By Abriana Jetté
Sayvreville, NJ, USA

It occurred to me that I have not spent enough time in this column discussing the intricacies of craft. For the majority of us poets, the process of creation does not occur in one fell swoop; in fact, for most writers, writing is rewriting. I can only speak for myself, so I’ll share with you that the first step of my poetic ritual comes from the gut – whatever it may be – disgust, love, empathy, hopefulness, despair – my work must begin in my core. This is how I am able to distinguish what form I should put my words in: prose or poetry. When it is coming from my gut, when just the first few words printed already serve as catharsis, I know it’s poetry. If the emotional urgency isn’t quite there: it’s prose.

It’s no surprise that the shape and form of our words influence our readers first. Just like how we eat with our eyes first, we, too, (obviously?), read with our eyes. But I don’t mean in the obvious way. I mean we see, glance over, gleam the poem like a piece of art on a wall before we actually read, pronounce the words, and swallow the rhythm (it might not be until the third or fourth reading that we actually fully grasp what the poem is about).

The only way of knowing if our words fit the form we’ve put them in is to play around with the way the poem looks. Because writing is rewriting, during one of the early revisions, I sometimes create new line breaks, move words, phrases, and punctuation around, maybe even introduce symbols and spaces that were not originally there. Sometimes I read the poem backwards, sometimes I start from my “favorite” line and play around from there. Sometimes I turn nine stanzas into a sonnet, sonnets into cinquains. Play, really, is what I’m telling you. I play with the poem. I must. I can’t forget to play because more often than not that newly crafted semantic placement or use/misuse of punctuation, that spark of irregular and unexpected, is exactly what the poem needed.

A few years ago, former Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera termed this playfulness – this necessary risk in language and space on the page – The Wild Sister. I was listening to him give a craft talk on voice and he urged this of us, his audience, to find our Wild Sister.

Who – what – is the wild sister, we wondered. Well, he said, it certainly was not us, sitting, well-behaved in the audience; the wild sister was the one throwing rocks at the window telling us to get out and play. Herrera’s theory of the Wild Sister has been the single greatest influence on my work.

This New Year, I resolved to pay more attention to my Wild Sister, and I promised to find more of her in other poets whose work I admire. It didn’t take much searching. This winter, I hope you feel freed by the wild sister in Nathan Spoon, Christine Gosnay, and Emily Vizzo.   

The very fiber of Nathan Spoon’s poetic mission aims to expose the beauty of the wild sister. Above all, his work honors an underrepresented community within Poetics, and in doing so raises the attention we give to Autistic poets. While the literary world is trying its hardest to offer safe spaces and places for minority voices, we still have a lot of work to do. As a poet who was recently diagnosed, Spoon has taken the job of representing the clout of Autistic poets into his own hands.

Nathan Spoon

Spoon’s wildness is meticulous. His rhythms succinct and commanding over our tongues. His images are at once complex and easy to imagine. Consider the start of his poem “A Handful of Jacks”:
                           “When carrying your house through water, it
                            helps | to be water or | failing this | to be air or
                            the root of air | and why shouldn’t nonsense

                            be a reasonable launchpad for | 

Upon first glance of the poem, I am reminded of Alice Notley’s precision and genre-bending work. Like Notley’s masterful use of symbols and space, Spoon’s use of the vertical bar carries multiple effects. First, it can instruct readers when to take a breath. I’m particularly fond of this use as the rhythm of the poem would then begin quickly; the first line offers a slight pause with the comma after “water”, but the enjambment then steadies our eyes downward to end on the exhale of the plosive “p”. This sound enhances the inhale readers will take after the introduction of the vertical bar. Essentially, with the “P” we inhale: with the “  exhale. In the poem, even the silence commands. 

In addition to handling the rhythm of the line and thus our breath, the use of the character diverts from the ordinary – it tells us that we are not to go into this poem with any expectations; that standard rules don’t apply. These effects, paired with the vertical bar’s function as a mathematic symbol, expand the poem’s interpretative qualities. The vertical bar – a small symbol – a short line on the page, but a sure glimpse of the wild sister peeking through.

And that’s just one aspect of “A Handful of Jacks”. Of course, we have to consider the language – the content of the poem. Readers enter into a world in which we are able to carry our homes through water, and we leave on the image of clouds as low-cut necklines. It is fantastical, ethereal, wild, and during our brief tenure in the created world we dart back and forth from image to image like the “bobwhite” who “moved a-/way”, for the “open space” triggered “too many dreams.”

When I read “A Handful of Jacks”, I find at its core a concern for failure, a crippling need to get it right. In addition to searching for the right word – (“improbability | or / is that impossibility”), the speaker organizes and beautifies the property only to result in the bird flying away. Nothing works. The speaker wants it to work.

Such anxieties – to notice it all and get it all right – also appear in “Splitting a Stump”, a short, 12 line poem that offers readers a speaker who openly questions his own authority, wondering if the tree were “picked clean” by / a stranger or neighbor”, who is unable to discern the difference between fireworks or thunder in the sky. The world around is chaotic and disorganized, so the speaker creates his own universe – one that is celestial and sublime. The poem ends on images of consumption and the universe:

                                              As the
                                     swallows | its throat

                                     faintly pulses. To
                                     me she carries a
                                     bucket of stars.

These final words makes tangible for readers the delicacy of the cosmos. In a way, this is what much of what Spoon’s poetry does, reveals the intricacies of a mind both fascinated and distracted. The voice of his work is one of detachment touched with sentimentality, a brilliant balance of language and space.

Nathan Spoon’s poetry has been endorsed by poets as different as Naomi Shihab Nye (who describes it as "Delicate and precise and elegant and intriguing!") and Bruce Andrews (who says, "Everybody is looking for the next thing: is this it?") and has appeared in Oxford, Stanford, Yale and Durham University publications, as well as mainstream publications like Poetry and experimental publications like X-Peri.

I like a poem that makes me dizzy. A good poem conjures a vertiginous linguistic spell – it captivates and captures. It scares. It weeps.

“Strangers” by Christine Gosnay does all these things. The poem is a twister of semantic reiterations in which words are repeated, but images are never reused – with each new utterance the addition of something new. For example, when the speaker lays “a wooden spoon on the white note / on the desk”, readers are told of the consequence, a “stain on the clean note”, immediately after. The mostly paratactic syntax of “Strangers” is sharp and concise, but not short in mystifying. Enthralled by the litany of “somewhere”, “happening”, “road”, “bed”, “white”, “orange”, “purple”, and “strangers”, words that appear and reappear throughout the poem’s narrative, readers are whooshed in a romance of textual playfulness. Similar to a Gertrude Stein piece, the repetition that occurs in “Strangers” is hypnagogic and opens the imaginative trajectory. For example, the second stanza of the poem reads:

                           Somewhere things are happening. Marvelous orange
                           and purple things. Flooding rivers at dusk, wheels threading 

                           roads in the desert. Strangers. Strangers. Sea.

And the last stanza reads:

                           Somewhere, things are happening. You are lying in the white bed
                           beside the sea with coffee. I am lying in the white bed.
                           Tremendous strangers. Blind roads in the sea.

The juxtaposing images of the sea and the bed (the travel, the rest) and the wheels that thread roads (the journey again) create a narrative of longing. The pops of color enhance the contrast of liveliness and dullness, and offer concise detail in a poem that hinges on the uncertain – the something, somewhere. “Strangers” is a web, a patterned masterpiece, the poem carries with it tones of silk and mystery, it hums to the noir, and offers cinematic transitions of melancholy and sentimentality. Throughout the poem, Gosnay lets the wild sister have her way with words, moving and reusing them, trusting us to listen to their echoes. Readers enter a space of memory, both its recreation and loss. Because the centralized theme of the poem reflects on the past, the repetition of Gosnay’s unrhymed tercets is necessary. The mind that loses its memory requires repetition. The poem refuses to forget. 

Christine Gosnay

“Red Cap” also concerns itself with the order of words. While “Strangers” whirls readers in memory’s reverie with a cast of characters with few props, “Red Cap” offers readers a fairly straightforward narrative, though not so much Princess-style, more Aesop’s-fable-like in its darkened atmosphere. In fact, it begins, for me, as downright haunting:

                                     “When the family all were seated
                                     and the fowl were dead, a woman crept up to it
                                     and said, I know you’re only sleeping.”

With the soft internal rhyme of “dead” and “said”, and the soothing liquids of “family”, “all”, and fowl”, the stanza, rhythmically, prepares readers for a comforting scene. A family gathered around a dinner table. Nothing we all haven’t seen. The lull is interrupted by the verb “crept”, both unexpected in its physical description and in its sonic disruption- the rhotic “r” forces our teeth to get closer together. When the woman shares her observation, her knowledge, her truth – “I know you’re only sleeping” – we are at first not sure if is a statement of fright, innocence, or hunger. 

The woman turns out to be a magic woman. She lives in the ribs of the bird. She is sad, leaps “out of the corpse”, she whispers, she knows you are only sleeping. When the language shifts, so does the reader’s peripheral awareness, and in this poem which focuses on the family on the bird and on the woman, multiple perspectives maintain reader curiosity and narrative drive. By the end of the poem, the woman and the fowl are united as one, “awake and sleeping, two gray stars.” 

I happen to be so taken by Gosnay’s work that I find it difficult to write about. What happens most after I read her work is the overwhelming desire to pay more attention to language and to write my own poetry. This is not to be taken lightly. Gosnay’s poetic charge – her energy and rhetorically awareness – is contagious. Her work demonstrates the wildness and delicacy of language.

Christine Gosnay's first book, Even Years (2017, Kent State University Press), was selected by Angie Estes for the Wick Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in POETRY, The Poetry Review (UK), Beloit Poetry Journal, Typo Magazine, The Missouri Review, New Ohio Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, and Third Coast Magazine. Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, she has lived most recently in Israel and California. The poems discussed in this feature are all from Even Years.


The wild sister unleashes the structure of a poem in regards to form and language, and it breaks free the confines of silence and shame. After a reader and writer have been graced by the presence of the wild sister, both feel inspired to experiment. The wild sister verbalizes the inarticulate, says what we want to need to but somehow just haven’t yet said.

Emily Vizzo’s “Swan Prayer” categorizes its narrative into numbered sections. These sections vary from fantastical (the retelling of Leda and the Swan, the notorious story of Zeus’s rape of Leda, who then bears Helen, Queen of Troy) to realistic (the speaker’s understanding of how to protect herself against perpetrators). Vizzo handles these difficult narratives through sharp, matter of fact statements that reinforce the poem’s authority. In connecting the speaker’s experience with Leda’s, the poem transcends time and offers a history of the feminine experience from the Greco-Roman era onwards. For as long as we have been telling stories, women have been compromised. The speaker and Leda find themselves in similar situations, and it is through the actions of rape, assault, and dominance that their narratives merge. Section 1 of the poem details the speaker voyeuristically observing what appears to be a man with a swan “in his lap”, “pinned and repined”, from her car window. But, she snarks,

                                                                                 you already know

                                     it wasn’t a swan. I was 14, he was a stranger & I never
                                     told anyone.

But she tells us. We listen. In the following sections, the speaker shares that she was taught early the “best way to hold keys.” Instead of holding her keys between her fingers so they can pose as knives, she just goes out to buy a knife to carry instead. The poem poises itself in the practical, perhaps to make sense of the tragic. She offers advice from the Smithsonian Magazine on the best way to stop an attacker (go for the eyes). But as the poem nears its end, the language becomes more experimental. Words are revisited. Sentences shortened. By its conclusion, Section 10, readers are left with these few words:

                                    10. The knife, the neck.

“Swan Prayer” reveals that swans are more dangerous than sharks. It grapples with violation. It says what has never and should always be said. Because of its structure, readers experience repentance, confession, and myth.

Emily Vizzo

Vizzo’s speaker bears the burden of womanhood throughout much of her suffering. The objectification, the infractions, the joys. The issues she writes around provoke imperative conversations between readers and the normalization of violence imposed on women.

When Vizzo’s poem “Air Animals” begins “My beautiful friend is pregnant again”, readers recognize immediately undulations of confession, of release. The poem explores the pregnancy of the speaker’s 34 year old friend, the same age as the speaker, which gets her thinking about her own fertility and children. The speaker says:

                                                                 My children are still
                                      air animals. Things that might or might

                                     not exist. A child is not a concept.
                                     Nor a thing. If I believed in heaven…

The doubling of “might” bears interpretative qualities that far extend a trick of the eye. When I arrive at the stutter of the word, it gives me the impression that there is hope for a child somewhere in the speaker’s mind. The “m”, that nasally sound, also mimics the action and sounds of a new baby, adding to the mystery of the speaker’s future. While the potentialities electrify the line, the rest of the poem speaks to me more about fear – that natural, wrestling anxiety when it comes to the idea of motherhood, which is containment, which is wildness, which is sharing the body with a person and then setting that person free. In order to articulate this emotion, Vizzo turns to the celestial, describing her unborn children as “lofting in snow clouds”, as if they are just waiting to find a way down. It is we readers who are taken quickly back down to reality.

In the next few stanzas, we are in the present. The speaker has no children and is at the supermarket, where a mother has tied her children to her, one of those leash contraptions. “Like any pet”, the speaker observes, “she was collared.” The scene refocuses the catalyst for the poem: when it comes to the idea of taking care of a child, the speaker does not know if she wants to “own it or be it.” Because, again, motherhood is containment and wildness.

The poem isn’t just about the idea of bearing children, but of living up to societal expectations that often damage our ability to see our own desires. Vizzo’s poetry puts to words the experiences of identity, social constructs, and emotional value, regardless of gender.

Emily Vizzo’s poems have previously appeared in, or will appear in, journals such as Ninth Letter, FIELD, North American Review, The Normal School, Blackbird, jubilat, Cincinnati Review and many other respected journals. Last year she was selected for Best New Poets 2015, and has previously had an essay noted in Best American Essays 2013. Poems were nominated for Best of the Net in both 2015 and 2016. She is active in the literary community, and has volunteered with/volunteer with VIDA, Writers Resist, Hunger Mountain, Drunken Boat and Poetic Youth.

Previously, her manuscript was twice selected as a finalist for the OSU/Wheeler Poetry Prize and was selected as a semi-finalist for the Alice James first book contest, and as a semi-finalist for both the Crab Orchard first book and open series contests. A second manuscript was recently selected as a finalist with Sarabande.


I would like to reiterate again that the idea of The Wild Sister is not mine, but a theory created by Juan Felipe Herrera.


Abriana Jetté    

Abriana Jetté is an internationally published poet, essayist, and educator from New Jersey. Her work has appeared in dozens of journals, including the Dr. T. J. Eckleburg ReviewThe Iron Horse Literary ReviewThe American Literary Review, and 491 Magazine. She teaches at St. Johns's University and the City University of New York, writes a regular column for Stay Thirsty Magazine that focuses on emerging poets and she is the editor of The Best Emerging Poets of 2013 that debuted on Amazon as the #3 Best Seller in Poetry Anthologies, the author of 50 WHISPERS that debuted on Amazon as the #1 Best Seller in Women's Poetry and the recently released 50 WHISPERS - Vol. II.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.