L.J. Sysko Explores the Heroine from Maiden to Warrior in “The Daughter of Man” [INTERVIEW]

L.J. Sysko is the author of “The Daughter of Man” (April ’23, University of Arkansas Press), the 2023 Miller Williams Poetry Series first finalist selected by Patricia Smith, and BATTLEDORE (Finishing Line Press), a chapbook about early motherhood. Sysko’s poems have been anthologized in “Best New Poets” and “Let me Say This: A Dolly Parton Poetry Anthology” (Madville Publishing) and have appeared in publications such as Ploughshares, The Missouri Review’s “Poem of the Week,” and Mississippi Review, among others. An MFA in poetry from New England College, a Virginia Center for Creative Arts Fellow, and a 2022 Palm Beach Poetry Festival Thomas Lux Scholar, Sysko is Director of Executive Communications at Delaware State University. Below are excerpts from the interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

Adult content warning: A trigger warning for listeners: this interview includes adult themes and may not be appropriate for children.

James Morehead: Before we talk about your book, you juggle multiple roles, as is the case with me, and one of those roles is “poet”. What was it about poetry that got you so entranced that you found a way to incorporate writing poetry into your life?

L.J. Sysko: “I’m one of those people who came to poetry slowly, by degrees. I dabbled in it during college with a creative writing course taught by the great Lee Upton at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. She taught both Ross Gay and me, and was an incredibly welcoming teacher. I won an undergraduate award for poetry, and then the next year, I won another one. However, I wasn’t even sure that I truly loved poems or writing them.

“The turning point was when I was struggling with postpartum depression, and everything felt out of my control. A conversation with my husband reminded me that a way back to myself might be through poetry, as he said I was always good at it. So, I called Lee Upton that day, and she suggested I apply to an MFA program that Gerald Stern was starting at New England College. He had been the judge of the contest I won as an undergrad, so it made sense to me. That MFA program was the only one I applied to, and it got everything started.

“I love school, language, and learning, and that MFA was a fantastic experience. I feel like my debut collection might seem like it’s coming out of left field for some people, but it’s been a slow and steady journey to this point.”

James: My journey with poetry also spans decades. In 10th grade, a creative writing teacher helped me see poetry in a completely different way. As the Poet Laureate of Dublin, California I recently visited a local high school and met with junior English classes. Many students said their perception of poetry changed after our interaction. Just one encounter can help someone realize that they do like poetry; they just haven’t found a poem that resonates with them because poetry is such a diverse art form.

L.J.: “That’s true. I taught high school English for 14 years, including a course on modern American poetry. The beauty of introducing high school students to poetry is overcoming their initial fear. Many people feel underqualified or unsure of what they’re doing. My poems tend to be more accessible due to their narrative nature, and I often tell people they’re easy to understand.

“In high school, I first discovered that not all poetry revolves around classical mythology or morbid themes. Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Shampoo’ and Richard Wilbur’s ‘Playboy’ were the first poems that attracted me because they focused on everyday life. Both poems are imagistic and tell a story, though Bishop’s is more lyrical. Those poems showed me that there’s room for contemporary life in poetry.”

James: Your book is a perfect example of combining humor and modernity with Biblical and mythical references. The opening poem, “Barnegat Light,” sets the tone for the collection. How did you decide to choose this as the first poem, and given the importance of a first poem, did that lead to any revisions or edits?

L.J.: “That’s a good question. I didn’t revise the poem to place it there, but it was one of the earlier poems I wrote. My sister appears as a character throughout the book, along with other family members, and I was initially hesitant to use her in such a prominent way. The events described in that poem take some liberties, and it’s not entirely factual. The poem feels more stylized than some of the earlier, more narrative poems in the first section of the book.

“I placed ‘Barnegat Light’ first because of advice from the great poet Sandra Beasley, whom I took a workshop with a few years ago. She said that if you’re going to be funny, you need to be funny upfront; otherwise, the audience won’t think they have permission to laugh. That advice resonated with me, so I applied it to the order of the poems in the manuscript.” 

James: That’s a wonderful insight, and it’s amazing how every interview brings out something new, even after three years of doing this podcast. The idea of having humor upfront in a book to give people permission to laugh is fantastic.

L.J.: “Yes, there’s so much sadness and loss, and almost all poetry deals with loss in some way. If humor is a prevailing theme in a collection, placing it after weightier thematic issues could be confusing. The “Maidens” section at the front of my book felt like a risk because it could give the impression that the entire book is just light narrative recollections of coming of age. I was worried about how the book would be perceived.

“The order of the collection was something I wrestled with, as it wasn’t always arranged this way. Initially, it was ordered according to genres of Western Art, but I undid that very late in the process. Considering a temporal order was just one aspect to think about when organizing the book.”

James: “Plinko” is a unique poem that’s visually striking, as are “Landscape with Wisteria” and “Girl Icarus”. How did these poems take on their distinctive forms, and what was the editing process like to get the visualization just right?

L.J.: “I thought of these poems as poem paintings, which helped me approach the project as a whole. A few years back, my daughter gave me a book called “Broad Strokes,” which features women and women-identifying visual artists, including Artemisia Gentileschi. There are poems in the manuscript that respond to her biography and paintings, as well as other artworks.

“The collection itself is a response to Rene Magritte’s ‘The Son of Man,’ and I wanted to create a feminist retort to it, exploring what happens to women in the context of the homogenization of society. I aimed to make some of the poems work on the page like paintings, considering elements such as perspective, brush technique, and how the eye moves around the composition.

“While there are opportunities to deploy these techniques in poetry, a painting is always comprehensible in its entirety, whereas a poem unfolds temporally as you read it. There’s an element of surprise and temporality in poems not available in paintings, making poetry somewhat alchemical.

“When a poem has a specific structure and visual appearance on the page, it attempts to mimic painting. In contrast, a prose poem refuses to give away anything upfront. ‘Plinko,’ for example, moves down the page like the token in the game, with a bifurcation that forms a zero, which appears again in later poems in the manuscript.”

James: Poetry as a physical print medium is beautiful, and e-books can be unsatisfying for poems like “Plinko” that are visually striking. Reading and hearing poetry offer different experiences. Your interweaving of humor and cultural references brings your poems to life and makes them so fun to read. In “Big Earrings & a Hat” you write:

“We sat there in health class, middle schoolers pondering

the female reproductive system's shape—
ram's head, elephant ears, O'Keefe with Elvis cape.”

What is your approach to humor, something I spoke to Sarah Kobrinsky about in an earlier episode, so that the humor enhances and doesn’t undermine the poetry?

L.J.: “Sometimes I worry about being too glib, and I think anyone using humor should be careful, as it can feel monotonous to the reader. I took a workshop with Gregory Pardlo in 2019, where he asked what other colors I had in my crayon box besides resentment. This made me realize that I had been forcing a certain seriousness into my poems, and I hadn’t fully embraced my humorous voice. I don’t have a technical answer for accessing humor, but granting it permission to exist in my poetry has been crucial. It’s not a forbidden tool; it’s just one of many that can be used effectively. It’s been a long process of granting and deepening permissions, which is a never-ending journey for poets.”

James: Shakespeare’s language was full of absurdity and humor, yet we don’t fault it for that.

L.J.: “My high school students loved discovering the humorous aspects of Shakespeare’s plays. We can act overly reverent about our poems if we’re not careful, but it’s important to embrace humor and not shy away from it.”

James: “Prom” is one of the shortest poems in the collection and ends with a wonderfully enigmatic last line, “her little sister holds the light coffin.” How do you approach writing short poems, which can be deceptively tricky to write, and perfecting the last line in a poem?

L.J.: “Short poems sometimes arrive unexpectedly, and it can take months to recognize their potential. Some of the shorter poems in the book went through a process of being removed and added back in, as I questioned their merit. ‘Prom’ stayed in because I was drawn to the cleverness of the concept, the suburban scene of school portraits descending the stairs, and the Emily Dickinson-like reference to death arriving as a prom date. The ‘light coffin’ refers to the prom corsage clamshell, which has a coffin-like shape.

“As for poem endings, one of my teachers, Fred Marchant, said you can have a ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’ ending. A Western ending closes like a jewelry box, providing some relative finality to the poem’s elements, while an Eastern ending fades out like a song on the radio, blending into the next one. When considering endings, I think about whether the ending is well-suited to the poem’s project. I also enjoy playing with the endings, creating a blend of both Eastern and Western styles, so the poem feels both final and open-ended at the same time.”

James: Organizing a poetry collection can be a challenge for many poets. Some print out their poems and arrange them on the floor or a wall like sketches in a storyboard. In “The Daughter of Man,” you’ve organized the collection into named sections such as “The Maiden,” “The Warrior (vs. The Predator / Protector),” “The Queen,” and more. Can you talk about the process you used to create a narrative structure for the book?

L.J.: “I can’t count the number of times I spread the printed pages on walls, floors, and tables throughout the years. The manuscript initially had sections based on visual art—self-portraits, nudes, animals, genre, history, and landscape. However, I began considering the heroine’s journey and whether the visual art schema was serving the various personae in the manuscript. I eventually allowed myself to include more biographical poems as well.

“The heroine’s journey, which is closely tied to fairy tales, is quite limited and doesn’t always have a ‘Warrior’ stage. It often follows a patriarchal and misogynistic structure, which isn’t useful for telling the story of a contemporary woman. Nonetheless, I included a ‘Warrior’ section for poems about battles waged during formative years and various misogynistic experiences. I also wanted to address the gap between ‘Queen’ and ‘Crone’ and ultimately decided on ‘Maven’ as an intermediary stage.

“When Patricia Smith accepted the manuscript for the Miller Williams Prize, I had just reorganized it the day before. Luckily, she and the University of Arkansas Press were supportive of the changes I had made.”

James: “Date Rape” marks a significant turn in your book, using powerful imagery like the “sandy bed” and sand imagery throughout the poem. How did you approach revising and editing this poem to vividly convey this experience, and what feedback have you received from readers with similar experiences?

L.J.: “I agree that ‘Date Rape’ is a turning point in the book, and it was also a turning point in the writing process. I initially didn’t want to write that poem, but I eventually realized it was overdue. Christopher Salerno’s poem ‘Headfirst’ served as a useful starting point for drafting my own piece. The imagery, including the sand and the hourglass, was present from the first draft, and the poem’s voice is more lyrical than my typical style.

“I initially wrote the poem in the first person but later decided to switch to third person to create some distance and avoid overwhelming the reader. I think this change in point of view has helped readers access the poem, as it feels more lyrically stylized and temporally ambiguous.

“I don’t read ‘Date Rape’ aloud often, but when I do, I give trigger warnings. Some readers have commented on the unique approach to addressing sexual assault in the poem, and the feedback has been generally positive.”

James: I’ve read poems that address the subject matter in various ways, but I found your approach in “Date Rape” to be powerful. It doesn’t overburden the reader with extra words or phrases and doesn’t scream at you. The sand imagery, in particular, was very effective.

L.J.: “Thank you. Writing these poems as ‘poem paintings’ was helpful for me, especially when addressing topics connected to my own biography. Developing a muscle memory for certain techniques allowed the writing process to become more athletic rather than purely intellectual. ‘Date Rape’ is an example of one of those poems that emerged from this approach.”

James: “Scherenschnitte” is a wonderful tribute to your grandmother, capturing her essence in such short, slight lines. How did you approach this poem and find just enough words to create an image of her?

L.J.: “I’m fascinated by the poems you’ve chosen to discuss, James, as they highlight some of the more lyrical moments. I feel less secure when I remove narrative devices from my work and rely solely on imagery. This poem was written during the earlier stages of focusing on Western Art, and I tried to create an homage to Kara Walker but struggled. Scissor art, a German tradition, inspired me as it involved cutting white paper and laying it against black, like an exercise in rendering negative space.

“My grandparents were German Holocaust survivors who managed to escape the Gestapo in 1942 and eventually settled in the United States. In writing these poems, I dealt with feminine erasure and my grandmother’s experience of leaving everything she knew. I aimed for a particular visual effect in ‘Kristallnacht’ and ‘Scherenschnitte,’ trying to create the image of a little girl cut out of white paper against a black matte.

“The final images in the poem refer to my grandmother and her mother burying silver in their backyard before her parents were sent to camps. They later returned in the 1950s and dug it up, which is an incredible story.” 

James: “Trompe L’Oeil” is one of several prose poems, and very effective in this case; in this poem you write: 

"I'm untying this blue satin ribbon and freeing our violin from effigy. I'm translating This is not a pipe for those who don't already know. I'm walking to the front of Room 2B, past those kids still sitting there in 1982, past me in corduroy culottes, past the guinea pig in its box, past the closet door where you found love's semblance." 

“Ball Game”, which you’ll read later, is another example. What are the characteristics of a prose poem that work for some poems, and not for others?

L.J.: “I love the tumble and torrent of a prose poem, which relies heavily on imagery and the way one image transitions to the next. Prose poems are pure joy for me because I just let go, but they require a lot of editing to ensure the reader’s experience is as enjoyable as the writing process. I appreciate the syntactical imagination and modifier slippage in prose poems, which keeps the piece breathlessly moving forward.”

James: “Meat Cookie Lady” is one my favorite poems in the collection, so vividly setting the scene, infusing humor as we’ve discussed, and being brisk and tight despite running several pages. How do you approach writing and editing a longer poem like this? What to leave in, what to edit out?

L.J.: “A longer poem has movements or chord changes, and you can lose the reader if you don’t pay attention to transitions. It’s challenging to decide what to cut and what to keep, but workshops and continuous learning help. I wrote ‘Meat Cookie Lady’ as a childhood story, and it’s one of the poems I workshopped with Maya Pope. My sister recognized the character and laughed when she read the book. I strategically placed ‘Meat Cookie Lady’ within the book. The poem introduces cauldrons early in the maiden section and then calls back to them in the Crone section. The resolution of the poem shows that the character is less a scary figure and more a projection of the future self, hinting at an Ars Poetica element.”

Listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast to hear L.J. recite selections from The Daughter of Man.

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