Lyric Essentials: Odessa Charon Reads Brian Doyle

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week writer and teacher Odessa Charon has joined us to discuss the work of Brian Doyle, fateful encounters, and the divinity that surrounds us in our everyday lives. Thank you for reading and, as always, we hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did!

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: What was your first experience with Doyle’s work?

Image of Doyle was taken by Odessa when they met.

Odessa Charon: There was a Literature professor I had, when I went to college in the eerie lowland expanse of Ohio. This professor was a mentor and confidant. At the time, I was struggling with my mental health, oscillating between severe depressive and manic episodes. I had begun processing a CPTSD diagnosis, while still living in a dorm room where I experienced a deep trauma. I felt Godly entities had deserted me. My brain was a consistent threat to my existence. Art and spirituality no longer fed me. Life did not inspire.

One afternoon, forbidden spliff already between my lips as we wrapped up a class session, this professor-guide called me into her office before I could rush out the door to get stoned. Without words, this professor pushed a photocopy of Brian Doyle’s prose poem, “A Sin” across her cherrywood desk. Intuitively, she knew it was exactly what I needed, in the midst of tumult. 

Never before had I read a piece which so defiantly shirked conventions of formatting. “A Sin” echoed my own writing style and mental health at the time; swirling, hypomanic thought processes, free of punctuation unless absolutely necessary. Yet Doyle grounded his works in what is true and unchanging. While brain chemistries and emotions are fleeting, Brian Doyle wrote words rooted in the grace(ful/less-ness) experience of humanness. In both his writing style and the Divine love, hope, anger, and confusion he spoke to, I felt held and inspired.

Odessa Charon reads “A Song of Believing” by Brian Doyle

Read the poem here.

AH: In our correspondence, you mentioned a life changing experience with Doyle. How has he inspired your work?

OC: Around the time of being gifted “A Sin,” I was introduced to Martin Heidegger’s theory of thrownness; the feeling of having-been-thrown into the world. After a particularly transformative psychedelic experience, I became acutely aware of my own place on this Earth. Shattering like tectonic plates, a stagnant piece of me shifted. Meditations within this dark night of the soul forced the realization that I was living in a pattern of dissociation. While my internal world was going through a death-life cycle, I understood I would never reach the “life” stage, unless I left Ohio. Portland, Oregon intuitively called to me. I knew no one there, and had never visited. 

If you have ever spent an extended period of time in Portland, you may have noticed the extreme “portal” that that place is. Living in that part of the Pacific Northwest grants access to elements of spiritual awakening which are incredibly specific to the land there. Everyone, and I do mean that, I came across while living there was on some kind of pilgrimage towards something larger. Portland breathes in those who are ready for that journey. For me, it was exactly where I needed to be. Coincidentally, Brian Doyle also lived and taught there.

Before I decided to leave my college in Ohio, I decided to tour Portland, just to be sure I wanted to move there. Spiritual knowingness is one thing, but logistics are a whole other. On a whim, sitting in my campus dining hall, I emailed Doyle at his University of Portland address. I asked if we could meet, just to chat about his work. I explained that I was not a reporter, or any kind of professional in the literary word—just a nineteen year old fan, processing a phenomenological awakening. We could get lunch, or coffee. He responded, “I don’t have meetings over food, but you’re welcome to come to my office.” 

We sat in his university office for an hour. We reflected together on how a Midwest landscape of seeming nothingness can inform an ecstatic experience (he related it to Jesus in the desert). I processed moving away from my Jewish religious background (“when you’re nineteen, it’s important to discover what you actually believe in”). Between students dropping off essays, Brian Doyle and I processed religion vs. spirituality vs. the mystical (in his words, most organized religions are “smoke and mirrors and performance”). We spoke of how to write, and why (“because you need to”). We laughed, too. Brian Doyle was an insightful, perceptive man, profoundly connected to the Great Unknown, as much as he was a humorist. If it doesn’t bring you joy, he said in some other words, don’t do it.

That meeting inspired me to embrace mystery. My creative work is a chimera and oftentimes, a shapeshifter. If I were to force it into one genre, or one format, I would lose my magic and passion. In a way, he gave me a sort of permission, for sacred embodiment. Before I left Brian Doyle’s office, he gave me one of his own copies of Grace Notes. On the title page, he inscribed in his winding handwriting, 

“To my friend Odessa—

With laughter and prayers and my regards on your work—

best wishes for light and for fun in it—

Brian Doyle.”

Something to note is that Brian Doyle passed away from a brain tumor, about seven months after we met. I am forever in gratitude for his lessons, his impact, and his presence.

Odessa Charon reads “if we got to be what we so want to be” by Brian Doyle  

Read the poem here.

AH: Why did you choose these poems specifically?

OC: I chose the poems/proem, “The best poem ever” (available on the Sundress Patreon); “A song of believing”; and “If we ever got to be what we so want to be” because they represent the mission of Brian Doyle’s work, as well as my own philosophy of living. All three speak to noticing the Divine in everything, everywhere. Life, as crushing as it can be, is also devastatingly beautiful if you open your eyes to it. In “a song of believing”, Doyle writes, 

Look, I know all too well that the story of the world is entropy, things fly apart, we sicken, we fail, we grow weary, we divorce, we are hammered and hounded by loss and accidents and tragedies, we slide away into the dark oceans behind the stars.

But I also know that we are carved of immense confusing holiness; that the whole point for us is grace under duress; and that you either take a flying leap at nonsensical illogical unreasonable ideas like marriage and marathons and democracy and divinity, or you huddle behind the brooding wall.

Brian Doyle did not pretend that the inherent transcendency of life was all rainbows and ascension. He did not invalidate that this world is rife with heartbreak, and valid terror. The point is, you feel the fear, and do it anyway. Both hope and loss can be held at the same time. One may be more prevalent than the other at times, but it does not mean the light goes away. Personally, mindful awareness of duality is a lifeboat; it saved me, and continues to do so.

Both “The best poem ever” and “If we ever got to be what we so want to be” are also testaments to that idea. I have spent the last five years as an early childhood educator. This was not a line of work which I ever saw myself entering, but it has been a healing balm for my inner child. Working with children has further enlightened me to the idea that there is magic and mystery all around us, at all times. In “the best poem over,” Doyle and his child consider, 

Maybe there are a lot of poems that you can’t write

Down. Couldn’t that be? But they’re still there even

If no one can write them down, right? Poems in

Books are only a little bit of all the poems there are.

Those are only the poems someone found words for.

Poetry, like Divine inspiration, like grace, are always accessible to those who can bring themselves to notice it. A core part of childhood, ideally, is the ability to play. Playing, to me, is a form of connecting with something much more intuitive and special, than the adult world gives credit to. As adults, play is a form of inner child healing. Play can also include writing. If we as grown-ups can embrace a childlike sense of wonder—if we could grasp the fluidity of art, emotion, and Godliness (whatever that means to you)—I believe we would all be much better off.

AH: What have you been up to lately (life, writing, anything)? 

OC: Currently, I feel myself arising from a contractive state. I view life as a series of “contractions” and “expansions.” Contraction, like the physical pains of labor; expansion, as in the literal life that comes as a result. I moved to Portland, Maine (I must love port cities) in the autumn, and am still finding my footing here. I have a couple of friends, but no writing community thus far. It is cold as hell and being a teacher in a pandemic is… Yeah.

I love Maine and am grateful to be here. Physically and psycho-spiritually, I am exactly where I need to be. Is it comfortable? God, no. Is it aligned and worth it? Unequivocally, yes.

Soon, I am navigating a total career switch to the publishing industry. It is scary, to do a thing for the very first time. But that fear is so juicy, in a way. It is such a potent time for growth. Creatively, I am in a fallow period of working on my book, Nostos. I write trauma narratives, which tend to spill onto the page when they are good and ready. I trust myself and the process. Fallow periods are preparation. Divine timing never fails.

Brian Doyle was an American writer and educator. Doyle was the editor of Portland Magazine, taught at the University of Oregon, and was the author of several novels, poetry collections, and essays collections. He was the recipient of multiple Pushcart Prizes and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature.

Read some of his work at Orion.

Read about him at LitHub.

Learn more about his books here.

Odessa Charon (they/them) is a writer, teacher, and spiritual intuitive. Primarily through symbology related to Greek myth, they write from their own experiences of recovery from childhood abuse and sexual trauma. In support of them writing their first creative nonfiction book, Nostos, Odessa is a grateful recipient of a Regional Arts and Culture Council grant. Through writing and intuitive work, Odessa is a healing guide for brave souls, journeying to their own underworlds. Odessa Charon resides in Portland, Maine. They live with two witchy cats and the friendly spirits in their apartment. You can follow them on Instagram for thoughts on mental health and spirituality, at @odessaiswriting.

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a multimedia artist, writer, and journalist. Her writing has appeared in Barren Magazine, Hobart, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief at both Mud Season Review and Juven Press. More of her work can be found at

The Sundress Academy for the Arts Announces December Reading Series

The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is pleased to announce our readers for the December installment of our virtual reading series. The event will take place on Wednesday, December 30th, 2020, 7:00-8:00 EST via Zoom. Join us at (password: safta).

féi hernandez (b.1993 Chihuahua, México) is an Inglewood-raised immigrant trans non-binary visual artist, writer, and healer. They have been published in Poetry, Oxford Review of Books, Frontier, NPR’s Code Switch, BreakBeat Poets Volume 4: LatiNEXTPANK Magazineamongst others. féi is the author of Hood Criatura (Sundress Publications, 2020). féi collects Pokémon plushies.

Michael Credico is the author of Heartland Calamitous (Autumn House Press). His fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Hobart, New Ohio Review, NOÖ Journal, Puerto del Sol, Quarterly West, and others. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Emma Ruth Wilson (she/her) is a poet from Central Illinois. Her work has appeared in Berkeley Poetry Review, Echoverse,and others. 

Poets in Pajamas 2021 Call for Readers

Poets in Pajamas (PiP), a Sundress Publications reading series is putting together the slate of readers for 2021 and would like to invite you to apply to read. 

Poets in Pajamas is a live-feed online reading series, hosted by Sundress Publications on Facebook Live. We pride ourselves on producing high-quality poetry readings for an online audience. Readers read from their own work for fifteen minutes and then field questions for an additional ten or fifteen.

We will be prioritizing readers with new or forthcoming books that will be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are interested in hearing from ALL writers (we accept both poetry and prose readers) but we also particularly want to welcome writers who identify as being a part of disenfranchised communities (such as but not limited to, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, migrants, LGBTQAI+ people, D/deaf, Disabled, and neurodiverse people, members of non-dominant religious groups, both cis and trans women, Dreamers, formerly incarcerated people, and more). We want to host you and promote your work. 

To apply, send three poems or up to five pages of prose and a short video clip of you reading (NOT a recorded reading in front of a crowd), please send a new video of you reading at home or in your garden, in front of your computer, or in your living room. This is NOT a call for produced sessions). Read for no more than 1 to 3 minutes (less is more), and please also attach a bio and author photo in one email, sent here. Submissions close November 1st, 2020.

Note: We are NOT concerned with audio/video quality here, nor your appearance—don’t stress, just use your phone and show us that you have a good audio/video presence and a good sense of a digital audience. We are NOT judging you based on your weight or what you’re wearing or whether you did your hair. We are looking for that magical combination wherein the poet writes wonderful words we want to hear AND is willing to engage with a camera AND knows how to give a good reading. Really, one to three minutes, read as you would at any reading, one poem, or one paragraph, don’t overthink. Please apply!

Have you ever considered how many people either really miss getting out to readings because they don’t live near a literary city/don’t have time/can’t get to them? These are the people who will rarely be at your readings but want to see you read, want to know your work better, and want to love you. PiP would like to help you and they find one another.

Lyric Essentials: Amanda Gomez Reads Miguel Hernández

Hello, and thank you for joining us again for Lyric Essentials! This week, we are pleased to hear from Amanda Gomez, who reads poetry from Miguel Hernández to us and chats about viewing poetry as a tool for hope and teaching literary citizenship through exposure to diverse writers. Thank you for reading!

Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose these two particular poems by Miguel Hernández to read for Lyric Essentials?

Amanda Gomez: Despite the fact that Miguel Hernández is one of the most popular 20th century Spanish poets, I am very new to his work. I purchased The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernández, edited by Ted Genoways, last year, but it was not until this spring that I began to read his work. It seems easy to say that I chose to read Hernández work because I have just recently finished reading his work, but I think it is his urgency that compels me. With everything going on around us, the pandemic and the ways in which it has exacerbated the inequities of our systems, police brutality and the murders of innocent Black lives, systems of oppression that continue to exist, I wanted to return to someone who has come before, and Hernández is that person for me at the moment. Hernández fought for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and both of the poems I decided to read were written by him from jail after having been imprisoned by Francisco Franco.

The first poem I chose, “Lullaby of the Onion,” was the very first poem of Hernández’ work that I was introduced to, and it is probably his most well-known poem. Hernández wrote the poem in response to a letter from his wife in which she details how she and their child were starving, and the child was malnourished having only onions and bread to eat. Hernández resists despair throughout this poem. It is not just a love poem, but a political poem: he illustrates the poet’s work is not simply to witness the moment but to reimagine a new future.

The problem with imagination, however, is that it’s rooted in our bodily experiences, and if left unchecked becomes dangerous, which is why I’ve also chosen “The World is as it Appears.” Here, Hernández’ hopeful tone is more restrained. In one line he writes, “[n]o one has seen us. We have seen / no one,” highlighting the ways in which we flatten the identities and experiences of others and conflate them with our own, reducing our capability for compassion and empathy. And while this is human error, I think we could interrogate this idea further as to how power interacts with these moments. For instance, I am reminded of D. L. Hughley who said, “The most dangerous place for Black people to live is in White people’s imagination.” I am fearful that we as a country will continue to remain blind, “blind as we are from seeing,” as Hernández ends the poem. But if there is some consolation, it is that “[i]t takes work and love / to see these things with you.”

In choosing these poems, I wanted hope for the future. Hope for now, but I can’t see that hope being viable without looking back to the past.

Amanda Gomez reads “The World as it Appears” by Miguel Hernández

EH: In our emails, you mention Don Share reading his translation of Miguel Hernández’ poem “Lullaby of the Onion” as your introductory point to Hernández’ work. What about that experience of hearing that poem aloud resonated with you so deeply?

AG: Listening to Don Share read the poem was enthralling for me. I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing, which was driving in my car, and just as he began the poem, I was parking in a gravel parking lot outside of a local coffee shop. I could not get out of the car until I had listened to the entire poem on repeat multiple times.

I am drawn to people’s voices. A speaker’s intonations and pauses are just as interesting to me as the words. In the act of listening, I am learning about the writer and the speaker, and sometimes those identities are shared in the same person and sometimes those identities are shared by two different people, but I find listening an erotic act. I can’t imagine anyone reads the same poem the exact same way every time. We linger in places that hold our attention more, and those places speak to us at very finite points in time. So for me, I could hear the nostalgia in Share’s voice in the places his voice warmed, knowing he’d read it many times.

However, I will admit that while listening to the poem was a great moment, reading the poem was a very lackluster experience the first time. It took multiple readings for me to come to my own appreciation and understanding of the poem.

Amanda Gomez reads “Lullaby of the Onion” by Miguel Hernández

EH: Has Hernández’ work influenced your own writing in some way?

AG: I would still say I am new to Hernández’ work, so I can’t exactly say how he has influenced my writing directly. I can say that Hernández’ imagery has stuck with me. He ends his poem “A Photograph,” by saying, “a picture accompanies me,” and I enjoy how much weight he places on the image. In one poem, there are “rustling eyelashes of the canefield,” and in another poem, “there is an orchard of mouths.” It is hard not to walk away from one of his poems without remembering these phrases, reminding me to always continue to invent new ways of seeing everything around me.

EH: How does your teacher-writer relationship impact the poetry that you read and/or teach?

AG: Being a writer has definitely impacted the way I teach and what poetry I teach. It wasn’t until graduate school that I encountered poets outside of the canon, Latinx poets that I could relate to and identify with, and I think that is such a travesty. I don’t want my students having to wait that long to find authors that look like them. I make it a priority to focus on QTBIPOC writers. I want author identity to be important to my students, though I do worry that my students come to the page to reassert their own opinions or biases rather than to confront them. I try to incorporate as many writers as possible to confront this concern and dialogue with them.

I’m also thinking about ways in which to teach my students the importance of literary citizenship. Many of the writers I choose are contemporary writers because I want them to think about the ways in which art serves us and how we can reciprocate. I also try to maintain some sort of balance between books published by large presses and small presses, so students can think about and talk about access to art as well.  

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

AG: Yes! My first chapbook, Wasting Disease, will be available in October through Finishing Line Press, and it is available for pre-order now. I am also working on a hybrid work that could probably best be described as lyrical essay. Growing up, most of my education came through television and movies. My parents were fascinated with American lore, and it was always a bit eerie to me. My dad especially loves Western movies, and so the piece is an exploration of John Wayne and his wives, a characteristic someone once described as the most “un-American” thing about Wayne. My primary focus is his second wife, Esperanza Baur, and I want to think through and reimagine her history as it’s hard to see her clearly past the patriarchal whitewash. At least, that’s my opinion.

Miguel Hernández is an early 20th century Spanish poet and playwright who gained fame as a political figure who wrote and read poetry during the Spanish Civil War. The son of an impoverished goat herder, Hernández was self-taught despite being discouraged and abused by his father for wanting to pursue writing. A member of the Communist Party of Spain, Hernández was arrested several times for his anti-fascist views and wrote many of his works from jail, some poems as love letters for his wife. Hernández’ prison poems which were collected and published posthumosly as Cancionero y romancero de ausencia (Songs and Ballads of Absence). Throughout his lifetime, he wrote five books of poetry and six plays. He died in 1942 in prison, at the age of 31.

Further reading:

Purchase The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernández, edited by Ted Genoways.
Read this feature about Hernández in Latino Life magazine.
Learn more about editor and translator Ted Genoways on his website.

Amanda Gomez is a Latinx poet from Norfolk, VA, where she received her MFA in poetry at Old Dominion University. Some of her poems have appeared in Nimrod International Journal, North American Review, PANK, Tupelo Quarterly, and Writers Resist. Her chapbook, Wasting Disease, which was awarded 2nd Honorable Mention in the New Women’s Voices Competition, is now available for pre-order through Finishing Line Press.   

Further reading:

Keep updated about Amanda Gomez by visiting her website.
Read Gomez’ prize winning poem “Grind” in the Academy of American Poets.
Read Gomez’ interview of Azar Nafisi in Barely South Review.

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

Lyric Essentials: Amorak Huey Reads Traci Brimhall

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, we welcome Sundress author, Amorak Huey to read poems by Traci Brimhall and talk about the craft and hidden influences of our favorite poetry. Thank you for reading!

Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read these poems by Traci Brimhall?

Amorak Huey: When people ask me my favorite poet, I always say Traci Brimhall. I first became aware of her work at an AWP offsite reading in Washington. I was there to support my friend Todd Kaneko, who was reading, and Traci was reading as well. I found out she was doing her PhD at Western Michigan, where I’d done my MFA—and then she read poems from Rookery, her first book. They blew me away. I bought the book that night, and I’ve read it dozens of times, and I’ve taught it in my advanced undergraduate workshop many times. All of her subsequent books have been similarly important to me, and her newest, Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod, is incredible. So, she’s a super important poet to me, and these poems I think are great examples of what I love about her work—the intertwining of love, intimacy, tenderness, violence, and vulnerability—and on a craft level, the language is immaculate.

Amorak Huey reads “Self-Portrait as Milk Hare in Active Shooter Alert” by Traci Brimhall

EH: On the surface, these poems from Brimhall are strikingly different than your latest poetry collection Boom Box. Are there any influences or similarities that you’ve drawn from Brimhall’s work when writing your own poetry?

AH: Her work I think probably has a kind of hidden influence on my writing. Like, maybe not one that a reader would pick up on, but that’s there for me. I mean, I revisit her poetry all the time, and I will read a poem and sit with it, just trying to wrap my mind around how she uses language, how she puts lines and images together. When I’m stuck in my own head and struggling to make language work on the page, I’ll go back to Traci’s books. I think her influence might be more visible in, say, my first collection, Ha Ha Ha Thump, and possibly in my forthcoming book, than it is in Boom Box, which differs from her poems so much in subject matter, and definitely leans into nostalgia more than most of her work does. Her poems tend to be more urgent and more present than mine are, I think, and that’s something I try to use to push myself. I would never claim my work is similar to hers, but I aspire to do what she does. I would love for something I write to land in a reader’s body the way her work lands in mine.   

Amorak Huey reads “Ars Poetica” by Traci Brimhall

EH: Everyone has a personal relationship with reading poetry aloud. Would you like to share your experience when reading and recording Brimhall’s poems for Lyric Essentials?

AH: Like many people, I hate the sound of my own recorded voice, so I certainly feel a bit awkward recording anything. I also felt pressure to do the poems justice. I love them so much. But I do love reading poems out loud, whether my own poems or someone else’s. I read to my students a lot, and I have gotten more comfortable with it over the years. Robert Pinsky says the medium of a poem is the breath and body of the reader, and I believe that–so reading a poem I love out loud is a great way to experience it.

Amorak Huey reads “Fledgling” by Traci Brimhall

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

AH: I haven’t been writing a lot of poetry this year. But, not entirely coincidentally, I’m taking a 24 Pearl Street workshop led by Traci on poetry and the body, and her prompts and discussions (and having deadlines!) have helped me draft some new poems. But my next big thing is that my fourth full-length collection, Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy, comes out in 2021 from Sundress.

Traci Brimhall is a lyric poet and author of four poetry collections including Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod (2020) and Saudade (2017). Her book Our Lady of the Ruins was selected for the Barnard women’s poetry prize in 2012, and her first collection, Rookery, was the 2010 winner of a Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and a finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Brimhall’s work has been published in The New Yorker, Poetry, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, and has also been featured on Poetry Daily, PBS Newshour, and Best American Poetry. Originally from Minnesota, Brimhall earned her MFA from Sarah Lawrence and her PhD from Western Michigan and now teaches creative writing at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, where she lives.

Further reading:

Read Brimhall’s latest collection, Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod.
Listen to Brimhall read and discuss her poem “Resistance” on The Poetry Magazine Podcast.
Get to know more about Traci Brimhall at her website.

Amorak Huey is the author of the poetry collections Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy (Sundress Publications, forthcoming in 2021), Boom Box (Sundress Publications, 2019), Seducing the Asparagus Queen (Cloudbank, 2018), and Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress Publications, 2015), as well as two chapbooks. Co-author with W. Todd Kaneko of the textbook Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury, 2018). Huey teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Further reading:

Purchase Boom Box by Huey from Sundress Publications.
Read this interview with Huey from The Kenyon Review on Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology.
Follow Amorak Huey on Twitter.

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

Lyric Essentials: syan jay Reads Joy Harjo

For this installment of Lyric Essentials, we are joined by Sundress author syan jay. They read poems from poet laureate Joy Harjo, and talk about the role of storytelling in indigenous poetry. Thanks for reading!

Erica Hoffmeister: What is your personal connection to Joy Harjo that led you to read her poetry for Lyric Essentials?

syan jay: Joy Harjo is the first Indigenous poet I was ever introduced to, my first connection to seeing how storytelling could be done on our terms through poetry. Her book, “Map to the End of the World” was the first poetry book I read outside of school and I instantly felt bonded to it. Her and her work have been integral to my creative landscape since I was a child. I cannot imagine a world without her work.

EH: Of Joy Harjo’s expansive body of work, why did you choose these two poems?

sj: These poems have been sitting in my mind recently. To think of the ways my people, and Indigenous people all over the world, have survived or haven’t survived these apocalypses of settler colonialism and all its violence. I think it’s necessary to look at the ways in which we interrogate the systems that have displaced and dispossessed our people, and the methods in which we continue ceremony and connection to each other. This includes questioning the ways America is seen as America by settlers and non-Indigenous people who may benefit from settler colonialism now.

syan jay Reads “An American Sunrise” by Joy Harjo

EH: How do you think it’s important to experience Harjo’s poetry read aloud?

sj: Her work has unshakable cadence, the ways in which she utilizes line breaks has such concussive force. I love being able to feel the way in which her words form landscapes, the low valleys to high peaks. She is one of my favorite poets to read aloud. 

EH: There is a particular line from “Perhaps the World Ends Here” that reads: “It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human.” Do you make use of that concept of what it means to be human in your own writing, or in your newest poetry collection Bury Me in Thunder, specifically? 

sj: Storytelling in my community, and so in many others, is a reflection of humanity itself, to explain or process the situations we’ve encountered since time immemorial. Bury Me in Thunder specifically looks at how we are made through intergenerational trauma, the experiences of our family members, and how we process our individual life events. In the case of the book, it was the ways in which I came to terms with grief and healing through these facets, and how it reinforces, instead of diminishes, my humanity as a transgender, Indigenous person.

syan jay Reads “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo is member of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation and belongs to Oce Vpofv (Hickory Ground). An acclaimed poet, musician, playwright, and activist, Harjo was named the 23rd U.S. poet laureate, becoming the first Native American to serve the position. She is also the chancellor of the American Academy of Poets, directs For Girls Becom­ing, an arts mentor­ship pro­gram for young Mvskoke women, and is a found­ing board mem­ber of the Native Arts and Cul­tures Foun­da­tion. She is the author of nine books of poetry, two award-winning children’s books, and a musical play. As a poet, she is best known for writing about vast landscapes and incorporating indigenous storytelling and histories, and social justice traditions into her work by exploring the violence of settler colonialism and the reclamation of her heritage. Awards for her work include: the Ruth Lily Prize for Life­time Achieve­ment from the Poet­ry Foun­da­tion, the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets Wal­lace Stevens Award, the New Mex­i­co Governor’s Award for Excel­lence in the Arts, a PEN USA Lit­er­ary Award, Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund Writ­ers’ Award, a Ras­mu­son US Artist Fel­low­ship, two NEA fel­low­ships, and a Guggen­heim Fellowship, among others. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Further reading:

Purchase Joy Harjo’s book How We Became Human
Read NPR’s feature, announcing Joy Harjo as the first Native American U.S. poet laureate
Listen to an interview with Joy Harjo, from the Academy of American Poets

syan jay is an agender writer of Dził Łigai Si’an N’dee descent. They were the winner of the 2018 Pacific Spirit Poetry Prize and were Frontier Poetry’s 2019 Frontier New Voices Fellow. Their work is published/forthcoming in The Shallow EndsWILDNESS, and Black Warrior Review. They currently live with their partner in the occupied Massachusett homelands of Nutohkemminnit (Greater Boston). Their debut poetry collection, “Bury Me in Thunder” (January 29, 2020) is out now with Sundress Publications. You can find more of their work at

Further reading:

Purchase Bury Me in Thunder from Sundress Publications
Read Frontier Poetry’s interview with syan jay.
Follow syan jay on Twitter

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

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.