputated limbs we thank them for,
our most natural, instinctual capacity to love ruined, pitted, abolished.

Hence, I refuse to look upward,
upward to a canopy of presupposed atonement.
What were once prayers for readiness to reckon with disappointment
become angry, incriminating prayers, prayers of ultimatum.
Those prayers, those useless elocutions from our humiliated hearts,
evolve into, or rather grow up into, articulations of atheism,
pronouncements of love retracted, of love regretfully spent.
We express instead, spitting upward and out,
aiming to reach the hemlines of their robes, war-waging rage
on our enemy angels. They prolong our torment and revel in it.”

–from Tory Dent’s poem “When Atheists Pray”

RS: You mentioned that you first encountered Tory Dent’s work years ago. Has your interpretation or understanding of this poem changed at all from then until now?

JC: I don’t remember exactly what my interpretation or understanding was when I first read it. I just remember that I was drawn to how she expressed herself and felt strongly about it and that is still true.

It feels scared and enraged at the same time. It feels horrific but terribly real.

RS: Has her work influenced your own in any way?

JC: I have tended towards over-the-top and negative in a lot of my poetry, largely because that’s how my brain works—but since I also tend to enjoy reading that sort of content, it has probably influenced my own creativity over time.

To me, Tory Dent is an example of a poet who says what she needs to say, for her own personal, inward-focused reasons, but also broadens her personal reasons into a large scale.

With me, most of my poems are inward-focused, and part of me likes that; but another part of me might like to be able to broaden them out a bit more, without dulling them down. I don’t want my poems to be overly obvious, but I also don’t want them to be so abstract or so stuck inside my own brain that they only make sense to me.

When it comes to poetry by Dent and others I admire, I love it when uniquely original work that emerged from another writer’s brain is able to strongly resonate with my brain, too.

There are many people for whom poetry does not resonate much at all, but for me, it’s a primary form of expression, both reading-wise and writing-wise, even if a lot of people don’t relate to it.

“…a purity superimposed upon a purity like a testudo
forming a bulletproof sky which ultimately fails to protect,
as art fails, to provide shelter from the mammal in us:
from the carnivorous, the banal, the rupturous, the pitiful.
There will be no birthing, but a series of swallowings
until gaunt from longing I will have settled into a state of impoverishment
normalized finally by some property of physics that adapts
the disassociated to the hemisphere: like E. coli in water, I will live.
My erotic impulses curtailed so many times that in ringlets they will lie
like sheaved hair, as fertilizer fulfilling its wishes…”

–from Tory Dent’s poem “The Part of Me That’s O”

While working on answering these questions about Tory Dent’s poetry, I searched my past posts about her on Facebook, out of curiosity. I didn’t even know if there would be any past posts.

As mentioned previously, I think my tastes change over time to an extent, but maybe not as much as I thought, because when I typed Tory Dent’s name into the Facebook search bar to see if I’d ever mentioned her on Facebook before, what I found was that I had posted various lines from her poems back in 2012—and that some of those lines are the same lines I’m referencing in this interview in 2019!

What I also found was that a main reason I was posting some of her poem lines in 2012 was because she had a written poem in honor of Marie Ponsot, a poet who had suffered from a stroke and aphasia—and in 2010, I had also suffered from a stroke and aphasia.

For a while, with Ponsot’s aphasia, her own poetry didn’t make sense to her anymore, which in my mind seems like a total horror story, and one that I was worried about encountering for a while. I was worried: what if my own poetry didn’t make sense to me anymore? What if poetry in general didn’t make sense to me anymore, and what if I couldn’t even write it anymore? Fortunately, I only had that issue going on for a relatively short amount of time (a few months). I still have memory issues, but thank goodness my own poetry (and other people’s poetry) makes sense to me, whether or not it makes sense to a lot of other people.

“Peace became associated with that essential vanishing point.
Peace used to mean simply a sheet of paper and a pencil.
Now to associate peace with something else, such as myself, for instance;
Myself as once I came to know myself, both future tense and past.”

–from “Immigrant in My Own Life'” (for Marie Ponsot) by Tory Dent

Tory Dent published three volumes of poetry: What Silence Equals (1993); HIV, Mon Amour (1999), and Black Milk (2005). She is the winner of a James Laughlin Award and was named as a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Dent’s work was also published in numerous anthologies, and she was awarded grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the PEN American Center, and other organizations. Along with poetry, Dent wrote about art for magazines and exhibitions. She died in 2005.

Further reading:

Purchase Black Milk
Listen to poet Adrienne Rich discuss Dent’s work in this NPR story
Read Dent’s obituary in the New York Times

Juliet Cook‘s poetry has appeared in a small multitude of magazines. She is the author of numerous poetry chapbooks, recently including From One Ruined Human to Another (Cringe-Worthy Poets Collective/Dark Particle, 2018), DARK PURPLE INTERSECTIONS (inside my Black Doll Head Irises) (Blood Pudding Press for Dusie Kollektiv 9, 2019), and Another Set of Ripped-Out Bloody Pigtails (The Poet’s Haven, 2019). She has another new chapbook, The Rabbits with Red Eyes, forthcoming in 2020 from Ethel Zine & Micro-Press.

Cook’s first full-length individual poetry book, Horrific Confection, was published by BlazeVOX. She’s also included in a full-length collaborative poetry book, A Red Witch, Every Which Way, with j/j hastain, published by Hysterical Books in 2016. Her most recent full-length individual poetry book, Malformed Confetti, was published by Crisis Chronicles Press in 2018. 

Cook also sometimes creates abstract painting collage art hybrid creatures.

Cook’s tiny independent press, Blood Pudding Press, sometimes publishes hand-designed poetry chapbooks and creates other art.

Further reading:

Visit Cook’s website
Purchase Heaven We Haven’t Yet Dreamed, a brand-new anthology featuring Cook’s work, from Stubborn Mule Press
Browse works published by Blood Pudding Press

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. She’s published her creative work in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Jessie Janeshek Reads Olena Kalytiak Davis

Welcome to the next episode of Lyric Essentials, where we’re excited to talk with poet Jessie Janeshek about the work of Olena Kalytiak Davis. Janeshek shares how she relates to Davis’ poetry, tells us about the time she heard Davis read at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and speaks about the ways in which Davis’ poetry has influenced her own. Thanks for reading!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems to share with us?

Jessie Janeshek: “The Outline I Inhabit” is one of my favorite poems, so that one was a given, and I was just happy to share it. I also wanted to include something representative of Davis’ more overtly experimental work (which is more what I’m discussing in the rest of these questions), so I went with “small quilled poem with no taste for spring.”

Jessie Janeshek reads “small quilled poem with no taste for spring” by Olena Kalytiak Davis

RS: What do you admire about Davis’ work?

JJ: I admire—and also relate to—Davis’ ability to fuse the experimental and the traditional. Although my work has often been described as “experimental” (whatever that’s meaning these days), my training in poetry is pretty traditional. I was a literature major as an undergraduate and, though I wrote on my own, I didn’t take a creative writing workshop until I started my MFA. I knew I had much to read and learn before I threw my hat in the ring. I still have much to read and learn now.

Knowing and understanding traditions of poetry strengthens your own work—even if you aren’t using those traditions explicitly in your work—and makes you a more informed, appreciative reader of others’ poetry, past and present.

Davis, however, does use traditions of poetry explicitly, and her engagements with them are fascinating and rewarding. It gives me pleasure to be challenged as a reader and to consume contemporary work that revisits and reappropriates literary pasts. Davis pushes poetic traditions (forms, tropes, themes, etc.) in ways that feel current, feminist, and also authentic to her voice and aesthetic. Her work is strikingly intelligent without being pompous, fresh yet aware of its history, funny, and true.

RS: How did your relationship with Davis’ work begin?

I was recommended Davis’ first book, And Her Soul out of Nothing, by someone at Emerson College during my MFA studies. (I’m pretty sure it was one of my teachers, Peter Jay Shippy, who recommended her work to me, but I’m not one hundred percent sure.) So I bought her book and read it and ended up really liking it. I then bought her second collection, shattered sonnets, love cards, and other off and back handed importunities, which had come out pretty recently at that point. I continued reading her work throughout my graduate studies and included her with writers I used to contextualize my own poetry in the critical introduction to my creative dissertation at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

In summer 2014, my boyfriend and I were visiting Paris, and he pointed out that a few poets were reading at Shakespeare and Company that night. I started freaking out because it was Davis and another one of my favorite poets, Charles Simic. We attended, of course, and it was awesome to see them, especially because it had been a lucky surprise. A day or two later, we were at the Palais de Tokyo art museum, and we saw Davis and, I think, her daughter. I was scared to go up to talk to her, so I didn’t. I’m still mentally kicking myself for that one because I was really stupid. My loss.

Jessie Janeshek reads “The Outline I Inhabit” by Olena Kalytiak Davis

RS: What are some of your favorite words or lines from these poems?

JJ: I’ve been repeating the last six lines of “The Outline I Inhabit” to myself since about 2004. I’ve never been to Alaska, but I have taken a lot of dreary solitary walks, and I can easily imagine the speaker on this cold, dark, road, feeling kind of beat-up, their brain humming “just like an old refrigerator.” I think the iambic pentameter of the Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway line also helps with that:

Walking down Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway.

I’m not thinking about composition.
I’m not delineating anything.

Walking down Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway.

I’m feeling terrifically heavy.
I’m feeling as well grounded as the dead. (Davis, And Her Soul Out of Nothing)

I didn’t record this poem because it seemed like it would be a bit long, but I love the end of “this is the kind of poem I’m done writing, or, a small pang in spring”:

turns out, I am the cock of the rock. gallinaceous and pugnacious and
(pang): I guess,
a little disappointed.

like beckett in spring, ping,
like beckett in spring. (Davis, shattered sonnets, love cards, and other off and back Handed importunities)

Throughout her second collection, Davis engages with spring (in the sense of “spring” as it has been created by the tradition of lyric—and particularly pastoral—poetry: the season of young love and frisky shepherds, hope, rebirth, innocence, simplicity, and/or etc.). These lines stick with me because the idea of Samuel Beckett (at least as he is known through his writing) having hope in spring and being let down is both absurdly funny and also kind of sad, like Beckett’s work and a lot of Davis’s work. The sounds (“spring,” “ping,” “pang”) are great, too. I actually used “like beckett in spring. ping” to caption a facebook photo of me unsmiling but wearing hot pink marshmallow Peep bunny ears, which seemed to me a fair visual interpretation of the line.

RS: Has Davis influenced your own work? If so, how?

JJ: Yes, I think so. She’s definitely one of the writers who has taught me that it’s okay to write “difficult” poetry if that’s what you feel called to do, even if such “difficult” work isn’t in vogue. I keep putting “difficult” in scare quotes because, well, difficulty in literature seems to scare people away sometimes. Maybe I’ve just been reading poetry with my college students for too long, but I find that people sometimes get turned off when they don’t know exactly what’s happening in a text right away. I’m kind of the opposite. If I can figure out what’s going on in a poem (or a song or a movie or a TV show) immediately, I usually don’t have much desire to stick with it because what’s the point?

Tangentially, Davis has also influenced me in the sense that both of our projects depend on pre-existing traditions/a pre-existing body of knowledge. My work is nostalgic (and when I say that, I mean both the pleasure and pain of nostalgia), exploring both cultural and personal nostalgia. The cultural nostalgia I frequently engage with and reappropriate is that of the “golden age” of Hollywood and its shadow side, film noir. I would imagine my poems are “better” if you know something about that stuff when first entering them; however, I hope they’re also inviting, challenging, and enjoyable if you don’t know much about the conventions, people, histories, and politics of that era. I strive to write poems that will be exciting whether or not you know much about where they’re coming from, but I also hope—as I hope is the case with Davis’s work—a reader with questions will take the chance to research some of what’s being talked about in the work, using the work as an excuse to learn more about something new.

Olena Kalytiak Davis is a Ukrainian-American poet and the author of four collections of poetry: And Her Soul Out of Nothing (1997); shattered sonnets, love cards, and other off and back handed importunities (2003); On the Kitchen Table From Which Everything Has Been Hastily Removed (2009); and The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems (2014). She’s won a Pushcart Prize and several fellowships for her work, along with the Brittingham Prize in Poetry.

Further reading:

Purchase And Her Soul Out of Nothing from the University of Wisconsin Press
Read this New Yorker review of The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems
Listen to a conversation with Davis from the podcast series Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (And Other People)

Jessie Janeshek‘s three full-length collections are MADCAP (Stalking Horse Press, 2019), The Shaky Phase (Stalking Horse Press, 2017), and Invisible Mink (Iris Press, 2010). Her chapbooks include Spanish Donkey/Pear of Anguish (Grey Book Press, 2016), Rah-Rah Nostalgia (dancing girl press, 2016), Supernoir (Grey Book Press, 2017), Auto-Harlow (Shirt Pocket Press, 2018), Hardscape (Reality Beach, forthcoming), and Channel U (Grey Book Press, forthcoming).

Further reading:

Visit Janeshek’s website
Purchase Janeshek’s latest collection of poetry, MADCAP, from Stalking Horse Press
Read Jessie’s review of the work of an earlier Lyric Essentials poet, Nate Logan

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Saida Agostini Reads Dorianne Laux and June Jordan

For this episode of Lyric Essentials, we’re joined by poet Saida Agostini. Agostini reads work by Dorianne Laux and June Jordan and shares her deep appreciation for the “richness and rigor” of these poems. Agostini discusses how that appreciation has evolved over the years (she’s read Jordan’s poem over a hundred times!). Many thanks to her for joining us, and thank you, readers, for supporting this series!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems to read for Lyric Essentials?

Saida Agostini: I love poems that evoke powerful, unexpected emotions, that demand your presence. Both Jordan and Laux’s work have a hungry, unstinting immediacy that I can’t ignore.

RS: Was there a reason that you chose to group these two poems together, specifically?

SA: I was taught from a very early age that desire was something unmanageable, ugly—a force that must be tamed. Jordan’s body of work calls out black women’s desire as a revolutionary force, the foundation of any real work, to build a freedom that we can hold and feel. Quite frankly, I want that. I want to be in my body and not just feel safe, but revel in the wonder of my skin and feel its glory. Laux’s poem speaks to this desire, what it means to luxuriate in want, to put my hand against a lover’s skin and sit in knowing with them. I think these poems are about a kind of reclaiming, a naked and unabashed commitment to let our erotic selves (as Lorde calls it) guide us to freedom. 

Saida Agostini reads “The Shipfitter’s Wife” by Dorianna Laux

RS: What was your experience like when you were recording these poems? For instance, did you already have a pretty good idea of what the poems would sound like, or did you try out different intonations? What was your thought process behind the way you read them out loud?

SA: I was first introduced to “A Poem about My Rights” in high school. I was part of a theatrical team that would perform poems in competition with other schools, so I’ve actually read this poem aloud over a hundred times. I would argue that in some ways I grew up with this work. I don’t think I even intellectually understood the poem fully until I was in my late twenties, but emotionally I connected with it immediately. I always get caught in Jordan’s cadence, her call to own her name, how she writes such an expansive, broad world that is also deeply intimate. Reading it in 2019 gave it a different texture—to read it as a 38-year-old black queer survivor of domestic and sexual violence in a country led by a white supremacist—found me reading the work as a battle cry, a prayer, and prostration. 

Similarly, with Laux’s work, it felt like reading a prayer. I kept thinking about her focus on labor, the gentle uncovering of a lover’s day—and then that line “Then I’d open his clothes and take / the whole day inside me.” Oh! That line slays me to this very moment.  I wanted to just pause and take that line in. 

Saida Agostini reads “A Poem About My Rights” by June Jordan

RS: Did you discover anything new about these after reading them out loud, as opposed to reading them on the page?

SA: How could I not? There is such a richness and rigor in their collective works. Jordan’s poem is so dense and fiery, it’s easy to overlook the incredible nuance of her work—even when you read it aloud over a hundred times. I was struck by her proclamation “I am the history of rape.” What does it mean for our history to be defined by sexual violence and trauma? What are the artifacts of this history, what does it mean to build a world where we don’t flee these realities but honor how we saved ourselves?

RS: How did you first discover these poems? Have they (or the poets who wrote them) had any influence on your own work?

SA: As I mentioned, I was first introduced to “A Poem About My Rights” in tenth grade. I discovered Laux in college. I write in the tradition of black and brown queer women who are unapologetic in their desire and freedom. I write to claim our history: the fantastic, the beautiful, the unconquerable nature of our love. 

Dorianne Laux lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the author of What We Carry (1994), Smoke (2000); Facts about the Moon (2005), and The Book of Men (2011). Her work has won the Oregon Book Award, the Paterson Prize, and the Pushcart Prize, and she’s been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.

Further reading:

Visit Dorianne’s website
Pre-order Dorianne’s upcoming collection, Only As the Day is Long
Read an interview with Dorianne in The Rumpus

June Jordan was a Jamaican-American writer and activist. She was born in Harlem in 1936 and went on to earn her B.A. from Barnard College. She taught at numerous universities, including Yale University, Sarah Lawrence College, and New York University. Her award-winning work including poems, lyrics, plays, journalism, essays, and speeches. Jordan died in 2002 in Berkeley, California.

Further reading:

Explore a website dedicated to Jordan and her work
Read Jordan’s obituary in the New York Times
Purchase Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan from Copper Canyon Press

Saida Agostini is a queer Afro-Guyanese poet and activist. Her work is featured in Origins, the Black Ladies Brunch Collective’s anthology, Not Without Our Laughter, the Baltimore Sun, pluck!, The Little Patuxent Review, and other publications. She has received support for her poetry from Cave Canem, the Blue Mountain Center, and other institutions. She is presently working on a collection of poems, just let the dead in.

Further reading:

Read Saida’s work in Origins
Read three of Agostini’s poems in Beltway Poetry Quarterly
Read an interview and Q&A with Agostini in the Washington Blade

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Nate Logan Reads James Tate

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! In our latest installment, Nate Logan shares two of his favorite James Tate poems. He talks about his appreciation of the “deceptive simplicity” that underscores Tate’s poetry and the ways in which Tate’s work has influenced his own. Thanks for reading!

Nate Logan reads “Consolations After an Affair” by James Tate

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems for Lyric Essentials?

Nate Logan: For me, these poems were relatively easy choices. “Consolations After an Affair” is my favorite Tate poem and my all-time favorite poem. “I sat at my desk and contemplated all that I had accomplished” was the last poem Tate wrote. If you’d asked me to pick three poems, I couldn’t say who I’d put the bronze medal on. “A Wedding,” maybe? Can “I Am a Finn” and “I Am Still a Finn” count as one? 

RS: What do you admire about James Tate’s work?

NL: I’m not the first person to say this, but the deceptive simplicity of Tate’s work always invites me in. In On James Tate, Lee Upton writes: “The banal that we are presumably to control in daily life proves, if not entirely uncontrollable, to be possessed of near-demonic force. That is, in his poems the banal asserts itself.” I love that. Tate’s speakers are in our almost-world: they encounter people and situations that are slightly off, but not so off that I can’t imagine it happening in real life. Even though Tate abandoned writing about his waking life early on, the poems are not devoid of our collective lives.

Nate Logan reads “I sat at my desk and contemplated all that I had accomplished this year” by James Tate

RS: It wasn’t until I started reading about James Tate that I found out that “I sat at my desk…” was the last poem he wrote before he passed away in 2015 after a long illness. Do you think this poem reflects anything about that time of his life?

NL: I never had the opportunity to see Tate read live or take a class with him. I’ve heard various stories about him and am friendly with other poets who did have him as a teacher and/or see him read. I’ve watched some videos online where he appeared frail, but that’s the extent of my personal knowledge of him.

“I sat at my desk…” was discovered in Tate’s typewriter after his death (there’s a picture of it in his last book, The Government Lake). The poem reads as a meditation on age, which seems as natural a topic as any for a poet in his 70s. But still, that singular voice is there. “I ate / a cheeseburger every day for a year. I never want to do that again.” And the end of the poem, it made me tear up the first time I read it: “A policeman stopped me on the street and said / he was sorry. He was looking for someone who looked just like / me and had the same name. What are the chances?” That last sentence, “What are the chances?” is a perfect summary of Tate’s work. I ask this at the end of every Tate poem, not as a way of measuring suspension of disbelief, but as a way to express wonder at what I just read.

RS: Has his work influenced your own in any way?

NL: Oh, certainly. It’s flattering whenever a poet or reader says my work reminds them of Tate. I don’t care to write from my waking life either, so my poems are also filled with situations and speakers from a world like our own, but not exactly. Readers have also told me that my work contains an understated thread of humor, which is also a staple of Tate’s work.

RS: Is there anything you’re currently working on that you’d like to tell us about?

NL: Currently, I’m just writing poems in the routine I established during my MFA. I do have a few poems written with Clu Gulager as a protagonist, which may turn into a chapbook-length manuscript, but he doesn’t need my help making fans.

James Tate is a poet from Kansas City, Missouri. Over the course of his career, Tate published more than 20 collections of poetry. He won the National Book Award for Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994) and the Pulitzer Prize and William Carlos Williams Award for Selected Poems (1991). His final collection, The Government Lake, was published three years after his death in 2015.

Further reading:

Read a feature about James Tate in the New Yorker
Read a review of The Government Lake in The Paris Review
Purchase The Government Lake

Nate Logan is the author of Inside the Golden Days of Missing You (Magic Helicopter Press, 2019). He’s editor and publisher of Spooky Girlfriend Press and teaches at Marian University.

Further reading:

Purchase Inside the Golden Days of Missing You from Magic Helicopter Press
Read a review of Inside the Golden Days from Barrelhouse
Read Nate’s work in The Indianapolis Review and Rabid Oak

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Jenny MacBain-Stephens Reads Sarah Nichols

Lyric Essentials

In an installment fit for October and Halloween, Jenny MacBain-Stephen shares Sarah Nichols’ work with us and talks about her own experience with found poetry. Thank you for reading and supporting the Lyric Essentials series!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems to share with us?

Jenny MacBain-Stephens: I chose to read “Little Sister Remembers Helter Skelter” and “Little Sister’s Sister.”

I’ve always been a fan of Sarah Nichols’ poetry. Her poems are surreal, creepy, and multi-layered.  Her chapbook Little Sister (from Grey Book Press, 2018) does not disappoint in these areas.

Jenny MacBain-Stephens reads “Little Sister Remembers Helter Skelter” by Sarah Nichols

RS: Sarah Nichols’ chapbook Little Sister, where these poems come from, is a collection of found poetry. Sarah uses the novel Violin by Anne Rice as her chapbook’s source material. What is your own experience with found poetry?

JMS: I was new to experimenting with found poetry until I participated in several month-long poetry challenges over various Octobers (called “The Poeming”) the past couple of years with a group of other poets, facilitated by E. Kristin Anderson and Samantha Duncan and Sarah Nichols.

Nichols was one of the poets who participated in these as well. An author is picked (like Anne Rice or Stephen King), and then each poet is assigned a book by that author to create a poem a day and publish it in a private closed group on social media every day in October.

Because it is October, the authors are usually horror-related or maybe focused on science fiction. It is an awesome experience. We always review the rules about using another writer’s words to create something new, and each poem is attributed. I’ve created many poems using this method now, and I thoroughly enjoy it.

Jenny MacBain-Stephens reads “Little Sister’s Sister” by Sarah Nichols

RS: What do you admire about Little Sister as a whole? 

JMS: I love the musical references in the chapbook (the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” P.J. Harvey, Joy Division,) and even though the Little Sister is “Little,” she seems off and a little violent and the reader also doesn’t even know if she is real sometimes. The speaker is distrustful of her but also at times says things like “She is my own breath.” There are images that play with mental hospitals, and God, and evil, and sex, and I love the idea of playing with those boundaries.

RS: Did you discover anything new about these poems after reading them out loud, as opposed to reading them on the page?

JMS: I did. In “Little Sister Remembers Helter Skelter,” the first line is, “I don’t believe in confession. I was a little abomination, girl.” If you read this line faster and skip over the comma a bit, it sounds like the reader is talking about herself, rather than addressing the “girl.”

And this little change up for me is symbolic of these poems—is the Little Sister a separate entity or are the girls the same?  Is one person severed into little dark pieces? I think so.

A poet from Connecticut, Sarah Nichols has published four chapbooks, including How Darkness Enters a Body (2018) and Dreamland for Keeps (2018). Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Dream Pop, Memoir Mixtapes, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Rogue Agent.

Further reading:

Read an interview with Sarah Nichols in Speaking of Marvels
Purchase How Darkness Enters a Body from Porkbelly Press
Get Little Sister from Grey Book Press

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens lives in the Midwest and is the author of four full-length poetry collections: Your Best Asset is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016), The Messenger is Already Dead (Stalking Horse Press, 2017), We’re Going to Need a Higher Fence, tied for first place in the 2017 Lit Fest Book Competition, and The Vitamix and the Murder of Crows, which is recently out from Apocalypse Party. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is also the author of ten chapbooks. Recent work can be seen at or is forthcoming from The Pinch, Black Lawrence Press, Quiddity, Prelude, Cleaver, Yalobusha Review, Zone 3, and decomP.

Further reading:

Visit Jenny’s website
Purchase The Messenger is Already Dead from Stalking Horse Press
Read Jenny’s work in Yalobusha Review

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Megan Merchant Reads Laura Van Prooyen

For this installment of Sundress Publication’s Lyric Essentials series, we’re joined by poet Megan Merchant, who reads two poems by Laura Van Prooyen. Megan shares the ways the poems resonate with her own experience as a mother, why the collection they belong to is one of her favorites, and details about her own upcoming projects. Thanks for reading!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems?

Megan Merchant: There are poems that I come across that spark a little sucked-in breath of resonance or awe. These two, in particular, caught me in that way—they drew my attention from the machinery of the poem to the visceral way that I was experiencing it in that moment, especially in the last few lines of “Undoing Her Hair,” when the poet confesses, “She can’t believe / she ever thought / this girl belonged to her.” To borrow the phrase “they stopped me in my tracks” falls short of describing their impact and importance to me as a reader, mother, and poet.

Let me try it this way—I’m learning how to play the ukulele. It’s my first venture into music and music theory—which escapes me. I can hear and intuit when something is working, or when it’s off, but understanding the Circle of Fifths feels unattainable. However, once I learn a song, really learn it, so that becomes part of my body, then there’s the moment at the very end, when the last note or chord is winding into silence and the music is still vibrating my ears and the small bones of my chest—that moment is the closest I can come to explaining how these poems make me feel. They make me want to unpack everything and move into that space that was just opened by a shift in frequency. 

Megan Merchant reads “Undoing Her Hair” by Laura Van Prooyen

RS: In our emails, you mentioned that you picked Our House Was on Fire out of your list of favorite poetry books. What makes this one of your favorites? 

MM: I keep the same few books close to my desk, even though I can move through their poems by memory. They are not a reference, but more of a reassurance, or a community of sorts. I will pick them up, read a page, think, Look what this poet did—it is remarkable, then start to negotiate with the white space in front of me. 

Some of what has claimed space in that pile has to do with life-timing. I came across Our House Was On Fire when my youngest son stopped speaking. Our lives became a swirl of doctors, sleepless nights, and a narrowing into a diagnosis. I was writing through it all, but wondering how I would work those poems into a collection without overwhelming a reader, while also sustaining their impact. I wasn’t sure how much to divulge for the sake of clarity and still guard his privacy. Meanwhile, life was moving forward and poems about other aspects were wandering into the collection I was working on, asking for equal space. 

I picked this book because of the way it flows together as a whole. I was very taken with how her poems, which vary widely in their subjects and images, play off of each other, how they build and root deeper as they progress. For me, the poems about her child are interspersed in a way that feels like everything else is suspended by that gravity. And while she entertains other preoccupations—loneliness, love, heartbreak, memory, the natural world, and domestic life—that dull ache of motherhood is always just under the surface of image and sound. In raising a child with a diagnosis, I’ve learned how that becomes subtext to absolutely everything—to mundane food prep, to navigating relationships, to quiet moments between intimate partners, to hawks and ravens shadowing the trees. It’s more than background—its patterned into the fabric. Her book is a physical manifestation of that.

RS: “Plum” offers an intimate, rather unsettling look at so-called “domestic” moments, like the shadow puppet theater put on by the speaker’s daughters and her husband painting the walls of the bathroom. How do you think Van Prooyen makes these poems accessible even to readers who, for instance, may not have children or be married or otherwise involved in that kind of traditionally “domestic” life?   

MM: There’s a willful abstraction at play, one that creates a layering of meaning in these poems. Take, for example, the last few lines: “In the dark / the sound of your painting mimics breath, / and I listen: grateful we are together even like this.” Her placement of “even” both holds the line and breaks it wide open. Throughout the book, she offers enough footholds so that the intended moments carry weight and have impact, but also offer enough freedom for interpretation. Instead of narrowing down, the poems expand. Also, within the domesticity and themes of motherhood, there are the fingerprints of tenderness, loss, fear—all very relatable human experiences. These feel more like codes in our DNA than in our life designs.

Megan Merchant reads “Plum” by Laura Van Prooyen

RS: Has Laura Van Prooyen’s work influenced your own? And, going along with that, do you have any projects you’re currently working on that you’d like to tell us about? 

MM: I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be influenced in this distressing time in history, where we are being targeted by constructed narratives specifically designed to play upon our emotional states and beliefs in order to sway our thinking.

However, one beautiful aspect of influence in art is that it’s not trying to sell you a life philosophy, or membership to a limited way of thinking—it is asking you to engage critically and be open to possibility. It’s showing you how one voice found an authentic way to express what it means to be human in this world. It’s not asking you to parrot, or steal—but to be bold enough to open to your own expression. In order to do that, though, you have to first be awake and able to simultaneously hold dynamic and opposing facets of thinking and being.

Laura Van Prooyen’s collection achieves this with grace and heart. I am grateful to have found this poet and her work, to have the opportunity to engage with it and, in doing so, gain insight into how another mother shapes language and imagery to express her experience with what can be overwhelming concepts—love, loss, vulnerability, memory, and strength.

As for my own work, I have a few projects that are currently competing for time. I’ve been working closely with my editor at Stillhouse Press, doing line-by-line edits for my forthcoming book, Before the Fevered Snow. That will come into the world in March 2020.

I’ve also just finished reading submissions for Pirene’s Fountain‘s “Bridging Divides” and will be working with the incredible staff at Glass Lyre Press to help bring that into the world. But, right now, my favorite project is working with my father to transcribe my grandfather’s letters home from WWII. He was prolific, so there are hundreds of letters, but almost all written in pencil and most on aged and torn paper. The work is a bit tedious, but I’m getting to know him and his history, as well as the details and mentality of war, in a very beautiful way.

Laura Van Prooyen is a poet from San Antonio, TX. Her first poetry collection, Inkblot and Altar, was published in 2006 by Pecan Grove Press. Our House Was on Fire, her second collection, won the 2015 McGovern Prize from Ashland Poetry Press and the 2015 Writers’ League of Texas Poetry Book Award. Van Prooyen earned her MFA in Poetry at Warren Wilson College and now teaches in Miami University’s Creative Writing MFA program.

Further reading:

Visit Laura’s website
Purchase Our House Was on Fire from Ashland Poetry Press
Read more of Laura’s poetry in The Adroit Review and Frontier Poetry

Megan Merchant lives in the tall pines of Prescott, AZ, with her husband and two children. She holds an MFA degree in International Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and is the author of three full-length poetry collections with Glass Lyre Press: Gravel Ghosts (2016), The Dark’s Humming (2015 Lyrebird Award Winner, 2017), and Grief Flowers (2018), along with four chapbooks and a children’s book, These Words I Shaped for You (Philomel Books). She was awarded the 2016-2017 COG Literary Award, judged by Juan Felipe Herrera; the 2018 Beullah Rose Poetry Prize; and most recently, second place in the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. She is an editor at Pirene’s Fountain and The Comstock Review. You can find her work at

Further reading:

Read Megan’s poetry in Mothers Always Write
Read two of Megan’s poems in Rattle: “The Years We Lived in the Desert” and “Road Closure, Aleppo”
Read an interview with Megan in Little Myths

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

Lyric Essentials: Jennifer Martelli Reads Marie Howe

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For this episode of Lyric Essentials, we’re thrilled to welcome Jennifer Martelli, who reads for us two poems by Marie Howe. We discuss the personal feel of Howe’s poetry, and Jennifer tells us about the ways in which Howe’s work has impacted her own. As always, many thanks to our readings for their support of this series!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems in particular? What do you admire about them?

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Jennifer Martelli: It was so difficult choosing two Marie Howe poems! One of the many things I admire about Howe’s poems is that they invite the reader into a space, a room, where it’s as if I’m having coffee with her. The poems are conversational in that they emphasize syntactical rhythms—the way we speak. There isn’t a false musical step in any of her poetry (to my ear), and yet, these are not poems that follow a metrical pattern. So how do they work? How do they maintain their structure? I guess a better question would be, how do I tell you a story? It has to begin and end; it has to inform. A master poet, Marie Howe turns that into something I listen to, a room I want to be in with her. So, the two poems I chose were the two I felt exemplified this. 

Jennifer Martelli reads “How Some of It Happened” by Marie Howe

“How Some of It Happened,” from her second collection, What the Living Do, tells the story of her brother’s fear, his medical horror, and finally ends with a philosophical truth. This poem, though, changed how I read, and more importantly, how I write a poem. Look at the fourth couplet:

            We found a pile of sharp and shining crystals in the upstairs hall.
            So you understand, it was terrible

I italicized “So you understand” because it is brilliant: who is the you? It’s us, it’s me—the speaker, the sister, wants us to understand the accuracy of her brother’s terror. She’s not using the “you” to tell the brother—he knows what happened! The pronoun is more than just a useful trope—it’s integral to the urgency of the poem. It is a moment of intimacy between the speaker and the poet. “Come here, I need to tell you this, how some of it happened.” This charges the poem and the book with integrity, clarity, beauty, and grace. This is a challenge I give myself every time I sit down to write: to whom am I writing this poem, and why?

Wow—I love that poem.

Jennifer Martelli reads “Magdalene—The Seven Devils” by Marie Howe

I chose “Magdalene—The Seven Devils,” from Howe’s most recent collection, Magdalene, for much of the same reason: I believe that I am the “you” Howe is addressing.

            The second—I was different from you: whatever happened to you could
            not happen to me, not like that.

This is a list poem, but a list that is in flux or distracted from its last item, which is its truth. In many ways, it is how we write poetry—or how I write poetry.  It takes constant revision to get to the truth. So, here, the voice is Magdalene (which is a contemporary, or eternal, voice), inviting me in and then proceeding to try to tell me the truth—and that’s it, isn’t it? Telling the truth? I admire Howe’s piling on of the “devils”—some are downright funny (the aphid, the obsessive touching, the laundry) and some are painful. I felt a real identification towards the end of the poem, as well, with the introduction of the mother’s dying and her death. The only other time the poem addresses me, the “you,” is the final item on the list:

            The underneath. That was the first devil. It was always with me.
            And that I didn’t think you—if I told you—would understand any of this—

If we think of the word stanza as meaning “room,” then this is what Howe does in this poem: she creates all these rooms where she’s telling me something in a language I know. This is how I write a poem.

RS: In our emails, you mentioned that Marie Howe was one of your first teachers and poets that you heard. Can you elaborate a bit about your relationship with her and her work?

JM: I lived in Cambridge from 1990–1996. At that time, Marie Howe was living there, as well as Lucie Brock-Broido and Mary Karr. They would have workshops in their homes—their kitchens, living rooms, little Harvard offices. They’d Scotch-tape the announcements on the windows of the Grolier Book Store—£50.00 for a workshop, £100.00. Amazing—six weeks with these master poets! Marie’s workshop was my first and one that I returned to many times. She urged me to apply to Warren Wilson College for my MFA (I loved WW, but the experience of sitting with her and Lucie and Mary was as good as any MFA). These workshops were ruthless and honest and loving.

When I met Marie, she was working on What the Living Do, or perhaps just starting it? Anyway, when I walked into her house, I had absolutely no relationship with the poetry being written and read at that time. The most contemporary would have been Plath, whom I love, but that’s where it ended. I needed to hear poetry, and that meant reading and going to readings. I’d been writing “poems” or “Poems”—stilted, with very little truth, just lots of poetry. I’ll never forget the first time I got it—I remember the poem (though I can’t find it), but it was in the voice of Lady MacBeth. I was sitting in Marie’s living room, she was nursing a bad cold, and she said, “That’s it! That’s what it sounds like!” It was a visceral understanding. It was syntactical more than metrical.

RS: You also mentioned that Howe’s work has had a huge influence on yours. How so?

JM: Howe’s influence has been on this kind of listening and telling. I’ve learned from her about the music of the sentence, which, in poetry, has to work with line breaks, right? I try to think about whom I’m inviting into the poem, and why. What do I want/need to tell you? Why is it important? And who is the “I”? I’ve really tried to avoid being gratuitous with “you.” I also learned the importance of spacing on the page; I like those spaces around lines and stanzas.

I think her greatest influence has been to read and to listen to poetry. When I’m not reading poetry, I have a much harder time writing. My poems seem so precious! I’ve been lazy since the spring, so I did #TheSealeyChallenge (a book a day in August)!

RS: In that vein, is there anything you’re currently working on that you’d like to tell us about?

JM: My book My Tarantella came out last fall from Bordighera Press, so I’m still doing readings. This was a weaving of the Kitty Genovese story with my life, and then, the intrusion of Donald Trump. It’s about violence, about silencing women, about trauma. The urge to write this was sudden and intense and intruded on another manuscript, which I just “finished”—maybe. This newer/older manuscript is about my long-term sobriety: what happens to the recovering alcoholic 30 years in? It’s about shame, about the seeds of this disease. Also, I’m writing these poems about Geraldine Ferraro (like Kitty Genovese, an Italian-American from Queens), so I’m back to women, trauma, the 80s. These poems are very new and kind of blend the misogyny in My Tarantella and the craziness of addiction, but we’ll see what happens!

Marie Howe is the author of the poetry collections The Good Thief and The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. Her 1997 book What the Living Do is viewed by many as an elegy to her brother John, who died in 1989. Her most recent work is Magdalene: Poems, published in 2017 by W.W. Norton. She is the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and others.

Further reading:

Visit Marie’s website
Listen to Marie speak about her work in this NPR feature
Read Marie’s interview about Magdalene: Poems in The Millions

Jennifer Martelli is the author of My Tarantella (Bordighera Press), selected as a 2019 “Must-Read” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. Her chapbook, After Bird, was the winner of the 2016 Grey Book Press open reading period. Her work has appeared in Verse Daily, Cutthroat, The Bitter Oleander, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Iron Horse Review (winner, PhotoFinish contest). Jennifer is the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry. She is co–poetry editor for Mom Egg Review and co-curates the Italian-American Writers Series at I AM Books in Boston.

Further reading:

Visit Jennifer’s website
Read Jennifer’s poetry in MORIA, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Psaltery & Lyre 
Purchase My Tarantella (Bordighera Press)

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.