Sometimes I Still Dream About Jonathan Taylor Thomas (AND OTHER THINGS I’LL REGRET SAYING LATER) is a handmade collection of some of Brenna Twohy’s most famous poems. There are few books that feel like they’re made for just you, and this is definitely one of them. With a lost letter found type of feel as well as a little note from the author (if you so wish), this is a collection of poems that’s going to live in your heart a very long time.
Alexis : If you could begin this interview, what question would you ask yourself?
Brenna : Q: Do you have a really good recipe for pozole?
A: Yes, I do.
Alexis : How did you get into spoken word? Do you favor written or spoken word over the other?
Brenna : In 2010, I had just moved to this weird apartment complex in Austria with a bunch of other people who I was pretty sure hated me. There were a lot of “bonding exercises” going on, and I felt trapped and overwhelmed and like I had made a Very Big Mistake. I cried a lot that first month, and when I was tired of crying inside, I would pace around the city and cry outside instead, because Salzburg is lovely even when you’re miserable. The second week, I came across a video of Andrea Gibson performing Photograph– and the tuning fork in my belly started humming. My YouTube history from that year is probably just every poem Andrea Gibson ever recorded 300 times over, and a couple plays of All-Star by Smash Mouth. It was never a thought of, “Oh, I could do this! I should write!” That part of it came a lot later. It was just the strongest wave of relief — “I am not alone. Someone else understands the way that I feel.”
Alexis : You made your copies of Sometimes I Still Daydream About Jonathan Taylor Thomas (and other things i’ll regret saying later), and as I’ve said before, they read like letters that got mixed up at the post office: secret, loving, and a bit fearless. What made you decide to create these more intimate books instead of going a more traditional route?
Brenna : I think everyone has a different purpose when they put out a book– mine was to, hopefully, find a couple of people and be able to whisper in their ear, “It’s okay to hurt, and you don’t have to apologize for it, and whenever/if-ever you’re ready to talk about it, there are people who are listening.” The other title that I was working with was “I’M NOT SORRY: A Love Letter to Bravery.” I spent a ridiculous amount of time making each book (and shouting at my paper cutter!) because I think that it reflects my message– here’s something that I put my hands and my heart into, and it’s just for you.
Alexis : What does your process look like? Can you write a poem in one sitting or does it take a bit more time than that?
Brenna : My process varies from poem to poem, and day to day. “Fantastic Breasts and Where to Find Them” took me something like four months to write. (And by the time I was finished, I was SO sick of that poem I cannot even tell you. I was pacing around practices for National Poetry Slam yelling “Is this Harry Potter sex joke funny??? What about this one??”) On the flipside, “Another Rape Poem” was written in about fifteen minutes.
I don’t usually write the bulk of my poems in a notebook/on the computer. Once the poems are pretty much done, I’ll write them down. But the actual process of building lines/ideas either comes from-
1.) Shouting poems at my bedroom ceiling; or
2.) Stomping around North Portland when I have something taking up a lot of space in my brain and I’m trying to figure out how to get it out of my body.
I’ve probably lost a lot of poems from not writing them down soon enough, but I’ve also explored a lot of Portland by angry-poem-walking, so I think it’s a fair trade-off.
Alexis : Since one of things you do is terrible magic tricks, I’m guessing you are made of at least 67% magic. Is this true and if so, how do you translate something so abstract into your writing?
Brenna : Oh my word. You do not want to get me started on magic. I am that horrible person who will meet you and be like “HI MY NAME IS BRENNA WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE A MAGIC TRICK?”
I have a lot of feelings about magic, and I wrote an essay recently that talks about a lot of those feelings, but it mostly comes down to this–
There is joy in being surprised. Magic lets you be wrong– and when you are, it’s not a failure. It’s kind of a miracle.
Alexis : You mix humor and heavier things like, absence, grief, and trauma, so smoothly that it makes a lot of your poems easier to swallow but still leave a pit of tough necessary at the bottom of your stomach. How are you able to find such a great balance in your writing? Do you ever struggle with it?
Brenna : I think a lot of this is just a reflection on how I am built. My family is very funny, and we deal with grief in part by making each other laugh. It’s easier for me to write about trauma this way, blended with humor, because I think it’s more true to life– grief doesn’t come packaged up nicely and allow you to deal with it in one sitting. There are all kinds of things coming at you at once– and hopefully, at least a few of them can make you laugh.
Alexis : I recently read that Emma Sulkowicz, the woman behind Matress Performance (Carry the Weight), believes “making yourself vulnerable is what it takes to change the world.” You’re very open not just in your writing but in your online presence (answering questions on Tumblr, being reachable via Facebook, etc.) Do you believe that vulnerability makes for a necessary part of your writing, a crucial part in connecting with an audience or alternatively, in creating community? Do you believe that being vulnerable could change the world, if not at least one person’s world?
Brenna : Yes. Absolutely yes. I think there is an enormous amount of strength in being vulnerable, and I think art is one of the few areas in life where you are rewarded for that vulnerability. I think writing something raw and honest is sort of like reaching a hand out across a room, and saying, “You’re not walking through this alone.” In that way, not only do I think it can change other people, I think it can change you– because now you’re not alone either.
Alexis : Following that accessible line of thinking, a lot of your writing features pop culture (superheroes, Harvey Dent, Law and Order: SVU, Harry Potter, etc.), something a lot of people can relate to before they even finish your poems. Does most of your inspiration lie in this category? Could you name a few of your inspirations?
Brenna : I’m just kind of a Harry Potter dork. As far as inspiration goes, I am inspired by people doing what they love– whether that’s Teller making a ball move across a stage or my mom making the best black bean soup on the planet– I enjoy watching people in their element.
Alexis : I just watched an episode of Orphan Black (where one of the main themes is autonomy in opposition to uniformity) so this question is really neon signing in my mind: Your writing has a very sure sense of self, a knowledge of where it stands and where it wants to go (even when it doesn’t know where it wants to go, it’s very sure in the unknowing). Did it take a while for you to get to a place like that, or were you kind of always sure of your writing/yourself (not so much that you knew everything all the time, but that you were very sure that you are your own person, you have your own beliefs/ideas/soul and that is something that cannot be taken away from you)?
Brenna : This is a really tricky question–
I have severe anxiety and very rarely have confidence that ANYTHING I’m saying makes sense to anyone else. But when I’m writing, it’s because there’s something in my head that needs to come out. I’ve learned to trust that process, and trust that the things that are heavy in my body are things that other people are carrying, too.
Alexis : What do you hope at least one person who reads or hears your work walks away with?
Your experiences belong to you. Your voice is important.
Don’t tell whale jokes on first dates.
Most things heal.
It’s okay if not everything does.
Bravery looks like all kinds of things.
Known for her poem, “Fantastic Breasts and Where to Find Them”, Brenna Twohy is an electric and astonishing spoken word poet based in Portland. Her book, Sometimes I Still Daydream about Jonathan Taylor Thomas (and other things I’ll regret saying later) is a collection of some of her most famous poems including, Another Rape Poem and In Which I Do Not Fear Harvey Dent. Brenna Twohy can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.
Alexis Smithers is a twenty one year old explosion of messes. They are queer black writer that was published in a book about how horses heal (Wild at Heart by Heather Kirby), and has work that can be found on theEEEL. Fun facts: they tied a pillowcase to their back and tried to fly after seeing Sky High, their mantra can be found in Wreck-It Ralph, The Babadook, or Orphan Black (depending on the day) and they’re terrified of mostly everything but art makes the fear easier to hold.
Ari Eastman is a spoken word poet, writer, and YouTuber who will tell you random facts about sharks (if you’re into that kind of thing). She strongly believes in balancing the feels and the funnies. And is always down to split a cup of frozen yogurt. Just don’t make fun of her for still liking gummy bears.
Trista : If you could begin this interview, what question would you ask yourself?
Ari : You talk a lot about sharks on social media and your fans often call you “Mama Shark,” what’s the meaning behind that?
It’s both weirdly serious and silly to me. I love sharks. My room is a strange little shark shrine, but I’m pretty into it. A reader once mentioned my anonymous internet squad would be better fitting as a “Shark Squad” and it kind of just stuck. On the serious note, there’s something I find inspiring about sharks. It’s probably the poet in me, but I’m drawn to things that get mislabeled. It’s this whole idea of something monstrous — the man-killer in horror films terrorizing beaches. It’s not true. It’s this animal just doing what it does — eating, swimming, reproducing. So I always tell my readers to go out and be sharks. Not in a vicious sense, just go out and do what you’re meant to do.
Trista : Who are a few of your favorite poets?
Ari : I carry around a pocket size book of Pablo Neruda love poems because….I’m gross?? No but seriously, I do. Rudy Francisco and Terisa Siagatonu mentored me during my senior year of college, and forgive me for how melodramatic this is (says the girl who carries around love poems), they totally changed my life. Ugh, and Andrea Gibson. Andrea’s an explosion of wonderful.
Trista : Do you remember what the poem was that turned you on to poetry?
Ari : It was something of Rudy Francisco’s. I can’t remember specifically which one now. But I was so into him on YouTube. And then full on geeked when he became our coach and mentor for (UCLA’s) slam poetry team (2014). It felt so full circle. This man who was such an inspiration to me is now someone I can text and casually call him “Coach RuRu.” Still mind blowing to me.
Trista : What’s your favorite line that you’ve written?
“I cannot see you anymore and I’m looking through a telescope.
You are calling me, but the phone keeps disconnecting.
I am crying and laughing,
and our love is still spilling out.”
– This Is Where We Love
Trista : How do you deal with harsh criticism of your work? And how often would you say it occurs?
Ari : I’ve learned the best thing to do is not put too much personal stock in the negative OR the positive. Of course it feels good hearing people praise you, but that’s an easy addiction to form. But then if it’s what you base your worth on, the negative comments will eat you alive. I work on a website that attracts a lot of internet trolls. I came into it with a bit of a thicker skin for online stuff because I started posting YouTube videos when I was fourteen and I have heard EVERYTHING in the book. If someone is mean to me in real life? I’m going to go and immediately cry in a corner like the sensitive lamb I am. But online, I usually don’t let it phase me. I tend to just thank really cruel haters for contributing to the views on my piece.
Trista : Do you have any particular song(s) you like to “Shake It Off” to? (re: above question)
Ari : “Move On Up” by Curtis Mayfield.
Trista : Do you have any advice for budding poets hesitant to share their work online?
Ari : It’s a band-aid and you gotta rip that sucker off. Because once you’ve done it the first time, you know you can do it again. And I always tell writers (especially young ones who are more hesitant) nobody will give you a chance if you don’t first show them you’re out there.
Trista Mateer is a writer and poet living outside of Baltimore, Maryland. She believes in lipstick, black tea, and owning more books than she can ever possibly read. Known for her eponymous blog, she is also the author of two collections of poetry.
Peter LaBerge is the author of the forthcoming chapbook Hook (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015). His poems appear or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Redivider, Best New Poets 2014, DIAGRAM, and Indiana Review, among others. He is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the founder and editor-in-chief of The Adroit Journal.
MEGGIE : Peter, you’re an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, but you’ve already made a name for yourself in the writing world with a slew of accomplishments that includes serving as a guest lecturer at UC Berkeley and founding The Adroit Journal. Did you ever envision yourself achieving so much at such a young age?
PETER : Absolutely not! When I began writing at the age of fifteen (at the end of my freshman year of high school) I was in a difficult place in a lot of ways. I felt like I had all this energy I wanted to expel toward something, but nothing interested me enough. I flitted between statistics and music and theatre and even HTML/CSS coding. I wasn’t doing well in school, and I had few friends. I was desperate to find something in which I felt like I could really invest myself.
For me, writing (and, eventually, publishing) fit the bill. As soon as I discovered poetry, there was honestly no going back. I read poetry voraciously and five months after I started writing, I started The Adroit Journal. Obviously, for the first year or so I was very much still getting accustomed to writing and the implications of the craft, but the sense of obligation to become increasingly well-versed and connected (for the journal’s sake, if not my own) led me to reach for continually greater understandings of the literary world and writing itself.
I guess what I mean to say is that I really began to achieve once I began to push beyond what was handed to me, and once I knew that I was writing because I wanted to write, and for that reason alone.
MEGGIE : Can you recall the first spark of imagination & inspiration that led to your interest in writing, whether poetry or prose?
PETER : Hmm. Well, I spent a period of my freshman year of high school quite agitated with myself because I got a B on my ninth grade English poetry project (with literally a C on a poem that ended with the line, “You won’t be my clam chowder.”). Back then, I thought the whole ‘poetry thing’ was going to be an easy A, but it clearly hadn’t been.
This always presented a challenge to me, and throughout the year I wanted to prove to my professor (or, more relevantly, myself) that I had what it took to understand something that had been deeper than I’d initially assumed.
At the end of the year, one of my revised poems (called “Break-My-Heart Battlefield,” which will not be seeing the light of day anytime soon) was selected for publication in the high school literary magazine. I thought I’d written the best thing I was ever going to write, but I soon found that I wanted to write something I connected with even more. The rest, I suppose, is history.
MEGGIE : As a young writer, how much contact would you say you’ve had with older writers, middle-age and up?
PETER : Well, first of all, I feel that there is a chasm between high school and college/university writing, and — if you clear the drop — you’re effectively another step toward writing for the rest of your life. One of the main shifts, I think, is starting to see yourself as less of a “young writer” and more of an “emerging writer.”
In high school, I felt very intimidated by older writers and pretty much only communicated with them for The Adroit Journal or as a student asking a teacher for advice or words of wisdom. I felt like I didn’t have the right to participate in discussion with professional writers — what could I, a random teenage poet, have to contribute to their knowledge of poetry and poetics?
The answer, I’ve come to find out, is a lot. This week alone I’ve met multiple older writers for spur-of-the-moment coffees, lunches, or dinners around New York. As a whole, teenage and early-20’s poets have begun to offer a perspective on writing previously untapped on a professional level. It’s exciting — for us, and for (most of) ‘the bigshots.’
MEGGIE : Have you ever felt as if your age has prevented you from accomplishing certain creative endeavors, or have you ever experienced prejudice from older writers based on your age?
PETER : This is an issue I increasingly see as I get deeper and deeper into the literary world.
I think it’s worst when one is entirely unpublished. My best advice is to be relentless — if you’re at the level, someone will appreciate the work enough to take the risk (even if it takes a while, and a bit of prodding), and then the hard part is done. I was fortunate enough to begin the slow break into selective publications at the tail end of high school, so a lot of my college career has been centered around producing work that has been increasingly accepted into that class of publication. In addition, I’ve been extremely grateful for such blind recognition opportunities as Best New Poets and the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, which have shown me that it is worth my time to throw my hat into the professional writing ring.
MEGGIE : What would you say to someone who insists that teenage artists & writers are “inexperienced amateurs with nothing to offer?”
PETER : Ha. Nothing, because they aren’t worth the time, attention or space. They’re living in some age that’s not this one.
MEGGIE : Could you tell us a little bit about your forthcoming chapbook Hook, which will be released later this year from Sibling Rivalry Press?
PETER : Ever since the age of fifteen, I’ve been putting together “chapbooks” — in fact, my bio from junior year of high school used to conclude with, “He is working on his debut chapbook release.” Ironically, of course, none of that work is included in this collection of poems — and I’m very thankful that I waited.
This chapbook is close to me because it’s my first, but also because I (perhaps narcissistically) feel that someone needs to introduce its themes for broader discussion. It draws on the stories of Matthew Shepard and Bobby Griffith, among other lost-but-not-forgotten individuals. So much needs to be worked out between issues of religion and orientation, family values and gender identity. We need to take a step back and acknowledge that these issues all intersect, so they’re all going to be players in the solution.
Nothing will happen without conversation and sharing of stories; I can’t think of many more important concepts for people to discuss and understand. If my words can be any part of that process, my job as a poet is more than done.
MEGGIE : What has been your favorite part of founding and running The Adroit Journal?
PETER : The community. Absolutely. I see it every year in the form of students from rural places, students who can’t afford elite writing programs or boarding schools. The journal provides a refuge for these students to feel like they are a part of something larger, whether they are readers, staff members, editors, summer mentees, or contributors.
Aside from that, I’ve also collected a ton of amazing friends from it. That’s always a plus.
MEGGIE : Could you maybe give us a quick glimpse of your writing desk, or the space you find yourself writing in most?
PETER : Literally I write in the dark. It minimizes distraction.
MEGGIE : Do you remember what your first poem was about? If so, looking back, how would you say your writing style has changed or improved over the years?
PETER : Oh gosh. Well, I already talked about my first poem (of sorts) earlier, so I’ll concentrate on the second half of the question here.
My writing style has definitely become a lot more nuanced and well informed as the years have gone on. I generally begin with an image, and I unpack it based on the feelings and associations that come to me. Lately I’ve been very driven by color and setting, in particular.
Needless to say, no aspect of this routine existed when I was first starting out. I also had no idea what to cut, or how to place line breaks. Those steps are essential for me.
MEGGIE : And finally, what’s your favorite poem written by another writer who is approximately the same age as you?
PETER : Oh, no!!! This isn’t fair. Can I have three slots? I’m also only selecting from work that’s available online. [Also, shout-out to Brynne Rebele-Henry for being considerably younger than I am (high school sophomore — where I began…) but very much deserving of a place on this list. Look out, world.] In no particular order…
1: “Harvests” by Ian Burnette. I’ve been obsessed with this poem, and actually most of Ian’s work, since the journal published it last year.
2: “Swamps” by Caleb Kaiser. This one’s from 2012, but I love it like it was published yesterday. And I love Caleb, too.
Meggie Royer is a writer and photographer from the Midwest who is currently majoring in Psychology at Macalester College. Her poems have previously appeared in Words Dance Magazine, The Harpoon Review, Melancholy Hyperbole, and more. She has won national medals for her poetry and a writing portfolio in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and was the Macalester Honorable Mention recipient of the 2015 Academy of American Poets Student Poetry Prize.
Desireé Dallagiacomo is a Pushcart Prize nominated poet, teaching artist, and radical feminist. In 2014, she ranked 3rd overall at the National Poetry Slam (as a member of Slam New Orleans) 3rd overall at the Individual World Poetry Slam, and 3rd overall at the 2015 Women of the World Poetry Slam. Her work has been featured on EverydayFeminism.com, Upworthy, The Huffington Post, and the San Francisco Globe. For more of her work visit poemsbydes.tumblr.com, and for booking inquiries email firstname.lastname@example.org.
DMR : If you could begin this interview, what question would you ask yourself?
DD : I would ask myself why in the hell I thought I could do an interview this badass in the same week that I have final exams.
DMR : Do you have any writing habits or rituals? Any particular routine you follow when crafting a piece?
DD : Gah. For years I never even thought to identify my process. I just kind of wrote and ended up with something, and it always seemed like a bit of a miracle with no rhyme or reason.
My process is pretty sporadic, but it’s absolutely identifiable. I usually vomit a whole bunch of stuff on paper, thousands of words, and then I go through my notebook, highlight what’s working, type that up, print it out, and start dissecting it and treating it like an erasure or a found poem. Whenever people come across drafts of my poems, they’re always a little shocked by how colorful they are. I highlight, circle, underline, cross out, rewrite, draw arrows, blocks, etc. I tend to write in very busy places, and I try to write as much as possible before I even look back through it. I am of the mind that one should always work to cut and not add; so I try to get it all out on the front end.
From there, I work through many, many drafts. I try to pay attention to language economy, word choice, consistency of metaphor. Lately, I’ve been trying to treat poems as individuals, and I have been trying to give every poem exactly what it needs and nothing more.
DMR : Do you find you write more so when “inspiration strikes” or do you force yourself to write whether it’s there or not? Which do you advise to fellow poets?
DD : I think that I used to tell myself that writer’s block was a thing, but I don’t really think it’s a thing. I think, for me, I’ve got to go after it. If I don’t go after it, I’ll watch Netflix all day instead. I definitely have things that I know I can do to help me find inspiration, and sometimes it comes to me. I do believe it is for me to force myself to write, because 9 times out of 10 that’s what it’s going to take to crank out some work I’m proud of.
DMR : Do you believe in finished pieces or do you believe all pieces are open to later editing when revisited?
DD : I think it’s weird to pick a piece back up that has already lived a life. I don’t feel like I can come back and edit a piece, and it remain the same piece. It’s like sewing a blanket with 2 separate fabrics. My writing style and my content move around so much, that it’s very difficult for me to pick a poem back up after I’ve memorized it, or submitted it. I work on most of my poems for months, and then I just have to tell myself it’s done, because if I didn’t I would never stop working on it. So for me, a poem is done when I convince myself it is. That being said, there are many poems that I’ve been working on for years, and they have never seen the light of day.
DMR : Do you keep an audience in mind whilst writing?
DD : It depends. I mean, I’m always aware that someone will read or hear a poem that I write, as that is what I do for a living. I know that my work will live outside of my computer or my notebook. I’ve never had much of an issue with sharing my work with folks. So, I guess I am thinking of an audience. That audience may be folks attending a poetry slam, the audience may be my mother, the audience may be folks that read my poems in print. For me, audience doesn’t affect my writing all that intensely- it definitely used to! I am so grateful to have moved past the point in which audience dictates my writing, but it definitely did at one point. I guess now I just always am aware that I always have an audience, so I’ve tried to tune them out.
DMR : I think there is always a risk when sharing work on a writing platform that eventually you begin writing what you believe will get a reaction rather than writing what is important to you personally. Have you ever fallen prey to this? Do you have any advice on how to separate the public’s value of a piece from your own?
DD : That’s a tricky question. If we believe that art exists to create social change, then of course we want a reaction! I believe art is a political act, and I think it always should be. This doesn’t mean that one must write all their poems about rape culture or white supremacy, but I think we have to see our art as revolutionary. When I write about my brother, I am writing about the prison industrial complex. When I write about my mother, I am writing about womanism, LGBTQIA issues, class issues. I would hope that one can find the sweet spot, what works for you AND works for your audience. Obviously, what works for the writer is the most important thing, but I think it can coexist with getting a “reaction”. I hope all my work gets reactions! When people are not reacting to my work, then my work has no business being in the public sphere.
DMR : You mentioned in our first exchange that the process of writing your poem One Side of an Ongoing Dialogue with Sharon, My Therapist was specifically challenging. Can you elaborate on that? What about that poem provoked you?
DD : Oh, boy. When I wrote that poem, I was 22 and almost literally going crazy. I was in an awful relationship, and I felt incredibly isolated. I was spending a lot of time alone and removed from people and things that I loved. It originally started as an apology letter to the person I was dating at the time, and then one of my close friends/colleagues was like “Hey I like that line about your therapist. Have you ever tried to write a letter to her?” and it was like a light bulb went off. I wrote about 4,000 words, and then I just kept cutting away at it. I had the poem printed and taped to the walls of my apartment. I cut the poem up, I highlighted, blacked out, rearranged. The process was invigorating and very, very active (I am a real lover of processes more than products). I sat with that poem for weeks. The video of that from 2012 (also) is when I had just memorized it. I had not performed it in a slam memorized, and when I watch it or hear the audio I have some serious envy of that performance. When I hear that specific performance, it sounds like I want to jump out of my skin- and I did. So overall, that process was one long, angsty edit after another. It was one of the most rewarding to write, and it was the first time I really wrote something that had a fire under it on stage. It was the first poem that really moved folks, and it really made me believe that art can be transformative.
That poem is a snapshot of me in one of my darkest places. Reliving that is a privilege, and a great task to do again and again.
DMR : Richard Siken recently mentioned that what helped him find his voice was recording himself reading his poems aloud and revising toward how the poetry sounded verbally rather than revising toward the page. As a spoken word poet, do you have any similar techniques? How do you create a rhythm in written words that translates to a spoken performance?
DD : Hmm. That’s interesting. I don’t know. I am a harsh writer, and I use harsh letters and syllables in my writing. That’s something that really plays a role in my performance, honestly. I usually try to cut as many words as possible, which makes sentences jumpy and jagged. I don’t change poems from the stage to the page, and I write many poems that I don’t read aloud. I believe that poems can exist exactly the same in all the spaces that an author wants them to.
I don’t have any techniques, really. When workshopping performance, I try to move from my natural tendencies to other parts of voice. I whisper, recite poems in an accent, stare at myself in a mirror while I read a poem monotone. I want to find the valleys in the poem, find the syllables that want breath and the ones that don’t. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and read the same way again and again. It’s important to me to work to be intentional and aware of my voice. This same thing translates to the page- but for me, I play around with punctuation and line breaks and such. Again, I like sharp looking poems. I like poems to have a lot of enjambment or a lot of odd punctuation. It’s also important to me to guide the reader to read the poem how I would, and this comes with finding the voice of a poem.
Long story long, I’m not sure that I do write for the stage or come up with a technique to make the transition seamless. I really try to pay honor to a poem’s voice, and sometimes it takes me a while to learn it. My goal is to always give the poem what it needs, not what I want it to have.
DMR : On the topic of your spoken word poems, do you have any tricks/tips for performing? Eg: memorisation, confidence, portraying emotion without allowing it to overwhelm you.
DD : Oy. Get the poem in you. That’s when it comes to life. Memorize. Live the poem. Let it be inside of you, and recite it everywhere. In the car, to your garden, on the treadmill, whatever. Let the poem live everywhere. It will tell you what it needs if you let it.
Audiences want to be a part of a genuine moment, give them that moment. Don’t fake it. DON’T. FAKE. IT. The audience will know, and your poem will be pissed. Do what you have to do to give the audience an authentic moment. That is when the magic happens. Don’t be scared to lose it on stage- Lord knows I have. If it overwhelms you? Great. My motto, you have to cross the line to know where it is. Break down in rehearsals, break down in your home venue. Let it out, and then dial it back.
DMR : Your poem Real Sex Tips, with Kaycee Filson, is fierce as lion roar. What does the process of collaborating with another poet look like for you? How do you accommodate including another person into your process?
DD : Collaboration always looks different for me, depending on the other folk/s in the equation. I am someone that does a bulk of writing, and then I whittle it down to its most potent parts. For me, the process looks like lots of notes, lots of reworking, lots of conversation, many many drafts. Working with Kaycee was interesting, because we are close friends. We have a chemistry and shared understanding already, so it was just a matter of focusing that energy. It really took us months to write that poem, and it started from a very different place than it ended up. We also memorized that poem like 2 days before Nationals, haha. So those videos floating around the internet are actually some of the first times we performed that poem memorized, so it still had a lot of its urgency and nervous energy- which I think is really important for a poem.
DMR : To finish, this question isn’t about your writing process, but it’s one I always like asking fellow poets. My favourite quote by you is, “nobody wants to develop my negatives in their dark room.” Which quotes/excerpts of your own work do you take most pride in?
DD : Haha, what a question. All of my poems mean a lot to me. The line that means the most to me in this moment today is probably “And is that not living?/ Being so close to death you paint it on your skin?” That is from my poem SINK. That poem took me my whole life to write, and now it’s living.
Check out more of Desireé’s work on her blog, including this list of videos & the merch on her sidebar that includes two chapbooks & a broadside of her legendary poem “Thighs Say”! :
Donna-Marie Riley currently resides in the South West of England. She is author of the poetry collection Love and Other Small Wars, published by Words Dance, and also featured in Between Sentiment and Sensation: Vol I, published by Red Paint Hill. She romanticizes cold coffee and bitten nails and she likes her poetry shaken, not stirred.
We are proud to bring you the second installment in The Dance Interview Series, a talk with Stevie Edwards, author of Humanly. An epic collection that delves into the dark rooms of both the heart and mind as well as the high cliffs of love and freedom. Humanly is Edwards’ second collection of work, a celebration of living and of the act of life. Read more about her new book as well as a poem from the collection in this stunning interview!
SF : If you could begin this interview, what question would you ask yourself?
SE : Do you have any pet peeves about the ways in which your poetry, particularly your latest collection Humanly, gets discussed?
Well, firstly I am very grateful that anyone is bothering to discuss my work at all, but it really grinds my gears when I see myself (the person) and the poetic speakers in my poems (crafted personas) being conflated. On one hand, I think this line gets tricky when engaging with confessional poetics and much of my work is inspired by lived experiences. On the other hand, the fact that I have dealt with many of the issues (i.e. suicide) discussed in many of my poems and that some of my identifiable autobiographical information (i.e. being from Michigan) shows up within the collection does not mean that there is a one-to-one correlation between me and the speaker in any particular poem. Such readings tend to dismiss the craft of this collection and focus instead upon my personhood, upon me as a survivor or as opposed to me as a poet. As somebody who has spent over half of my life studying and writing poetry, I find this dismissal very frustrating. Furthermore, calling me the actual speaker of some of these poems becomes pretty absurd when you consider some of the claims my speakers make. For instance, I have a poem where the speaker claims her body is a coliseum that contains lions, tigers, and bears. Spoiler alert: I’m pretty sure I’m the only animal inhabiting this body, unless there’s a tapeworm waiting to be found. And gosh darn it, I reserve the right to be fictive and surreal. After all, what is more surreal than surviving what reason says should have killed you? I think there is a tension between realism and surrealism in Humanly. As I was treating myself to a mani-pedi today (because it’s my birthday tomorrow), I was thinking about how weirdly intimate it was to have a man I didn’t know gently hold my hand and file my nails, about how these small daily acts are what realism is built out of. To some degree, I think of realism as an active assertion of sanity: I did this, I went there, I ate, drank, spoke, wept, shat, etc. But I also think that survival requires a certain element of fantasy. Because to live beyond something like suicide, to live inside of a body you thought you’d never see again, is a fantastical act. I set about this collection with the intention of writing an epic of surviving oneself, not a memoir. And this epic has predators and pills, shitty selves and shitty exes, gloom and inner light, that are simultaneously mine and not solely mine. On a slight sidenote, I’ve been considering sending “Against Explanation” by Tarfia Faizullah as a response to people who email me questions or write publicly under the assumption that I am the speaker in my poems. Then, I decided that was too passive aggressive, but her piece is definitely worth a read.
SF : How do you begin a poem?
SE : Usually poems begin in my head during the moments I have to myself. When I lived in Chicago, nearly all of my poems came to me on the subway during my hour-and-a-half commute to and from work each day. My current commute is a ten minute walk and ten minute bus ride, which is more desirable in many ways, but sometimes I miss having that block of time each day with no specific task(s) to complete. Here, in Ithaca, I go on a lot of walks, and sometimes I’ll start to hear a line, or sometimes a poem title. I find being quiet in public is for some reason a good poem recipe for me. Today, the title “On Celebrating a Birthday I Tried to Swallow” came to me, but I haven’t written that poem yet. Also, I find that if I walk with the cadence of a specific poem in my head (this week it’s been “Angel’s Heart Clowns the Ocean” by Angel Nafis, but it alternates a lot) often lines will come to me in a similar rhythmic pattern.
SF : Thank you so much for writing Humanly. It is one of the most necessary pieces of work that I have read this year, baring every inch of your roller coaster mind and heart for readers to sink into. From mental health to heart break to menstruation, it is a smashing of highs and lows. You break it down into four chapters: Dread Clothes, Take, Fang and Fantasy and Anchor. Could you expand on these titles a bit more?.
SE : I’ll give some brief comments in the order of the sections.
I: “Dread Clothes” is a line in the first poem of the collection, “Luck, Luck, Noose,” and also reocurrs in a couple other poems. At one point, this entire manuscript was called “Dread Clothes,” but I ended up thinking Humanly captured the emotional range of this collection (which isn’t all dread all the time) in a more complete way. When I think of “Dread Clothes,” I think of the way that sometimes we wear grief and depression around town each day, the way you can’t just neatly pack them away while you go do all the daily things you need to do to stay employed and socially engaged.
II: I chose the section title “Take,” because this group of poems is largely about what can be taken from a person by non-consensual sex and other forms of disregarded personal boundaries and also about trying to take that ineffable thing back. The poems in this section are both wounded and fang-baring.
III: “Fang and Fantasy” was another title I kicked around for this manuscript. It first appears in the preface. This is the section title I am least sure of how to explain but also is my favorite. Most of the poems are about dealing with the aftermath of a suicide attempt. I think with the title “Fang and Fantasy” I was trying, to some extent, to name the inner beast that says terrible things like, “Kill yourself.” It certainly is a thing with fangs, but it’s also a fantasy, an illogical voice that suggests a bottle full of pills will solve the things that are wrong in your life. That it could be easy and clean, without collateral, somehow less burdensome to others than your living is—when the truth is that even the loneliest person’s suicide affects others, and also that suicide is rarely (if ever) neat and clean in a literal sense. If you take a bottle of pills you will probably vomit more than you knew you were capable of. It will be gross and terrible and painful and will likely fuck up your internal organs. Suicide being easy is an unuseful myth.
IV. “Anchor” is titled after the action I feel like that section is attempting, to find something sturdy in the importance of human relationships. Maybe it’s corny, but I think that section is about finding reasons to stay alive in friendship, love, and an idea of home.
SF : Michigan comes up in more than one poem, from “Genesis of the Only Michigander Who Doesn’t Drive” to “Not Gently Will I Lose Her”. I would love to know more about your home state and how it has shaped the writer that you are now.
SE : Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but many of my favorite living writers have come out of Michigan. Sometimes I think that it’s a place that’s so economically beaten down, we have to make up stories—that there is some great need to say both “I am” and “I could be.” To some degree, to grow up in a place where many of my friends were teen mothers and go to an Ivy League graduate program was an act that required an active imagination. As far as more direct ways in which it’s shaped my writing, I think it’s a place that’s shaped my obsessions. Humanly is less about class than my first book (Good Grief), but I think the aggregate classism I’ve experienced in my life (particularly in higher ed) is always there. I feel conflicting pressures to use all the big words I know and prove that I’m smart enough to be where I am in life and to try to use colloquial diction that represents where I’m from, how I talk when I talk to people who seem like home to me. Also, I grew up in a family full of grand storytellers, and I think the simple act of riding in a car or sitting around a table and hearing the wild stories my uncles and cousins would tell taught me more about narrative structure and how to captivate attention than any book or class on writing has ever taught me.
SF : What poets do you continually go back to?
SE : Oh gosh, there’s so many. To name a few: Terrance Hayes, Marie Howe, Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Richard Siken, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Nick Flynn, Patricia Smith, Jan Beatty, Rachel Zucker, Jericho Brown, Lynda Hull, James Wright, and Muriel Rukeyser.
Theory of Time
Try this: my bed is covered in Kleenex and late bills.
I am starting to forget stilled frames: where I put
the stamps, the extra cellphone battery, my dead
grandmother’s phone number I must have called
a hundred times. It started with 694. I’m afraid
these prescriptions that slow neuron riots edging
my system toward overload have taken away time,
how it used to hover before me or me behind it.
I could at least see and catalog tiny oscillations
of wing, fist, story, garbage. Broke for memories,
let’s invent a room I used to stay in. A good find
for the price, someone had bothered to paint the walls
a shade other than the landlord’s eggshell, maybe red
with sloppy trim work around the door frame—
either unskilled or possessed by the laze that comes
with temporary housing, with no time to nest
before the next life plan reaching out of Tarot cards
and spreadsheets. If I dash numb sky rational
at a rate of Lamictal and wine into tenure track
and vintage suits, at what point do I pass the fragile
center of ghosts in the brain, and is it better?
Stevie Edwards is a poet, editor, educator, and an advocate for mental health awareness. She is currently Editor-in-Chief at Muzzle Magazine, Acquisitions Editor at YesYes Books, and a Lecturer at Cornell University. Her first book, GOOD GRIEF (Write Bloody 2012), won an open manuscript contest and received two post-publication awards, the Independent Publisher Book Awards Bronze in Poetry and the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from Southern Illinois University – Carbondale. Her second book, HUMANLY, was recently release by Small Doggies Press. Her poems have appeared in Verse Daily, Rattle, Devil’s Lake, Indiana Review, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Cornell University and a BA from Albion College.
SaraEve Fermin is a performance poet and epilepsy advocate from New Jersey. An East Coast heart jumping circus trains, she is the editor-in-chief of Wicked Banshee Press. Nowadays can be found volunteering at National Poetry Slam Events. She is a Women of the World Poetry Slam Competitor and her work can be found in GERM Magazine, Drunk In A Midnight Choir, Free Verse Magazine and Transcendence among others. Her second book of poetry, The View From The Top of the Ferris Wheel, will be published by Emphat!c Press in 2015. She believes in the power of foxes and self publishing.
When Amy asked me if we would take part in the From Revolutionary Lips Blog Tour to celebrate the launch of her newly released collection of poetry, From Revolutionary Lips, it was an immediate Yes. Along with the release of her book, it also marks the first publication from her new publishing house Red Thread Voices! Enjoy the first interview in The Dance Interview Series + a gorgeous poem with spoken word audio from her book below!
WD : If you could begin this interview, what question would you ask yourself?
AP : I’d ask me what my revolution is. And my answer would be love. Not the hearts and flowers kind of love. But the really raw, tender, ardent, real kind of love. And how we can give more of it to ourselves.
WD : How do you begin a poem?
AP : Mmm… so my poems are mostly begun in fragments that arise through engagements with the sacred. So, this might come through an alchemical chocolate ceremony, a descent workshop, a dance with Lilith, a moment where I lose my sense of self in the distant horizon of the North Sea… or sometimes it comes out of the blue – a fragment from a dream, an unusual turn of phrase, a piece of graffiti that catches my eye.
Also, I would say that my poetry is very visceral. It’s written from the body to the body. Missives of the flesh. So, I’ll often begin with my body, and what it wants to say, what words it is circling, what phrases are repeating through my cells on a loop. I’ll write them down, and then see what comes next….
WD : I am smitten with your self-portraiture, it’s just stunning. Inside From Revolutionary Lips you pair all the poems with a self-portrait. I would love to know more about your process of taking them & then marrying them off to a poem.
AP : Oh gosh, I’m so touched that you love the self-portraits. I began a selfie practice a couple of years ago, and, like with most things, I took it to the nth degree. I began exploring editing the images, using different lenses, different apps. The images that have been woven through From Revolutionary Lips are, I think, some of my best work.
I’m very intuitive in my process. I’ll take maybe 20 or more images in relatively quick succession through the front facing camera on my iphone. And then I start playing with maybe 2 or 3 through the app Pixlr Express + and Snapseed. Occasionally I’ll also use Koloid, which is like an old fashioned developing fluid app. Basically, I just allow myself the freedom to discover, to make mistakes, to create beauty.
However, I can’t take credit for marrying them to the poems. That is the work of my very talented designer Tracey Selingo. I sent her the poems along with 30 self-portraits, and she sent back the ebook having paired the images with the words. And I was astounded to see how beautifully they resonated with one another. Almost like a new depth was delivered to both.
WD : My heart is aflutter over Red Thread Voices. In your mission you say, “I am dreaming of a space which amplifies the voices of the wild woman as she breaks her silence” — while Words Dance is not all-female press there’s something about working with women & sharing their work that I revel in, especially young women, who I feel are not taken seriously & are silenced the majority of the time because of that. Tell us about Red Thread Voices & how you see it evolving.
AP : So, Red Thread Voices was born when I found that every time I tried to put together a book proposal for a mainstream publisher, I just couldn’t get moving on it. Profound resistance. And I found myself thinking, I’m either just really lazy, or there’s something actually stopping me from going down this path. Upon further reflection, it dawned on me that my desire for creative sovereignty is profound. The thought of giving my work to a publishing house who would then edit it, package it, market it, all in ways which I would have very little say over, and then pay me a ridiculously low sum of money for the pleasure…. well, I just could not reconcile it with what I wanted for my work, for my voice in the world.
It was not a huge leap to take this from the personal to the transpersonal. If I desire that creative sovereignty for myself, then I desire it for us all. So I created Red Thread Voices, in the first instance, to act as a platform for my own wild howl, and then, as we move forward, to amplify the voices of others for whom this creative sovereignty piece is also held sacred.
WD : What poets do you continually go back to?
AP : Mary Oliver is an obvious choice. But I also love TS Eliot, DH Lawrence, George Mackay Brown, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Wendy Cope, Kathleen Jamie, Lavinia Greenlaw… I could go on and on and on. I love language that can create a physical effect in my body. I want to be touched by words. All of these poets have created worlds with their words that gift their readers with a tangible experience. And that’s what keeps me returning.
From Revolutionary Lips:
The veil of ambivalence
settles close to the skin
when desire lies latent
– tamped down by stories
of excess and extravagance.
Oh, she’s too much,
we say, all the while
the permission we seek
to want what we want
Bold, brave and beautiful, these poems are not for the faint of heart. Diving deep into the mystery, let From Revolutionary Lips take you on a journey of one woman’s becoming – and feel your own journey reflected back. Meet Lilith and Salome and Pandora – feel their desire, dance with their madness and free their voices – and in so doing free your own. Taboo-busting and truth-spilling, these poems will unlock the doors and lift the latches as, together, we find a way to come back home – home to our hearts.
Amy Palko is the creatrix of Red Thread Voices – a publishing house that aims to offer a home to the voice of exiled feminine, She is also a goddess guide, poet, photographer and lecturer whose work has been featured internationally. She lives in Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband and three teenage children, in their home that overlooks the deep harbour, and the wide mouth of the River Forth as it opens up to swallow the cold waters of the North Sea.
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