It’s easier to think that this is all my fault, my absence.
That this never would have happened if I was still alive.
But the truth is that even if I was there,
I couldn’t protect you from a day like today.
Purmasir plays tug-of-war in these poems, unsure of what winning in a game like this looks like. In this collection, there is a central question: when someone you love dies, what is the right way to live without them? Purmasir pulls readers into moments where the living feels okay, if only for a second and others where even existing in a world without her father is a betrayal. And, in this way, this collection sees the truth of grief and love and loss: there are days when you can’t breathe and there are days when you can. In these poems, you will find blinding moments of each.
After reading this collection, I was lucky enough to speak to Purmasir about her writing process, the reaction of her family, and the act of peering into 15-year old memories to write this gorgeous, aching book.
Fortesa Latifi : Your most recent collection, When I’m Not There, is written from the point of view of your deceased father. Was this a conscious decision you made before starting the writing process or did it occur organically somewhere along the way?
Yena Sharma Purmasir : I wish I could say that that this book was the result of a great deal of thought and introspection. Instead, like much of my work, this idea happened to me. It was a Thursday in late January. I was on my way to work. I was sitting at the end of the subway car and I looked out the window, at the connection between my car and the next. Suddenly, I had the following lines in my head: “I imagine what you must look like now/like my mother maybe/another woman I never got to know.” Those lines were from my father’s perspective. He died when I was eight years old. Almost instantaneously, I thought about what it would be like to write a book from his perspective. I realized that his 15th death anniversary was a few months’ away. So, I started outlining the topics I wanted in the book. I knew I wanted about 30 poems and I wanted to address events chronologically. I gave myself about a week to write the poems. That meant that I wrote many of these poems on the same day.
Fortesa Latifi : What was your first thought when the idea of this book occurred to you? Were you scared? Nervous? Excited?
Yena Sharma Purmasir : My first thought was complete surprise. I never thought I would write something like this. My father died when I was in the third grade. He had been suffering with multiple illnesses in the years before that. I consider myself a deeply private person. Growing up, I was so ashamed of my father’s death. I used to feel like it was reflection of the kind of person I was, that if I had been better or kinder or stronger, this awful thing wouldn’t have happened to my family. I hardly talked about him. Even when I was in high school, there were friends of mine who had no idea that my father had died. Writing this book meant that I was going to have to talk about him, about the experience of loss and grief openly. It felt like a huge leap for me – but once the idea took shape, I wanted to show it to the world. This is my second book, but in many ways, it felt like my first project, like I was finally writing something only I could write. Fifteen years is a long time to miss someone, to love someone. I’ve done that. I finally wanted people to know this story. More than that, I wanted people to know my father.
Fortesa Latifi : How did you tell your mother and brother, who are mentioned multiple times throughout the book, about what you were writing? What were their reactions?
Yena Sharma Purmasir : I called my mother literally an hour after I got the idea. I live at home with her and my brother, but I wanted her input immediately. My mother and father were soulmates. In general, her opinion carried a lot of weight for me, but for something like this, I desperately wanted her to be onboard with the idea. I’m very lucky to have her in my life, someone so willing to embrace eccentric thought. She said it was a great idea, that I had to follow through and produce a product. I asked her if it was morbid. My father was a hilarious, charming man. The last thing I would want to do is tie his memory to something depressing and dark. It doesn’t have to be, she said. You can write funny things. He would have written some funny things. My brother is 21 years old. He found out when I came home that night. He joked that he should have received some kind of payment, for being mentioned throughout these poems. The acknowledgement for When I’m Not There is actually the acknowledgement page from my father’s manuscript – he had been working on a book before he passed away. I burst into tears when I found it, in the midst of all his things. It was a sobering moment for our family. It was a reminder that this thing I was working on, this fake thing, goes back to someone who was real. Someone we all loved. Someone we all lost.
Fortesa Latifi : You were eight years old when your father died. While writing, did you find that there were things you weren’t aware of about his life and his death? If so, where did you go to find that information?
Yena Sharma Purmasir : Oh man, I was an inquisitive child. In the months following my father’s death, I dug through all his materials, his books and journals and manila folders. I knew everything there was to know about his life. I was greedy for that information. When I was a kid, it was so easy to remember how my father would speak, what he would say. But we all forget things. As I’ve gotten older, I have looked through his things less and less. In order to write this book, I had to remind myself of his voice. I had to read his journals again. I found this poem that he wrote, about a year before he died. It was about my mother, about her love and care. The poem ended with “but I owe my life to no one.” I shivered when I reread that poem. My dad was sick. I mean, he was really sick and it must’ve been such a painful time for him. What I remember of that time was mostly laughter and jokes and silly adventures. But that wasn’t the only truth. Rereading these deeply personal poems and diary entries made it easy for me to find his tone of voice: serious, vulnerable, honest. Someone loving, someone hurting.
Fortesa Latifi : Your father died 6 months before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. You grew up in New York City and were living there when the attacks occurred. Are these two traumatic events linked in your mind? How did it feel to see your country mourning something so public as you mourned something so private?
Yena Sharma Purmasir : 2001 was a very difficult year for me, for my family, for my city. I remember vividly the morning of September 11th. I was in the fourth grade. My science teacher wrote the word TERRORISM on the blackboard. He was trying to explain this concept and then the principal announced that the World Trade Center had been hit. There was a flurry of confusion. The World Trade Center in Canada? No, one girl piped up, it must have been the World Trade Center here, in New York, in Manhattan. Almost immediately, the entire class started asking about their parents, almost all of whom worked in Manhattan. As the day went on, children started getting picked up from home. My brother was in kindergarten. I saw him at lunch and told him that our mother had called to talk to me, that she was okay. But, she hadn’t called. I hadn’t heard from her. I had no idea if she was okay, if she was alive. By the time the school day ended, I was one of four students on my bus. My aunt, my mother’s sister, was waiting for me when I got off the bus. She said that she saw my mom on the news, as one of thousands of people crossing the bridge to get into Queens. I didn’t believe her. This was before cellphones were commonplace. The more time that passed, the more I thought that my mother had died. I replayed in my head this terrible possibility. I worried about where we would live, what would become of our lives. It seems now like a crazy jump, a wild conclusion, but I was nine years old, my father had just died, something terrifying was happening in my city. I was so full of grief and pain. When my mom finally did come home, I was relieved, so unbelievably relieved. But this awful thing was still real for others. A boy in my school, his father died in the attack. He was a firefighter. The guidance counselor asked me to talk to him. And I did. I was so so sorry for his loss. What happened to us happened for different reasons, but the result looked the same. We both lost our fathers. When I think about the 9/11 attacks, I always think of how real it felt, the sick thought that I was going to lose my entire sense of family, my experience of parental love. I was only nine years old. I was too young to be scared of something like that.
Fortesa Latifi : Did you have any hesitations when it came to publishing this book? If so, what were they and how did you let them go in order to move forward in the publishing process?
Yena Sharma Purmasir : Ultimately, I was nervous that I was going to do a disservice to my father’s memory. That this book would be morbid and dark and sad. I was scared that no one would like it, that it wouldn’t feel real to them. That was probably the worst fear, not just because of the book, but because I really feel like my father is there, sometimes. The idea that he isn’t, that he’s really gone forever, is terrifying to me. I didn’t want anyone to read this book and feel sorry for me. I worked with the themes, with each topic, to make sure I was capturing the complex experience of growing up. Were there funny poems? What about scary poems? Do I have some happy poems? What does a happy poem look like? I thought about the kind of relationship I have with my mother, how close we are. I imagine that if my father was still alive, I would be as close with him. In that way, I was able to address some of these concerns.
Fortesa Latifi : Was writing from your father’s point of view difficult? What challenges did it present?
Yena Sharma Purmasir : Once I started writing from my father’s perspective, it was surprisingly easy. I refused to write anything else while I was working on the book. I didn’t want to lose his voice. I thought about the way he used to speak, even the way he wrote his sentences in his journals. My father was an older man and his sense of language was different from mine. Once I got the hang of his voice, it felt genuine and effortless. Writing in his voice meant that I was constantly referring to myself in second person. I became a character. I had to look at my own life, my own memories, from this other angle. Even moments that felt private were open to reinterpretation. I wrote a poem about getting my period in school. That might feel like a strange thing to write in a book like this, but if my father was alive, I would’ve come home and told him about this giant humiliation. He was my father. If things were different, he would have known everything about me. So, I wrote everything about myself. I didn’t hold back.
Fortesa Latifi : One of the profound accomplishments of this collection is how it steadies a microscope on the smallest moments of a life. For example, there is a poem called “Dream Deferred” where the narrator tries to ease your anxiety about a deferral from a college by equating it with having to wait for the bus at the zoo as a small child. How did you choose which small moments to include? It seems as though it must have been harder to choose the small moments than the big ones- i.e. graduations, first loves, and ceremonies.
Yena Sharma Purmasir : I’ve always had a really strong sense of memory. My first memory is from when I was two years old. My memories of my childhood are so special to me. Maybe even then, I had some sense or feeling that these moments would be important. Some things are documented in photographs, like us waiting for the bus before that trip to the zoo. But other things are contained nowhere. It was harder to choose those smaller moments. Our lives are made of small moments, because of the way they add up. The big moments, the milestones, are easy to identify. I was writing this book in hindsight though, and in hindsight, even some small moments stick out. Now, I can say why that bus ride to the zoo made it into the book: because my family was together and I was happy.
Fortesa Latifi : In reading this, I found so many haunting moments but I was mostly struck by how deeply human the entire collection is. It’s funny and it’s sad and it’s complicated. One of my favorite lines is:
I’ll be dead for the rest of your life and all the lives thereafter.
What you miss about me, you’re going to have to find in someone else.
Was this collection about coming to terms with the grief of those statements or was it about cracking them wide open?
Yena Sharma Purmasir : To be honest, I think this book was trying to do both things. I don’t remember when I realized this, but at one point, I had to acknowledge that nothing was going to bring my father back. I could try to be the smartest, kindest, funniest, best version of myself, but it wouldn’t change things. That there is nothing I can do that will have the power to undo this truth. I really struggle with this truth. It’s hard to accept. For most things, it’s not something we have to accept. Change is generally possible. Here is something I cannot change. Here is something no one can change. I wrote an entire book about my father’s death and he’s still dead. I know that sounds sad. I know it sounds painful and hard. But I wanted to acknowledge these feelings. Loss is a part of life. My father is not the only person I’ve lost. I know that as I get older, I will watch other people I love die. Someday I will also die. Accepting death is hard. People have grappled with this concept for centuries. I don’t expect my book to address everyone’s experience with grief. But I hope it can start a conversation about grief. Losing someone can be such a lonely experience, but it doesn’t have to be. When my father died, I remember wondering if my life would ever be good again, if I would ever really laugh again. It’s been 15 years since I lost one of the best people in my life and I have laughed plenty since then. What I miss about my father, I really did find those things in someone else. I found them in myself.
Photo by Michael Gröessinger
Fortesa Latifi : If you could begin this interview, what question would you ask yourself?
Sierra DeMulder : Hmm…I’d probably ask myself why I don’t start my taxes earlier. Come on girl, get on that!
Fortesa Latifi : When did you start writing poetry? Did you ever think it would become a full-fledged career? What was the first step in your career?
Sierra DeMulder : I started writing poetry in high school. At the time, I considered myself mostly a visual artist. I created a lot of 2-D art and majored in painting and art therapy in college. However, once I discovered spoken word, it was like my creative energy redirected completely. It sounds a bit cliche but I say that poetry is my heart’s truest language and visual art had just been a placeholder. To be honest, I never really anticipated making a career out of writing. I just followed my passion, worked hard, kept putting myself out there, and was luckily/thankfully rewarded. My first “professional” step was probably submitting to a book contest which led me to publish my first full-length manuscript The Bones Below (Write Bloody, 2010).
Fortesa Latifi : What does your writing process look like?
Sierra DeMulder : I write at home, either in my office or in my bed. I tend to write out loud and dictate to myself, which makes it hard to work in public. Like many other poets, I write best when inspired but try to always produce work regardless of my emotional state. Writing is work after all and sometimes you just have to clock in, even if you don’t feel like it.
Click here to watch on YouTube
Fortesa Latifi : Tell us about your poem “Today Means Amen” and what inspired you to write it.
Sierra DeMulder : “Today Means Amen” is the title poem of my most recent collection. It was written in response to the hundreds of messages I’ve received from people who found solace in my poem, Werewolf, about my struggles with depression and self-harm. In “Today Means Amen,” I’m not attempting to conceal or hide this difficult history but instead celebrate how far I’ve come. I want those who find comfort in “Werewolf” to know that they’ve made it through something, whether it was just last night or last week or last year. You’ve made it to this moment and that’s worth celebrating.
Fortesa Latifi : I recently read your book We Slept Here and was so struck by how personal and raw the writing was. (Also, small secret: your book’s minimalist title inspired the title of my second book.) I don’t know if that book is based on personal experiences or not but if it is, or in your general writing, do you ever worry about people being upset about what you write about? Have you ever had negative reactions from people reading something you’ve written about them? If so, how has that affected your writing?
Sierra DeMulder : Honestly, by now, I think the people closest to me kind of know what they’re getting into. Don’t get me wrong, I am wary of the effects of my writing and how incredibly personal it is. Before sharing a piece, I contemplate whether I am sharing too much or something too private. There have been a handful of poems that have never seen the light of day or, better yet, a YouTube channel or publication. My general rule is to write it out first and then censor it for world if needed. I try to be sensitive and respectful but remember that my experience of something is mine to process.
Fortesa Latifi : I know that you’ve collaborated with To Write Love On Her Arms on multiple occasions with your “Today Means Amen” video and $1 from each pre-sale of your most recent book Today Means Amen going towards TWLOHA. What has been your favorite part of collaborating with TWLOHA?
Sierra DeMulder : My favorite thing about collaborating with TWLOHA has been working with their wonderful team (they have an incredibly kind staff) and witnessing the powerful merging of art and mental health advocacy. Self-expression has always been a tool of self-empowerful and social change. Poetry saves lives–I’ve seen it and it’s been privilege to engage with both sides of this intersection.
Fortesa Latifi : When was your first slam poet performance? How has your style changed?
Sierra DeMulder : My first slam performance was about 9-years ago. I was terrified! I was shaking and reading really fast and bouncing up and down on my heels. But…I was instantly hooked. It would not be hyperbolic to say that day changed my life forever. (Eventually, my first spoken-word mentors made me practice reading in high heels to take away my bounce!)
Fortesa Latifi : Which writers inspire you?
Sierra DeMulder : Sharon Olds will forever be one of my favorite writers. She was the first poet I truly loved to read and recite outloud. Other writers that inspire me include Danez Smith, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Kim Addonizio, Fatimah Asghar, Rachel McKibbens, Jason Shinder, Matt Rasmussen, Amy Gerstler, and all of the youth poets I’ve encountered EVER. This list could really go on forever.
Fortesa Latifi : What is your favorite novel?
Sierra DeMulder : The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich. I named my dog after one of the characters. Beautiful, poetic, bittersweet. It has taught me so much about storytelling.
Fortesa Latifi : You’re one of the founders of the Button Poetry. What inspired you to found Button Poetry? What was your original mission? How has that mission grown?
Sierra DeMulder : Button Poetry started almost five years ago. Our original mission was to just act as a distribution company between local and national spoken-word communities. We had no cameras or YouTube channel, but instead, would host recording parties at which poets could record a poem or two for free for professional distribution later. At that time, it was hard for a performance poet to really market themselves. Although I have since stepped away peacefully from the inner workings of Button, I still do various contract work with them. Their mission–to create an effective system of production, distribution, and promotion for performance poetry–is comparable to what we started with.
Fortesa Latifi : What is your favorite part of being the curriculum director of Slam Camp at Indiana University? What is your favorite memory from slam camp?
Sierra DeMulder : My favorite thing about running Slam Camp is watching a terrified young person read their very first poem out loud! I cannot stress what an honor it is to be in the room at that very moment–when the poet shares a piece of themselves with a room of supportive and encouraging peers. Slam Camp is place of growth and self-empowerment. Witnessing this continually fuels me to do better and work harder. One of my favorite memories will always be from our second year. At night, we circle up and share our favorite moments of the day. One girl, a fantastic, kind-hearted ball of joy, shared through tears that she didn’t get many opportunities to feel powerful but she felt powerful here. I will carry that with me for the rest of my life.
Photo by Hillary Olson Photography
Thank you, Sierra!
1. Kiki Nicole
excerpt from 2015 after Clementine Von Radics
“This year I refused to become a ghost
and look what’s become of me”
2. Salma Deera
excerpt from The Five Stages of Love
“TELL ME, WHAT IS IT YOU THINK YOU’LL FIND IN HIS EYES?
IF IT’S LOVE, YOU’RE RIGHT.
IF IT’S SHELTER, YOU’RE WRONG.”
3. Yasmin Z.
excerpt from a loud heart’s silence
“I’m sorry about the years spent
in the wrong state.
And I’m sorry about the highway
and the day you realized the moon
wasn’t following you back home.
And I’m sorry about the dark,
how it happened so fast.”
excerpt from The Dictionary: An Extended Edition
“Language, you have betrayed me.
There are memories of snow, of rain,
of sound that
you cannot conquer.”
excerpt from 2015 after Fortesa Latifi
“It is March and I am trying to piece myself back together. I am taking care of myself the best that I can and swearing on my own heart that I’ll stop wearing it on my worn, mascara-stained sleeve.”
Fortesa Latifi : If you could begin this interview, what question would you ask yourself?
Blythe Baird : I would ask myself about how I feel about poetry slam as a game, just because I love to geek out over strategy and my philosophies on why slam matters in a competitive format.
Fortesa Latifi : When did you first start writing poetry? On that same train of thought, when did you start sharing it online?
Blythe Baird : I started writing poetry at Slam Camp when I was 16, almost 17, the summer going into my senior year of high school. I started sharing it on Tumblr later that year in April 2014 for the 30/30 national poetry month challenge.
Fortesa Latifi : You’re 19 and you’ve already accomplished some incredible things in the poetry world- in 2014, you represented Chicago at the National Poetry Slam in Oakland and were the youngest ever competitor, your poem “Girl Code 101” has gone viral on the internet and spread across the globe, and your first book, Give Me A God I Can Relate To, is being published this month through Where Are You Press. Which of these accomplishments are you most proud of?
Blythe Baird : Thank you! I appreciate the recognition. All of those things were such powerful and meaningful experiences for me. Being the youngest competitor felt like a dream. When “Girl Code 101” went viral, it was immensely validating as a young artist to see something I scribbled in the back of my notebook during high school study hall utilized in academic settings or speech competitions. But I have to say I’m proudest of this book. Some mornings I wake up and I’m like, fuck, I’m 19 years old and definitely still count on my fingers doing basic math. Other mornings I’m like, damn girl. You’re 19 years old and wrote a book.
Click here to watch on YouTube
Fortesa Latifi : How do you feel about being considered a feminist poet? Is this something you aspired to do in your work or something that occurred organically?
Blythe Baird : It definitely occurred organically. I was introduced to feminism through spoken word poetry, so I feel like my writing and my feminism have always been naturally intertwined. When feminism came into my life, I was able to see the connection between my personal experiences and the greater power structures and -isms at play. I understood that I wasn’t catcalled when I was 9 because I was a particularly seductive 4th-grader; it was the result of a misogynistic culture. This realization shifted the lens I saw the world through. It allowed me to think about my poetry as a tool for social awareness and change.
Fortesa Latifi : Your friendship with Sierra DeMulder (a fellow slam poet goddess) is well-documented on social media. How did you two meet?
Blythe Baird : When I was 15, I went to rehab and bullshitted my way through all of it. I was hell bent on going back to starving myself the minute I got out. My first day back at school after treatment, Sierra DeMulder just so happened to be performing for this event called Writers Week. One of the lines in her poem was, “Your body is not a temple; your body is the house you grew up in. How dare you try to burn it to the ground?” and that line just rocked my shit up. From there on out, I started taking recovery seriously. All because of a poem. I was initially enchanted with poetry because I saw it as a radical form of healing. It was empowering. I wanted to make someone feel like Sierra made me feel- like they were capable of changing the world AND themselves.
The summer going into my senior year when I went to Slam Camp, Sierra was one of my camp counselors. We’ve had an indescribable bond since then. I got my first tattoo with her. When I had mono, she took care of me. When I got my heart broken for the first time, she was there. She’s always there to remind me I’m unstoppable. I couldn’t be prouder to be her little sister.
Fortesa Latifi : What do you do when you can’t write? What’s your favorite comfort food? Where’s your favorite place to rest?
Blythe Baird : When I can’t write, I usually don’t. If I truly can’t write, it’s generally because something else has my attention. I have to deal with the situation in front of me before I can write at all. My comfort food is chicken fried rice, avocados, dried fruit, and cheeseburgers. All day. My favorite place to rest is on balconies, in rocking chairs, or on porch swings.
Fortesa Latifi : What does your writing process look like? Is it messy? Is it quiet? Is it loud? Does it scream or whisper?
Blythe Baird : I don’t really have a consistent process. After Slam Camp, I started finding the poetry in everything around me. I couldn’t ignore it. I would look at the word divorce and see a half-made bed. I would watch my mother refuse to leave the house without makeup and see the reason she still keeps her wedding ring on. I began to look at situations in my life as components of a story. I rarely sit down with the intention of writing a poem. It happens when I’m in line at the grocery store, during class, while I’m falling asleep, when I’m babysitting. It sounds strange, but it’s like suddenly I can see the poem with features as clear as a person. I see its little legs stretch out. Until I literally stop what I’m doing and write it down, I can’t focus on anything else.
Fortesa Latifi : Who are the writers that inspire you?
Blythe Baird : Sierra DeMulder, Siaara Freeman, Clementine von Radics and everyone from Where Are You Press including YOU, Rachel McKibbens, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Muggs Fogarty, Sasha Banks, Danez Smith, Rachel Wiley, and Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib.
Fortesa Latifi : What is your favorite novel?
Blythe Baird : Bluets by Maggie Nelson.
Fortesa Latifi : Do you have a pre-show ritual that you go through before you perform spoken word? If so, what does it look like?
Blythe Baird : It depends on if it’s a big deal slam or not. If it’s something like nationals or qualifiers, I will literally go stand outside the venue or go face the wall off to a corner in the room and run my poem over and over and over again. I’ve never dropped a poem on stage, but I’m terrified that one day I’ll just totally blank out and embarrass myself. So I run it a million times right before to get myself warmed up. If it’s a minor or low-stakes slam, I don’t do anything. I just go up there and do my thing.
Fortesa Latifi : Tell us about your first book, Give Me A God I Can Relate To.
Blythe Baird : The book is a collection of what I’ve been working on since I started writing a few years ago. It’s kind of messy and scattered, like a teenage thought process. I wrote this majority of this book when I was 17 years old (I’m 19 now.) I touch on five major themes/storylines: developing anorexia after growing up as the fat kid, sexuality and coming out as a feminine lesbian, my strange high school experience, feminism and combating rape culture, as well as recovery and self-love.
Check out more of Blythe on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & you can buy her new book here!
Thank you, Blythe!
1. Harper Lee
Harper Lee is now known as the author of one of the great American novels but before that, she worked as a reservation clerk at Eastern Airlines for eight years. A couple of her closest friends got together and generously gave her a check with instructions that she must use it to quit her job and write for a year. The fruits of that year? To Kill A Mockingbird.
2. Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut was the manager of a Saab Dealership, enlisted in the U.S. Army, worked in public relations, and was a volunteer firefighter before becoming famous for his Beat lifestyle and writings.
3. Stephen King
Stephen King worked as a janitor in a high school while laboring to get his fiction published. He says that his time spent as a janitor inspired the opening girls’ locker room scene in Carrie.
4. J.D. Salinger
J.D. Salinger once worked as the entertainment director on a Swedish luxury cruise liner.
5. Maya Angelou
At the age of 16, Maya Angelou became San Francisco’s first black street car conductor. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey many years later, Angelou said, “I loved the uniforms. So I said ‘that’s the job I want!'”
So, fellow writers, take heart. No matter if you’re a waitress, barista, phlebotomist, small-time journalist, vlogger, or any number of other careers, read this list and take a deep breath. There is no straight and narrow path to becoming a writer. There is only the path you take.
Lorde Dictionary Print by Miguel Alvarez on Etsy
1. from “Buzzcut Season”
I remember when your head caught flame
It kissed your scalp and caressed your brain
Well you laughed, baby it’s okay
It’s buzzcut season anyway
2. from “Ribs”
we can talk it so good
we can make it so divine
we can talk it good, how you wish it would be all the time
this dream isn’t feeling sweet
we’re reeling through the midnight streets
and I’ve never felt more alone
feels so scary getting old
3. from “Tennis Court”
baby be the class clown
I’ll be the beauty queen in tears
it’s a new art form showing people how little we care
we’re so happy, even when we’re smilin’ out of fear
let’s go down to the tennis court, and talk it up like yeah
it looked alright in the pictures
getting caught soft with the triple is it
I fall apart, with all my heart
and you can watch from your window
4. from “400 Lux”
you pick me up and take me home again
head out the window again
we’re hollow like the bottles that we drain
you drape your wrists over the steering wheel
pulses can drive from here
we might be hollow, but we’re brave
5. from “Glory and Gore”
there’s a humming in the restless summer air
and we’re slipping off the course that we prepared
but in all chaos, there is calculation
dropping glasses just to hear them break
you’ve been drinking like the world was gonna end (it didn’t)
took a shiner from the fist of your best friend (go figure)
it’s clear that someone’s gotta go
6. from “Yellow Flicker Beat”
I dream all year but they’re not the sweet kinds
and the shivers move down my shoulder blades in double time
and now people talk to me, I’m slipping out of reach now
people talk to me and all their faces blur
but I got my fingers laced together and I made a little prison
and I’m locking up anyone who ever laid a finger on me
1. AUSTIN, TEXAS
2. ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
Asheville is for writers who aren’t enamored with a big city lifestyle but want to be in the middle of literary magic being made. The answer to this is Malaprop’s bookstore. The founder and owner offers this as her mission statement: “I wanted Malaprop’s to be a place where poetry matters, where women’s words are as important as men’s, where one is surprised by excellence, where good writing has a home, where I could nurture my addiction to literature, and play, enjoy, and entertain people drawn to quality books.” Honestly, that’s enough to make a trip. There’s also the Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar (books and champagne- need I say more?), a used bookstore where a love of wine, books, and coffee meet.
3. PORTLAND, MAINE
Bet you thought I was going to say Oregon! Suspend your disbelief for a moment because this lesser-known Portland is home to the world-famous Salt Institute whose mission is to “educate and promote documentary storytellers”. Students flock from all over the world to SALT’s 14-week program of intensive field research, workshops, and seminars. SALT focuses on storytelling, cultural journalism, and oral-history among other forms of story-telling.
4. THE TWIN CITIES: Saint Paul, Minnesota and Minneapolis, Minnesota
I know, I know, these are technically two cities but they’re universally known as the Twin Cities so I’ll put them together here. Plus, they’re only 12 miles apart which makes hopping from one to the other ridiculously easy. Not only is St. Paul the city that gave us F. Scott Fitzgerald but it hosts dozens of independent bookstores including Common Good Books. Minneapolis boasts the Hennepin County Library with 41 locations which contain over five million books, half of which live in the Minneapolis Central Library.
5. BELLINGHAM, WASHINGTON
If you like rain, small towns, and the Pacific Northwest, Bellingham is for you. It’s only two hours from Seattle and has beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean and ample mountains. This town is practically made for writing inspiration. There’s also Village Books, a dreamy independent bookstore.
Recently, I was invited to teach poetry to a 5th grade creative writing class. I showed up that day with a stack of worksheets. On the worksheets, the format for an autobiographical poem was printed. The kids laughed at the simplicity of the outline and set to filling them in. What none of us expected were the earnest, complex, and sometimes heartaching words that they would use to fill in the lines on the paper.
You’re probably not in 5th grade. I know that. I also know that you definitely have something to say that is unique to your experience and your life. Here’s a little throwback to 5th grade to get you started. It will inspire you more than you think.
line 1: your first name
line 2: four adjectives that describe you
line 3: son/daughter/brother/sister of
line 4: lover of (three people or ideas or a combination)
line 5: who feels (three sensations or emotions)
line 6: who finds happiness in (three things)
line 7: who needs (three people or things)
line 8: who gives (three things)
line 9: who fears (three things)
line 10: who would like to see (three things)
line 11: who enjoys (three things)
line 12: who likes to wear (three things)
line 13: add anything you want
line 14: your last name
My bookshelf is meticulously organized. The first shelf houses books of poetry. The second and third shelves are home to novels, organized by how much I love them. The fourth shelf is where nonfiction books lay.
When I last visited these poetry books, I was telling you which lines from them broke my heart. Now, I’d like to take it one step further. Here are my favorite poetry books and their novel soulmates:
If you loved No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay, try picking up The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Sarah Kay’s writing is raw and honest. No detail of life is too small for her to examine in her poems. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows Jules Jacobson through her teenage years and into her adult life as she struggles to come to terms with who she is and what that means for her life. Wolitzer manages to capture Jules (and her group of best friends) as they answer these questions. What we learn about Jules and what Kay shows us in her debut book of poetry is nothing short of the meticulous examination of life as they know it.
If you loved Chloe by Kristina Haynes, look for Cherry by Mary Karr on your next trip to the bookstore. The same themes flow through both books- youth, loss, love- and both Haynes and Carr manage to tackle these daunting and complicated topics with ease. Karr’s memoir about her adolescent and teenage years is both haunting and beautiful. I can’t help but think Chloe and Mary would have found similar pieces of themselves in each other. Your heart will ache at the end of both of these books and you’ll move forward with a deeper knowledge of the awful and brilliant nature of being young. These books will nestle themselves into the corner of your heart and you’ll find yourself reaching for them again and again.
If you loved Mouthful of Forevers by Clementine von Radics, you should definitely check White Oleander by Janet Fitch out from your local library. The stunning lyricism of von Radics’ poems echo Fitch’s novel about a young woman whose mother is imprisoned for killing her lover. Fitch and von Radics take us along their journeys to finding out the answers to two crucial questions. Where is home? Where is love?
If you loved Crush by Richard Siken, the next book you should read is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. McCann’s hugely ambitious and dazzling novel tells the story of a summer day in 1974 New York City. Suspended between the Twin Towers are tightropes and while the people below them break each other’s hearts, curse death, and try to find their way to each other, one man walks across the sky above their heads. McCann pulls you into lives that seem entirely ordinary until you look a bit closer and realize that something extraordinary happens to each of us everyday. This quality is something found in Siken’s work, as he translates normal events into breathtaking language, exposing the remarkable veins that run under each life.
No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay
from “Something We Don’t Talk About, Part I”
“I didn’t tell him that even after a crash,
a key still fits the ignition.
There just isn’t anything left to drive.
We kept eating the meal she had made.
I kept listening for a jingle of metal.
But only radio static filled the room,
not a single siren blared. Not even one.”
(Write Bloody Publishing, 2014)
Crush by Richard Siken
from “Little Beast”
“What would you like? I’d like my money’s worth.
Try explaining a life bundled with episodes of this—
swallowing mud, swallowing glass, the smell of blood
on the first four knuckles.
We pull our boots on with both hands
but we can’t punch ourselves awake and all I can do
is stand on the curb and say Sorry
about the blood in your mouth. I wish it was mine.
I couldn’t get the boy to kill me, but I wore his jacket for the longest time.”
(Yale University Press, 2005)
Chloe by Kristina Haynes
from “Chloe Indulges”
“Don’t think you’re fooling anyone
with the broken eggshells stuffed into
the kitchen drain. Chloe will hold the hand
of someone who is very important to her
before the end of the week. Sometimes
she almost forgets her name but then
she finds the CD with it scribbled on like an
afterthought. Chloe, I know how sad you are.
I hear it every time the needle skips.”
(Words Dance Publishing, 2015)
A Mouthful of Forevers by Clementine von Radics
from “The Wedding”
“So my home is not an honest home.
So my home is an empty bed.
That’s the thing about heartbreak.
It’s the smallest of worlds ending.
Everyone goes around you smiling,
like it’s nothing to close a door.”
(Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015)