By Abriana Jetté
Staten Island, NY, USA

Something I have learned along the way about poetry is that we don’t write for everyone in the world. Our audience, more often than not, even when we don’t intend it to be so, is often exclusive. Surely, we can’t think that everyone who reads us will understand our ideas, like our ideas, or be moved by our ideas. If our poetry reaches a handful of people, our poetry has been successful. In that way, a poem is something shared between two people, not two pages or two screens. But in writing for this select group of people, in sharing this story, we create a byproduct that says this single story speaks for a group. This is how language unites us.

Because poetry is an individual endeavor that speaks to an audience, it is particularly known for its performativity. Critics of poetry note the poet’s “voice”  – its flexibility and tones, its ability to captivate readers with a mere handful of syllables. Scholars of poetry study the nuances of music and visual art along with alphabetic text because they recognize how deeply poetry surpasses just existing as the written word. The strongest poetic voices captivate readers in the same moment they set them free, whether through cadence, image, or thought.

It is spring in New York now. The frost, we hope, has come and gone. Crocuses sprouting on sidewalks signal to us that something beautiful is about to bloom. It is a time of new beginnings, of breathing life into corners and gardens that have been neglected because of winter’s frost. And during this season of starts, I urge you to read the work of Tyler Mills, Ace Boggess, and Paige Lewis. They are poets whose words will breathe new life into you. They will hold you captive through their content and images. Their performances will set you free.


Tyler Mills intuitively grasps the concept of poetry as performance. Her work integrates everything from musicality to myth to stage cues. Mills’s poetry offers a space between the lyric and the concrete. Often, the lyric poet enters into a
Tyler Mills
conversation with someone, whether it be the poet’s own consciousness or an unknown, wider audience. Within that conversation the speaker consumes every essence of the outside world as possible, privatizing the universal, and then individualizes these essences into moments of wonder, into spectacles. Indeed, lyric poetry is performance. Within the lyric, when the poet speaks, it assumed that no one and everyone are listening all at once. The contemporary lyric poet partakes in a tradition that dates back to Sappho, Horace, and Cattlus. Most poets aspire to achieve the dynamism of the lyric voice. Mills seamlessly accomplishes it with a voice that ranges from the operatic to the casual. She is the type of poet who can talk about Tchaikovsky’s concerto and quote Johnny Cash and make both appear completely organic. Just consider her poem “Performance”, which can be read as an Ars Poetica as much as it can be read as a criticism on storytelling. The poem begins:

                   “The story involves a whole village kept busy
                   making earthenware jars while the hurricane
                   a hundred miles offshore kicks up the oily green ocean
                   and the only people who won’t escape
                   are sweating in an abandoned stable the rain slashes.”

“Performances” is composed as one long stanza, and often involves hypotaxis. It is typical for the sentences within the poem to unfold from line to line, like that very first sentence, as the speaker negotiates the experience of “the suggested plot.” Quickly within the poem readers are told: “Characters can’t know the real crisis”; this “real crisis” is entirely up to readers to unpack.

The poem moves frequently from seemingly fictionalized scenarios to the speaker’s internalized memories, which often revolve around young children. When the speaker reveals how she “would turn three pages at once / during the fifth bedtime book” when she babysat, we begin to understand the heart of the poem: the need to control the narrative. That, and the fact that we can, indeed, control the story. We can skip scenes in the present moment and add them on to the future. We can erase an idea from the past to make the current situation more satisfying. We are, at every moment, creating.

As “Performances” wields the idea that we can create and manipulate the story, it yields to the notion that we may never know what the storyteller’s intentions are. That is, the poem is a performance and a performance is nothing short of an act. “Performance” depicts reality, but a distinct one, not the universal kind we might have come to think of when we hear the term. The reality within the poem anchors itself in tangents, reminding readers that there is always another road for the plot to travel.

“The Sun Rising, Pacific Theatre” relays similar themes. The poem situates itself in a precise setting, “It is 5 AM” and the speaker encounters “another moment of blue-sky thinking.” Readers are also clued in to the speaker’s mood, that empty feeling “when no one loves you in the morning.” Readers are told that the tinderbox is as empty as the early morning train. So, in many ways, it is a quiet start. But not for long.

Mills begins to toughen up the language. The speaker’s neck is described as “an envelope of nerves” and an “acrid sky” now envelops the scene. Such twisting of mood and sound piques the reader’s interest in watching the scene develop. It is at this point that the speaker throws her hands up, insisting “the sky reminds me of nothing”, and how what she

                   “thought was a tinderbox is actually
                   a box of bullets. What you thought was the sun is the sun.”

The poem culminates on a perfect pair of poetic tropes: what we think we know, we don’t, and what we don’t think we know, we do.

Tyler Mills is the author of Tongue Lyre, winner of the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (SIU Press 2013).  Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Boston Review, Poetry, Kenyon Review, and New England Review, and her creative nonfiction won the Copper Nickel Editor’s Prize in Prose and appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, the Collagist, and The Rumpus. She is editor-in-chief of The Account and teaches at New Mexico Highlands University. 


In addition to performance, I’ve mentioned how a successful voice holds readers captive. Captivation comes in many forms, and the work of poet Ace Boggess speaks to all of them. Much of Boggess’s work surrounds the boundlessness of human suffering, not the silent, internal kind of suffering, but the suffering we inflict upon one another. What can we get away with? Where do we draw the line, and who is the one who draws that line, exactly? His poem “Can They Do That?” meditates on these ideas as it contemplates the complications of life inside prison. It begins:

                   “They can feed you pulverized bones
                   of rat, but not the eyes of hair.
                   They can softly submerge your face in the sink,
                   never the toilet…”                                    

From its start, readers are forced to wonder about the difference between psychological torture (what exactly are we eating tonight?) and physical suffering (at least it’s not the toilet, right?). They poem progresses into a litany of what can be and can’t be done, from singing “country western songs off key” as the speaker tries to sleep, to kicking him when he’s down, to seducing his wife.

The poem is composed as one long stanza, and while it doesn’t rhyme, soft internal rhymes carry the rhythm of these unwritten rules throughout the piece. That is, words
Ace Boggess
fall onto one another, from “key” to “sleep” to “blues”, “afternoon”, “seduce”, and “centrifuge.” The rhythms of the poem, as is its speaker, are locked inside the poem, and reveal themselves in their own labyrinthine way. This subtlety of language is a trademark of Boggess’s work.

What makes “Can They Do That?” so intriguing is that the speaker does not search for reasons or excuses, he does not wish for apologies and vindication, he simply states that this is the way it is. The poem poses itself as a reflection of the ways human will and human cruelty play off one another. As the poem ends, the speaker reveals that these two binaries are akin to having fingers “in a Chinese puzzle”, a struggle with roots so deep it bears the comparison to Theseus “walking threadless into a maze.” That is, sometimes, there is no way out of our suffering.

Another joy of Boggess’s poetry is its ability to shape-shift. While “Can Do They That?” takes on the form of one long stanza and carries with it traditional syntax, “A Religious Discussion” is composed in couplets, void of punctuation. This type of variety is always refreshing; while there may be similar themes throughout his work, like those of imprisonment, suffering, and moral contemplation, these ideas welcome multiple structures of expression.

The content of “A Religious Discussion” revolves around a conversation between a chaplain and a prisoner. Again, Boggess adapts his rhythm unconventionally, this time through the use of casual turns of phrases. The use of vernacular within the poem reads as necessary when considering the content. The work is not hifalutin; it is not the stuff of difficult philosophical quandaries. In fact, it reads to me like Boggess’s intended audience may be the opposite – not liturgical or pretentious but common and ordinary. Additionally, the lack of punctuation in the poem creates a particular breathlessness in its rhythm. Lines that may not intentionally be enjambed are read with a swift turn of the line because of the absence of end stops. Consider the first two stanzas:

                   “the chaplain asked if I believe in anything
                   he seemed kind with his silver hair
                   round flush face & history too like mine
                   his travels through addiction his time behind bars”

Because of the connection the speaker begins to feel with the chaplain through their shared experiences, he doesn’t offer his usual answer of “none-of-your-business.” He reveals, instead, that his “god speaks” to him in his own language. His “god” tells him “to go fuck yourself” / or to “look at the balls on this guy”; in short, the speaker’s god seems like the god of an ordinary person, the type of deity one prays to out of trust, because, as the speaker demands of the chaplain, “why would I trust anyone who won’t point out / when I’m being an asshole?”

In the midst of all this talk about prayer and god, one might expect the poem to end on an inspiring note, one that leaves readers with a sense of comfort. The opposite is true. At the end of the poem, the speaker reveals that each time he wakes up from sleep is one day “closer to the end of the world / one day closer to home.” The melancholic tone is surprising when considering the candor of the speaker’s voice, but it suits the content of the work well. In “A Religious Discussion” as in “Can They Do That?” readers are introduced to a speaker who faces the ugliness of governmental control through the prison system and the dread of human nature on a daily basis. Any outcome other than melancholy might appear unrealistic.

Ace Boggess is author of the novel A Song Without a Melody (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016) and two books of poetry, most recently, The Prisoners (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2014). Forthcoming is a third poetry collection: Ultra-Deep Field (Brick Road). His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Mid-American Review, RATTLE, River Styx, North Dakota Quarterly and many other journals. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia. 


For some, the idea of being imprisoned may be akin to purgatory, that special place between the living and the dead – not quite heaven, not quite hell. The poet Paige
Paige Lewis
Lewis takes up this idea of purgatory, and other religious ideals, in much of their work. The speaker of their poetry searches the space between religious reveries and the corporeal truths of reality. Their poem “So You Want To Leave Purgatory” places readers in the realm of sadistic pleasures, where everything is a test but one doesn’t know if this test is even worth passing. The poem, as purgatory is often imagined to be, is cyclical: it ends with the same line it begins with: “Here, take this knife.” It is composed in couplets, a fitting form as the plot of the poem takes place between two worlds. “Here, take this knife”, readers are told and immediately instructed to “walk down / the road until you come across / a red calf in its pasture.”

The poem follows through with its mode of imperatives. While reading, we have no choice but to place ourselves in the thick of the speaker’s commands. We trust the speaker will get us out, but only until about half way through the poem. That’s when we realize that yes, “everything here is a test” and we

                   “stop baring teeth
                   upon teeth and leave the calf to its


In that moment of acquiescence, the speaker describes how we lift our “arms toward / the sky and receive nothing.” Our prayers will not be answered. The best thing to do is “keep / walking and think about the rope / around that calf’s neck.” It’s a pitiless place, this purgatory, and if we’ve expected any solace from it we’ve been surely misguided.

Throughout the poem, Lewis’s use of repetition and dissonance form together to create familiar rhythms and intoxicating pulls of language. Combined with the grievous content, this clever use of language adds an extra layer of mysteriousness to the poem. When it comes to matters of the calf, we are told to “consider

                   how fast its throat will be choked
                   by its on growing.”

The repetition of “o” vowel sounds in “throat”, “choked”, and “growing” mimic the echoes of a beguiling moan, of a prisoner trapped, yearning to break free. The speaker of “So You Want To Leave Purgatory” commands the page, leaving readers wandering, lost and alone, wondering if they will ever escape. At the poems end we are reminded we do have a tool to use, we do have something. The speaker tells us again: “Here, take this knife.”

One particularly intriguing aspect of Lewis’s poetry, for me, is their ability to avoid traditional sound patterns. The rhythms of her work are stimulating, but I wouldn’t call them lovely. They’re edgier than that. They run right past the idea of charming rhyme. Their tone is often frank and brazen, and her language surprises in its bindings. In their poem “Turn Me Over, I’m Done On This Side”, the speaker begins by stating that they are

                   “almost positive I’ve got what it takes to become a Saint
                  because I’ve stopped breaking what I can’t afford,
                   and if I look up long enough, everyone looks up.”

Throughout the poem, the speaker’s tone is trenchant and encompasses the type of unapologetic, dry humor not often found when discussing Saints. Then again, the speaker tells us, “Saint / Lawrence cracked jokes while being roasted alive.” The speaker confesses to readers a desire to be funny, and this yearning is directly associated with the need to communicate. The ability to make someone laugh is to touch that person in ways that reach well beyond that of understanding. To make someone laugh is to reach inside that person’s stomach. It is to make them ingest your language and endearingly let it out.

Yet, the content of the poem is far from funny. We are reminded how “we take so much from the sea.” Readers are told that the year the speaker turned five, “there were so many storms” they “forgot what windows looked like unboarded.” Realizing they haven't made readers laugh as much as they have made us think, the speaker says “Give me more time / and I’m sure I can make this funny.”

“Turn Me Over, I’m Done On This Side” is an enchanting poem that speaks to the fragility of life and the power of mother nature. The speaker unabashedly reveals herself to whoever wants to listen, evoking a brazen urgency within the tone. This is true of much of Lewis’s work. Their voice is scintillating and honest, suffused with candor and intelligence.

Paige Lewis, whose poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, The Massachusetts Review, The Colorado Review, and elsewhere, is the 2016 recipient of The Florida Review Editors’ Award in Poetry, and is the author of the chapbook, Reasons to Wake You, forthcoming from Tupelo Press.


Tyler Mills 


Abriana Jetté
Abriana Jetté is an internationally published poet, essayist, and educator from Brooklyn, New York. 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 and the author of 50 WHISPERS that debuted on Amazon as the #1 Best Seller in Women's Poetry.

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