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Illustration by Kali Gregan

When the staff of the North American Review sent an email asking me to compose a contributor’s blog post, I thought: What could I possibly say about a poem from eight years ago?

I wrote “The Shelf Life of Robot Food” when I was working as a barista in what was then one of a handful of coffee shops in Birmingham, Alabama. After work, my friends and I split time between a handful of bars and restaurants—or, more often, one another’s porches. The city was small enough back then that you...

Illustration by Jessica Mercado

                       The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?



                       That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
                      That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.



I am like the violin no one plays. In the attic
the wood grain’s varnish and veneer
lie with the other mistakes: the batik
banner, the beetle-eaten head of the mounted deer,

the stained cashmere sweater, and the odd love letter
not set on fire. Once you cradled the hourglass
figure, tucked-in your chin and fingered the strings and frets.
The embossed pebbled leather case with brass

hinges is lost; once you carried it back and...

I started writing poems the first time I read contemporary poetry, in seventh grade. That is when I remember thrilling to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. Not Shakespeare or Tennyson or Poe with their antique diction and fair ladies—rather, a woman who spoke to me and who made me want to talk back. The germ of my new book, Windows and Doors: A Poet Reads Literary Theory, began, perhaps, four years after that, when the advisor of my high-school literary magazine suggested an addition...



Begin with the naming of things.

“Prairie,” from French via the Vulgar Latin

prataria and further back to the Latin pratum,

meaning “meadow.” And the mound itself,

called by geologists a roche mountonếe

a bedrock knob shaped but not leveled

by the last Pleistocene glacier.


But long before these names, known to the Omaha,

Oto and Yankton Lakota as Paha Wakan,



Reality, divided into light and matter.
A moment travels from the universe’s birth.

A massless noun converts into light, then reverses.
This, the moment when the universe begins

to shine. Mother’s voice whispering by the crib,
brushing with my first series of particulars.

A probability turns true, tips and flashes
slicing the light into particles it daringly

hails through. Father, teaching me to...

The poem “Outside Yet Another Window” was written at the beginning of 1984 when I worked for the BBC Monitoring Service in Reading as a Russian monitor listening in to Soviet radio broadcasts. I’d left the Soviet Union in 1971 at the age of twenty one; my monitoring work brought back many memories, images and words from my childhood and youth, with the immediacy of all my senses, alert, bared, vulnerable.

Born in Estonia, brought up in Latvia and educated in Moscow, in all of which...

Today, e. e. cummings told me to “let go of your anxieties and take more risks in your creativity and artistic expression.” Of course, e. e. cummings didn’t walk into my writing studio to tell me this, but I had drawn my morning tarot card from The Poet Tarot: A Deck of Creative Exploration. I have always loved to roam through cemeteries, retracing the steps of the writers who have gone before me. Using The Poet Tarot is...


Coincidentally, this invitation to submit to NAR’s blog comes shortly after I shared “Class Trip” (the poem they generously published back in 2011) at a local reading, so I was already thinking about the poem, and the mindset I was in when I...

I often tell my poetry students that all poems are elegies, in the sense that even the most celebratory ode or heartfelt epithalamium has within its lines traces of that darker brush. We cling tighter to any moment of joy or celebration because we know it’s fleeting. The loved one is made all the more precious by the knowledge that he or she might leave us. Every poem tips its hat to this most basic principle, what Elizabeth Bishop called the “art of losing” in a poem I’ve often turned to in...


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Phone: 319-273-6455


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