Project Bookshelf: Kathryn Davis

I’ve never had a proper bookshelf. 

Late in the July between my kindergarten and first-grade years, when my big brother loaned me his favorite book on the face of the earth—Nate the Great Goes Down In the Dumps—I didn’t need a bookshelf. My picture books were content to live (albeit overflowing) in the big wicker basket beside my bed, and anyway, I’d need to return Sam’s copy of Nate the Great when I’d finished. It wasn’t a signed copy or anything, but he’d added some drawings of his own that he might want to revisit down the road. And anyway, it was a loan—NOT a present. Okay

Soon after I’d torn through Nate (and safely returned it to my brother’s library under threat of noogies), I picked up Because of Winn Dixie, Charlotte’s Web, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Anniversary Boxed Set. Around the same time, my dolls went hungry. They moved out of their dollhouse, which my mother had built (and wallpapered) herself for my fourth birthday. My dolls cleared out their furniture, their clothes, their pets, and skipped town. So my books moved into my pink-roofed, five-bedroom dollhouse. The smaller books fit well into the bathroom and the nursery; the larger ones were stacked in the living room, the master bedroom. The oddly-proportioned ones were cast off into the doll house’s attic, angled and leaning into the pitch of the roof. 

My first car, the car my father used to usher my mother to the hospital the day I was born, was a white Jeep Cherokee Sport. It had this knit heather-grey interior—and seat pockets on the back of both the driver’s and passenger’s seats. I’d moved on to slightly-heftier books by the time I learned to drive; Speak, The Catcher in the Rye, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Bluest Eye. I brought books with me everywhere. I planned ahead, loaded my Jeep’s seat pockets with books I meant to read soon, books I’d read again, and took them with me wherever I went. When I blew the engine on the Jeep—on the expressway three miles from home—the back-of-seat pockets were blown out and sagging from the years they’d spent stuffed full of my library. I cleared out the car so my uncle could sell its shell down at his salvage yard, and I pulled books out of the pockets in stacks. Empty, the pockets held the shape of the books: re-formed to hold hardcovers instead of gum wrappers and ice scrapers, as the car’s designers had intended. 

My college dorm room came equipped with a bed, a small dresser, and a desk—as a loan—NOT a present. Okay? My writing professors sent me to buy dozens of collections and anthologies and craft books and implored me to keep them forever. Still, without a proper bookshelf, and with a backpack (and, for that matter, a back) that boasted only a finite load-bearing capacity, I was left to stacking. I stacked my books on the floor: On either side of my dresser. Along the foot of my bed. As a makeshift side table to the right of my desk. Each semester, I got more books, and my stacks got more precarious. A friend once compared my stacks of books to those stacks people make with rocks alongside rivers—except my stacks were not especially harmful to wildlife.

Now, I own a house that bears a striking resemblance to my childhood home (and very little resemblance to my pink-roofed dollhouse), but I still don’t have a bookshelf. Don’t get me wrong—large portions of hutches, console tables, nightstands, empty corners of rooms—serve as homes for my books. They’re the cornerstone of my house’s interior design; they’re spread all around, scaling the fireplace, holding up candles and framed photos, a couple dozen in every room. 

I like it this way. I like living amidst a poorly-filed library that I can access at every moment, in any room or on any surface or corner. I like that I can accidentally pick up a collection or novel and read the whole thing, just because it was there. Books are full of beautiful things that are meant to be happened upon, held onto, carried with us. It makes sense to me, not having a real bookshelf, because it means that books are everywhere, too great and necessary to ever really put away.


Kathryn Davis is a writer and editor from Michigan. She graduated in 2018 from Grand Valley State University, where she studied Creative Writing with an emphasis in Fiction, and served as editor-in-chief of the university’s literary journal, fishladder. You can find her work in Potomac Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere—or follow her on Twitter @kathrvndavis.

Sundress Academy for the Arts Presents November Reading Series

The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is pleased to announce the guests for the November installment of our virtual reading series. This event will take place on Wednesday, November 17, 2021, on Zoom (http://tiny.utk.edu/sundress, password: safta) from 7-8 PM EST.

Joy Jones is a trainer, performance poet, playwright and author of several books, including Private Lessons: A Book of Meditations for Teachers; Tambourine Moon; and Fearless Public Speaking. She has won awards for her writing from the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities, and the Colonial Players Promising Playwrights Competition. Her most recent book is Jayla Jumps In (Albert Whitman & Co, 2020).

Anna Leahy is the author of the poetry collections What Happened Was:, Aperture, and Constituents of Matter and the nonfiction book Tumor. Her work has appeared at Aeon, Atlanta Review, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Poetry, Scientific American, The Southern Review, and elsewhere, and her essays have won top awards from Mississippi Review, Los Angeles Review, Ninth Letter, and Dogwood. She directs the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chapman University and edits the international Tab Journal. More at https://amleahy.com.

Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Slaughter the One Bird (Sundress 2021) and chapbooks The Optimist Shelters in Place (forthcoming Harbor Editions 2022), Still Life (PANK, 2020), Parrot Flower (Glass, 2020) and White Goat Black Sheep (FLP, 2018). Winner of the 2019 Heartland Poetry Prize from New American Press, her work has appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Salamander, Slipstream, The Berkeley Poetry Review, Lunch Ticket, Borderland, etc. She is an Assistant Professor of First Year Writing at Michigan State University and serves as an associate poetry editor for the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry. Find her work at kimberlyannpriest.com.


The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is a writers residency and arts collective that hosts workshops, retreats, and residencies for writers in all genres including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, journalism, academic writing, playwriting, and more. The land on which Sundress Publications operates is part of the traditional territory of the Tsalagi peoples (now Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians) and Tsoyaha peoples (Yuchi, Muscogee Creek).

Sundress Academy for the Arts Presents Our October Poetry Xfit

Knoxville, TN — The Sundress Academy for the Arts is excited to present Poetry Xfit hosted by Kathryn Davis. This generative workshop event will take place on Sunday, October 17th, 2021 from 2 to 4 pm EST via Zoom. Join us at the link tiny.utk.edu/sundress with password “safta”.

Poetry Xfit isn’t about throwing tires or heavy ropes, but the idea of confusing our muscles is the same. This generative workshop series will give you prompts, rules, obstructions, and more to write three poems in two hours. Writers will write together for thirty minutes, be invited to share new work, and then given a new set of prompts. The idea isn’t that we are writing perfect final drafts, but instead creating clay that can then be edited and turned into art later. Prose writers are also welcome to attend!

Kathryn Davis is a writer and editorial intern with Sundress Academy for the Arts. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from Grand Valley State University, and served as editor-in-chief of the university’s literary journal, fishladder. She writes and produces films from the southwest corner of Michigan. 

While this is a free workshop, donations can be made to the Sundress Academy for the Arts here.

Our community partner for October is the Joy of Music School. The Joy of Music School provides access to quality music education for disadvantaged children and teens. All of the instructors and mentors are volunteers who aim to foster self-esteem, character, and supportive community relationships with their students. To learn more about the Joy of Music School, check out their website here.

Sundress Academy for the Arts Presents “Striking Illumination: Erasure as Excavation,” A Writers’ Workshop

The Sundress Academy for the Arts is excited to present “Striking Illumination: Erasure as Excavation Workshop,” a workshop led by Jeni De La O on October 13, 2021 from 6-7:30PM. This event will be held over Zoom. Participants can access the event at tiny.utk.edu/sundress (password: safta).

This is a wrap-around workshop that includes pre- and post-meeting materials. The workshop will open with an exquisite corpse icebreaker followed by a discussion on the erasure methods illustrated in the pre-workshop packet. Participants will then practice three types of erasures together using celebrity media apologies. From there, participants will have time to work on erasures using their own source material or sample material provided in the session. The workshop will close, time permitting, with a collaborative erasure of the exquisite corpse poem that the group will write together. 

Prior to the workshop, we ask participants to access and review the workshop’s prep packet, which features two craft essays and three poems for consideration in the class discussion. The prep packet can be found here.

By the close of the session, participants will have two drafts started, a list of publications that publish erasures, and an invitation to submit to The Estuary Collectives Visual Poetry Zine scheduled for publication in December of 2021. 

While there is no fee for this workshop, those who are able and appreciative can make direct donations to Jeni via Venmo  @Jeni-DeLaO-1.

Jeni De La O is an Afro-Cuban poet and storyteller living in Detroit. She is a 2021 Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellow in Literary Arts and a founding member of The Estuary Collective. She is Managing Editor at Kissing Dynamite Poetry and authors the monthly column, BROWN STUDY, at  The Poetry Question. Her chapbook, SOFIAS, is forthcoming from Ethel Press in 2022. Jeni has appeared as a storyteller with The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, Lamplight Festival, MouthPiece Stories, and The Moth MainStage. Her poetry has appeared in Poet Lore, Columbia Journal, Sugar House Review, Glass Poetry, and other places. 

Meet Our New Intern: Saoirse

A brown femme person with shoulder length black har sitting at a table. They have a drink in their hand and a butterfly tattoo in pride colors is visible on their wrist.

I grew up in a family of six people and four languages. We also moved around quite a lot. Between code switching at home and learning a new dialect with every move to a different city, I learned the power of language pretty quickly. So it was no surprise when I started poking my nose in my parents’ book collection as a child. Always being the new kid in school and being bullied constantly only made me retreat into my books even more.

Not the best idea—according to my teachers, at least. Books can plant the darnedest ideas in your head. They can suggest your school textbooks are sexist and problematic. They can tell you it’s okay—gasp—even healthy, to be your full queer self. They can instill in you a revolutionary zeal. My books got me in quite a lot of trouble—trouble I took as a sign that I was doing something right.

Though I had a habit of juggling languages based on my mood in both my reading and writing, English held a mysterious allure for me. It was the language where I found my identity as a queer nonbinary woman and it was also a legacy of the colonial violence that separated by grandparents from their ancestral lands. I was proud to be articulate in a language that could never articulate its own violence upon my lived reality. It was to understand this fraught relationship that I found myself majoring in English at Washington College on the eastern shore of Maryland.

Washington College, particularly the pedagogical brilliance of Drs. Kimberly Andrews and Alisha Knight, allowed me to come into my own as a writer and a thinker. It was also where I discovered my passion for editing. Over the years, I’ve harnessed that passion into working with emerging writers who don’t necessarily have access to a creative writing workshop. To that end, I founded Palimpsest—a writers collective focused on honing our craft in community with each other. I also serve as a Guest Editor at Oyster River Pages, where I inaugurated the Emerging Voices in Poetry program as well as ORP Schools— our creative writing workshops. These are all an attempt to create spaces that center the creativity of historically excluded folks.

Language is power harnessed through story. There is no ecstasy greater than finding a story that disrupts, enhances, and challenges the trends at any given time and place. And no honor greater than working with the writer to help them achieve precise muscularity of language as they tell their story. That is why I am so very honored to join Sundress Publications in the curation of a diverse and vibrant literary landscape.


Saoirse’s name and passion are the same: freedom. As an exophonic writer, their academic interests revolve around linguistic power dynamics, especially in connection to the land. They are always trying to write, and find, poetry that breaks the English language into articulating its own colonial violence. They are a freelance editor and serve as the Guest Editor for Emerging Voices in Poetry at Oyster River Pages. They are a 2021 Brooklyn Poets Fellow and a finalist for the Sophie Kerr Prize. They find excitement in travel, comfort in a good cup of coffee, and love in their newly adopted puppy, Malaika. Find them at saoirseedits.com or on Twitter @saoirseedits.

Project Bookshelf: Saoirse

Three wooden bookshelves side by side against a white wall. They are completely filled with book and have built 3D puzzled on top of them.
The bookshelf I shared with my parents

I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of building collections recently. As much as I love to see a cupboard (or an apartment or a house or a life) full of books, an empty bookshelf holds such wonderful possibilities. I’ve never had to build (read: populate) a bookshelf from scratch until this last year. As a child, I first began reading by dipping into my parents’ books—with or without their permission—and adding my own to their collection. I wasn’t allowed to read any books my parents wouldn’t read themselves. Our books were shared and thus, so were our tastes in reading material.

So many people talk of finding their voice at college but I found my ears. Finally, the chance to have a bookshelf of my own helped me develop a reading sensibility informed by my own identity, experiences, and preferences. Between readings at the Rose O’Neill Literary House, visits to the Dodge Poetry Festival, and research trips to New York, East Anglia, and Havana, I picked up an extensive collection of books that could serve as an introduction to me on its own.

Multiple large stacks of books on a desk.
Some of the books I left in storage

Until May 2020, when I received a call from the Indian Embassy. They said they would be airlifting me from the States back to India. My flight was to take off in five days. My first thought: what am I going to do with my extensive book collection? So, I painstakingly chose a handful of books to bring with me that have since created the foundations of my current bookshelf. (The rest are safe in storage, don’t worry).

A book (A Brief History of Fruit by Kimberly Quiogue Andrews) on a desk with an apple and a small bottle of orange juice next to it.
A quarantine breakfast

The first three books I chose because of my admiration of both the contents and its creators: A Brief History of Fruit by the inimitable Kimberly Quiogue Andrews, The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin and translated by the inspirational Anton Hur, and finally, Bla_k by no other than M. Nourbese Philip. A book of poetry, a translated novel, and a collection of nonfiction. I was clearly working hard to curate as varied a list of texts as possible written/translated/created by folks of extraordinary character.

If there is one thing I can confidently say about my current book collection (other than its diminutive size), is that it continues to speak to my identity and current lived reality. I read books almost immediately after acquiring them, and thus, my book purchases reflect my priorities. Given the socio-political realities of the pandemic in India and the world writ large, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents have become Afrofuturist necessities. So has Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, trans. Stephen Snyder. I have also taken to engaging with my books on a more involved level by writing them out longhand so you will find a stack of notebooks containing (part of) Toni Morrison’s Beloved written in my hand on the bottom shelf. A benefit of repatriation: my shelves now also hold classic books from my homeland that are hard to find in the US, like फ़ैज़ अहमद “फ़ैज़” जी की मेरे दिल मेरे मुसाफ़िर (My Heart, My Traveller by Faiz Ahmed Faiz).

I must admit, I am cautiously enjoying this short liminal period of having a half-empty bookshelf. It’s so full of possibilities and wonder. Every so often, I feel a jab of resentment or irritation, finding myself wishing I’d packed a specific book or wishing I hadn’t had to leave my life behind. The thrill of curating a new collection tempers the loss of the old but it never truly resolves it. Someday, I will open those boxes again and perhaps rediscover a younger version of myself in those pages. Perhaps even combine these collections despite the Pacific Ocean in the way. Until then, on to the next one!


a brown femme person sits at a table. They have a drink in their hand and a tattoo on their wrist. They are wearing spectacles. They have shoulder length black hair.

Saoirse‘s name and passion are the same: freedom. As an exophonic writer, their academic interests revolve around linguistic power dynamics, especially in connection to the land. They are always trying to write, and find, poetry that breaks the English language into articulating its own colonial violence. They are a freelance editor and serve as the Guest Editor for Emerging Voices in Poetry at Oyster River Pages. They are a 2021 Brooklyn Poets Fellow and a finalist for the Sophie Kerr Prize. They find excitement in travel, comfort in a good cup of coffee, and love in their newly adopted puppy, Malaika. Find them at saoirseedits.com or on Twitter @saoirseedits.

Meet Our New Intern: Kathryn Davis

I’ve never been big on football, but I’ve always loved books. Between my third-grade and seventh-grade years, the oldest of my two brothers played college football nine hours away from home, and my parents resolved to attend every. Single. Game. We’d wake up at four or five each Saturday morning, load into my dad’s Ford Explorer without a word to one another, and we’d drive. 

During the first couple hours of those drives, it’d be too dark to read—but around seven or eight, I’d start in. The librarians in town had known me for a while by then (my general book habit was nothing new), but they began to learn the football season drill as well. They’d ask where Joe was playing that week. How many hours away? Twelve? How many of these (gesturing vaguely at the pile of books I’d pulled off the shelves to take with me) do you think you’ll finish by next weekend? All of them? See you next week. 

I’d read from that first light until we parked and headed into the game. We’d settle into the bleachers. Then I’d start again. About halfway through Joe’s college football career, a teammate of his said to him, “Joe—I didn’t realize you had a sister. What does she look like?” Another teammate interjected, “A book cover.” 

I went to college years later in hopes of making books, because there will always be more long drives, more library trips, more football games. In college, I led my university’s literary journal, fishladder, while pursuing a degree in Creative Writing—while writing bad stories and worse poems and working with great writers. I had just about the greatest and luckiest college experience a young writer can have. 

The bad thing about this fact, though, is that the writing life beyond college does not necessarily feature regular three-hour discussions of short stories, debates about line breaks, or exhausting and wonderful workshops. There are long and difficult work days that mean the writing never gets done. There are lots and lots of Submittable rejections and bills to pay. On roadtrips, I’m now expected to put down my books and help drive. All that said, I’m so, so excited to have arrived at this internship with the Sundress Academy for the Arts. I feel like I’m sneaking more time in the backseat of my dad’s Explorer, lucking into more time to draft a story that’s almost-there. I’m so honored to be trusted to help uplift Sundress’s incredible writers’ voices, to play a small role in fostering a community of folks who’d rather hang out behind a book cover than watch the game.

Sundress Academy for the Arts Presents “Magical Realism & Cultural Context”: A Writers Workshop

The Sundress Academy for the Arts is excited to present “Magical Realism & Cultural Context,” a workshop led by Jessica Reidy on August 11, 2021 from 6-7:30PM. This event will be held over Zoom. Participants can access the event at tiny.utk.edu/sundress (password: safta).

This workshop will challenge the idea of magical realism as something imagined within reality with Marquez’s assertion that “surrealism runs through the streets,” and invite students to consider various cultural perspectives on what is real, which include magic or spiritual phenomena as inseparable from reality. The format of this workshop will be part lecture, and part generative. In the lecture, we will examine works by Rajko Đjuríc, Edwidge Danticat, and Joy Harjo as examples of the magic and the mundane coexisting, and we will examine the cultural elements of the story that inform these specific realities.

The second part of the workshop will be focused on generating material through writing prompts that guide students to writing their own magical realism, incorporating their sense of heritage, place, and cosmology into their work. The goal of this workshop is to free up ideas around what is real and what is magical, allowing students to access all forms of their and their characters’ lived experiences, and create a holistic narrative.

While there is no fee for this workshop, those who are able and appreciative can make direct donations to Jessica via Venmo @jezminavonthiele or PayPal at jessica.s.reidy@gmail.com .

Jessica Reidy (she/they) is a writer and educator with works in Narrative Magazine as Story of the Week, Prairie Schooner, The Kenyon Review online, RomArchive, and other publications. She is the winner of the Nancy Thorp Poetry Prize, the Penelope Nivens Award for Creative Nonfiction, and the Glenna Luschei Prize, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart and Best of the Net. She is a co-host of Romanistan podcast alongside Paulina Verminski, a celebration of Roma, rebels, and roots. Under the name Jezmina Von Thiele, she is a dancer, healer, artist, art model, and fortune teller, dealing in tarot, palmistry, and tea leaves. She tells fortunes in her mixed Roma/Sinti family’s tradition. She is a queer witch, and can be found at jessicareidy.com and jezminavonthiele.com

Sundress Academy for the Arts presents: Poetry Xfit

A logo for the event. Across the top, it reads "Generative Writing Event", then "tiny.utk.edu/sundress" and "Password: safta". In the center, it reads "2-4 PM EST", then the logo of Poetry Xfit, then "February 21st". Along the bottom, it reads "Hosted by Emily Capettini", then "All donations will be split with our community partner Next Step Initiative." The logo is hexagonal, with long sides on the left and right that blend into the lettering.

The Sundress Academy for the Arts is excited to present Poetry Xfit hosted by Emily Capettini. This generative workshop event will take place on Sunday, February 21st, 2021 from 2 to 4 pm EST via Zoom. Join us at the link tiny.utk.edu/sundress with password “safta”.

Poetry Xfit isn’t about throwing tires or heavy ropes, but the idea of confusing our muscles is the same. This generative workshop series will give you prompts, rules, obstructions, and more to write three poems in two hours. Writers will write together for thirty minutes, be invited to share new work, and then given a new set of prompts. The idea isn’t that we are writing perfect final drafts, but instead creating clay that can then be edited and turned into art later.

A white individual with short, partially-shaved blue hair and large glasses smiling at the camera. She is wearing a blue denim shirt and smiling.

Emily Capettini is a queer fiction writer from the Midwest who loves a good ghost story. She is Assistant Professor of English at Indiana State University and Assistant Editor with Sundress Publications. Her work has most recently appeared in places like Middle House Review and Lammergeier and her chapbook, Girl Detectives, is forthcoming from Porkbelly Press. Find out more about her at emilycapettini.com.

A logo for the event. Across the top, it reads "Generative Writing Event". In the center, it reads "2-4 PM EST", then "February 21st", then "tiny.utk.edu/sundress" and "Password: safta", all next to the logo. Along the bottom, it reads "Hosted by Emily Capettini", then "All donations will be split with our community partner Next Step Initiative." The logo is hexagonal, with long on the top and bottom that blend into the lettering.

While this is a free workshop, donations can be made to the Sundress Academy for the Arts here: https://sundress-publications.square.site/product/donate-to-sundress/107?cs=true

We will be splitting any donations received with our February community partner, the Next Step Initiative. Next Step Initiative is a local non-profit dedicated to serving people experiencing homelessness and drug addiction through organizing food drives and distributions, collaborating with local community resources to provide harm reduction, and most recently started transitional housing for women in recovery. Find out more at: www.NextStepInitiative.com 

Lyric Essentials: Madeleine Barnes Reads Michelle Maher

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madeleine Barnes reads “Deep Blue Bowl” by Michelle Maher

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

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

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

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

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


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

Further reading:

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

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

Further reading:

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

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