Alan Chong Lau, IE Arts Editor, sat down with three poets to commemorate National Poetry Month. Read his conversations with Michelle Peñaloza, Sati Mookherjee, and Jane Wong.

Alan Chong Lau: How did you get interested in poetry?

Sati Mookherjee: When I was little, my mom and I used to play a game called “painting word pictures.” Later, writing a poem seemed more doable than writing a short story or novel… later still it began to feel less doable, but that’s another (pun intended) story.

Michelle Peñaloza: I’d always read ahead in our literature textbooks in school when the teacher would have us read aloud (I would’ve already finished the story the class was reading); poems were what I could read without getting caught and in trouble. That’s how I started reading them on my own.

Jane Wong: I fell in love with poetry because of its nonlinearity and form. I began as a prose writer and I adored how poetry felt so open — so full of possibility.

ACL: What do you think makes poetry unique?

MP: The distillation of so many simultaneous elements. A poem can move through time and space in the span of one line. A poem can make you laugh and cry, can make you happy and angry and sad, all at the same time within the span of listening for just a few minutes. Poetry is our oldest artform; before we could share ideas across continents via novels and newspapers, we told stories in songs, in poems to share and pass down.

JW: Poetry is so visceral. One single line can resonate with you for your entire life. It’s an art form that you must feel through. It lacks a clear “aboutness,” which I love.

SM: First, I think poetry is more akin to music and painting than it is to other kinds of writing, given the importance of sound and image. Second, I think it is a unique art form insofar as poets and readers attend not only to what is there — the words on the page — but what is not there — the white space on the page, the caesura, or pause between words.

ACL: What would you say to people who have a hard time appreciating poetry? Any suggestions for an easy introduction?

MP: Poetry is not a monolith; it’s a lot like music — there’s some out there for you! There is a poet writing to you — either alive and writing now or long gone speaking to you from beyond! A poem can be about anything: ghosts, Comic Con, what you had for lunch. There are love poems, political poems, grief poems, place poems, activist poems, historical poems — most poems, really, aren’t just one kind of poem. Listen to poems read aloud; read poems aloud! Sign up for a daily poem to appear in your inbox; listen to a poetry podcast; befriend poets (they’ll have lots of recs for you!).

SM: I think readers often feel a lot of pressure to understand every word, or idea, and I don’t think complete understanding is necessary to enjoyment. I enjoy a lot of things I don’t fully understand — the best example is an aria sung in a language I don’t speak. When I work with high school students I say “look, the poet’s just vibing. Just go with it.” It’s not very elegant, but that’s the best way I can explain it. Just read the poem and have an experience.

JW: Music is poetry! Poetry began as an oral form. I think sound and musicality is a great place to start. I think it’s also important to remember that a poem can mean whatever it means for you. In this way, it’s an intimate form.

ACL: If stranded on an island, what books of poetry would you take with you and why?

JW: This one is hard because I literally have islands of books all over the floor of my home. So I suppose I’ll say I’ll bring a lot of notebooks. And the Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton.

SM: I have a visceral response to “desert island” questions, so I’m going to give you an emotional answer. These would be my “comfort food” diet of poetry:

1. Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitabitan. This is cheating a little, insofar as these two thousand plus works are technically lyric — a songbook that would keep me entertained for years.

2. Robert Penn Warren’s Collected Poems. My father gave me this book when I was in high school. Robert Penn Warren is the first poet I intentionally studied on my own to try to figure out what this art form is all about.

3. Joanna Klink’s The Nightfields. I’m just smitten with this poet right now, and every time I reread one of her poems, it seems to yield something different. It’s an extraordinary effect, and I don’t know how she does it.

MP: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson because it’s such a thick volume but also full of short poems (1,775!). I still find her work eerie and mysterious and endlessly engaging. She had quite the intellectual and emotional range! On an island, I think it’d be good to have Emily for company. I could write back to her everyday.   

Sati Mookherjee’s newest collection, Ways of Being won the Sally Albiso Award and is being published by MoonPath Press on May 2. She is the author of Eye (Ravenna Press), and Deś (forthcoming from Pulley Press in 2024). You can find her online at Sati Mookherjee reads from Ways of Being at University Bookstore on May 2: (RVSP here).

Michelle Peñaloza is the author of Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire, winner of the 2018 Hillary Gravendyk National Poetry Prize (Inlandia Books, 2019) and landscape/heartbreak (Two Sylvias, 2015). The proud daughter of Filipino immigrants, Michelle was born in the suburbs of Detroit, MI and raised in Nashville, TN. She now lives in rural Northern California.

Jane Wong is the author of a memoir, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, out from Tin House in May 2023. She is also the author of two books of poetry: How to Not Be Afraid of Everything (Alice James, 2021) and Overpour (Action Book, 2016). She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University. 

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