Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week we’ve chatted with poet Arhm Choi Wild about the beauty of Mary Jean Chan’s poems, what is means to survive, and how they discovered Chan’s work. Thank you for tuning in!
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: You’ve chosen to read such rich, luscious poems—the entire collection they’re from, Flèche, is so wonderful. What resonates the most for you in these poems?
Arhm Choi Wild: I’m so struck by the rare mirror that these poems provide. Because of the history of erasure and curation of single stories such as the model myth minority, it’s only through intentional and pointed searching that I’ve been able to to find other queer Asian writers. There is such relief in finding that I am not alone in my experiences, that there is a commonality I can fall back on when faced with what feels like impossible questions. Discovering these mirrors makes the questions less daunting, knowing there are others to journey besides.
AH: In “Names,” Chan writes: “You do know / how much I want you — us — to survive?” There is so much power in these last couple of lines, when combined with the forced distance between both the speaker and their relationships. I’m actually thinking about your writing right now. Would you say that as a writer yourself you dwell on similar themes of survival in particular situations?
ACW: Absolutely. In Korean culture there is such an emphasis on family. Since I was a child, I have been engrained with the sense that you do whatever is necessary for family and that they in turn will do anything for you. To think I might lose that support system, especially when my immediate family is small and all of our relatives are across an ocean, made it seem that being my full and authentic self meant choosing between survival and queerness. Only when it became clear that in order to survive, I have to come out to my family did I gather the courage to do so.
AH: We all have an origin story when it comes to reading our favorite poets. What is the origin story of you discovering Mary Jean Chan’s work?
ACW: I was introduced to Chan’s work in a workshop class I was auditing with R.A. Villanueva, an incredible poet and teacher. After attending many workshops where most of the texts we read were by white, cisgender, and straight people, it was such a joy to be introduced to R.A’s syllabus and Chan’s work.
AH: What have you been up to? Got any good news (about life, writing, anything!) you’d like to share?
ACW: I am so excited and honored to receive fellowships to the Sewanee Writers Conference and the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing this summer. I’m working on a 2nd book of poems around coming out as non-binary, the death of my father, and navigating a divorce during the pandemic, and I’m grateful to have time to work on this manuscript!
Mary Jean Chan is a poet, lecturer, and critic based out of England. She is the author of the poetry collection Fleché, which won the 2019 Costa Book Award for Poetry and was a 2021 Lambda Literary Award Finalist, among receiving other awards.
Arhm Choi Wild is the author of CUT TO BLOOM, the winner of the 2019 Write Bloody Prize. Arhm received a MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and their work appears in Barrow Street, The Massachusetts Review, Pleiades, Split this Rock, and other publications. They have received fellowships from Kundiman, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing. They work as the Director of the Progressive Teaching Institute and Diversity Coordinator at a school in New York City. For more information, visit arhmchoiwild.com.
Purchase their full-length collection, Cut to Bloom, here.
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 for EX/POST Magazine, is the 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
Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week we’ve chatted with poet Jihyun Yun about the poetry of Emma Hine, surviving through chaotic times, and the wildness of dreams. We hope you enjoy reading through and listening to the poems as much as we did!
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: What was your very first experience with Emma Hine’s work?
Jihyun Yun: I attended NYU’s MFA program with Emma but our paths crossed very little during our years there. Funnily enough, my first brush with her work was several years after we both graduated when we were published together in an issue of 32 Poems. I was invited to write a short blog piece about another contributor’s work for their Marginalia series, and I chose to write about her poem “Mammoth Cave.” I was really drawn to the unhusked emotional precision of that piece, and I’ve been a fan ever since.
AH: Why did you end up choosing these two poems to read for us? What draws you to them specifically?
JY: I chose these poems because I feel like they encapsulate what I so love about her debut collection, Stay Safe. They’re both wildly tender and full of love, even in their careful interrogations of grief and impending loss, but they’re also simply wild in the same way dreams and fables are. There is a sense of transformations in these poems where girls become birds and take flight like in “Don’t You See” or are called towards the water by an almost supernatural pull like in “Jaws”. These poems make good promise of what can be found in spades in the book: world-building, a family’s emotional journey made mythic, but done in a way that we can still see our own lives and anxieties reflected in it. These poems are imaginative and sweeping, but still let us touch the ground.
AH: When describing her poem “Don’t You See” for Poetry Society of America, Hine says that these poems from the collection tend to revolve around the fear of grief. For you, as a creative writer and human going through the turmoil that has been the past year, have you found yourself agreeing with these sentiments in your recent work?
JY: I sympathize with that sentiment a lot, and it might be why I’m so drawn to this book: it rings true to me. This past year we all had a crash course in both fearing the possibility of loss and then experiencing it in one way or another. I was no exception. My father-in-law was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer at the beginning of the pandemic, and every moment leading up to his passing was an exercise of dread. It changed the way I navigated the world, and the poems leading up to the loss and after the loss are very tonally different. So much of the grieving process is contained before the event of loss, and writing through it, whether it be poems or just diary entries, was essential in helping me compartmentalize the anxieties of that anticipatory period.
AH: What have you been up to lately? Got any exciting plans (life plans, writing, anything!) coming up?
JY: My partner received a fellowship and is headed to Korea in the fall, and I’m going to go with him (hopefully for the full year but if not, at least for a few months). My grandparents and I are all fully vaccinated now, so I’m really looking forward to seeing them again. I’ve also been drafting a YA novel, not with any intention of querying it, but to teach myself the basics of writing in a different medium. It’s been a lot of fun!
Emma Hine is a poet and essayist. She receieved her MFA from New York University and her poems have appeared in Copper Nickel, The Missouri Review, The Offing, The Paris Review, among others. Her debut poetry collection, Stay Safe, was published by Sarabande Books in January 2021.
Jihyun Yun is a Korean American poet from the San Francisco Bay Area. A National Poetry Series finalist, her debut collection Some Are Always Hungry won the 2019 Prairie Schooner Prize in Poetry and was published by the University of Nebraska Press in September 2020. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Poets, Ninth Letter, Adroit, Poetry Northwest and elsewhere. She currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan where she is working on a novel.
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 for EX/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
Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! We’ve chatted with poet, essayist, and editor Athena Dixon about the universality of Seamus Heaney’s work, connecting past and present within writing, and moving forward in life. As always, thank you for reading!
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: What was your first encounter with Seamus Heaney’s work?
Athena Dixon: I first came across his work during my second tour through undergraduate school, but I didn’t really hold onto it until I was working on my MFA two years later. At the time I was compiling my creative thesis, Way Station, and quite a few of poems in that collection concerned my hometown and its working-class roots and routines. Heaney’s poems, especially those in Death of a Naturalist and North, were very concrete for me and I added them to my touchpoints for continuing to craft my final project.
AH: Even if we are not Irish, living in the Ireland that Heaney wrote about, would you say that there is this universal aspect to his work that everyone can relate to in some form?
AD: I think so and that’s what kept me connected to his poems after my initial introduction. There is a common thread that connects Heaney to his readers because the heart of his work is universal. Readers can relate to Heaney’s very clear reverence for family and tradition. I come from a very blue-collar background. My father was a steelworker and my mother was a factory worker. So, there was an instant understanding in how he describes the work, the physical toll of it, and how it can impact the individual and the family. His work makes me revisit pieces like Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” for the same reasons. There are for sure quite a few people who can relate in the same ways because we’ve seen this kind of labor ourselves or are participating in it to raise our own families. They can understand judgement from social circles and society at large. And they can understand the underlying desire to respect tradition, but to also move forward along your own path.
AH: In “Punishment,” we see this interweaving of finding a bog body and political strife in contemporary Northern Ireland. As a writer, how do you grapple with this tension of past and present in your own work?
AD: I try to find tension that is useful to the work and myself. There is, of course, always tension to be found when trying to reconcile the past and the present. However, writing for me has always been a way to filter through that tension and find what is going to be best for not only my art, but also my own personal journey. I think there has to be some balance between the two because what is tension if you aren’t trying to truly dissect it and discover some measure of beauty or questioning in it? I think anything else is just for shock value and that’s not the purpose of writing for me. I want to be able to go back to the past and come back changed in some way. I don’t want to wallow in it. That doesn’t mean there has be complete healing or understanding, but there has to be something useful if I’m going to add more tension to my life.
AH: Why did you choose these two poems specifically?
AD: “Punishment” was the first Heaney poem I encountered and it was like a shock to the system. I fell in love with how he broke his lines and how he crafted images. Those images are rich, but not overwrought. I found such pleasure in the idea he wasn’t trying to be opaque in the poem as well. It is both accessible, yet elevated. Heaney gives us something violent and troubling in a very concise way. It highlights how detached the punishment was despite the very passionate act that led to her demise. Also, his ability to move readers from a macro level to a micro level is brilliant. We get see the overarching expectations and rules of society, the woman’s actions, the reaction to her “crimes”, and even down to the very essence of her bones and brain. It’s an amazing journey in very lean lines.
I love “Digging” for some of the same reasons. I instantly wanted to dissect how there could be such depth to the world building in such slim stanzas. However, what I love the most is his use of sound and rhythm. This poem begs to be read aloud just to hear how the words bounce against each other, how they pull you from one line to the next, and how the poet uses word choice to engage our senses. For me, the poem also is very much an act of love that is recognizable on both sides. The caring of the father and grandfather through their manual labor which gives them the means to care for the speaker juxtaposed against the speaker’s desire to honor those men in the medium he has at his disposal is lovely. And the idea of generational betterment that isn’t couched in shame but rather respect and acknowledgement is close to my heart, too.
Seamus Heaney was a poet and playwright from Ireland. He is widely considered to be one of the finest Irish poets in contemporary history, as his poetry and writing was well-loved all over the world. Full of rich, luscious descriptions of Ireland and its natural beauty, as well as informing readers about the politics and history of the country, his poems showcased his prolific talent as a writer.
A native of Northeast Ohio, Athena Dixon is the author of The Incredible Shrinking Woman (Split/Lip Press) and No God in This Room (Argus House Press). Her work also appears in The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket Books) and in various publications including GAY Magazine and Narratively. She resides in Philadelphia. Learn more about the author at www.athenadixon.com.
Read Athena’s essay “You Have the Right to Remain Silent” at Grub Street.
Find her essay collection The Incredible Shrinking Woman at Split/Lip Press.
Listen to the podcast Athena co-hosts, New Books in Poetry, here.
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
Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! Today we chatted with writer GennaRose Nethercott about the work of the poet Miriam Bird Greenberg, turning to folklore and mythology in times of hardship, and the rich, luscious details that go into language. As always, thank you for tuning in!
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: We all have an origin story for when we began to obsess over certain poets. How did you discover Miriam Greenberg’s work?
GennaRose Nethercott: In 2015, I did a residency with fellow poet Ben Clark out in the Nebraskan flatlands, at a magical place called Art Farm. It was in this town called Marquette—the only things for miles around were a bar called the Don’t Care Bar and this residency. The locals thought we were a cult, I think. Anyway, Ben and I were working on an epistolary series called Dear Fox, Dear Barn—and we’d turned this little Japanese tea house some other artist had built in the middle of a cornfield into our studio.
One night, a tornado warning turned the sky dark and low. We hunkered in the teahouse waiting for it to pass. Ben was a big fan of Miriam’s work—and he’d brought her chapbook All Night in the New Country with him from home. I’d never read her, and he insisted I had to. We weathered the storm while handing the book back and forth, reading poems aloud by candlelight. Then Ben taught me to read fortunes using a poker deck with ‘50s nude pinups on the card faces. We slept under a tablecloth. Survived the night. Hard not to love Greenberg after an introduction like that.
AH: “I Passed Three Girls Killing a Goat” it’s like this capsule of a tragic and grotesque moment, of a goat’s death. As an American reading this poem right now, it almost made me think of it as symbolic for what’s going in the United States. During times like these, as a writer, have you found yourself returning to certain poems and reconnecting them to the chaotic world we’ve been living in?
GN: Poems like Greenberg’s are so comforting to me in times like these, because they turn suffering into mythology. Terror, uncertainty, pain—these don’t sit easily in the body. But a story? A folktale? These we understand. These we can process. As I always do in times of turmoil, I turn to poems that speak in this sort of legend-voice, and I turn to folklore itself. Writing takes the harsh, stark realities in which we live and teases them out into myths we might whisper around a campfire in the next world.
AH: Both of these poems you’ve shared with us have such rich, luscious details about the world around us, whether it is a natural occurrence or one orchestrated by humans. What stands out to you the most in these poems and why?
GN: One of my favorite aspects of Greenberg’s work is her deeply velvety, plump use of language. Words like crisp lab coat, spigot, black walnuts, blade on a strop, sweetheart, mustard flowers… They create this heightened, sensory world you can almost taste when spoken aloud. Which is incredible, because I think that’s how she’s able to turn the volume up on these stories, heighten them to the status of feeling like myths. She describes incredibly gruesome, gritty images using beautiful, ornamented language—and this uncanny pairing tips it almost into the realm of a dark fairy tale, a post-apocalyptic fable. There’s this idea in psychology that a sense of the uncanny is created by rubbing two things up against each other that don’t belong—for example, in a ghost story, the living and the dead interact, and it’s that chafing (not the ghost itself) that makes us afraid. In Greenberg’s poems, she rubs luxurious, satiny language against stark, ugly images—and so we are left with a feeling that these stories are not quite of this world, even if nothing strictly supernatural is happening. There’s a strange electricity beneath the surface.
AH: Got any big plans (writing-wise, life-wise, anything!) that’d you like to share?
GN: So many plans! The big one is that I spent quarantine writing a novel—and I’m in the editing stage now, so my brain is officially pudding at this point. But it’ll be coming out through Knopf Vintage in a year or so, followed by a short story collection, and I’m very excited. The novel blends Baba Yaga folklore with themes of Jewish diaspora, ancestral trauma, and American adventure stories. It’s a hearty blend of fun and sad, just how I like em.
And as for life plans, I’m just holding my breath until I can get this vaccine. And then? Wow, who knows! I want to go to a circus! I want to make out with every stranger on the street! I want to go to the movie theater and just watch all the movies playing, one after another, until they kick me out! …but I suspect what will really happen is I’ll finally get to hug my parents again and that will be all my little heart can take before crawling back to bed.
Miriam Bird Greenberg is the author of several poetry collections and chapbooks, most recently In the Volcano’s Mouth. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications such as The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and The Adroit Journal. The recipient of fellowships from Stanford, Poetry Foundation, and the National Endowment from the Arts, she lives and works in California.
Purchase her collection In the Volcano’s Mouth here.
GennaRose Nethercott is the author of The Lumberjack’s Dove (Ecco/HarperCollins) selected by Louise Glück as a winner of the National Poetry Series, and Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog: A Story in Cootie Catchers (Ninepin Press). A born Vermonter, she tours nationally and internationally performing from her works and composing poems-to-order on a manual typewriter with her team, The Traveling Poetry Emporium. Her first novel and short story collection are forthcoming from Knopf Vintage.
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 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
Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, Wendy Videlock is joining us to share the work of the poet Virginia Hamilton Adair and discuss the natural world around us, the vivacious language and choices made in these poems, and experimentation. Thank you for reading, and we hope to see you next time!
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: Why did you choose these poems?
Wendy Videlock: I think they really represent Virginia Hamilton-Adair’s style, range and thematic interests. And of course they’re some of my favorites of hers. She really knows how to surprise the reader, how to pace a poem, how to pack a punch, how to avert our expectation. In “Keyring,” those first two lines, “My grandfather, when he was very old, / to one small room confined,/ gave me a bunch of his keys to hold.” assure us we are in good hands — the syntax, compression, and sonic interests alert us to that right away. Though she chooses a common subject, (one’s grandfather) she treats the subject uniquely, rendering the rather common subject uncommon indeed. And that close! Perfection. She embodies in this piece the diction, tone, and wonder of a child, and that “chuckling sound” the keys make is just a brilliant touch. She seems to work with what Frost called ‘the ghost of meter’ and often ends her poems on a note of mystery that widens, rather than closes off, or confirms our view. I think this little poem really exemplifies that.
“Yea Though I Walk” is a potent little piece with three discernible turns. I’m very drawn to a poetic that’s interested in pacing, that can equally surprise, delight, and devastate. She begins by lulling us into a pastoral scene, with sweet little lambs bobbing along and rather romantic perceptions of shepherding —then leads us to a stark reminder of efficiency, hunger, even cruelty: a wounded lamb unable to keep up, is left by the road we are told, its hooves wired together. The speaker imagines the shepherd returning that evening to collect his dinner. She then switches register again, panning out to a wider view, reflecting more meditatively, “The good shepherd of myths, psalms, and parable/ have always made me uneasy. / Something wrong there, leading me / however gently, to the slaughter”. This describes not only the shepherd and the lamb of course, but also how the poem leads us along with its shifting registers and perceptions — adding yet another layer of engagement to this devastating little poem.
AH: What was your first experience with this poet’s work?
WV: I was given an anthology by a friend a few years ago called Poets of the American West, edited by Robert Mezey, and discovered one slim and wily little poem of hers called “Mojave Evening.” In it she closes the poem by describing coyotes at dusk this way: “their eyes coming out to hunt/ like all the other stars’. Again a common subject given remarkably uncommon treatment. I was hooked.
AH: Adair’s work is often inspired by the world that was around her. What has been inspiring you lately?
WV: Yes, I’m invested in the natural world as well, the character of the landscape, the wildlife, the changing skies, the cosmos. I’ve been experimenting a lot with prose lately, and testing the boundaries of genre bending, of specialty blending, of literary integrations and the imagination. So many marvelous opportunities for metaphor, intimacy, wordplay and surprising new insights. A writer never has enough time. One of my disappointments in the modern poetic is that it often goes straight for the cerebral, the hyper-ironic, the center stage “I” and the poet’s intention being its central purpose —very often neglecting the enchantment of song, the natural world, the elements, the very facts and shared understandings of our existence. Adair reminds us that poetry’s roots are in song, and that none of those things need be sacrificed in service of the poem.
AH: What have you been up to lately? Got any news to share?
WV: My upcoming book, The Poetic Imagination: A Worthy Difficulty is a collection of new and previously published essays, reviews, and prosimetrum (known in eastern tradition as haibun) on the elusive nature of language, landscape, the imagination, and the often misunderstood nature of verse craft or prosody. I’ve also got a new book of poems I’m readying for publication. I think both should be out by the end of the year or early in 2022.
Wendy Videlock lives in a small agricultural town on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies. Her work appears in Hudson Review, Poetry, Dark Horse,The New York Times, Best American Poetry, and other venues. Her books are available from Able Muse Press. Her upcoming collection of essays, The Poetic Imaginarium: A Worthy Difficulty, will appear in the fall of 2021. To see more of Wendy’s work, please visit: www.wendyvidelock.com, or tune in to this recent webinar she did with Tim Green, editor of Rattle: https://youtu.be/OheIJ9Gg3C8
Discover her full-length collection Slingshots and Love Plums at Able Muse Press.
Virginia Hamilton Adair was an American poet. Originally, she published a few pieces from the 1930s to 1950s, but then took a break that spanned fifty years. After this break, she found acclaim with her poetry during the last decade of her life. At eighty-three years old and after she had gone blind, her first poetry collection Ants on the Melon: A Collection of Poems was published in 1996. Over her lifetime, she had written over a thousand poems.
Read her poem “Buckroe, After the Season, 1942” here.
Find her poetry collection “Beliefs and Blasphemies” here.
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 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
Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week Anna Meister will be reading Diannely Antigua’s work and discussing the act of reading a poem verbally, admirations, and future plans. Thank you for tuning in!
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: Why did you choose Diannely Antigua?
Anna Meister: I wanted to speak about Diannely’s poetry because I so appreciate and admire the frank, unapologetic way her work wrangles mental illness as subject matter. I almost wrote that her poems embody a fearlessness, but I think it’s more that the poet allows fear (of stigma, of succumbing, of survival) to be in the poems, and I find that honesty very brave and refreshing.
AH: Throughout the poems, there seems to be this theme of hunger for something. As a poet yourself, would you say you feel a connection to this concept of wanting something more in your writing?
AM: Yeah, I certainly feel like my poems tend to come from a place of not knowing, searching for answers. And in that vein, the feeling of longing or unsatiated hunger propels me forward, which I do feel moving through Antigua’s work. It also makes me think about the biblical references and imagery in Ugly Music, how the speaker’s religious history and questioning/speaking to god are connected to an erotic hunger and understanding of her own sexuality.
AH: Listening to you read these poems and actually reading them on the page was a completely different experience. How was the act of verbally reading these poems? Did it change anything for you?
I always like to hear things aloud as I’m reading; there’s such joy in how differently a poem’s music comes through when read versus on the page. And yes, her book is titled Ugly Music, but Antigua really does have such a musical ear and there’s a lot that’s just sonically delightful about these poems. Something else I noticed in reading them aloud is that, due in part to all of the poems being in first person, their vulnerability (and mine as the reader) felt amplified. The term “confessional poetry” can get a bad rap (which is pretty sexist), but I think Diannely is absolutely showcasing the power of the poem as a space for confession and saying the “unsayable” thing.
AH: Your poetry collection recently came out with Sundress. Got any exciting plans coming up in the near future?
AM: While this isn’t related to What Nothing, I was just able to get a vaccination appointment for the end of the month and I’m pretty excited about that! I’m looking forward to the ways in which life will feel easier in the months to come, as more and more people get vaccinated and are able to be together again. I miss experiencing poetry with other people! To have my first book released during quarantine/a pandemic has been different than I’d imagined, though I have enjoyed partaking in virtual events and I’m grateful for the accessibility and connection they’ve provided. I’m hoping to travel a bit later this year to see friends, do some readings, and celebrate What Nothing more widely. I’m really proud that it’s finally out in the world!
Diannely Antigua is the author of Ugly Music (YesYes Books, 2019), which won the Pamet River Prize. Previously nominated for the Pushcart Prize and selected for Best of the Net, her poems can be found in The Adroit Journal, Bennington Review, and Washington Square Review. She received her MFA from New York University.
Anna Meister is the author of the poetry collection What Nothing (Sundress Publications, 2021), as well as two chapbooks. Meister received an MFA in Poetry from New York University, where she was a Goldwater Writing Fellow. Her poems have appeared in The Rumpus, Redivider, The Adroit Journal, BOAAT, and elsewhere. She lives in Des Moines, Iowa with her wife and son.
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
Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! In this latest installment, Stephen Mills reads us Frank O’Hara and talks about how O’Hara’s poetry has not only helped shape queer spaces in poetry, but has most recently provided comfort while living in New York City during the COVID crisis. Thank you for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Frank O’Hara for Lyric Essentials – and why these two particular poems?
Stephen Mills: From the moment I first read Frank O’Hara as an undergraduate, he’s been a touchstone for me as a poet as he is for many. I did, however, debate choosing him because he’s such an obvious choice for me. But as I was making my selection and setting about to record poems for this project, things took a turn here in New York where I live.
As I began to deal with the reality of the COVID-19 health crisis in the city, I felt even more drawn to reading Frank O’Hara. I needed his poems and his New York. It’s hard to separate his poems from the city where he wrote a majority of them. He wrote with such joy and excitement, which was often tinged with darker themes or events. Some of his most famous poems are “walking poems” where he’s moving though New York and capturing everything that makes this city so thrilling and alive (though he often does so by reminding us of death). Due to the current situation, I haven’t really been out for four weeks and counting, so reading O’Hara was a way to reconnect with my own love of this city as well as his work.
I selected “Steps” because it is one of my favorite poems. There’s a thrill and a speed to it that really captures the excitement of New York but also of love. It’s pretty hard to get away with lines like “oh god it’s wonderful / to get out of bed / and drink too much coffee / and smoke too many cigarettes / and love you so much” but O’Hara makes us feel that and believe it so fully.
“St. Paul and All That” is a different kind of love poem. It’s full of an anxious feeling and an exploration of what it means to be with another person but to also be without them sometimes. In this case, O’Hara is writing about his lover Vincent Warren who was a dancer. I like the contrast between these two pieces which showcase O’Hara’s range.
EH: Has O’Hara influenced your own writing at all?
SM: Yes, in very profound ways. I am especially influenced by O’Hara ability to combine so many different things together from his own life and friends to history to art to pop culture to open declarations of love for another man. And to know he was doing this in a time when most of those things were very taboo in culture and in poetry, makes him a huge inspiration for me.
As a gay man who often writes about my own life and relationships, I found a deep connection to his approach. When I read him for the first time, it was like nothing else I had ever read. There wasn’t this secrecy or shame around his sexuality or love or life. There was excitement and joy and the thrill of being alive against a backdrop of the changing world of the mid-20th century (one of my favorite time periods). I’m very drawn to the personal set against the historical.
In a very clear way, you can see a lot of O’Hara’s influence in my second poetry collection A History of the Unmarried, which explores the concept of marriage within the queer community by examining many of the stereotypes of marriage and family from the 1950s and 60s. The book includes direct references to O’Hara as well as Jackson Pollock, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the tv show Mad Men, which paid its own tribute to O’Hara in season two.
EH: What is your relationship with reading poetry aloud?
SM: It is a huge part of my process as a writer. I read all of my work aloud over and over again as part of my writing and revision process. I’ve even at times recorded pieces just to hear them played back to me. Poetry is unique in that way. You want pieces that work both on the page but can also come alive when heard. The experiences can be very different.
Personally, I’ve really grown as a performer of my own work over the years. It has taken me a lot of practice and a lot of public readings, but I now feel more confident in giving my own work a voice. There’s something thrilling about having that immediate response when you are in front of an audience.
When I’m reading poetry by others, I almost always read it aloud. It’s very hard for me to read poetry silently, which means I normally have to read poetry books in private.
EH: How do you think O’Hara still speaks to readers, after all this time?
SM: In many ways, O’Hara was ahead of his time, so his work still feels very contemporary. You could replace a few names in his poems with current celebrities or artists and it would feel like the poem was written today. But I think it is more than that.
O’Hara is so good at walking a fine line between life and death. In the poem “Steps” he writes “and in sense we’re all winning / we’re alive.” O’Hara was well aware of how fragile life was from the deaths of friends and idols to living through World War II. There’s a rush to his work that acknowledges how close we all are to the end. This is magnified by the fact that O’Hara died young in an accident on Fire Island.
This exploration of our connection to death is something that still resonates with readers. Something we still seek out in the literature we read or the TV shows we watch or movies we go to. And it connects to this very moment as we face a pandemic like nothing most of us have ever seen.
Particularly for the gay community, O’Hara holds a special place for a lot of us because of the openness within his work. We don’t have to sit and decode all his poems to see his queerness and that is extremely refreshing and something that can still, at times, be hard to come by in mainstream poetry. Queers writers, like myself, are still questioned and sometimes pushed to the side for writers who are less open or direct.
EH: Do you have any current writing projects that you’d like to tell us about?
SM: I’m currently looking for a publisher for a new book manuscript called Shelter in Place that is my own exploration of our connection and fascination with death through a queer lens. The book looks at current events, historical events, personal events as well as TV and true crime documentaries for inspiration. I’ve also been working on playwriting and completed my first play last fall and I’m currently working on my second.
Frank O’Hara is a celebrated American poet known for his key role as a leader in the New York School of avant-garde poets and artists during the 1950s and 1960s Manhattan. He wrote ninety poems, and his poetry collections were all published posthumously, with the exception of Lunch Poems. O’Hara was involved with the art scene, and incorporated dance, theater, painting and music into his life’s work, and is known for his poetic observations of New York City. He served as a long time art critic, and was long associated with the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as a curator until his tragic death at age forty in 1966.
Stephen S. Mills is the author of the Lambda Award-winning book He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices (2012)as well as A History of the Unmarried (2014) and Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution (2018) all from Sibling Rivalry Press. He earned his MFA from Florida State University. His work has appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, The Antioch Review, PANK, The New York Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, The Rumpus, and others. He is also the winner of the 2008 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poetry Award and the 2014 Christopher Hewitt Award for Fiction. Two of his books have been placed on the Over the Rainbow List compiled yearly by the American Library Association. He lives in New York City with his partner and two schnauzers.
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 http://ericahoffmeister.com/
Cait and I met a few years ago. I was a prospective MFA candidate at the Ohio State University, and she was a current graduate student. While I didn’t end up attending OSU, I stayed in touch with Cait. In this interview, we talk about how the playfulness in Natalie Shapero’s poems is at once particular to the poet’s sense of humor and inviting to her readers. We talk also about lists in poems, and about life in universities. I was really happy to have this opportunity to reconnect with Cait, and to read a poem of hers I didn’t know, which is printed at the end of this interview. Thanks for joining us!
Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “Hard Child” by Natalie Shapero
Jessica Hudgins: OK so to start I’ve got to say that I was nervous when I saw you’d chosen to read Natalie Shapero, and then relieved and surprised when I heard your recordings. I think I thought that, because her sense of humor is such an important part of her poems, she would have to be the person reading them. Did you think about this while you were recording these? I haven’t been nervous with poems by May Swenson, even though her poems are interested in sound, or with an elegy by Philip Levine. Why would I think that poems with jokes seem more private, or more limited to the person who “told” them, than other poems?
Cait Weiss Orcutt: I am in awe of Natalie Shapero’s aura—and when I say “aura,” I mean “aura” as Walter Benjamin envisions it: an essence, a near-otherworldly power rooted in sharing space with something sublime. Natalie’s readings live in the sweet spot between stand-up comedy and performance poetry, and hardly anyone in the audience wants to breathe lest they break the magic. What Natalie as a living force brings to the page and stage is impossible to recreate. So, yes, now that you mention it, choosing to read her poems was a bold move. But life is for living and so here we are.
As I see it, when you ask about joking in poetry, you’re at least in part asking, “What makes a poem private?” That’s a fascinating question to me. I love that you’re connecting that sense of privacy with a sense of humor, since our senses of humor are so finely calibrated, so minutely shaped and sharpened by the way we grew up, whom we listen to now, how we choose (or don’t choose) to understand the world. I love poems with a sense of humor—not only for the chance to laugh but also because, to me, the best poems are the ones in which I get to see a mind at work. Someone can have a feeling, write it down and then, years later, a whole other human can pick up those words, read them, and have a similar feeling. I was raised atheist and maintain a crystal-embracing agnosticism, but even as a semi-skeptic, I see poetry’s ability to replicate feelings across bodies over time and space as god-like. What is divine if not unfettered connection?
So again, what poems are private? What feelings are? The right words in the right order will out anything you have tucked away inside. Poetry allows one’s isolated privacies to become a shared public on the page—what is more magical than that?
Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “Not Horses” by Natalie Shapero
JH: I really appreciate the, like, negative/positive attitude in these poems. The line in “Not Horses” that goes, “Everybody’s/busy, so distraught they forget to kill me,/and even that won’t keep me alive,” is the best example, but also how, in “What Will She Go As,” the past in which an infant may have died turns into a present where the same child is okay. What drew you to these poems? Why did you choose to read this group in particular?
CWO: As much as I am a reader and a writer, I am also a teacher, working with students at the University of Houston, at HISD high schools, charter middle schools, art museums, the Jewish Community Center and the Salvation Army (for senior citizens and homeless young adults, respectively), local arts non profits and, every now again, community board meetings looking to try something new. Having taught every age from six years old to ninety, I need lessons that will open any reader up to the possibilities and play poetry offers.
“Not Horses” is one of my favorite poems to bring into a workshop. The speaker aligns themselves with “a bug that lives only one day” and the “little dog / who sees poorly at night and menaces stumps.” Who cannot relate to these creatures, lost but lovable, broken but brave all the same? I believe poetry exists to make living easier, or at least to make living a lot more interesting. I want my students to see how poems offer a framework for survival, like the speaker’s voice coming out of the poem to our ears, small bumbling pets that we are, saying “don’t be afraid— / our whole world is dead and so can do you no harm.” Only perhaps not quite as morbid. A poem, just in existing, in telling its story or conjuring its associations, says: “You will survive this like I did. You are not alone.”
As for “What Will She Go As,” ambivalence around childbirth will always catch my attention. This specific poem does so much: 1. anticipates a baby’s arrival; 2. mocks society’s consumerist, gendered obsessions; 3. references the most famous baby kidnaping crime with tinges of pro-Fascism around its edges; 4. hints at the future absence of the baby in a defiantly daring way that surprises anyone familiar with miscarriages, stillbirths and infant mortality. This poem takes the topic of Halloween Costumes and launches off into a multitude of conflicting feelings, connections, threats, promises and resentments. What better way to welcome a baby into a world than with a poem that rockets around the human experience with such wit and vinegar?
JH: In these poems there are lists of traditions, of costumes, and of terrible things that might happen on any given day. These lists are really entertaining moments in the poems, because each item in the list surprises us with how obviously it belongs, even while it’s unlikely for the poet to have chosen that exact thing. Do you use lists in your poems? How do you see Natalie Shapero’s work influencing your own?
CWO: I have always enjoyed a good list, how the tension mounts in a poem as items are added, how one can sense a specificity beginning to show itself out of the block of marble that is Language with each new addition to the chain.
Right now I’m working on a series of poems that, in short, bring women back from the dead. When I started writing these poems, I didn’t set out to make them especially baroque, but as I put them together, I realized that, in each one, I’d layered detail upon detail to build environments both shimmeringly beyond the veil and earthy enough for someone who’s seen it all—these survivors step out of lush green glades, move through in-patient rehabs painted infinite shades of pink, skate on Roller Derby teams populated with defiant femme-punned names. List after list appeared in these new poems, always shadowed by the lists of those murdered through partner violence, gender violence, transphobia, homophobia, patriarchal white supremacy. Lists are powerful incantations. Sometimes I wonder if all poems (or at least all lineated poems) aren’t in some way lists—every line giving new solutions to the same overarching problem, different routes to a single destination.
In terms of Natalie’s work’s influence on me, I have been trying to crawl inside Hard Child ever since I finished my book VALLEYSPEAK, a first-person collection of poems built around a coming-of-age storyline. After VALEYSPEAK, I was searching for ways to write beyond my own family mythos. I admire how Natalie is able to create tension, stakes, personality and (inside, outside, borderline) jokes without actually giving us all that much about her personal life, past issues, or childhood history. Her poems create warmth and inclusion beyond or at least beside the autobiographical narrative mode. Natalie’s work, to me, achieves that perfect balance between the poet casually saying “This wild thing happened, let me tell you about it” and the reader noticing, “Damn, that’s a masterly poem.”
Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “What Will She Go As” by Natalie Shapero
JH: You both attended Ohio State University’s MFA program — did your time there overlap? And you’re in a PHD program now. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences in universities?
CWO: Even though we’re about the same age, I wasn’t at OSU until a few years after Natalie graduated. She was still living in Columbus, though, and taught an afternoon intensive poetry workshop one day my first year there. I think the world of her as a human, a writer and a reader.
Not to be too infomercial about it, but The Ohio State University’s MFA changed my life. I learned to think of myself as poet, a teacher and a member of the literary community. I met mentors that changed my understanding of poems and peers whose books I will be buying and reading for the rest of my life. I also wrote a thesis that eventually became my first book and met my husband, so I really have few complaints.
Right now, I’m in the middle of my third year at University of Houston, and again, I’m amazed by the compassion and intelligence of my cohort.
Still, I would be amiss to omit a few caveats. Universities are deeply flawed in how they allocate funds, how they alter (or don’t alter) curriculum requirements, how they treat adjuncts and Graduate Teaching Assistants, how they devalue, minimalize or wholly deny the experiences of BIPOC and non-male students, faculty and employees. The school I am currently at is forced to allow (hidden) guns in the classroom under Texas’s “Concealed Carry” state law. OSU had its problems too. All universities do.
Ultimately I am grateful to be given the opportunity to study, write and teach with a university’s backing and a brilliant, engaging set of colleagues. I value my students and deeply respect how hard they work to balance their family responsibilities, their jobs, their health, and their studies all in fairly uncertain times. I love and admire my professors for the time and care they pour into us. And, as a member of the university myself, I hope to help instigate change where we’re not quite living up to our potential yet.
JH: I feel like we can’t ignore the moment in “Not Horses” where a pet dog appears. Have you ever included a pet in a poem? If so, can we please end with an excerpt?
CWO: In fact, I have! I just finished a draft of a poem about my cats and poor love choices, and a few years ago I wrote an ode to the two black pugs I grew up with back in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley in the 1990s. The cat poem is still stretching its limbs, but the pug poem, “Ode to the Small Black” was published by The Chattahoochee Review, Volume 36.I. Here is a reprint:
ODE TO THE SMALL BLACK
pugs huddled by heating vents. California cold, no one believes it who hasn’t lived here. Temperature is relative, so the family forages scarves & sweaters, mittens, earmuffs. The daughters unbury beanies, but the mother craves the cool wind, lets it caresses her ears, scalp, neck. The family’s pugs cuddle each other, wait for the youngest daughter to slip & spill her sausage on floorboards. She does. She always does. Little creatures, they can’t translate the tantrum that comes after the fall, just the sausage sliding between 4 or 5 snaggled pug teeth. A pet’s joy is a pure joy, a joy more autonomous animals cannot reach. A grandmother visits, calls them bloated ticks. O, everyone has a trash & a treasure. When summer comes, the 2 will gorge themselves on loquat fruit, sweet tumbled meat, but now, they sleep. Dark dog orbs lodged near air ducts. A paradise of squat life: heat, meat & curling up beside another’s feet.
Cait Weiss Orcutt’s work has appeared in Boston Review, Chautauqua, FIELD, and more. Her poems have been nominated for Best of the Net, a Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets. Her manuscript VALLEYSPEAK (Zone 3, 2017) won Zone 3 Press’ First Book Award, judged by Douglas Kearney. Cait has an MFA from The Ohio State and is currently getting her Ph.D. in Poetry from the University of Houston. She teaches creative writing at University of Houston, Grackle and Grackle, Inprint, WITS, the Salvation Army, the Menil Collection, and the Jewish Community Center. She is the graduate advisor for Glass Mountain literary magazine and the recipient of an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor/MD Anderson Foundation Fellowship.
Natalie Shapero is the author of two poetry collections. The first, No Object (Saturnalia 2013), received the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and the second, Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press 2017), was shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize. Shapero has earned degrees from Johns Hopkins University, Ohio State University, and the University of Chicago. She is the Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University, and an editor at large of the Kenyon Review. Her awards include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Kenyon Review Fellowship.
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Question” and “Four-Word Lines” by May Swenson. We consider how reading a poem aloud — deciding which syllables to stress, and when to pause — can express ideas the poem suggests. We take a very close look at phonetics , and discuss how the study of linguistics informs Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s reading of May Swenson’s work. Thank you for joining us!
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Question” by May Swenson:
Jessica Hudgins: OK so obviously the first thing I have to ask in our conversation about these poems is sound – how long did it take you to record them? In “Question,” for example, there are some lines that you stress exactly as I expected you to, “How will it be/to lie in the sky,” and others, “bright dog is dead,” surprised me. Were there any lines that, while you were recording them for us, you had to stop and think about?
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer: Thank you for starting with sound! Warning: if you aren’t much interested in meter and sound, perhaps skip to the next question, because I am about to geek out with great enthusiasm.
So much of what draws me to May Swenson’s work is her musicality, her rhythmic play, her pleasure in the way lines chime. Both “Question” and “Four-Word Lines” are poems I memorized long ago (like two decades ago?), in part because they move me, and in part because in learning them by heart, I’ve been able to challenge and deepen my understanding of Swenson’s poetry.
I should mention, however, that I read both poems on the page when I recorded them for you, in case I’d taken liberties with Swenson’s language over the years (which, it turns out, I had). I recorded each poem two times.
With “Question,” the poem literally gallops. It’s based on two-beat lines, often iambic. However, I choose to recite it as if some of the lines are a spondee followed by an iamb. This basically crams three beats into a two-beat line, perhaps like the way some of us try to cram more “beats” of life into the limited time we’re given. Check out this first stanza:
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
I suppose the first line could be a trochee and an iamb, though that would have less of a charge. And I suppose you could read the third line as two iambs, but that would produce such a sing song effect, and I intuit Swenson wants to evoke a wild ride, a quickening, instead of a predictable Hallmark ditty. The poem is driven, driven with question, driven by mystery, driven with curiosity, and I love the way her metrics strengthen this drive. The poem’s pulse is our pulse, both in its insistence and in its subtleties.
I love, too, that she ends the stanza with an amphibrach (unstressed, stressed, unstressed). So that the stress of the word “fallen” falls off at the end of the line. This mirroring of sound and meaning thrills me. I don’t just hear the fallenness, I feel it physically.
And then, once the two-beat pattern is established in the first two stanzas, Swenson breaks the iambic tendencies in stanza three, adding even more syllables to the lines in a sprung-rhythm way, allowing more movement inside the imposed form.
But now let’s consider these lines:
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead
You noted in your question how I read the last line of this stanza as four separate beats, five really, including “good” from the line before. Well, it’s a line about death, a literal stopping of the gallop of life. And it seems to me that by giving each single-syllabic word an emphasis, Swenson is, in effect, hammering nails into a coffin. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. It’s allowing the silence between the sounds to come to prominence, a preface to the eternal silence that follows that last word, “dead.” By giving each word its own beat, the poem aurally brings home the finality of that line.
Also curious to me: the only question mark in the poem is at the end. The poem thrusts through where any punctuation might try to tame it. As if question is the new statement. When that question mark finally arrives at the end, we can paradoxically rest there in its rising uncertainty.
As for recording “Four-Word Lines:” this poem is the most haunting, surprising erotic poem I know. Though it is startlingly graphic inside its bee/flower metaphor (“I’d let you wade/ in me and seize/ … a sweet/ glistening at my core), it is delightful and playful and even a bit goofy with its insistence of all those sibilants, voiced and unvoiced, creating an audible swarming of bees. Swenson even gives us the odd plural possessive word “bees’,” which to me invites a buzz-heavy doubling of the “z.” Oh the ecstasy humming in the air! This poem makes me simultaneously blush-ish and breathless and foolish.
Once, while walking through a modern art museum, I came to a large blue bowl on the wall that created an echo effect, so I recited the poem into the bowl—the resonance of all those zzzzz’s was deliriously hypnotic.
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Four-Word Lines” by May Swenson:
JH: In “Question” May Swenson approaches metaphor in a couple different ways. In the first stanza she uses direct address to compare the poet’s body to a house, while in the third stanza she refers to the body by name to introduce a metaphor of the body as a dog. In “Four-Word Lines” Swenson is more focused on repetition and sound. Say a little about why you chose these poems, and about Swenson’s influence on your work.
RWT: Swenson’s use of metaphor is my other most favorite part of her work. In “Question,” she leaps between body as house, horse and hound. Pleasing how she’s chosen three five-letter words that begin with h. Random, but not random. As house, the body literally contains us, “hides” us, keeps us safe, though eventually it will “fall.” As horse, our “mount,” it helps us “ride” and move through the world. As hound, it is our soul’s companion, it “hunts” our food, it sniffs out “danger or treasure.”
She interchanges the metaphors as the poem speeds along, not handling them one at a time, but all at once, so very true to the experience of having a body. And also, as you note, the speaker seems to be both in the body and also witness to the body. She is, at the same time, whatever it is that will die and whatever it is that will live on.
I often use this poem in workshops about the body. It is easy to pick almost any three nouns and explore them metaphorically. “Body my slug, my sloth, my soil.” Or “Body my wall, my woods, my wine.” And it is easy, in a way, to imitate her form here, basically a litany of questions.
It is not easy, however, to do what Swenson has done, which is to create a masterful envisioning of the transition from life to death. After the word “dead,” the speaker takes us to the beyond imaginable realm of body-less-ness, offering us only questions, which is the only real answer available to most of us.
I love that pun in the third-to-the-last line, “wind for an eye.” Though the eye still might see, the “I” is unseen, becomes wind, becomes spirit, becomes invisible, powerful and still somehow animate. With its puns and rhymes, this poem is a playground, despite its serious content.
We can find Swenson punning again in the title of “Four-Word Lines.” It is, of course, a nod to the poem’s self-imposed form. The poem is also forward in its sexual thrust. And as the first poem in “The Love Poems of May Swenson,” I think some editor was having fun by making the poem, in effect, the book’s foreword.
Here’s something else I love about Swenson’s writing—she creates simple forms, in this case four-word lines, and then uses this small limitation as something to push against and fuel creativity. Here, she charges the poem with alliteration and assonance. The similarities of sound resonate within single lines, but also reach into the next lines, creating a complex of connections beneath all that constant buzzing. It’s like the two lovers in the poem managing to connect despite the overriding “swarm of other eyes.” Let’s take a look at the inner assonances/alliterations in the first five lines:
Your eyes are just
like bees, and I
feel like a flower.
Their brown power makes
a breeze go over
In line one, we have the /r/ in “your/are,” which carries through in line three with “flower” line four with “brown” and “power” and line five with “breeze” and “over.” In line two, “feel like a flower,” has such strong interplay between the /f/ and /l/, and then the /ow/ sound of line three with “flower” is pulled into line four with “brown” and “power.” There’s the vocalic rhyme of “bees” in line two with “feel” in line three and “breeze” in line five … there’s more, but you get the idea. It’s splendidly woven!
Many years ago, I wrote out the poem in the phonetic alphabet so I could better see the patterns. What thrilled me then, and thrills me still, is the way Swenson seems to let sounds lead her through the poem, allowing her to arrive in unexpected places.
In my own practice, one major inspiration I take from her poems is to let myself be led by rhythm and rhyme in playful, insistent, unpredictable ways. After years of practicing this approach, I still appreciate how sound helps lead me into surprise and revelation/anti-revelation.
By the way, I earned my master’s degree in English language and linguistics because I wanted to understand how phonetics and syntax could inform poems. Swenson, Hopkins, Cummings—these were some of the poets who inspired me to explore this way.
JH: The verbs in “Question” are: do, sleep, ride, hunt, go, know, lie, hide. These are interesting to me, especially the last. No longer having a body should make hiding easy, but we get a sense of what Swenson means. I think I hear you gesturing toward this paradox in your recording. Why would Swenson ask where she’ll sleep after she’s dead? I don’t exactly mean that, but I’m curious how you might answer the question.
RWT: Right … what a curious ending. I have puzzled around this for years. Here’s where I land with it now. I think the speaker is suggesting that the I is the most essential part of us. It is not the body. It is, perhaps, the soul, what animates the body. And, to some extent, the I “hides” in the body. And then, when the body is dead, the I is exposed. The “shift” in the penultimate line is not only a garment, it’s the transformation from body and soul to simply soul.
This poem often makes me think of the Ramana Maharshi quote, “The reason to ask ‘Who am I?’ is not to arrive at an answer, but to dissolve the questioner.” And here, the questioner is still not quite dissolved at the poem’s end. How can it imagine what happens after its own dissolution?
I’m curious what you think about why she asks where the I will hide when the body is dead.
JH: These poems are so disarming. Their tone could be described as innocent, but the speaker is knowledgeable and calm in a way that makes us rethink that as we read on. What do you make of their titles?
RWT: I spoke already about the multiple puns in “Four-Word Lines.” I am embarrassed to say it was years before I found them, but I was so delighted when I did!
As for “Question,” here she rolls many questions into one. It seems to me there is some suggestion that all questions are really parts of the same ultimate question, “Who am I?” Just as all poems are, in some way, trying to answer that one question, though perhaps in a more plural sense, “Who are we? What are we doing here?”
As you say, there’s an up-front innocence that can make the poems feel quite simple. On the surface, “Four-Word Lines” is a modest story of bee meets flower. But there’s daring and pluck in the lines as they limn desire.
I also think that part of the reason the poems are ultimately disarming, as you say, is because they don’t include moral judgement. They don’t tell us how to feel. Swenson’s writing style is observational, terse, permissive. One poem takes us out of the body. The other leads us more intimately into the body. And after reading and re-reading, these poems continue to open, like the “flower breathing bare,” and we see just how richly crafted they are, how they allow us to wade in layers of both meaning and form.
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer lives in Placerville, Colorado, on the banks of the San Miguel River. She served as San Miguel County’s first poet laureate and as Western Slope Poet Laureate. She teaches poetry for 12-step recovery programs, hospice, mindfulness retreats, women’s retreats, teachers and more. An avid trail runner and Nordic skier, she believes in the power of practice and has been writing a poem a day since 2006. She has 11 collections of poetry, and her work has appeared in O Magazine and on A Prairie Home Companion. Her most recent collection, Naked for Tea, was a finalist for the Able Music Book Award. One-word mantra: Adjust. www.wordwoman.com
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s poem-a-day blog
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer on Rattle
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s Tedx Talk on the Art of Changing Metaphors
May Swenson (1913-1989) wrote several books of poetry, including A Cage of Spines, Iconographs, and More Poems to Solve. Swenson received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, and an Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She served as a chancellor on the board of the Academy of American Poets in addition to teaching at several universities including Bryn Mawr, the University of North Carolina, the University of California at Riverside, Purdue University, and Utah State University.
Poets in Pajamas, a Live-Stream Reading Series by Sundress Publications Presents Episode 42: Sarah Ann Winn
Enjoy live poetry? Ever wished you could attend a reading without leaving the house or changing out of your jammies? Bailed because had no one to go with? Wish there were one closer to you?
Well worry no more! Poets in Pajamas (PiP) is a live-feed online reading series presented by Sundress Publications. We bring live poetry, complete with Q&A and poet interaction, to you. We don’t ask you to dig out a scarf, no, we welcome you as you are and bring the poetry. Won’t you join us? We often draw a diverse audience from around the world and we’d love it if you, too, were there.
Our next episode will air on Sunday, November 11th, at 7pm EST, featuring Sarah Ann Winn. On behalf of Sundress Publications, Anna Black will host.
Sarah Ann Winn’s first book, Alma Almanac (Barrow Street, 2017), won the 2016 Barrow Street Book Prize, selected by Elaine Equi. She’s the author of five chapbooks. Her writing has appeared in Five Points, Kenyon Review Online, Massachusetts Review, Smartish Pace. She serves as Reviews Editor for Tinderbox Poetry Journal.
Anna Black received her MFA at Arizona State University. Black is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. In addition to hosting PiP, Black is the staff director at Sundress Publications.
The readings occur on PiP’s Facebook page every other Sunday at 7PM EST/4PM PST. The selected poet will read for about 15 minutes, and will then open the floor for an additional 10-15 minutes to receive questions from the audience.