A Game We Play
Leona Sevick on the Craft of PoetryBy Staci Kleinmaier, Assistant Editor • October 18, 2023
By her own admission, Leona Sevick is a latecomer to poetry. She was trained as an American literature scholar and never took a creative-writing class. Twelve years ago, eighteen years into her teaching career, she wrote her first poem on a napkin while sitting at a bar. “It sounds so cliché,” she says, “but that’s what happened.” At the urging of a colleague, she submitted the poem to the Split This Rock contest and the poet Naomi Shihab Nye chose it as the winner. “Then there was no turning back,” Leona says. She published her first book of poetry, Lion Brothers, in 2017, and her second book is forthcoming next year.
We published her poem “I Eat My Words” in our October 2023 issue. I was struck the first time I read the poem by its turn: the abrupt shift at the midpoint. I’m a sucker for poems that combine seemingly unrelated subjects and take the reader to an unexpected destination.
Leona and I met on Zoom, a few days after she dropped her daughter off at college for the fall semester and my two girls started a new school year. We spoke about bamboo wives, pregnancy pains, and poetic meter. At the end of our conversation she read her poem out loud, and even though I knew how it ended, I still got chills.
For a recording of Leona reading “I Eat My Words,” click the play button below.
Staci Kleinmaier: What do you find appealing about poetry?
Leona Sevick: I enjoy using skills that are different from those I use when I’m working. I teach and work in academic administration. Poetry allows me a kind of sensitivity and freedom that I don’t have when I’m writing for work or when I’m speaking or presenting. I also like how it allows me total control over my words — I write a lot in syllabics, where each line of a poem has the same number of syllables. It’s relaxing and exhilarating.
Staci: How do you think your teaching influences your writing?
Leona: I teach Asian American literature, and we read every genre. My students often resist poetry because they expect it to be difficult to understand. As I walk through poems with them, I develop a deeper appreciation for what a reader might need when they read my work. Students are very honest about what they get and what they don’t get. And there are times when I think a reader surely must understand what I’m trying to do in my poem. But my students have helped me see that that’s not always the case. When I’m editing one of my poems, I ask myself, Would my students understand this?
Staci: Your second book of poetry is coming out in 2024. What is it about?
Leona: The book is called The Bamboo Wife, and it explores what it means to feel trapped. It’s about constraint and freedom and how we cast about for stability, sometimes finding it in surprising ways and in unusual places.
My mother is South Korean, and we have visited South Korea. There I learned about an object called a bamboo wife. It looks something like a conga drum: it has bamboo ribs, and it’s completely open on the inside. People wrap themselves around it when they sleep, like a rigid body pillow. I find it fascinating that people use this object and think of it as a wife. What would it mean to be a wife who lacks material substance and solidity? And what would it mean for a spouse to rely on her for comfort in that way?
Staci: You mentioned that you enjoy writing in syllabics. “I Eat My Words” has ten syllables in each line. Why did you make that form decision?
Leona: It started out in free form, with very long lines. A ten-syllable line mimics regular speech, and I wanted the poem to feel conversational and have a lyric, musical quality. A ten-syllable line is the easiest way for me to achieve that. I usually start poems in some sort of syllabic pattern, but I move in and out of forms. They help me create and give me direction. Then I abandon the form as needed. It can be a burden sometimes to write in syllabics, and I don’t want to become prisoner to the form.
Staci: When I was editing this, I put the syllable count at the end of each line to make sure I didn’t introduce any errors. When I was sure everything was buttoned up, I shared it with our copy editor. She sent it back with one of the lines flagged as having eleven syllables. I was shocked. Apparently real is two syllables. I pointed this out to one of my other colleagues, and we were dumbfounded. Neither of us is from the South, although we both live in North Carolina now, and the more we thought about it and said it out loud, we realized that the southern accent can have a two-syllable real, but my midwestern accent does not.
Leona: Sometimes you have to make a call, because there are words that can be one or two syllables. I’ve used that to manipulate some lines. Sometimes I will keep that word, and I may change it when I’m reading it out loud. It’s a little game that we can play with ourselves when we write in syllabics.
Staci: “I Eat My Words” begins by describing how ortolan buntings are eaten, and then it moves into a meditation on parenting. How did you come up with that pairing?
Leona: I enjoy taking two very unlike things and imagining what they would be like intertwined or juxtaposed. I am fascinated by ortolan buntings, the strange eating habits people develop, and what brings people pleasure. I found myself describing to a friend how these birds are eaten — the process, how the napkin is placed over the head — and I thought that would make an interesting poem.
I know a lot of poets write about birds. And I wouldn’t call myself a birder or somebody who watches birds regularly, but they do fascinate me because of the way they express freedom. I have often thought of my daughter as birdlike. This is not the only poem I’ve written where she’s figured as a bird. When she was very young, I used to watch her moving with the sandpipers on the beach. She would skip around and not stay in one place. She was always just out of reach for me. I could never contain her. And so I wondered if there could be a way to talk about some of the challenges of her teenage years, to think of her as birdlike, and also to think about the things humans do to birds, unwittingly or purposefully.
Staci: When I finished reading this poem the first time, I thought, Wow, I did not see that ending coming. Especially the final lines: “Instead I should have said I’m sorry, should / have said there’s no mistake I haven’t made.” I know from emailing with you that you had that line very early in the writing process. Was it difficult to write up to it?
Leona: I wrote that line about a year and a half ago, before I ever thought about this poem. Parents have a difficult circumstance: we want to be honest with our children about our humanity — the things that we have done well, the things we’ve done poorly. But I think as parents, and as people, we’re always holding something back. I don’t know that this is necessarily a bad thing. When you’re communicating with your children, there are things that they are not prepared to hear.
As this poem developed, it occurred to me that this is the response that I should probably offer to more people in my life and to my children in particular. We’re always giving advice to our kids, and every now and again, I try to reframe that and think what it must be like to hear it. It must sound like we have all the answers. Of course we don’t. We only come to some answers because we’ve made every mistake.
Staci: Would you say that you’re the speaker of this poem?
Leona: This is always a tricky thing, right? Most of my poetry is confessional, so I am often the speaker. That’s not always the case — I have written persona poems, and it’s not always clear to the reader which of my poems are persona poems and which are confessional. It’s my little secret.
Staci: I was drawn to the honesty of this poem, especially the lines, “Once, I carried my girl child inside me / like a burden, her cabbage head pressing / on my softened cervix, an aching pain // so agonizing I wanted her out / at all costs.” I feel like even the easiest of pregnancies are physically and emotionally difficult. Yet so many narratives of motherhood gloss over that discomfort and pain. There’s almost a sense of shame in not savoring every moment. Was that something you experienced?
Leona: I’ve always been very honest about how much I hated being pregnant. Both of my pregnancies were complicated and difficult. I had gestational diabetes with both of my children, and I was just very, very uncomfortable. Pregnancy changed how I thought of myself. My body changed so much. I like to be in control of my body, and I was not in control. My hormones were. I couldn’t eat what I wanted, I couldn’t move the way I wanted, and I was exhausted. I have known women who loved being pregnant. They felt great; they looked beautiful, and I celebrated that with them. I was just not one of those mothers.
I can be brutally honest — that’s an aspect of my personality — and that does not always serve the people I love. Talking about how I felt when I was pregnant is just one thing that I’ve been maybe too honest about. I don’t always speak words of comfort, but I speak honestly.
Staci: This poem, though, can be read as comforting. It’s an apology.
Leona: It does end softly. That is unusual for me: most of my poems end abruptly or sharply. The subject of this poem calls for a kind of softness that is difficult for the speaker to access.
Sometimes people ask me if my kids read my poems about them. And the answer is no. They generally don’t read my work until it’s published, but they usually want to have nothing to do with themselves in my work.
Staci: A lot of times writers will share work with family members, and their loved ones don’t appreciate it. It’s just not their thing. That can lead to heartbreak. Sometimes writers decide it’s best not to encourage their family to read their work.
Leona: I have had that experience myself. I write my poems for people who enjoy poems. I have many loved ones who don’t read poetry, and I understand. Not everyone enjoys the things I enjoy. Not all of my loved ones love yoga like I do. When people who don’t read poetry ask me, “What is it that you do?” The best answer to that question reminds me of something Ada Limón said at a workshop I took. [Limón is the current Poet Laureate of the United States. — Ed.] She said that the goal of the writer is to take what’s inside their heart and make it plain on the page. That’s an apt description of what I’m trying to do.
Staci: Sometimes simplicity is so hard. But it’s the most direct route. I see this in your poem. That’s why it’s such a good fit for The Sun. A lot of what we’re trying to do, too, is take the messiness that is the human condition and put it plain on the page.
Leona: I really appreciate that about The Sun. I’ve been enjoying the publication for some time, and there’s a reason why you have the readership you do, because it is something that people want. They want to feel through words. It’s a beautiful gift to be able to do that — to present that to readers month after month. That’s a remarkable thing.
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