My Poem at Flowers & Vortexes Online: “Self-Portrait as Pastry Box”

This poem of mine was first published in Crosswinds Poetry Journal, Vol. 5, and reprinted at Flowers & Vortexes Online this month. I wrote it during 30 Poems in November 2019, the annual fundraiser for the immigrant literacy and job-training organization The Center for New Americans. Sponsor me again this year!

Self-Portrait as Pastry Box

Under my roof, cathedrals of piped
icing breathe out the sacred stale
sweetness of cream and cardboard
white as a right-hand man’s
final satin bed.
Under my roof we pay our respects.
The family is a thin shelter, soon wet.
If you don’t believe me, open
and see the red smash where tiered berries kissed
the jostled lid. No shifting
the ingredients. No loose knots in the string.
Under my roof I’ll thank you
not to take knives in vain.
Remember him who was lifted
from the river, from the box he was sealed in.
The snapped wafer laid on your tongue like a secret
recipe. Religion‘s root means to tie
string round the wrists, the trash
bag sinking, the harbor’s surface restored.
Under my roof the family’s bound
to gasp, glorying in the sugared name
I display to be sliced after the blown-out wish.
Take the cannoli, broken for you.


On-the-Spot Collaborative Poem with Joshua Corwin

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed for Episode #10 of Joshua Corwin’s poetry podcast Assiduous Dust. As Josh does with all his guests, we produced an “On-the-Spot Collaborative Poem”, a format that he invented, which is generated by taking turns sharing phrases from found texts. He’s kindly allowed me to share our freestyle creation below. Check out his new poetry collection, Becoming Vulnerable, just out from Baxter Daniels Ink Press. In it he writes about autism, sobriety, Judaism, mysticism, and neuroscience. You can see why we had a lot of common interests to talk about!


VaLENTine Poem: “To Roses You Shall Return”

Happy Valentine’s Day and a blessed Ash Wednesday to my readers. For the first time since 1945, the holidays fall on the same date. I wrote the poem below in 2014, when they were one day apart. This blog template has trouble with indents, so imagine that the second line of each stanza is indented. Or buy a copy of Bullies in Love and read it in proper format!

I’m giving up being female for Lent. Hit me with some pronouns, let’s see which one feels right.

To Roses You Shall Return

When I see petals on the pavement
on the day after Ash Wednesday

May there be a pause in my hearing of tongues
of torn-out girls

When crinkled crimson holds the kiss
of boot heels

May I walk on
no trail of barefoot flight

Let there be no broken lips
or shadow of palms

Pierced in spring
let me infer only the generous florist

Scattering the currency of coupling
on the stony path to his fragrant store


Remember that you are dust
and to dust you shall return


When you see ashes on my forehead
on the day before Valentine’s Day

Will your torched ancestors still whisper
of riders in spotless robes

Will the flooded firstborn mouths
give up their bubble songs

When you see my face marked
by the dirt cross I chose

Will you only bend deeper
to the slap of your imitation sacrifice

Will you stuff your crone’s mouth with roots
as ordered by pig-roast priests

Tell me the seven wounds of roses
let our arms become the burnt horizon

Let our foreheads be graves where laughing girls
paint their sisters’ legs with mud


Almighty and everlasting God
you hate nothing you have made

Interview About My Poetry at the Book Lover’s Haven

Denise Turney, author of the popular novel Love Pour Over Me, runs Chistell Publishing, an independent press with a special interest in African-American and inspirational books. Her free monthly e-newsletter, the Book Lover’s Haven, features freelance writing jobs, literary conferences and events, and author interviews. Subscribe here. We’ve been connected online for several years because Chistell has periodically offered a free writing contest that we profile at Winning Writers. (The most recent submission period was October 1, 2015-February 28, 2016.)

I was honored to be the featured author for her September newsletter, which was headlined: “Bold Writers! Are Writers Too Scared to Write Authentically?” The newsletters are not archived online but she’s kindly permitted me to reprint my interview below. It’s humbling to be mentioned in the same breath as the prophetic truth-tellers she lists in the intro. I’ll try to live up to it!

Book Lover’s Haven Interviews Jendi Reiter

Novels, short stories and poetry demand authenticity. Although writers deal with fictional characters, imaginary settings and hard-to-believe plots, to connect with readers, writings need an element of real life. It’s easy when those real life elements are accepted by the majority of society. It’s harder when most people abhor the ways that a story resembles worldly events or experiences that many wish would just disappear. That’s when writing gets hard.
Yet, talent speaks for itself as it happens with James Baldwin, Jodi Picoult, John Irving, Amy Tan, Richard Wright, Leo Tolstoy, Marilou Awiakta and Alice Walker, writers who tackled issues and experiences like racism, mental illness and family dysfunction that most readers may prefer to turn away from. Our feature writer’s talent has opened doors for her. She covers heady topics that, although mirroring what’s going on in the world, make storytelling a challenge.

Keep reading this Book Lover’s Haven issue to learn more about Jendi Reiter, her poetry, short stories and novels. Her writing talent is undeniable.

BLH:  What inspired you to write?
JR:   Books have been fundamental to my experience of the world since I was a small child. “What inspired you to write?” feels almost like asking “What inspired you to talk or walk?” Composing poems and stories is just how I make sense of being alive.
Each of my poetry collections reflects the spiritual, emotional, or political dilemmas I was wrestling with at the time. I don’t want to find “answers” as much as to create a space where all possibilities have room to breathe.
For instance, my latest full-length collection, Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015), takes aim at myths that confuse us about the difference between passionate love and abusive control. These myths may come from society’s gender roles, religious dogma, or our own wishful thinking about relationships.
My chapbook Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009) is the most experimental of my books. Swallow uses fractured language, absurd humor, and collages of found texts to resist the oppressive narrative of psychiatric labels. It was inspired by unethical practices I encountered during my (ultimately successful) seven-year quest to adopt a baby.
BLH:  Tell us about the process that you follow to create poems that pull up a lot of emotion in readers, especially since poetry leaves writers with so little room to connect with readers?
JR:   The scarcity of space is an advantage, I think–the energy bounces faster and harder off the walls as they close in! I mostly write in free verse now, so I take extra care to listen for the difference between poetry and prose in the cadences of my lines. It is an auditory process. Poetry, to me, should sound tighter than prose, with fewer pauses or explanatory transitions between one thought and the next.
Intentionality about line breaks is a big part of that. It’s a pet peeve of mine when breaks in free verse seem random or end on a weak word. The reader is going to hear the “beat” created by that visual break, so it had better come in a spot that makes sense in the musical line.
BLH:  Your poems are powerful. Did you train with a professional poet or take an advanced creative writing course?  Do you recommend that writers receive professional/college writing or communications training? Why?
JR:   Thanks for the compliment! I didn’t, and I neither recommend nor discourage such training. It is a very personal choice. Some writers, like me, are unable to filter out the distraction of other people’s energy when working on first drafts. (I ask for feedback from a trusted writer friend on some of my revisions, but not all.) Others are more extroverted, or not as psychically porous, and thrive on the collective creative ferment of writing in a workshop.
I do recommend that everyone take classes in critical reading of contemporary and classic poetry. The English department at my arts high school (shout out to St. Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights!) taught me everything I know about good technique, other than what I learned through trial and error by actually writing.
BLH:  How did you arrive at the title “Bullies in Love”?
JR:   The title poem was inspired by an episode of the TV show “Glee” where the homophobic high school football player reveals that he’s been bullying the flamboyant young man from the choir because he’s secretly attracted to him. The secretly gay bigot is a common and, in my opinion, problematic twist in many stories about tolerance. It can preserve the dangerous fantasy that we should give our abuser a pass because he really loves us and just doesn’t know how to show it.
BLH:  Please give us a brief synopsis of Bullies in Love.
JR:  This blurb from the back cover says it best:
“Jendi Reiter’s astute observations of the complex nature of love reveal not only its beauty but also its damning consequences. From the child to the adult, the home to the wider world, this collection of affirming yet disturbing tight-knit poetry in various forms kaleidoscopes vivid images, framing the struggle to free oneself from parental and societal expectations from start to finish. These poems span the coming-of-age search for self-respect and love; the ideologies of marketing and religion; teachers’ censorship of children’s literature; and political crimes against sexual minorities.”
-Suzanne Covich, child rights activist and educator, author of When We Remember They Call Us Liars (Fremantle Press, 2012)
BLH:  Where did the idea to include photographs in Bullies in Love come from?
JR:     This was my publisher’s request. His background is in graphic design so he likes to combine art and writing in his titles. I had recently won a Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship for poetry, so I asked the MCC staff to recommend some visual arts fellows whose work would suit my style and themes. I couldn’t be happier with Toni Pepe, the fine art photographer who agreed to collaborate with me. We share a preoccupation with dark fairy tales and historical representations of womanhood and motherhood. Check out her website at
BLH:  Why you think that poems don’t sell more? They are so powerful.
JR:   Most poetry is published by small presses that have no marketing budget. The average person may feel that poetry is intimidating or old-fashioned, because their education has not included contemporary poetry that feels relevant to their lives. Perhaps the standardized-test-driven modern school is partly to blame for that: poems are ambiguous and complex, harder to summarize (if they’re good!) in a multiple-choice question.
This slippery quality of poetry is also a marketing problem, because how do you give an elevator pitch for what your book is “about”?
BLH:  I recently interviewed another writer who said that, today, there’s more pressure on women to be perfect while juggling more and more. Do you tackle that perception in Barbie at 50? If not, what topics do you tackle in Barbie at 50?
JR:  Barbie at 50 (Cervena Barva Press, 2010) is my most light-hearted book, but with an edge. The through-line is how girls use make-believe games and fairy tales to imagine what it’s like to grow up-and then the reality that is more complex and bittersweet, yet liberating, as truth always is. I am a Barbie collector and a feminist, two interests that some would say are incompatible, but I believe that instead of scapegoating feminine fantasy, we should create a world where people of all genders can try on roles without being confined to any of them.
BLH:  Please share two to three marketing strategies that work for you in spreading the word about your books and reaching your target audience.
JR:  Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are free, low-tech ways to break your poems out of the obscure printed book or journal and spread them in quick, shareable formats. Does this translate into sales? Not always, but it creates satisfying interpersonal connections and a sense of being heard. Think of the poems that have gone viral on social media in recent years, because they voiced people’s hopes for peace after tragedies and injustices in the news. As poets, we may need to measure our success in terms of impact rather than dollars.
Other than readings at local bookstores and libraries, I haven’t done as much as I should to publicize my poetry books. My first novel, Two Natures, is forthcoming in September from Saddle Road Press (, so I’ve been giving myself a crash course in marketing this year, guided by Carolyn Howard-Johnson at I recommend her highly!
BLH:  What advice do you have for a writer who is publishing her/his first non-fiction book, specifically as it regards finding a publisher or printer (if they are self-publishing) and marketing their first book?
JR:  Nonfiction isn’t my specialty, but my advice would be similar: for marketing, check out Carolyn Howard-Johnson, The Frugal Book Promoter, and Fauzia Burke, Online Marketing for Busy Authors. I am the editor of, an online resource site for creative writers. Our Useful Resources pages include a page of self-publishing vendors and advice sites that we have vetted for their honesty, expertise, and cost-effectiveness. (
If you are going to submit your manuscript to a small press publisher, do your research and trust your instincts: Does their website look modern, and is it easy to find information about their books? Do they have any online marketing presence, such as an e-newsletter, active Facebook feed, or Twitter feed? Are they prompt and clear in responding to emails (or phone calls, if that’s your preferred method)?
I love my novel publishers, Don Mitchell and Ruth Thompson of Saddle Road Press, because of their stellar transparency, friendliness, and ability to hit deadlines. They’re also great writers–check out their books on their website! Interestingly, I found them because Ruth and I admire each other’s poetry and wrote blurbs for one another’s latest books. This just proves Carolyn’s advice that marketing today is about building your personal brand as an author, not just promoting one book at a time.

Book Notes: The Doll Collection

doll_collection_cover“Not just toys, dolls signify much more than childhood,” writes poet Nicole Cooley in her introduction to The Doll Collection (Terrapin Books, 2016), a rich and complex anthology of doll-themed contemporary poetry edited by Diane Lockward. Dolls are imbued with our powerful, contradictory feelings about gender, race, class, mortality, and innocence. “Symbols of perfection, they both comfort and terrify… They are objects we recall with intense nostalgia but also bodies we dismember and destroy.”

Collecting dolls has been as much of a constant in my life as writing poetry. Both pursuits take me to the realm of imagination, where one is never “too grown-up” to communicate with one’s fantasies and fears. I was honored to have my poem “The Fear of Puppets and the Fear of Beautiful Women” included in this anthology, together with notable writers such as Denise Duhamel, Jeffrey Harrison, Enid Shomer, Cecilia Woloch, and many more.

The book stands out for its diverse cast of characters from doll history. Alongside the well-known Barbie, GI Joe, Mr. Potato Head, Ginny, and Raggedy Ann, we meet paper dolls of the Dionne Quintuplets, blow-up sex toys, jewel-box ballerinas, anatomical models, artists’ miniatures, teddy bears, and baby dolls in many stages of porcelain perfection or grotesque dismemberment. Dolls are burned, smashed, stolen, repaired, reconstituted like Frankenstein. They are preserved in museums, or in the homes of their now-grown owners, as a focal point for sweet or regretful family memories. The dolls in these poems remind us of love or its hard unsatisfying simulacrum, of fragility or a taunting imperviousness to time and loss.

“The dolls/are always being picked up and placed/by forces outside their control./Words are put into their mouths,” writes Elaine Terranova in the poem “Secrets”. Dolls give us the opportunity to act out both sides of the power dynamic, to identify with early memories of helplessness or vent our rage on someone who can’t really feel it…can she?

Several selections voiced the feelings of children confused or stifled by an adult agenda. “I was the live birth after the stillborn/one, crowned to be Mother’s little doll,” says the speaker of Joan Mazza’s “Little Doll”. Comparing herself to the identically-dressed doll children in her carriage, she says, “Undressed, baby dolls had smooth bodies,/no crevices. I’d be perfect, never play,/an untouched doll, if mother had her way.” By the poem’s end, “mother” is lowercase, suggesting the young girl’s rebellion. Michael Waters’ “Burning the Dolls” starts from a poignant historical anecdote: “In 1851, in John Humphrey Noyes’ free-love settlement in Oneida, New York, the communally-raised children, encouraged by the adults, voted to burn their dolls as representative of the traditional role of motherhood.” The child narrator lays her beloved rag doll on the pyre, but a lot more goes up in flames: “when her varnished face burst/in the furnace of my soul,/the waxy lips forever lost,//then I knew I’d no longer pray,/even with fire haunting me…”

Conversely, for some other poets, dolls represented childhood feelings of safety and trust, which the adult speakers wish they could recapture. In “When Catholics Believed in Limbo”, Mary Ellen Talley recalls a simple faith that led her and her friends to baptize her Little Women dolls. Lee Upton’s “To Be Blameless Is to Be Miniature” searches for a way back in to the dolls’ perfect world: “No one sleeps./No one gets comfortable here./You cannot stand inside innocence.” Alison Townsend begins her prose-poem “Madame Alexander’s Amy” with the line, “Two weeks after my mother’s death, the doll was waiting under the tree.” The speaker wanted to love this last gift from her mother, and in a way she did, but the doll (which she still owns) was also “an emissary from the country of death to tell me that childhood was over, and she was the last plaything”.

David Trinidad’s “Playing with Dolls” and Scott Wiggerman’s “Playing GI Joes” show the awakening of a gay identity through breaking the gender boundaries around toys. While Trinidad’s sestina ends sadly, with his parents forbidding him to play with his sisters’ Barbies (“You’re a boy”), we know he gets the last laugh because he’s now a well-regarded gay poet. Wiggerman’s delightful narrative reveals how hyper-macho toys have a homoerotic side just waiting for the right person to bring it out. His GI Joe likes “hot little loincloths attached with a pin” and volunteers for missions where he’ll be stripped and put into bondage. “Tied up, disciplined, tortured into a frenzy,/he was a master of man-to-man endurance,/revealing only name, rank, and serial number,/as a sly grin edged toward the scar on his cheek,/a mark that covered so many of our secrets.”

These are just a few highlights. Doll aficionados will find their own favorites in this must-have collection of 80+ poems about our uncanny little friends.


Olivia, Agnes, and Emily approve of this book.


A new soldier in town impresses Rose Sauvage-Grimpante with his interest in poetry.

“Jerusalem Cycle” Revisited: This Poet’s Wish for Peace

I wrote the following poem in response to newspaper articles about the Second Intifada (2000-05). From the still-raging conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, to the dreadful news of the terrorist bombings in Brussels this week, it seems that the cell phones of the dead never stop ringing, and desperate people never stop killing and dying for their political visions. Though my family heritage gives me a visceral concern for the survival of the Jewish state, I made every effort in this poem to give a balanced voice to the Palestinians suffering from Israel’s human rights abuses. May there be peace and an end to prejudice.

This poem was first published in Clackamas Literary Review (2003).

Jerusalem Cycle: April 2002


The phones of the dead are ringing
as pale men in black vests
gather them into plastic sacks
methodically as bone collectors
for centuries in this holy desert
have hunted the bodies of the past.
The shoes of the dead are bewildered.
They were humble, being shoes,
only wanting to help the dead,
who weren’t dead yet, walk safely from synagogue
to café to bus stop; they never asked
to be flung into flight
and lodged like crows in a tree
beside the peeled bus.
The toys of the dead are grinning like warriors:
no explosion can shake their focus,
bright fur in the gutter, mud over one glossy eye.
The newspapers of the dead are a thousand shot cranes.
The phones of the dead are ringing and ringing
like mad birds in a sack.
One by one their shrilling
will be cut off by the touch of a button
and someone, always the wrong voice, will answer.


I had a clay house and now it is gone.
Tanks laid the land bare and rational.
But who doesn’t harbor a guilty one

in her heart, a dark son
with a stone in his fist, secret Ishmael?
The baby was coming and now it is gone,

his head cresting red and hopeless as the sun
while rubble blocked the passage to the hospital
as if it might harbor a guilty one

sleeping dangerous as Jesus in his tomb.
The donkey walks the same path to the well
and circles back, forgetting that they’re gone —

water, house, memory. Only the gun,
the moment that is its own rationale.
How quickly this clay house is gone.
Send forth the brave, the guilty one.


For you were a stranger in Egypt,
enslaved by heat, alien vowels
like sharp seeds on your tongue.
Asking for only a crack
in this prayer wall
to shade from the sun
your white unwritten skin.
A stranger in Israel,
returned to glean a heritage
like porridge spilled in the dust
by a regretful Esau,
asking too late for the blessing.
So you died at this table
at a seder in Netanya,
another suicide bombing,
your dinner knife embedded in the ceiling
left behind by the practiced men who hosed
next day the floor clean of blood and prophet’s wine.


Everyone has a right to the morning.
Today I will not be a girl.
I will strap on death like a cock and go riding.

Maybe it will be on the foolish bus
that my heart will flame like a can of petrol,
or dismounting at the market, the dusty place

where you burned your black shadow on the wall,
Ayat, sister. You were spent like a bullet,
like a coin, unsentimental.

A coin’s only worth is in what it buys.
The soft enemy mourns the loss of his own
but we celebrate when another martyr dies.

I am wrapped with nails like a prickly pear.
No one spies me moving stiffly as a robot.
Ayat, we played with dolls and combed our hair

and dreamed of something. What did the land
mean to us? Our mothers pouring tea
in the kitchen, nights listening to the sand

whisper outside our bedroom window,
and nothing dangerous in the distance —
a world without anything we know,

without bulldozers, without checkpoints. Children old
like us, dying. Now my foot is on the bus.
I am paying the toll.

Did it hurt very much when you split apart?
Was it worse than childbirth? I need you
to tell me it’ll be all right,

this maidenhood I’m losing, the last touching
I’ll ever know. Oh, Ayat, you died and left me
here among the useless living.


if you had led us out of Egypt
and not fed us with manna in the desert,
Dayenu (it would have been enough)

if you had fed us through the desert
and not offered us your law
Dayenu, Dayenu

if you had not led us
out of fear and scattering
out of every fatherland
floods of hair, quarries of teeth
falling like dew into the dead pit

out of the icy gulag, the grey agreement
marching into the future
where looters now loll in furs
the end of the hammer dream

even out of the soft cradle
of the Christian smile,
this most expansive host land
of buttery fields and wind-up monuments
wakes up! to find us departed
from their streets and comic books,
every bearded judge and fish-fingered peddler,
leaving silver holes in their movies

if you had laid on us your law
and not led us into the land of Israel

even when G-d promises, bring a knife

who are these that stand on line for water
whose children are stones rising
like the desert they want one thing
like the sun they will burn it all to bone

who has negotiated with the desert,
or shared a bed with the sun?

if you had given us the land
and not given us peace

and not given us peace

A Song for All Saints’ Day


I sing a song of the cats of God,
Korat and Russian Blue;
Who purred and pounced, and chased their tails,
For the God who made them mew;

And one was a tabby, and one Siamese,
And one was an alley cat full of fleas–
They were all of them saints of God, if you please,
And I mean to be one too.


They lived not only in ages past,
There are hundreds of thousands more;
The Internet is full of cats,
That’s what it was invented for!

You can meet them on Facebook, in blogs or in tweets,
In shelters and homes and on the streets,
For the cats in my life showed God’s love to me,
And I mean to love them too.


(Top to bottom: My beloved Sidney, 1978; my mom Roberta’s Cat, 1973; my cousin Melissa’s Rusty, 1976; my grade school best friend Becca’s Snowball, 1982)

May the communion of feline saints receive Chloe, my friend Greg’s cat, who passed away last month.


Wag’s Revue Goes Out with a Bang (and Four Poems by Me)

“I feel like someone just gave me some very good news!”

The online literary journal Wag’s Revue launched in 2009 with a manifesto promising to “marry…the editorial rigors of print to the freedoms of the Internet.” Over the next six and a half years, Wag’s published innovative poetry, fiction, essays, and interviews. Each issue also showcased grotesque, funny, and disturbing contemporary artwork, such as Dimitri Tsykalov’s portraits made of meat and Ana Teresa Barboza Gubo’s strangely romantic painting of a lion French-kissing (or perhaps preparing to eat) a woman.

I was honored to learn that a selection of my poems won their 2015 writing contest, now appearing in Issue #20 (alas, their last). Some of my literary heroes who’ve been published in Wag’s include Mallory Ortberg, George Saunders, Saeed Jones, Sarah Schulman, and Alison Bechdel. Browse the archives for hours of radical enlightenment and literary laughs. The editors’ list of faves is a good place to begin. My feature starts here.

The check is in the mail, but I’ve already spent the prize money. On what, you ask? Read on.

What I’d Do With Mine

Breasts are for public feeding,
lose your dirty mind.
So says La Leche League and town law agrees.
Well, I say the penis too is not always for sex.
My penis came in a box.
It was plastic like a president.
I wore it like a secret on national television.

This is not true yet.
So far my penis, like a 1975 Barbie Townhouse on eBay,
only furnishes my dreams.
Somewhere my future penis is riding up and down the elevator
of the cardboard house my mother threw away
because it was unfeminist and too big for the hallway.
It is peeping out the little heart-shaped window.
And it is exactly 11 1/2 inches tall in high heels.

I promise that my penis will fit into our daily existence.
It will not ring the doorbell of your vanilla manpussy.
I wear loose pants anyway.
My penis will not show up at family weddings.
The bride can keep the spotlight on her baby bump,
the little penis growing inside her.

But when my penis arrives, in its shiny pink wrapper,
happier than a tea party in a Christmas catalog,
I might walk down our street scratching an itch I don’t have.
Used to be, I had to go shopping for that.
I might pull it out like knitting during the sermon.
It’ll make me less threatening to the Reverend Mother,
who can sing her welcome solo
uninterrupted by other trebles.
I might use my penis as a mouthpiece
for all my novel characters.
How do children feel? Why do women lie?
It’s like a thumb drive with Wikipedia on it.
Men and women agree,
my penis is a likeable protagonist.

At night I’ll sleep with you, of course,
and my penis, after a useful day
of driving cars and explaining baseball statistics,
will sleep on my desk, in the warm spot the laptop makes,
lazing in the afterglow of news.
While you dream of nipples, and I, of deep-fried shrimp,
my penis may dream of returning to the woods
where the stag leaps beneath a horned moon.

April Is the Cruelest Month: Mommie Dearest Links Roundup

Is it just a coincidence that April is both National Child Abuse Prevention Month and National Poetry Month?


(Hat tip to Love, Joy, Feminism.)

In that spirit, I’d like to share some excellent articles I’ve discovered this month about family trauma and recovery, and a poem from my new collection, My Miserable Life…oops, I meant Bullies in Love. Special #NaPoMo promo: Order your copy of Bullies, email me the receipt (, and I’ll mail you a free copy of my award-winning chapbook Swallow. Even if you live in Tasmania.

Swan and Cygnet

I’m a dry tit, a blackened heartsteak.
Since memory
began a pink baby tumor has been cradled
on my ribs, curtaining
my girlhood’s one-act ballet.
Where is it now, inseparable sucking warmth,
sleepless fury, what selfish operation
uprighted me? Pounds of wet fat gone,
the thin belle shivers
in the too-wide spotlight, the crowds of love
never enough to heat the distance.
Don’t blame her for dancing
with such momentum she topples off the stage
like a drill bit spun askew in a splintered board.
I’m that dragged ankle, that pin in the bone remaining
after the symphony has laid down its burden
and the cheap statues
trundled into the closet,
the Act One virgin with no hands to save money
because the plaster baby is supposed to fit there.
Like all frivolous things, it’s a cruel vocation
always to be missing you, mother-
less child, as the feet miss bleeding,
as the red shoes miss being danced to tatters
in the ruthless illusion of flight.


My mother was a charismatic, creative person who always acted like normal rules didn’t apply to our family. Including the rules of sanity, I eventually noticed. So it’s both validating and slightly deflating for me to go down the checklists in these articles about emotional abuse and mother-daughter role reversal: “Yeah, we had that… and that.. .and that too… wow, I didn’t know there was a name for that…” She wasn’t even original in her narcissism!

But this late revelation highlights a deficiency in our cultural picture of “abuse”. The movies-of-the-week and PSAs usually feature a man hitting a woman. We have trouble recognizing that women can be equally harmful perpetrators, and that their violations are often disguised as affection that’s hard to refuse. Look at the Internet reaction to Madonna’s forcing a kiss on young rapper Drake at the Coachella music festival last week. Because of the mockery surrounding the whole concept of female-on-male sexual assault (see also: Shia LaBeouf), he’s had to pretend that he didn’t mind it, when his body language tells the opposite story.

And now, the links:

*At the website Womb of Light: The Power of the Awakened Feminine, life coach Bethany Webster discusses the complex interplay of patriarchy and mother-daughter emotional incest in her 2014 essay, “When Shame Feels Mothering: The Tragedy of Parentified Daughters”. This piece was extraordinarily close to my own experience.

The road between a little girl and her mother is supposed to be a one-way street with support flowing consistently from the mother to the daughter. It goes without saying that little girls are totally dependent on their mothers for physical, mental and emotional support. However, one of the many faces of the mother wound is the common dynamic in which the mother inappropriately depends on the daughter to provide her with mental and emotional support. This role-reversal is incredibly damaging to the daughter, having long-range effects on the her self-esteem, confidence and sense of self-worth.

Alice Miller describes this dynamic in “The Drama of the Gifted Child.” The mother, upon having a child may unconsciously feel that finally she has someone to love her unconditionally and begins to use the child to fill her needs that were not met in her own childhood. In this way, the child begins to carry the projection of her mother’s mother.  This puts the daughter in an impossible situation to be responsible for her mother’s well-being and happiness…

…Patriarchy has deprived women to such a degree that when they become mothers, they often turn to the love of their young daughters starving and  ravenous for validation, approval and recognition. A hunger that a daughter could never possibly satisfy. Yet generation after generation of innocent daughters have been offering themselves up, willingly sacrificing themselves on the altar of their mother’s suffering and starvation, with the hope that one day they will finally “be good enough” for her. There is a childlike hope that by “feeding the mother,” the mother will eventually be able to feed the daughter. That meal never comes. You get the “meal” your soul has been longing for by engaging in the process of healing the mother wound and owning your life and your worth…

Why it’s hard to face how your mother was a perpetrator: 

  • As little girls we were culturally conditioned to be caretakers and to not advocate for our own needs
  • Children are hard-wired biologically for unwavering loyalty to mother no matter what she does. Mother love is critical for survival.
  • Having the same gender identification as your mother; the implication that she is on your team
  • Seeing your mother as a victim of her own unresolved trauma and a culture of patriarchy
  • The religious and cultural taboos of “Honor thy father and mother” and the “holy mother” that instill guilt and silence children about their feelings.

Why is self-sabotage a manifestation of the mother wound?

  • As a parentified daughter, the mother-bond (love, comfort and safety) was forged in an environment of self-suppression. (Being small = being loved)
  • Thus, there’s a subconscious link between mother-love and self-attenuation.
  • While your conscious mind may want success, happiness, love and confidence–the subconscious mind remembers the dangers of early childhood in which being big, spontaneous or authentic caused painful rejection from the mother.
  • To the sub-conscious mind: rejection by mother = death.
  • To the sub-conscious mind: self-sabotage (being small)  = safety (survival).

That’s why it can feel so hard to love ourselves, because letting go of shame, self-sabotage and guilt feels like letting go of mother. 

*The Invisible Scar is a website devoted to raising awareness about emotional abuse of children. This article, “Not Only Shouting: Different Types of Emotional Child Abuse”, explains why certain behaviors are so damaging, and why it’s hard for us to name them as such. Again, I am a texbook case. Silent treatment, triangulation, pathological lying, sabotaging… Look, I completed my Bingo card, what’s the prize? Recovery!

…The abusive parent will withhold attention and affection until the child caves in and apologizes for whatever the abuser perceived as a slight or insult. Through a series of silent treatments, the abused child will learn to be silent, to be docile, to never speak against the parent—because if the child does, he will not be loved or spoken to or even acknowledged as a human being…

…“Bunny Boiling is a reference to an iconic scene in the movie “Fatal Attraction” in which the main character Alex, who suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, kills the family’s pet rabbit and boils it on the stove. Bunny Boiling has become a popular reference to how people sometimes exhibit their rage by behaving destructively towards symbolic, important or treasured possessions or representations of those whom they wish to hurt, control or intimidate.” (Out of the FOG website) Whatever the child treasures, an abusive parent will take away or destroy…

…An emotional child abuser will sabotage a child’s calm and peace. For example, if a child looks forward to a television program, at the last minute, the emotional child abuser may deliberately set forth a ridiculously long chore list to be done before the child can watch the show. (Think of the evil stepmother in “Cinderella,” who set up Cinderella to fail by giving her too long a list of items to do before the ball.) Or the father will deliberately schedule a family meeting at the same time that a child had planned ahead of time to attend a friend’s birthday party. Like all forms of emotional child abuse, sabotaging ruins a child’s sense of security…

That was a real downer, so here’s a picture of two cute bunnies, in what we hope is an emotionally healthy relationship. Thanks for reading this far, kids.


(Photo credit: Twiniversity.)

“Bullies in Love” Book Launch Video

My new poetry collection Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015) had a successful book launch party this weekend at Forbes Library in Northampton, MA. My collaborator, fine art photographer Toni Pepe, gave a fascinating presentation about her artistic process, inspired by sources as diverse as Old Masters paintings, family snapshots, and Cindy Sherman’s conceptual portraits.

Please enjoy this 37-minute video of my reading, introduced by Little Red Tree editor Michael Linnard.