Interview by Maria Isabelle Carlos

I believe in poetry. I believe in the dry Missouri chill that ushered me into the warmth of my hometown’s tiny  bookshop that February afternoon ten years ago. I believe in the bronze bell that chimed against the doorway as I entered, in the gray-striped cat lazing in the shop’s bay window. I believe in the silver-haired lady who didn’t look up from her book, only nodded toward shelves lining the back wall when I asked for the poetry section. I believe in whatever gravity or god drew my finger across the “B” row  and stopped me at Sister, Nickole Brown’s first collection. I’ll never forget the overwhelming feeling of my first read, a few hours later — I looked up from its pages simultaneously broken open and stitched shut, more certain of my voice and of the power of poetry. I found kinship and recognition in the speaker of those poems, forgiveness and resilience, and permission to write my own story, to “call [my] body home.”

Nickole Brown is the author of  Sister, first published in 2007 with a new edition reissued by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2018. Her second book, Fanny Says, came out from BOA Editions and won the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Poetry in 2015. The audiobook of that collection became available in 2017. She is the Editor for the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and teaches at the Sewanee School of Letters MFA Program and the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA. She lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, in Asheville, NC, where she periodically volunteers at three different animal sanctuaries. Currently, she’s at work on a bestiary of sorts about these animals, but it won’t consist of the kind of pastorals that always made her (and most of the working-class folks she knows) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it. A chapbook of these poems called To Those Who Were Our First Gods recently won the 2018 Rattle Chapbook Prize, and another sequence called The Donkey Elegies will be published as a chapbook by Sibling Rivalry Press in early 2020.

The following conversation was conducted via email in the summer and fall of 2019.


[MIC] I’m interested in how different poets articulate why they believe in poetry, in its necessity and timelessness, or what possibilities might exist in its creation and/or sharing. In the interview included in the back of this reissued edition of Sister, you say the assumption of the autobiographical in poetry “originates from a long history of writers delving deep into themselves to authenticate their personal truths, and as those truths are often far too complex and slippery for prose, poetry sometimes becomes the medium of choice for difficult, indefinable subjects.” Why do you think poetry is a suitable vessel for holding questions, for addressing “indefinable subjects”? When you choose to read or write poetry instead of a different genre, what specifically is it offering that makes it distinct from other forms of writing? 

[NB] Years ago, for National Poetry Month, I wrote a little piece about why folks should read poetry. The first reason I listed is not because poetry is necessary but because it is so beautifully unnecessary. Yes—unnecessary—and I can confirm that by giving witness to the fact that I survived an entire childhood without an ounce of it, growing up as I did in a place that relegated poetry to a much-anticipated annual viewing of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! on television every December (Doctor Suess being the chief representation of poet, even though we didn’t own any of his books). I mean, we had a Bible—there wasn’t a house on my street in Kentucky I knew without one—which is rife with its own kind of music, but never was there another thing that resembled a book, unless you count a fashion glossy mama picked up at the grocery, or if she was feeling exceptionally domestic, that gingham cover of her Betty Crocker’s dusted with flour on the kitchen table. 

This is to say poetry is unnecessary in the way that beauty is unnecessary, not unlike that messy clutch of peonies crawling with ants and dripping with dew brought in from a garden meant to raise vegetables. Likewise, poetry is unnecessary in the way that truth can be unnecessary: You can get along without it, you can get by, but my guess is you really won’t thrive, which was how I muddled through life until I found it at the age of fifteen, thanks to an arts program I attended for free the summer after my sophomore year of high school. And truly, if I were to assess what I found at such a young age, it wasn’t just poetry but permission to question, permission to speak, permission to be who I am. That was no small thing, coming as I did from a place where who I was—a roughneck kid with big hair and a thick accent to match—didn’t have a voice, at least not one worth listening to, or so I was taught, and also coming from a place where the hard truth of things could burn down the house. 

You see, poetry—unlike fiction or essays or any other form of prose—bends the rules, which made room for someone like me at the table. It didn’t demand sense, didn’t demand chronology, and (even though I’d argue with this now) it didn’t even require I use standard grammar. If I came to poetry with a fist full of questions and not one answer, that wasn’t indicative of ignorance but of someone who was a seeker. If I came with fragments, with bits half- and even mis-remembered, it didn’t mean I wasn’t thorough enough or, worse, that I needed to fill in the facts with excuses or explanations. No, poetry provided white space to mosaic together what little I had. If what I wrote was in dialect, flavored with vernacular speech and idioms, well, it wasn’t something that would show just how I couldn’t write in Standardized English (which had defeated more than one piece of prose I wrote). No, if I wrote poems the way I spoke, the way I was raised to speak, well, in a poem, that wasn’t anything of which to be ashamed. Conversely, it was something to be admired: It was voice, my voice. And wobbly and stuttering as it was for my first decade of writing, that is what ultimately saved me.


I want to re-pose that question, but this time within the conversation of writing into or out of trauma: are there specific aspects about the tradition or craft of poetry that help make room for healing in ways that are different or possibly more expansive than other arts? 

Absolutely, yes. I think that’s the thing I was trying to approach in the answer I just gave. You’re right: Poetry does make room for healing, and even though it should never be mistaken for therapy, it does work a magic that’s hard to explain. I think this has something to do with its immense flexibility, with its origins in the night-time mind, with its ability to move comfortably among the ranks of what makes little (and sometimes even no) sense, which is where trauma often lodges itself and hides. Keats’ negative capability—the idea that poetry “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”—is important to understanding the healing qualities of poetry, as is Anne Sexton’s dictum, “Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.” Even the act of writing things down—regardless if you craft the words you find into a publishable piece or do anything by way of sharing your work—can be a way to write your way through, to write your way out, and that in itself holds a value that cannot be dismissed. 

Another thing that came as a great surprise to me was how publishing Sister—and then giving readings from it after the book was out—helped to heal me in a different way, separate from the process of writing those poems. Standing night after night behind a microphone in city after city, speaking these poems out loud to friends and strangers alike, bearing witness to my own childhood—quite literally testifying—changed the way the story I was trying to tell resided in my own body. You see, when I first read these poems in front of others, it was terrifying, and the words quivered from my tongue, not because of stage fright but because of shame and self-hatred. Slowly though, I grew stronger, and though never would I be able to deliver one of those poems with any kind of nonchalance, my relationship with the poems—and the subject matter at hand—became more manageable. 

In some ways, this might be why Alcoholics Anonymous meetings open the same way, with members standing, stating their name, then freely admitting their addiction, because saying it each time not only makes each person there vulnerable (and thus open) to everyone else in the room, it also makes them more resilient each time they muster the strength to say it. So every time I get up to read from my first book, it’s like I have to stand before a gathering and say, Hello, my name is Nickole Brown, and I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Even the act of typing that now makes me queasy and exhausted, but I promise you: Once I’m at the end of this paragraph, I’ll feel fortified—even somehow better—for having done it. It’s an overly-simplified way to say this, I know. But finding the courage to say it—whatever that is—is the first step. The second is stopping to look around that room after you do say it and realize that saying it didn’t kill you. Quite the contrary, you’ll realize you’re still here, quite alive, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be in a room full of empathetic listeners, many of whom then find permission to speak their truth because you spoke yours. 


In previous reviews and interviews, you have been compared to Sylvia Plath and have bristled at the idea of being labeled as a “confessional poet.” How do you define “confessional poetry” in our current culture? Have you noticed a change in the way it is being written or received, and if so, what are your thoughts on that?

To be honest, I try not to categorize or define any kind of poetry. It’s kind of like categorizing and defining people: While it may answer some key questions about origin or identity, the limitations and implications (often stereotypical) it brings along with it can do more damage that it’s worth. And that’s exactly what made me bristle all those years ago when compared to Plath. It wasn’t that I didn’t deeply admire her work. Hell, she was a downright hero of mine, and like many women writers of my generation, I carried her books with me as shield and talisman. It’s just that I know how quick folks are with their tidy little labels, and I didn’t want my work to shoulder the weight of cliché—in particular, the cliché of a damaged woman who carries trauma as weapon and badge, and ultimately, who becomes so defined by that trauma that she ends herself, quite literally, with her head in the oven. In Sister, I wanted to give full credit to Plath and the many other writers (of all genders) who were brave enough to speak—and yes, even confess—their truth, but I wanted something more. I wanted to use poetry to find my center of gravity, to find a way to speak not just for myself but for (or at least to) my family. This is why those poems aren’t just first-person poems speaking to the self—the “I” echoing back to the “I”—but epistolary poems, written as letters to a younger sister, the “I” speaking but to someone outside of herself.

I also think that, yes, it’s certainly worth mentioning just how much has changed since this book was published. In 2007, narrative poetry—much less poetry that could be considered confessional—was generally dismissed. More than once in various workshops, I was warned against writing anything that smacked of the regional or the domestic, especially anything that spoke of trauma. Anyone familiar with my work can imagine how limiting that was on what I was inclined to write, but I took the advice to heart: I spent years obscuring my work, spicing my poems with strange and incomprehensible images because I was afraid of the rejection I’d encounter writing the poems I really needed to write. 

And it’s important to note that my fears publishing this book during that time weren’t entirely unfounded. The very first review of the collection, published back in October of 2007, was a scathing one that confirmed my worst fears. Published in the San Francisco Chronicle, the reviewer opened by saying how she disliked the collection, much because of the “wounded aura” it exuded, “painfully illustrating the difficulty of overcoming childhood abuse.” To make matters worse, the review nailed the coffin shut by conjuring up Plath, saying, “Although there are some stanzas imagining easygoing reunions, laughing off the failures of ‘Gardening, yoga, therapy,’ the poems bring to mind Sylvia Plath’s ‘Stillborn,’ with its opening diagnosis: ‘These poems do not live.’ Nickole Brown’s poems are no pickled fetuses, but they might speak more healingly if the poet would—or could—stop torturing herself.”

It’s hard to really express how these words hit me. I mean, dozens of other reviews followed—all positive—but this review—my very first—was the very thing I was most afraid would be said about my work, everything I was working so hard to fight against those ten years I took to write Sister

But sometimes? Well, the universe dishes out the very worst thing so that you can pass through it, and burnished by that fire, you thrive in the way a longleaf pine might. About a year later, I was in correspondence with Dorothy Allison, of Bastard Out of Carolina fame, and she gave me exactly what I needed to push through and carry on. She wrote, “Last I knew you had that stupid evil review in SF Chronicle—you know you should just rub a little shit on an egg and bury it in the ground and hope it comes back on the idiot who wrote it—right? . . . There will always be sonsabitches. Thank god, there will also always be troublesome talented women.” 

Now, I’m not too keen on being compared to Sylvia Plath, but if anybody anywhere ever compares me to Dorothy? Well, I’d wear that like a damn crown.


Sister begins in light and water: “Sister, we come from / water we made ourselves / with the suckle and swallow of our unmade / bodies submerged in a sac so sweet / with our vestal piss that we breathed it…” and then, in the ending of that same poem, “… battery-powered, plastic light / but light, God damn it, see it, there—fluttering with finger-tipped wings, // light nonetheless.” This poem (“Preface”) sets up a pattern of light and water imagery throughout the book—water often depicted as womb-like, a place of origin, and light as an insistence on hope, on worth, on the body’s “divine offal.” Were these obsessions conscious pursuits, as you were composing the poems that would become this book?

I can’t rightly say these obsessions were conscious, no. What I can tell you, however, is that since I was a child and first saw Lennart Nilsson’s photographs of the unborn, I’ve carried those images with me wherever I went, deep in my bones. First published in 1965, these photographs had been around many years before I saw them in an old Life Magazine, but to me, they entered my memory at a time when what I saw became a kind of language to me. This was about the same time the events that I write about in Sister were actually happening, so it makes sense that when I recollected that trauma and wrote it so many years later, those pictures came back to me. 

What I didn’t know until recently was that those photographs—which track a week-by-week progression of an unborn baby’s growth—aren’t (as I saw them) of one particular fetus’ development. No, they’re actually shots of many fetuses, all outside the womb, set up in a special way with lights and lenses designed for the project. As intended, Nilsson arranged the specimens so they appeared to be floating inside their mothers, and if you look at these pictures now, you can see just how he did that with each embryonic sac backlit, glowing like its own star against a solid black background. 

These photos are the key to my obsession, really, everything that I imagined in that first poem with the two unborn sisters whispering together in that sheet tent of a womb, everything that I imagined as a child when my mother was carrying my sister in her body. So, of course, it was water and light, light and water. It was what made those photos what they were, and it wove itself into those poems without me even knowing it. But that’s the thing about poetry, isn’t it? It teases out languages we carry even before we have words. 


I’ve always been curious about the line referencing Sleeping Beauty in the poem “How to Forgive.” There are several other references to these “princess narratives” throughout the book, including two in the “What I Did” series: one in which the speaker pokes her parents’ waterbed with diaper pins and watches the water arc out, as if it were pricked with spindles; another in which she gets her first period and imagines herself a mermaid. Why were you drawn to these narratives?

Maria, you’re one hell of a reader. And again, like the last question, I can’t say I was conscious of what you’ve found. What I can say is that like a lot of little girls, my bedroom was pink and chock full of dolls, and like a lot of little girls, I was raised in the company of Little Red and Goldilocks and Cinderella, receiving what was told first through the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen but filtered through Disney and packaged up in some shiny plastic box that I might find under the Christmas tree. Like my return to those Life images, I think I also circled back to these fairy tales when I was writing Sister because they infused my child imagination. 

And that line about Sleeping Beauty in “How to Forgive”? Well, it’s basically in reference to those hundred years Sleeping Beauty slept, passively (helplessly) waiting until she was rescued by a prince and wakened into her happy ending. You see, early in my twenties, when the full force of what had happened to me really started to hit, it was too much. Overcome by depression, I lost two weeks in bed, quite literally sleeping for fourteen days straight, getting up only to drink a little water here and there and go to the bathroom. 

That’s the origin of that line. It’s in reference to the time when I tried to sleep and sleep and sleep until my past somehow disappeared or at least until I would be saved and woken by some handsome savior. But the truth of the matter is that my mama came and got me and forced me out of bed, and once revived, everything that those long weeks of dreaming helped soothe was right there again, full force and even more pressing for being ignored. That’s why I wrote “do not wait / for it to seed as you wait tentacled in / sleeping beauty’s hair.” What I meant was that healing doesn’t come during time spent passively, half aware or entirely unconscious, be that through sleep or whatever narcotic is used to carry you away. No, it only comes when you refuse to hide, when you persist, when you stay awake. 


Going back to the interview (which I loved) in the back of the reissued edition—I’m intrigued by your mantra, “No villains, no victims.” I remember the first time I read this book over a decade ago, “Wasp, Bear, Abacus”—the poem that tries to make sense of the abusive stepfather and his own troubled past—was the most difficult for me to hold. Reading it now, ten years later, (as an adult with the benefit of retrospection, distance, and therapy!) I can understand the importance, the logic, and the compassion of “No villains, no victims,” but still have trouble putting it into practice. Do you have suggestions for other survivors of sexual violence to, as Wordsworth said, “reflect in tranquility”? 

Well, I’m not sure what Wordsworth might have been talking about, exactly: I don’t think I’ve reflected in tranquility much, and if I have, I hardly wrote anything worth keeping. What I have done, however, is a lot of reflecting back during times of duress, revised once things have calmed down a bit, and eventually, once I find a bit of such Victorian tranquility, I use that time to polish and finish a poem. That place of calm, however, is reached during (and generally because of) this process, and it’s no exaggeration to say that my poems often arrive in chaos and slowly, slowly, sometimes over the course of months or even years, find their center of gravity before they still their trembling and sink into a manageable orbit. 

Put more simply, my poems arrive with emotion and finish with logic; they arrive in the night-time mind and finish in the broad light of day. There are some poems in Sister that took nearly fifteen years to finish. The early drafts were barely legible, written in a sort of code that no one could possibly understand but me, and then, over the years, the poems really began to ache and swell, taking on the full and sometimes monstrous shape of grief and rage. Eventually, as I gained in strength and perspective, I returned to those poems to give them the distance and restraint that they needed to sidestep self-pity and the other demons that will generally botch a poem. 

And so yes, the mantra “no villains, no victims,” is essential to this process. Healing from trauma isn’t just about facing your own grievances, no matter how deep and painful they may be. Grief (and all the fury that goes with it) is a required step in the process, no doubt about it, but there’s also what follows, which requires a look to others involved in that tragedy to see their complexities and histories. When I say “no villains, no victims,” what I mean is that it’s important not to see any situation in stark black and white. That sort of approach is good for journalists and crime reporters, but poetry can carry a much greater burden of complexity. What I’m saying is that the people who have hurt us deeply, while sometimes acting monstrously, are not monsters, which is merely the making of fairy tales that reduce the worst impulses of those who harm us to supernatural claw and fang. And those who are damaged and abused should never allow themselves be reduced to mere victims; it’s more complex than that, and one of the best things I ever did in my process of healing was to accept and admit my own culpability, not to accept any sort of blame for what happened to me as a child but to look to what I did in turn, hurting myself and others around me for years after. 

Let me be clear: This is in no way advocating or making up excuses for perpetrators or even their enablers, nor is it a way to simplify things by saying that people only do bad things because they’ve been harmed in some way. What I’m saying, however, is that the “bad guy”—whoever he or she may be—is someone who was most likely broken themselves and made the decision, however flawed, to turn that brokenness on another. What I’m saying is that a deep (and often painful) investigation into that can be far more healing than you’ll ever know.  It’s what slowly allowed me to approach even forgiveness, which is why “How To Forgive” is the last poem I wrote in that collection after over a decade of such work. 


You also mention another mantra that helped you in composing these poems: “You must work your way up out of obscurity.” One of the biggest lessons I took from reading your work was your care for clarity. It reminded me of something Marie Howe has said, that we must learn to  “endure the thing itself”—the image as it is, in all its inescapable detail. 

Often, when I’m teaching creative writing, I’ll draw a long, horizontal line on the board. On one side, I’ll write “image,” by which I mean to reference language that springs from the body, words that speak of the embodied world that can be touched and smelled and tasted, the world of things and animals, of wet grass and wind. On the other side, I’ll write “abstraction,” signaling here language that springs from the wirings of our brain—what we’re all trying to avoid in our poems, that lackluster shorthand of love and hate and pain, those four-letter nothings that are overused and do very little to reach a reader (unless they’re your mama). 

In the middle of that trajectory are “symbols,” miles and miles of them, everything we do to try to dress up our abstractions in order to make them feel embodied, to freshen them up with metaphors and similes. Some of these symbols, if you’re flexible and quick enough, can truly be effective, making the abstractions you’re trying to write fresh and new. But more often than not, they’re clichés, red with roses and blood, representing the wide range of emotions with simple icons, like doves for peace and eagles for freedom, poetry-style emojis that do little to really get a poem to work. 

As we move forward in workshop, I’ll often ask the group to locate each poem on that line, marking where it might live on the map between “image” and “abstraction.” Of course, there’s no one way to make a poem, and never would I say that a poem should do anything or that there’s a right (or a wrong) way to make one work. But what I have found, more often than not, is that the most effective poems originate in the body, even if they must abandon the concrete language of sensation for metaphor. Because Marie Howe—wise woman she is—knows that the thing itself must be “endured,” that the actual experience itself must be dealt with first before anything else can follow. Often, I think poems fail because they originate elsewhere—with a general idea or concept—and then the writer scrambles to find language for it, rather than pulling language up through the experience first and allowing the ideas and concepts to follow. A lot of this has to do with predeterminism, with deciding what your poem is going to be before it’s even born. As any parent might tell you, that’s not how raising children works—you can plan out your baby’s life all you want, but they have a mind (and a life) of their own. As do poems, which is why coming humble to the page with questions (and not necessarily answers) is the key.

Most importantly, I want to say that this process I’m describing was key to my healing. When I first started writing my way through the abuse, it was generalized and came to me in waves of emotion that actually overshadowed the experience itself, and of course, the poems. Worse, I think I was so afraid of the strength of those emotions that I obscured it entirely in my writing, opting for dense lyricism that hid my feelings behind a baroque curtain of beautiful song. At that time, I was using language as distraction, not interested in communicating with my reader as much as impressing them, and well, while it produced a number of early poems that were perfectly publishable, it did very little—as Grace Paley said—to scrub all the lies out. What I needed to do was be tenacious enough to just say it and say it plain. 


You talk a little bit about the current administration as well, in the interview, saying “The world as it is now, more than anything, has pushed my decision to reissue this book. It is my greatest wish that anyone—of any gender—who has suffered these sorts of things rise up,” and then quote Margaret Atwood, “a word after a word after a word after a word is power.” What do you think is or should be the relationship between poetry and politics?

Again, I wouldn’t dare say what poetry should or shouldn’t be. There are solid arguments both for and against poetry’s place in politics, and like all art, anyone’s conclusion about this should align only with their own personal creative impulse. The only thing I do ask of poetry though—and even demand of it—is the truth, something that the current administration holds to a standard so low as to be egregious. And my poems—especially the poems in Sister—speak of my particular truth of being born into this body and what the expectations and perceptions others have had of it has cost me. I found power in writing that truth, power in reading those poems aloud to others, and even more power when others have risen up to do the same. If you’ll pardon the cliché, that’s what sets you free, that kind of truth. And freedom, after all, is what the government of this country is charged to protect. When they’re not doing their job, or worse, when they’re hell bent on dismantling those freedoms, the artists must guard it with everything they have. 


I was at the AWP panel you organized this year in Portland OR called, “#MeToo: Writing Your Way Through (and Out of) Childhood Sexual Abuse.” In her presentation, Dorianne Laux said something like, “I can say any fucking thing I want about someone who is more powerful than me”—what are your thoughts on that? 

I can understand where Dorianne was coming from in that discussion, but, in reality, she and the rest of the panel could have benefited from much more depth than was afforded by our allotted time. If possible, I would have explored that statement further, asking about the shifting nature of power, about the complexities involved when assessing who has more of it. 

You see, here’s the thing: I can—and for many years, did—write exactly what I needed to write, no matter how damaging to others more and less powerful than me, in order to process what had happened to me as a child. That was essential to my personal growth as an artist and an individual. But one thing I’m immensely grateful for is that I waited to publish those poems until I could assess their true intent. Some poems were angry, written simply to inflict as much pain as I had felt, and I’m so damn glad I eventually locked them in the back of my cabinet before anyone ever read them.  Other poems wallowed in self-pity, rendering the story simplistically one-sided. I’m glad those poems never left the house as well. It was only the poems that emerged out of the hard contraries that I allowed to remain in the manuscript. Those were often poems that shamed me and made me far more vulnerable than I wanted to be, but that was necessary. Because ultimately, before I let others read this work, I had to ask myself what was written out of love—yes, love—for myself, but also for the rest of my family—those are the poems I stand behind, even after a decade after their publication. 

Because that power dynamic? Well, it changed throughout my life and continues to change, even now. Yes, as a child, like all children, I was at the mercy of those in charge of me, and one of those people hurt me greatly. He had power over me. But in truth, he hardly had power over himself, which rendered him even more powerless than me. As the years went on, he diminished and I grew, educating myself and stepping into the world in a way he never could. It’s no exaggeration to say I eventually had more power than him, that towards the end of his life I felt not rage but a deep sorrow and pity for all he had wasted in his own life. And as a writer with even a small degree of success, I have not just the power to speak and be heard, which means I have to move forward with all the strength and tenderness I can muster. I take that seriously, to take responsibility for my own power, to tell the truth without doing unnecessary damage to others. Because here’s the thing: stories are rarely as simple as they seem, and poetry, like the human spirit, has the capability to expand to hold the worst of what we have done and hold it up to the harshest of lights, which sometimes even makes for forgiveness. 


Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. For the last word, is there anything you’d like to say to the writers out there who are facing their own traumatic histories and working to get their stories out on the page? 

Be kind, but don’t mistake kindness for softness. Tell your truth, then question that truth, holding those contraries with both hands. And be strong, but don’t mistake strength for brute force. Fight for it. Be mean if you have to be mean, but don’t let that lapse into cruelty or thoughtlessness. And if you feel lost, if you feel as if you’ll never find your way out, look around you: there’s not one person in any given room who doesn’t carry the weight of some deep hurt, who isn’t fractured in some way. 

Remember your body: It was given to you and you only get to live with it once. Treat it with tenderness and awe, call it back to you, call it home. And when the mess that humans have made of this world is too much for you, step away. Put down your phone and study instead the veins blasted into relief by sunlight through a leaf. Bite into an apple and call it a miracle, inhale deeply and call it a miracle, study the articulations of your hand and recognize there is as much wildness in the workings of your hand as an elephant crossing the desert this very minute. 

Because they all are miracles, all the countless things we see everyday and dismiss. Because every day—this day—is a miracle, happening to you. Make use of it. Write, and when that’s too much for you, walk into a field to listen to the peaceful meditations of grass chewed by horses, study the broad horizons of a goat’s eyes. Write, and when you think you might break, instead open your windows to songs of insects and birds, to fresh air. Write as you can, and when it is too much for you, write some more. Then, when you’ve done all you can do, do some more. Be culpable, and admit in your writing where you have done wrong. 

And don’t believe anyone who will tell you it will all stop hurting, because it won’t, especially if you avoid pain. You can’t sleep it off or drink it off or run it off; it will only wait for you and grow worse. But if you accept it as part of yourself, you’ll at least grow stronger, learn to carry it, and if you’re lucky, you may even grow strong enough for the weight of it to feel so light that you’re able to carry the weight of others. 

Don’t believe anyone who tells you to be anyone other than who you are, especially if the person telling you that is you. Write some more. When you can’t take it any longer, find a little dog to love, hold a baby, laugh at the squirrels arguing with their cache of walnuts high in the branches. 

Pick yourself up, write, write harder. Scrub your poems, love them, hold them with tenderness until they stop wailing long enough to speak clearly and say what it is they need to say. Don’t give up, not on yourself, not on this world, no matter how diminished or broken it all may seem. 


Maria Isabelle Carlos is a poet from Columbia, MO. Her work—which has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net—has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Pleiades, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sycamore Review, Four Way Review, Cave Wall, and elsewhere. She received her B.A. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as the Thomas Wolfe Scholar, and is currently an M.F.A. candidate at Vanderbilt University where she serves as editor-in-chief of Nashville Review.