Poetically Speaking: The Woods by Christine Heppermann

The Woods

The action’s always there.
Where are the fairy tales about gym class
or the doctor’s office or the back of the bus
where bad things also happen?
Pigs can buy cheap building materials
just as easily in the suburbs.
Wolves stage invasions. Girls spit out
cereal, break chairs, and curl beneath
covers like pill bugs or selfish grannies
avoiding the mess.
No need for a bunch of trees.
You can lose your way anywhere.


The Woods appears in Heppermann’s collection Poisoned Apples: Poems For You My Pretty (read my review). You can also find it on Bookshop: https://bookshop.org/a/5409/9780062289575

In this collection Heppermann presents 50 poems that bring fairy tale themes and imagery together with modern girlhood. This first poem in the collection sets the tone for this clever, utterly feminist book that demonstrates how every poem can be a story.

Check back every Friday in April for a new Poetically Speaking post. Until then, you can also browse older posts (and guest posts) for more poetry.

Poetically Speaking: the sign you’ve been waiting for by amanda lovelace

write the story.

you hands
into the dirtiest
parts of yourself.

take the
rot & decay
& turn it into
nourishment & life.

water it
& sing to it
& show it

grow a beautiful garden
from your aching
& teach yourself
how to thrive from it.

write your story.

-the sign you’ve been waiting for.


 Lovelace became popular after posting her poetry to instagram and tumblr. She also self-published her first collection, the princess saves herself in this one, (where this poem appears) to much acclaim before it was reprinted by a traditional publisher and became more widely available. You can find it on Bookshop here: https://bookshop.org/a/5409/9781449486419

Since then, she has branched out to author multiple poetry collections, an oracle deck, a writing journal, and more. It’s no understatement to say lovelace’s work has become exemplars not just of what modern poetry can look like but what it can accomplish. Her debut collection is filled with powerful messages and vivid imagery. This poem is one of my favorites because it is so visual and also so affirming.

Check back every Friday in April for a new Poetically Speaking post. Until then, you can also browse older posts (and guest posts) for more poetry.

Poetically Speaking: The Autocross by Olivia Gatwood

“The Autocross” by Olivia Gatwood

The men at the autocross say I could be useful
in a garage because I have tiny hands. I can reach
the deepest corners of an engine like a house maid,
make it all brand new.

They say I’m different than other girls,
the ones splayed out across the hood
like a brand new paint job. The ones who like the taste
of old oil under a fingernail, how easy it is
to zip off a navy jumpsuit.

The men at the autocross don’t believe I know
the difference between a four cylinder and a V6 engine
but they keep me around anyway because
I don’t take up much space. They aren’t bad guys.
They don’t know my name, never asked,
just call me Girl Driver, which is what I am.
The men aren’t wrong.

When I clock in a tenth of a second faster than Mike
in the ’98 Miata, the men say it’s because I don’t weigh shit.
They don’t know my name but they call me cheater.

The men re-tighten my bolts just for safe measure.
The men open my car door, Ladies first.
The men are always helping.

One man asks how I reach the pedals.
One man asks where my daddy is.
One man opens his trunk and says,
Bet you’re small enough to fit.


“The Autocross” appears in two of Gatwood’s collections that you can find on Bookshop (New American Best Friend and Life of the Party). Both collections are deeply and fiercely feminist while exploring what it means to navigate what is so often a man’s world while being a woman.

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite from Gatwood because everything she does is so good. That said, I think “The Autocross” really highlights everything Gatwood does well. She paints a scene with sparse language and a deliberate structure before building to a final stanza that packs a punch. I tend to describe a lot of sharp, smart writing as “having teeth.” For this poem I’ll go one step further and say it has a bite in the best way.

Check back every Friday in April for a new Poetically Speaking post. Until then, you can also browse older posts (and guest posts) for more poetry.

Poetically Speaking: Publicity by Ada Limon

“Publicity” by Ada Limón

Yoked to what? To whom?
Calibration. Checkmate. Thunderous blowhard,
tiny tea kettle. Boom. Bastion at the market,
flashlight mimicry. Look at my phrase
making, batting eyes. Whose hand do you hold?
Whose hand do you want? Enough of this, ruiner.
What’s the gift of talk,talk, talk. Where’re your
minions, battle stations.Take out your troubled
photocopies and burn

the Pilgrim’s kiss. There’s only
one story. It always ends.


Ada Limón is a widely known poet whose work straddles the line between being known both in writerly circles (thanks to her numerous accolades and awards) and more broadly (thanks to social media).

You can find and buy her books on Bookshop.org

After finding “Publicity” on poets.org I knew I had to share it too. Short poems are hard. With such a small space even text-heavy poems require an economy of words rarely seen in most forms of creative writing. What I like about “Publicity” is the way Limón’s poem feels like it’s channeling industry terms like “calibration” while pairing it with other imagery.

The sparse text and short lines create a frenetic feel that anyone even tangentially involved in publicity can tell you is spot on for the pace of that work.

Check back every Friday in April for a new Poetically Speaking post. Until then, you can also browse older posts (and guest posts) for more poetry.

In the Wild Light: A Review

“Because for every way the world tries to kill us, it gives us a way to survive. You just gotta find it.”

“Every hurt, every sorrow, every scar has brought you here. Poetry lets us turn pain into fire by which to warm ourselves. Go build a fire.”

In the Wild Light by Jeff ZentnerNothing in Cash’s life has been easy in Sawyer–his small Appalchian town. His mother died because of her opioid addiction when Cash was a child. Now, as a teen, Cash is watching his Papaw deteriorate from emphysema while he and his Mamaw are powerless to help. Cash knows he’s lucky to have his grandparents at all, to be on the river he loves, to have his summer work mowing lawns, to have these small pieces of safety and stability.

Sometimes it feels like the one bright spot is his best friend, Delaney. But Cash has always known Delaney will eventually leave–that’s what happens when your best friend is a genius. When Delaney discovers a life-changing bacteria-eating mold in a cave, Cash knows she’s headed for better things. Without him. And even sooner than he expected when she receives a full scholarship to Middleford Academy, an elite boarding school in Connecticut.

Except Delaney has plans of her own. None of which include leaving Cash behind. When Delaney tells Cash a scholarship is his for the taking he will have to choose between an unimaginable opportunity with the best friend he’s ever had and his love for his grandparents and the only place he’s ever called home.

As Cash grapples with everything he has to let go, he’ll remember everything worth holding onto and learn new ways to dream bigger in In the Wild Light (2021) by Jeff Zentner.

Find it on Bookshop.

Zentner’s latest novel can be read as a standalone but is set in the same world as all of his other novels. The story here is most closely connected to Goodbye Days with direct references to those characters. Cash and Delaney are white, secondary characters include Cash’s new friend Alex who is Korean-American (and also on scholarship) and Delaney’s Brazilian roommate Vi who is wealthy leading to thoughtful commentary on income diversity throughout the novel. Cash’s poetry-teacher-turned-mentor is queer and she and her wife also play key roles in the plot.

Cash’s first person narration is eloquently introspective as he describes the river and nature he dearly loves but less self-aware when it comes to identifying his own wants and, as his world expands at Middleford Academy, understanding what he needs to continue growing.

Cash is keenly aware of his past traumas and how they have shaped him and his loved ones in a small town where poverty is high and many have fallen victim to the opioid epidemic as he describes them, “Here we are, survivors of quiet wars.” At the same time, Cash and especially his Papaw and Mamaw are free with their affection, their praise, and their unconditional love. In a world where toxic masculinity is still so dangerous it is refreshing and powerful to see a teenaged boy given space to cry and grieve and feel while also seeing the same things in his grandfather.

While Delaney is eager to start fresh, Cash is hesitant to embrace this new chapter and let himself imagine a world beyond his quiet life with his grandparents. Even as he makes new friends, joins crew, and discovers an unexpected passion for poetry, he’s still waiting for the ground to fall out from under him the way it always does–a fear that will resonate with readers who have struggled with unpredictability and chaos in their own lives. On first glance, I don’t have much in common with Cash, so it was a surprise when I identified so deeply with his story, his grief, and his dread of the next calamity. When Cash says “I have nothing in my life that isn’t falling apart,” I felt it in my bones.

In the Wild Light is a quiet, meditative story about nature, poetry, love, and all of the things that can save us. In the Wild Light is a resonant story about healing; the perfect book to see you through a rough season.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg, Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman by Kristen R. Lee, An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, This Golden State by Marit Weisenberg

Poetically Speaking: How to Triumph Like a Girl by Ada Limon

“How to Triumph Like a Girl” by Ada Limón

I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let’s be honest, I like
that they’re ladies. As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Don’t you want to believe it?
Don’t you want to lift my shirt and see
the huge beating genius machine
that thinks, no, it knows,
it’s going to come in first.


Ada Limón is a widely known poet whose work straddles the line between being known both in writerly circles (thanks to her numerous accolades and awards) and more broadly (thanks to social media).

You can find and buy her books on Bookshop.org

Honestly, I can’t believe I haven’t featured anything by Ada Limón before now for Poetically Speaking. It feels like an egregious oversight considering how many of her poems cross my path via social media and just browsing for poems online (as one does). So as I was looking for poems to highlight this year during National Poetry Month, I knew I wanted to feature something by Limón. But which poem to choose? I hadn’t read “How to Triumph Like a Girl” before and when I first saw it online, I admit I wasn’t sure about it. But like all good poetry, this one got under my skin. I kept thinking about it. And that, I knew, was reason enough to share it.

I love the way a poem can build and the way that where a poem starts isn’t always the same as where it ends. What begins as broad observations narrows and sharpens by the end. What at first seems like an offhand conversation turns into something else as Limón ably shifts the narrative.

I’m always a sucker for a good last line and this poem is no exception. When writing booktalks for work one of my friends advises that the last line should echo–it should have resonance and stay with the listener. That’s what comes to mind for me when I read the final couplet here. I especially like the certainty and sense of inevitability as you read “it’s going to come in first” that makes it clear there was never any other outcome worth considering.

Check back every Friday in April for a new Poetically Speaking post. Until then, you can also browse older posts (and guest posts) for more poetry.

Poetically Speaking: What I See When I Stare Long Enough into Nothing by Jeremy Michael Clark

“What I See When I Stare Long Enough into Nothing” by Jeremy Michael Clark
(With a line borrowed from Ada Limón)

A screen door easing shut:
the only way I can describe
this creaking in my knees.
It’s when I’m alone that this pain
is easy to hear. I haven’t been
a child in years yet here I go,
discussing the past again.
I’ve been told what happened to me
doesn’t define me, matters less
than the narrative I tell. At night
I rub coconut oil into my skin,
over the scar on my arm
in the shape of a garden
snake. I can tell it
disappoints you, how I can’t recall
its origin, but trust me, it doesn’t
matter now. Seeping through my fingers
the oil reminds me of rain,
how at first it gently settles
into soil. Unless there’s a storm,
at which point picture a child,
ignoring what they’ve been told,
who finds a way to ruin
their shoes. And picture a mother,
relieved when finally her child
returns. Even if he leaves
the door ajar. Even if he leaves
footprints on the floor.


I came across “What I See When I Stare Long Enough Into Nothing” while searching for poems to feature during National Poetry Month under a search for “Ada Limon.” What a happy accident for me.

Isn’t it strange how aging can sneak up on you? How the wear and tear accumulates on this body carrying you through the world? I have had what would be called “bad knees” for a while now. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it on the blog but my mom and I were hit by a van in 2013–it backed into us while we were waiting to hail a cab (in front of a hospital, because of course). I landed on my knees and while they don’t hurt every day anymore, they always know when it’s going to rain. It’s a weird experience. One that I think about more than I’d like to and more than I need to, but also one that in many ways is key to me being the person I am now. The idea that these things that happen shouldn’t define a person, that you should be able to choose the story you tell speaks to me and speaks the way you can parse the information you share about yourself; the way you can curate the way you share yourself with the world.

I love the subtlety of Clark’s lines here and the way the narrative shifts from creaking knees to a scar and the quiet question of whether he really can’t recall the origin of the scar or simply chooses not to. And then the narrative of the poem shifts again to a contemplation of memory and time.

I have always had a soft spot for poems that shine a light on nostalgia. I especially like this one for the way it explores the specific ache of a moment passing while you watch. You can feel the narrator’s wistful remembering in every word here and the way it’s emphasized with linguistic choices “Seeping through fingers” as time passes. But most of all here I love the imagery and the way that, by the end of the poem, you feel like you really can see those footprints on the floor.

Check back every Friday in April for a new Poetically Speaking post. Until then, you can also browse older posts (and guest posts) for more poetry.

Poetically Speaking: Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the name William Shakespeare?

For me, the immediate answer is “poet.”

Considering the iambic pentameter of his plays, it makes sense that Shakespeare was also a brilliant poet who wrote 154 sonnets over the course of his lifetime. In each sonnet, he drew out beautiful imagery and sentiments from the rigid form that follows a specific line structure and rhyme scheme.

One of my favorite Shakespeare sonnets, one I refer to often when trying to improve my own writing, is Sonnet 130.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

Like the best poems, Sonnet 130 is layered. Instead of showering his mistress with false comparisons, the narrator suggests that he loves her all the more fiercely for seeing her clearly–a beautiful thought that is as relevant today as it would have been in Shakespeare’s own lifetime. The interplay between what is overtly stated and what is left unsaid here works as a primer for how to write and how to do it well. This sonnet never calls the subject of the poem beautiful or any other niceties. Still, by the end, it’s impossible to think the narrator feels anything but a deep love for the subject.

Sonnet 130 challenges everything readers think they know about love poems–and it does so with humor. Being a sonnet is impressive enough, but also being funny and conversational? Being timely and relevant while being more than four hundred years old? Astonishing.

Like a magician diverting the audience’s attention, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is a misdirect of sorts as he uses simple language and plain ideas to give voice to an abstract concept. And, really, isn’t that the standard to which every poem, not to mention every writer, should strive?

This post originally appeared on Books Take You Places in 2015 as part of the Bard on the Blogs series.

Check back every Friday in April for a new Poetically Speaking post. Until then, you can also browse older posts (and guest posts) for more poetry.

The Words We Keep: A Review

The Words We Keep by Erin StewartUpdated March 7, 2023 to add: The Words We Keep won the 2023 Schneider Family Book Award from ALA. The award is “given to an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.” If you keep reading, you’ll see I don’t dispute that Stewart does an excellent job portraying Lily’s anxiety disorder. But doing one thing well doesn’t mean a book does everything well nor does it excuse problematic elements.

Three months after the Night on the Bathroom Floor, high school junior Lily Larkin feels like her life is falling apart. Because it is.

On the Night on the Bathroom Floor Lily found her older sister Alice hurting herself. Alice hasn’t been home since. And Lily has been struggling to fill all of the Alice-shaped gaps she left behind.

If Lily can do enough at home, get good enough grades at school, make it to State in track, get into UC Berkeley, and keep doing everything right it will all be okay. Her family needs a win and all Lily has to do is keep winning.

Except Lily feels like she’s starting to lose it. She’s uninspired, overwhelmed, and struggling to hide all of it from her family and her friends.

When she’s partnered with a new student who knows all about the Night on the Bathroom Floor, Lily is worried Micah Mendez will reveal all of her family’s secrets. Instead, he might be the one person who can help Lily find her way back to herself in The Words We Keep (2022) by Erin Stewart.

Find it on Bookshop.

Lily and her family (and most secondary characters) are presumed white. Micah is Mexican American.

The Words We Keep is Stewart’s second novel and I wish I could recommend but I can’t.

Read on for a discussion of some of the issues I had with this book including casual transphobic-leaning comments from characters and numerous spoilers:

Continue reading The Words We Keep: A Review

Poetically Speaking: I Am Always Trying to Make My Poems Timeless by Olivia Gatwood

“I Am Always Trying to Make My Poems Timeless” by Olivia Gatwood

I’m always talking
around technology
like I get all of my information
from the dusty stacks
at the university library.

Like I know the man’s last meal
by heart. Like mentioning an iPhone
makes me a bimbo or something.

What I’m trying to say
is that honestly,
I think the stakes in Clueless
are higher than they are in Star Wars.

I think Cher preserving her Alaïa
red dress while getting robbed
at gunpoint is literally life or death,
while the galactic war is whatever,
because it isn’t even, like, real.

Honestly, I found the man my mom
had an affair with on Facebook.
I know your ex just graduated from
Nursing School. I think I’m prettier
than all of her prettiest photos.

I don’t write poems in my journal
because it takes too long.

I’m always like, I’m gonna delete my Facebook
but how will I know about the events happening
near me that I’m never gonna go to?

A rogue dream. Me, in a lilac dress
with an open back showing up on your doorstep.
I am holding your favorite Moscato.
I am holding your favorite fruit.
I am holding you hand as you lead me
through the house to the backyard.
No one was expecting me
but everyone is relieved I am here.
I am dressed perfectly for this weather.
I am so glad I chose this outfit.

I know exactly how to dance to this music.
I left my phone on the counter
in my apartment and I haven’t
reached for it once. I walked here with no map.
I ate the perfect breakfast for day drinking.
I am better than you. I smell just a little.

When the sky goes dark, I’ll shift
to an evening look with only a leather jacket
and a swoop of liquid eyeliner,
like the magazines promise
you are capable of doing.
Everything is so easy. I love my friends.

Let me tell you the truth, for once.
I don’t socialize because I’m afraid

I’ll disappoint people. I have spent
so many hours talking on the phone.
I still love chat rooms. The only thing I trust
about myself is how good I am at words.
I can make anyone fall in love with me,
as long as they aren’t close by.


Like a lot of the best things, I heard about Olivia Gatwood via word of mouth when VE Schwab shared on Instagram that she was reading Gatwood’s poetry. I immediately checked out her collections from the library and have been thinking about them ever since. This poem appears in Gatwood’s collection Life of the Party. You can find Gatwood’s work online and buy her books on Bookshop.org

You can watch Gatwood read other poems from that collection here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5sOap899Fg

I have been saving this post in a draft since last year because I knew I wanted to share this poem for Poetically Speaking. I have a soft spot for modern poetry and free verse (likely because my own poems fall into both categories) and I really love how relatable Gatwood’s work is even though we have different life experiences (as most people do since we are all unique and contain multitudes).

In this one I really appreciate the way she interrogates so many of those “perfect girl” stereotypes by showing what might be at play behind them. As a person who often suspects she is better on paper, the ending packs such a punch for me, especially that last couplet: “I can make anyone fall in love with me,
as long as they aren’t close by.”

Check back every Friday in April for a new Poetically Speaking post. Until then, you can also browse older posts (and guest posts) for more poetry.