Lyric Essentials: Alina Stefanescu Reads Alice Notley

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week writer and editor Alina Stefanescu has joined us to discuss the poetry of Alice Notley, the complicated nature of being human, and questions evoked by the poetry we consume. We hope you enjoy as much as we did, and, as always, thank you for tuning in.


Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: I’m absolutely in love with Alice Notley’s work! What was your first experience with her writing? 

Alina Stefanescu: I can’t recall my first experience with Alice Notley but I can say that she slam-dunked me this year, after reading Cedar Sigo’s Guard the Mysteries (Wave Books), a stunning book, a constellation of a book, built around tributes to his literary influences, including Joanne Kyger.  It struck me that Sigo selected Alice Notley’s poem, “The Fortune-Teller,” as his favorite tribute to Kryger. Notley is often invoked as a New York school poet, but what Notley does in this elegiac poem for her friend is to evade those markings. Notley ends the poem by placing Kryger in the school of “b. 1934,” a birth-year which Sigo suspects was “the only marker Joanne could trust.” 

The school of being born in 1934: the school of that year rather than the school of the movement of the moment. This radical re-visioning, this way in which Notley saw her friend apart from the crowds, and insisted on locating her within her own instance–it made me ravenous, it opened a room in my mind – the Room with Notley- a room without which I can’t imagine this pandemic. I felt as if Notley had given a template for how she wants to be remembered, which is something we often do when memorializing others, as Joseph Brodsky wrote in an essay whose title I can’t remember. How do I want to be remembered, and how do our poems hide these palimpsests? One encounters the urge to reckon with that…

Alina Stefanescu reads the work of Alice Notley

AH: Alice Notley was writing in the 1960s, which adds such a deeper layer of interest to her writing—her work is provocative, the antithesis of what was expected of women at the time. For you, as a poet and writer active decades later, do you find yourself channeling similar kinds of energy when approaching particular topics?

AS: What does independence signify in an ecology of fellow humans? I think Alice Notley asks this. What’s the distance between reverence and worship?: another question Notley brings close. Any statue becomes a hot-spot for nostalgia. The hero’s looking back illuminates a reactionary golden age, a time when heroism was possible. I see that with Confederate statue demons in Birmingham, Alabama, where I live. What is my personal relationship to, and with, that? How am I implicated in these memorials? No lies, no obfuscations: just write.   

Who am I in your mouth, and why does your mouth matter? What are you allowed to make me? These are questions that don’t disappear.

During this pandemic, I’ve struggled, like many, to balance the accelerated performance of motherhood with the discipline of writing life, and the social guilt that comes with expressing this. The appalled caesura on people’s faces if one dares to say: yes, it is hell to have to choose between my life and theirs, it is sick to live in a culture where motherhood is put on a pedestal so high that we are set in stone, afraid to say, “I have never wanted to be a monument to self-sacrifice.” That’s not how I want my kids to remember me. The mom who gives up her life for her kids is a terrible legacy, a perpetual guilt-machine for the kids we leave behind. Notley’s tangles and cord-bloods and shattering syntax encourage me to write despite the impossibilities, to write and to write and maybe to spite the grotesqueness of capitalist realism. 

We’re all a little broken, despite the cultural impetus to selfie ourselves otherwise. “Poetry comes out of all the places where you break,” Notley has said, and it’s okay to study those spaces, to devise new forms to hold the fragments, to see oneself whole in the busted shards of a mirror. Our souls aren’t binaries, we don’t live in positive vs.  negativity boxes (though sometimes we hide in them because the pressure to perform reductive emotional binaries is continuous). Look, there’s a billion-dollar industry devoted to making us happy, or making us look happy, or teaching us how to say happy so hard that it hurts. It’s okay to be dense, layered, complicated, atonal, atypical, banal, ungrateful and blessed in the same breath. It’s okay to write raw bones, to invoke the moon, to make love and weep in the hot ashes of the wreck.

AH: Why did you choose these two poems specifically? What drew you to them? 

AS: As Good As Anything” is a sort of soothesay, a balm over the mind worn raw by contests, by competition, by delusions of scarcity as they play out in publishing, by not wanting to give a damn and yet, measuring myself in precisely in those millimeters of hot damnation, only to convene in my complicities, which is a long way of saying that Notley reminds me, at the end: it is the poem that is rock-like. It is the poem that deserves my attention, my tenderness, my loyalty, all my damns laid at the foot of that rock. 

As for “A Baby Is Born Out of An Owl’s Forehead,” I give Cedar Sigo all the credit for the gift of this poem in my life. While researching Sigo’s work for a review essay, I found his  “Daydream of Darkness” , a piece which reconfigures the essay form as an image, a visual illustration, the doodle of bats, spiders, polar bears and flowers, a daydream enacted or seeking form. “I do not want to walk right into the making,” Sigo writes, “I want to wander around in the underworld if it has, in fact, been left open.” And then he mentions this poem by Alice Notley, who said the form of her poem, “A baby is born out of an owl’s forehead,” came from the effort to reinhabit her 1972 postpartum- depression body.  Words and images not only evoke the world, but also, to quote Sigo, “provoke our agency to deal in past and future time.” To quote Notley, in this line that still takes my break away:

Of his birth and my painful un-birth

I choose both.

To know what I know of the world after the body is broken by this American capitalist enterprise known as “m/otherhood”, where pain is privatized and exhaustion is stigmatized and the pedestal keeps changing the model of performance, I choose both. And I choose to write about both. And I choose the discomfort it brings to the table where we might prefer not to discuss these worn, trodden, ever-gory things.

AH: What have you been up to lately? Do you have any exciting news you’d like to share (life, writing, anything!)? 

AS: Thank you for asking this, even though I’m never sure how to answer it: whether to plug the forthcoming book or mention the fascinating thing that holds my mind at the moment, which is to say, the thing I am writing, the thing I can’t stop imagining and seeking in patches of time between events. Sometimes I talk about these things on twitter. Sometimes I blog about them. Mostly I marvel at the editors, publishers, readers, peers, and collaborators who have let me be part of this world, and whose generosity blows my mind. 


Alice Notley is an American poet often associated with the New York School. Born in California but New York-bound as a student at Barnard, she then received her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop in fiction. She is known for her use of hybridity and bending genres to evoke how breaking the traditional rules is a reflection of the inner and cultural self. The author of over forty poetry collections, her work has received global attention.

Find her work in Poetry.

Read her poem “Woman in Front of Poster of Herself.”

Discover her voice a recent interview.

Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020). Her poetry collection, dor, won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize and is forthcoming in July 2021. Alina’s writing can be found (or is forthcoming) in diverse journals, including Prairie Schooner, North American Review, World Literature Today, Pleiades, FLOCK, Southern Humanities Review, Crab Creek Review, and others. She serves as Poetry Editor for Pidgeonholes, Poetry Editor for Random Sample Review, Poetry Reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Co-Director of PEN America’s Birmingham Chapter.

Find Alina online at her website.

Preorder dor here.

Read Alina’s poem “Poem for the Black Bird” at Poetry.


Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a multimedia artist and writer. She has had work appear, or forthcoming, in Barren Magazine, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief at both Mud Season Review and Juven Press, and reads for EX/POST Magazine. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com

Lyric Essentials: John Sibley Williams Reads Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week poet and educator John Sibley Williams has joined us to discuss the work of poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, what courage may look like, and the cutting details and musicality of a poem. As always, thank you for tuning in!


Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: We all have specific memories of the first time we picked up a specific book or read a favorite poet—when was the first time you discovered Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s work?

John Sibley Williams: I was lucky to have discovered Castillo’s work purely by accident while shopping at my local independent bookstore. I was there looking for a specific book, but this stark, brilliant cover caught my eye. I opened to the first page and was immediately hooked by the simple complexity of its first lines:


Because the bird flew before
there was a word
for flight

This linguistic and philosophical conundrum was followed by:

years from now
there will be a name
for what you and I are doing.

This unexpected shift to the intensely personal while remaining elusively abstract truly caught me off guard. I ended up reading almost a quarter of the book right there, standing in a narrow aisle in a crowded bookstore. And I think I finished it later that night.

John Sibley Williams Reads “Cezontle” by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

AH: I love the rich details and topics the poems delved into! What drew you to these poems specifically?

JSW: It’s so difficult to dismantle poetry that really speaks to you in order to pinpoint what exactly about it fills and breaks and then refills your heart with its music. But the musicality in Castillo’s work is definitely a part of its allure. Each line, phrase, syllable just seems to inspire and converse with the next, and the varied structures in every instance perfectly compliment its themes. But, beyond the evocative language and surprising shifts and richly universal themes, Castillo consistently strikes this astonishing balance between the concrete and abstract, the heartbreakingly intimate and highly conceptual. Everything just leaps off the page, demanding attention and careful consideration, while also asking us to throw all that out and simply sink unquestioningly into his world. There’s just this overarching sense that these poems were written specifically for me and at the same time specifically for everyone else. These poems are bridges across cultures and times, philosophies and deeply felt personal experiences.

John Sibley Williams Reads “Drown” by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

AH: In the Los Angeles Times, a reviewer described Castillo’s work as “courageous.” For you, as a poet, what has courage looked like on the page?

JSW: “Courage” can take so many (often overlapping) forms in a poem. It can be striking out to attempt something wholly new, breaking with one’s usual conventions and stretching one’s creativity just shy of the breaking point. It can be making bold linguistic decisions that may or may not work, that could be monumentally moving or utterly ridiculous, but still choosing to walk that tightrope whether or not the poem “fails”. I know it’s a cliché, but isn’t it a beautiful thing to master failure? To take huge risks and just pray readers follow your leaps and twists and experimentations? But “courage” can also be deeply personal. Most of the poems I love know exactly when and how to break and then to heal me. There’s a sense of genuineness, an authentic vulnerability, an unspoken agreement that poetry is meant to be one half of a conversation, trusting readers to be that necessary other half. Trusting others with your own deeply felt truth is true courage.

AH: What have you been up to lately? Got any exciting plans (anything!) that’d you like to share?

JSW: Although I haven’t been writing new work as much as I’d like to due to my shifting focus on being the best father I can be to my twin toddlers, I’m honored and thrilled to have two new books forthcoming. “The Drowning House” (winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Award) and “Scale Model of a Country at Dawn” (winner of the Cider Press Review Book Award) are both due out this coming winter. Professionally, last fall I founded Caesura Poetry Workshop, an affordable online workshop series focusing on both poetry and publishing. Each month I’ve been offering new classes, and I’ve been incredibly busy fostering and learning from the community we’ve built together. Beyond the creative, though, I am spending most of my time and energy on my children. It’s a tough world to be brought up into, and there’s nothing more important to me than ensuring they’re prepared to meet it with open hearts, open minds, and a strong sense of themselves.


Marcelo Hernandez Castillo is a poet, essayist, and translator. His collection Cezontle was selected for the 2017 A. Poulin Jr. Prize, and he is the author of the award-winning memoir Children of the Land. The first undocumented graduate from the Helen Zell Writers Program, he aided the establishment of Undocupoet Fellowship. His work has appeared in The New York Times, New England Review, and The Paris Review.

Discover more about Marcelo on his website.

Read his poem “Essay on Synonyms for Tender and a Confession.”

Purchase his collection Cezontle.

John Sibley Williams is the author of seven poetry collections, including Scale Model of a Country at Dawn (Cider Press Review Poetry Award), The Drowning House (Elixir Press Poetry Award), As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press), and Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize). A twenty-six-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and founder of the Caesura Poetry Workshop series. Previous publishing credits include Best American Poetry, Yale Review, Verse Daily, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and TriQuarterly.

Find his website here.

Read two of John’s poems in North Dakota Quarterly.

Purchase his poetry collection Skin Memory.

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a multimedia artist and writer. She has had work appear, or forthcoming, in Barren Magazine, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief at both Mud Season Review and Juven Press, and reads for EX/POST Magazine. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com

Lyric Essentials: Robin Gow Reads Margarita Cruz

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! For this edition, we’ve chatted with poet, novelist, and essayist Robin Gow about the work of Margarita Cruz, the origins of poetic inspiration, and how they discovered Cruz’s work. Thank you for tuning in!


Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: What originally drew you into Margarita’s work and how did you discover it? 

Robin Gow: Cruz is an editor at Tolsun Books, the press that published my first book, and I have to say I love everyone’s writing on the Tolsun Team so I first encountered her writing when she joined the team there. I’m also a pretty avid reader of New Delta Review too and I read her poem “Actus Reus.” I’m drawn to her writing because of the ways she weaves emotion and memory alongside a keen attention to sensation and touch.

Robin Gow Reads “Billowing” by Margarita Cruz

AH: What is your favorite part of the poems and why?

RG: Ugh, it’s so hard to have a favorite part. I think though what I appreciate most returning to Cruz’s poems is way the poem’s narratives are kept aloft by rich and intimate details. Especially thinking about “Billowing,” I’m struck by the way the opening moment in the poem dangles over the other scenes to enrich them and then returns at the end in a seamless way.

AH: In these poems, we get these pockets of moments that are reminiscent of cinema. In your own work, have you found inspiration in other art forms? If not, where does your inspiration lie?

Robin Gow Reads “TODAY I LEARNED CICADAS IN ARIZONA APPEAR EVERY SUMMER BUT IN MY LOVER’S HOME STATE HE WAITS YEARS FOR THEM” by Margarita Cruz

RG: Definitely! I think my writing converses with just about all art forms. I mean I write poems about memes and YouTube videos even.

AH: Do you have any exciting plans to share with us? It can be writing, life updates, etc. 

RG: What a delightful question. Two things: I’m indulging myself in writing a trans boy gay cowboy romance and I started a new job recently doing education and outreach for a program that empowers survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence in my area and I’m loving it.


Margarita Cruz is a poet and writer. She received her MFA from Northern Arizona University, and currently is an assistant editor at Tolsun Books and a columnist for Flagstaff Live! Her work can be found in DIAGRAM, New Delta Review, [PANK], and Susquehanna Review.

Find her website here.

Read her poem “Sometimes I Fall Asleep in my Mother’s Garden and Remember Us Picking in Fields” in Pank.

Find her on Twitter here.

Robin Gow is a trans poet and young adult author. They are the author of OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL DEGENERACY (Tolsun Books 2020) and the chapbook HONEYSUCKLE (Finishing Line Press 2019). Their first young adult novel, A MILLION QUIET REVOLUTIONS is forthcoming in 2022 with FSG Books for Youn Readers and their first essay collection, BLUEBLOOD is forthcoming in summer 2021 with The Nasiona Publishing House. Gow’s poetry has recently been published in POETRY, New Delta Review, and Washington Square Review.

Find their poetry collection, Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy, here.

Head onto their website here.

Read their poem “rice & rain” in Poetry.

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a multimedia artist and writer. She has had work appear, or forthcoming, in Into the Void Magazine, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She currently reads forEX/POST Magazine, is the Associate Managing Editor of Mud Season Review, was a Brooklyn Poets Fellow, and is the co-Editor in Chief of Juven Press. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com

Lyric Essentials: Rachel Stempel Reads Joshua Clover

Welcome back to this edition of Lyric Essentials! Rachel Stempel has joined us today to read poems by the poet Joshua Clover. Join us for a discussion about poetic origins, searching for meaning, and artistic responsibility. Thank you for tuning in!


Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: Why did you pick Joshua Clover? 

Rachel Stempel: I tell my creative writing students that poetry (writing in general) is storytelling, and storytelling is the most fundamental mode of communication. I think it helps demystify what poetry is. Storytelling implies a narrator and narratee—a contract between writer and reader and text. The existence of those relationships require work, and I love poetry that makes me work for meaning. Image-heavy, allusive, disjunctive, and somewhat comical.

Rachel Stempel Reads “Orchid & Eurydice” by Joshua Clover

AH: Is there a story behind how you discovered Clover’s work? 

RS: I majored in geology in undergrad, so it wasn’t until my junior year I even took an introductory poetry class, and I’m truly blessed to have taken one under a poet I admire—and whose work I’ve tattooed on my body—Crystal Curry. Whatever she told me to read, I’d read. She assigned “The map room” in class but it wasn’t until I was lurking around my MFA’s lounge for books to steal that I found the collection in which it appears—Madonna Anno Domini—that I really took notice of Clover.  

Rachel Stempel Reads “The map room” by Joshua Clover

AH: Do you find your writing relating to Clover’s in any way? If so, how? 

RS: I think poetry takes on a weird classification that most feel all art is exempt from—i.e., responsible vs. irresponsible—when the reality is the opposite. Nothing is apolitical. The motivation to apoliticize is like an act of erasure—more nuanced, but in what ways, I’m not sure I can articulate. So, Clover’s critical background—not necessarily academic—crafts his work.

In his Verso Books author bio, Clover states he’s a communist before any other identifying information. As a white, neurotypical passing, able bodied, AFAB person, I’m constantly questioning whether what I have to say—the art I have to make—is responsible. A lot of my work deals in my identity intersections—genderqueer, immigrant, Jewish—but what part of my thematic leanings are performance for the dominant narrative? For me, Clover’s work is driven by this one-sided panic as a subject of capitalist empire and seeks to unpack it through critically-informed strangeness. That’s what I want my work to do, too—serve as an archive of my panic.

Also, I self-identity as a middle-aged white man with tiny glasses.

AH: What have you been up to lately? Any exciting projects you’d like to share? 

RS: I’m grateful that my microchapbook, Craigslist Is A Place On Earth, will be a part of Ghost City Press’s 2021 Summer Series along with my friend, Robin Gow’s work (and yours!). I’m currently finishing up my MFA thesis—a YA novel in verse that contemporizes Slavic folklore. 


Rachel Stempel is a genderqueer Ukrainian-Jewish poet and educator. They are a staff writer for Up the Staircase Quarterly and EX/POST MAGAZINE and a poetry editor for MAYDAY Magazine. They are the author of the microchapbook Craigslist Is A Place On Earth (Ghost City Press, 2021) and the chapbook BEFORE THE DESIRE TO EAT (Finishing Line Press, 2022). Their work has appeared in or is forthcoming from New Delta ReviewInto the Void, Boxcar Poetry ReviewPenn ReviewHypertext MagazineSHARKPACK Annual, and elsewhere. They currently live in New York with their rabbit, Diego. Find them simping for Aase Berg on Twitter @failedcaptcha.

Click on the colored text in their bio to find samples of their work.

Joshua Clover is a writer and scholar originally from Northern California. He is the author of the poetry collections Red Epic (2015), The Totality for Kids (2006), and Madonna anno domini (1997), and has had three more books about cultural history and political theory published. He received the Walt Whitman Award and an NEA grant for his work. He currently teaches English literature and critical theory at UC Berkeley.

Read more of his poems here.

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a multimedia artist and poet. She has had work appear, or forthcoming, in Into the Void Magazine, DIALOGIST, 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. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com

Lyric Essentials: Esteban Rodríguez Reads Jay Wright

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, poet Esteban Rodríguez is joining us to discuss Jay Wright and the complexity and inspiration behind both Wright’s and his own poetry.


Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: What inspired you to choose Jay Wright for today’s feature?

Esteban Rodríguez: Jay Wright has always been fascinating to me for a number of reasons. His work (that is his work after his debut collection The Homecoming Singer) is considered quite complex, and he seems to be overlooked when we discuss contemporary American poetry, despite the fact that he has won numerous awards and fellowships (the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, a Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, the American Book Award Lifetime Achievement Award, a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship). No doubt there is still conversation around his work, but enthusiasm seems to be absent, or at least minimal. I am enthused with Wright’s work precisely because of its difficulty and because I believe his poetry, in more ways than one, extends into philosophy, myth, and history, and brings its readers closer to the sublime. Any chance I get, I reread Wright’s work, and I recommend it to writers and readers.

Esteban Rodríguez reads “The Lake in Central Park” by Jay Wright

AH: At times, in the poems you’ve chosen, there seems to be snapshots of moments that are quietly intimate. During the past year, I’m sure we’ve all had a moment like this. Are there any specific moments from your life that have inspired you?

ER: I am always looking for the moments that upon reflection were actually much more meaningful than I had originally thought, and that show up in my poetry, especially in The Valley: Playing in a plastic pool in the middle of summer (“Recuerdo: Summer, 1996”), microwaving leftover food (“Recuerdo: Nuked”), or watching my uncles work on customizing their cars because of the promise those cars offered (“Recuerdo: Lowrider”). I don’t think the mundane is uninteresting, rather, I think it hasn’t had a chance to be looked at thoroughly, and I’m constantly referring back to these moments for inspiration.

Esteban Rodríguez reads “The Healing Improvisation of Hair” by Jay Wright

AH: The poems here are both from the same collection, Transfigurations: Collected Poems. Transfiguration means a metamorphosis, typically into something more beautiful or in a spiritual sense. So, to follow-up on the previous question, do you think these poems exemplify the idea of transformation, or, perhaps, the idea of beauty in the mundane?

ER: I think they do, especially over time. Rereading “The Lake in Central Park” now from when I first read it (back in 2018) has been a completely different experience. I’ve obviously changed and grown as a person and writer, so maybe I am seeing a transformation within them that doesn’t necessarily exist. Nevertheless, the best poems don’t try to be portraits a person, event, or moment, but rather they attempt to transform an idea into another, and I believe Wright’s work does exactly that.

In “The Healing Improvisation of Hair,” the speaker gives the following account:

How like joy to come upon me
in remembering a head of hair
and the way water would caress
it, and stress beauty in the flair
and cut of the only witness
to my dance under sorrow’s tree.
This swift darkness is spring’s first hour.


Wright takes what appears on the surface to be mundane (washing hair and viewing the way water caresses it) and he makes it meaningful, tying it in to spring’s first hour and a new phase in the speaker’s life. This is what makes Wright great, revealing how the ordinary is actually extraordinary.

AH: If it has, how has Wright’s work inspired you?

ER: Wright’s work has inspired me in the way that I approach not just a poem, but an overall manuscript in progress. There has been some debate in recent years about the book project versus the book of poems, and while I appreciate the latter, my work always veers toward the project. I don’t want to leave poems abandoned, and in my early days, when I was writing my first book, I left a lot of poems behind. Wright reinforced the idea of cohesion in a book, as well as the idea that poetry can incorporate various other elements, such as history, philosophy, surrealism, myth, and folklore, while still focusing on the complexity of the human condition. If I can do some of that in my work, then what more can I ask for?


Jay Wright is a poet hailing from the Southwestern United States. He has published fifteen poetry collections since the start of his career, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations, the Academy of American Poets, Princeton University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. His most recent collection of poems is Disorientations: Groundings (2013).

Read more of Wright’s work here.

Purchase Transfigurations: Collected Poems here.

Esteban Rodríguez is the author of five poetry collections, most recently The Valley (Sundress Publications, 2021). His debut essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us will be published by Split/Lip Press in late 2021. He is the Interviews Editor for the EcoTheo Review, an Assistant Poetry Editor for AGNI, and a regular reviews contributor for Heavy Feather Review. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Purchase Rodríguez’s newest collection The Valley here.

Stay updated with Rodríguez on Twitter.

Read three of Rodríguez’s poems on The Rumpus.

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi has had work appear, or forthcoming, in Into the Void Magazine, DIALOGIST, 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. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com

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 ToledoPoet.com

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.