Grace Novarr is a high school junior who spends most of her time either writing poetry or being lovesick.
Freddie Mercury Says
that he wants 2 break free. it’s july / of Sixteen and i am doing my best, / freddie, can’t u see how
hard i am breaking, / tearing thru the park benches and / old songs & trying desperately 2 / make
them new again. there are some / things untouched (there must be a spot / on lexington avenue that
hasn’t / yet been walked all over) and i am / finding them; constructing them; / remembering them
into / a new happy prison for my heart.
A Conversation on “Freddie Mercury Says”
1. This poem incorporates the title into its first line, stretching how the structure operates. Why did you choose to represent the poem like this?
I originally wrote the poem with “Freddie Mercury Says” being the first line, on a document called “Summer Untitled.” I chose to make it the title as well because I liked the idea of framing the entire poem as an imaginary conversation with Freddie Mercury, in which I told him about my summer and he offered advice in the form of songs that already existed.
2. We loved the allusions to Freddie Mercury, who was known for having a flamboyant stage personality and yet deeply valuing his privacy, a juxtaposition which fits this poem well. How do the nods to Freddie Mercury expand upon this poem’s meaning, and what role do allusions to pop culture in poetry play at large?
On a personal level, I have to admit that an ex-boyfriend of mine considered Queen to be, in his words, his “favorite band in the whole wide world,” and he idolized Freddie. The song “I Want To Break Free,” which I listened to many, many times in the period after we broke up, therefore had sort of a double meaning for me: it’s a song about trying to get over somebody, which of course resonated with me, but the fact that it was a song by his idol allowed me to feel as if I was in a way asserting something. By listening to a lot of Queen’s music, in something of an attempt to more deeply understand my ex, I found myself falling in love with their music myself. I consider my love affair with Queen something entirely separate from my love affair with the boy. Freddie Mercury, and his aching sense of romantic melodrama, can strike exactly the right chords in my heart. His music is something of a poetic inspiration for me: he is completely unapologetic about falling fast and falling hard. There’s no sense of coy reservation about him. This poem was, in a sense, about how his music inspired me and my attempts to create a Mercurian summer, doing my best to “break free” in all the ways I know how. I think allusions to pop culture in poetry are a way of grounding the poem in contemporaneity. They allow the poet to engage in the cultural canon and add layers of meaning and possibilities of interpretation to their work. By referencing Freddie Mercury, I allow each individual who has ever heard of him to experience the poem in a slightly different way, according to their personal thoughts about or emotions associated with him or his music or his life.
3. This poem has its own typographic style: using digits instead of words, keeping typically capitalized words lowercase, using forward slashes instead of line breaks, and incorporating other text-style lingo like “thru.” How can the physical appearance of lines on the page affect the expression of ideas, working with and between thematic content?
The physical appearance of poetry is one of my favorite things to observe and play around with. (I would encourage every poet to take a poem they’ve written and copy-paste it with three completely different formats. It is both a literal and metaphorical way of seeing your work in a completely different way.) The way a poem is formatted can convey so much about the author’s intent: tight, single-block text will say something different than the same poem broken up into three stanzas and indented across the page. I think using things such as ampersands, digits instead of words, and abbreviations conveys a sense of playfulness and humor that works well with light-hearted material. When I’m writing about more serious subject matter, I tend to stick to using brutal, short sentences as the main unit of the poem. At the same time, switching these methods around can be interestingly subversive. The first thing people notice when they look at a poem, before they even read it, is how it is formatted. If just for this reason alone, I think the appearance of a poem on a page is something that always merits attention and thought.
4. Only one word in the poem itself is capitalized: “Sixteen.” Marriah loved how this made the poem seem “almost like that summer seemed to be the only thing in existence for the speaker, like nothing else mattered and felt like it never would.” I loved how it drew our attention to the year and reminded us of the poem’s sociopolitical context, especially given the fraught year that 2016 was (and Freddie Mercury was, after all, a well-known gay man who died of AIDS, which still carries hefty political weight). Can you speak to the decision behind capitalizing “Sixteen,” and to our different interpretations?
When I capitalized Sixteen, it briefly occurred to me that I was leaving some ambiguity as to whether I was referring to the summer of my sixteenth birthday (this past summer) or the summer of 2016 (the summer from two years ago). Both were very formative summers for me. The summer of 2016 was the summer right before Donald Trump’s election, when my young and idealistic self was rapidly losing faith in the political system. That summer, when I still had a slight conviction that Clinton would win, was in some ways the last summer of my childhood, the last summer when I was as carefree and hopelessly romantic as this poem seems to describe me as being. Since then, I have become much less idealistic. The summer of 2018, of my sixteenth birthday, did indeed feel at the time as if it was the only time in my life that I was truly myself. For the first time, I wasn’t working, whether academically or professionally. I spent last summer in Central Park, with my friends or with more-than-friends, becoming in many ways rapidly more mature and feeling more important than I’d ever felt in my life. (Now that I’m struggling through my junior year of high school, I’m finding this feeling difficult to hold onto.) I love infusing double meanings into my poem, so I’ll allow this poem to be about both summers. The inspiration came more from the summer of 2018, during which I wrote it, but that is more of a guideline than a boundary for the poem.
5. This poem has a soft, insistent tone of hope, fighting to find “things untouched” and create its own space. The final image of “a new happy prison for my heart” especially brought this home; even amidst the chaos and caging around us, small spaces exist for us to call home. How do you see this relationship between hurt, hiding, and comfort working, in this poem and in the world?
Especially when I was younger, I identified strongly as a hopeless romantic, a term which always paradoxically gave me hope. Romance, as a concept, as inspiration, as a driving force in the universe, will always be there for me, no matter what is happening in my personal life. Speaking for hopeless romantics, I think when we are hurt, we tend to isolate ourselves and lapse into melancholy, which can be one of the most comforting emotions. So much great art has been created by people in a state of melancholy. The idea that good and beautiful things can come out of sadness, heartbreak, and loneliness gives me so much hope. It’s one of my favorite things about both reading and writing poetry.
the muse in you is your picasso nose, / your heaven-heavy eyebrows & your yellow-rose cheeks, /
which i have sung about, and dreamed / heartily over, and alternatively / wanted to kiss and hold.
or perhaps / it is your cotton hair / which will be tangled, a foreseen avalanche, / a spell written in
maraschino stars, / that i swallow whole, and come up, in you, for air.
A Conversation on “beloved”
1. This poem has such specific, sharp imagery, like “heaven-heavy eyebrows,” “picasso nose,” or “maraschino stars.” How do unique, visceral details like this expand upon the emotions and themes of a poem?
I’ve always been an adjective-heavy writer, and in this poem, I tried to go in a more unique, inventive direction with the adjectives that I used. The result, I think, is imagery that feels incredibly specific while still opening itself up into many possible pictures in the minds of different readers. One reader may visualize a “Picasso nose” one way, while another will find a similar but still distinct image in their head. All of my favorite poems (for example, Frank O’Hara’s “Having A Coke With You”) have very specific details and imagery. I love when poems do this, because it allows the reader to take whatever ideas they have about the theme of the poem and view them through the same, or similar, lens that the author does. Especially in love poetry, it can be easy to understand or relate to the emotions that the poet feels, but when the poet makes the reader understand these emotions as they relate to the subject of the poem, that is especially powerful and beautiful. I think specific imagery is one of the best ways to accomplish this.
2. The last line leaves the reader with so many different interpretations: perhaps the speaker is coming up in the love interest for air, or perhaps it is an invocation to the reader to come up for air, or perhaps the maraschino stars are breathing inside the love interest like the entire, splendid universe itself. How do these multiple interpretations operate, and what did you intend?
The specific-but-vague phrasing of the last line relates back to my answer to the last question. The phrasing guides the reader’s mind to create a mental image of coming up for air, which, as a phrase, is so specific yet so wondrously open to possibility. As for myself, I visualized myself swallowing the spell whole, needing air, and finding it in the person whom this poem is about. The other interpretations that you offered were so beautiful and made me happy; I had barely considered them when writing the poem, but their existence in minds other than my own offers proof to me that this poem is not just a part of me, but a being of its own.
3. It can be difficult to make a sappy love poem succeed, especially when using large, bold comparisons like the heavens or stars. How do you balance giving the reader enough information for them to understand the relationship without giving them so much they lose interest, all while keeping the details you include your own?
This is a question that I feel I’ve been trying to answer through most of my writing up until the present! Sometimes I feel like I’ve made a successful love poem, and sometimes it feels far too personal or far too generic. I think that including personal details about your love interest or your relationship with them is crucial to making a sappy love poem unique and interesting. My personal favorite poems are ones where I feel like I understand how the poet sees their love interest. Sometimes, I try not to include any general or “cliché” elements like stars and heaven in my love poems; other times, I consider that they are so widely used for a reason: they have the ability to create emotions in readers and put these emotions in the most vast and universal context possible. I think balancing personal details (like a person’s physical appearance) with grand metaphors (like the universe)—that allow the reader to understand both the concrete aspect of the relationship being described and the more poetic nature of the emotions involved—is what creates a truly successful love poem.
how i crave the exact green / of your eyes! i would buy it / for $200 from a vendor on fifth avenue! /
i would go to Paris just to find a wall / to paint all over with it! i would buy those pants / that Gene
Kelly wears! i would buy a trumpet! / i would buy enough iced coffee to eliminate / jet lag! i would
return home, exhausted, / exhilarated, ecstatic, / and fall asleep in your arms.
A Conversation on “LOUVER”
1. We loved the witty wordplay of the title, mixing “Louvre” and “lover.” How does this relate to the characterization that you intended for the love interest throughout the poem?
The nature of the relationship in the poem is lighthearted and happy, something that I intended to show with a “punny” title. The love interest of this poem is both a lover and a work of art—perhaps even many works of art. Therefore, the image of the Louvre and all the grandiose joy and beauty contained within seemed apt to describe this person. Using a play on “Louvre” in the title also introduces the art and Paris themes that I wove together to create a portrait of the emotions the speaker feels for their lover.
2. This poem feels, in Marriah’s words, “giddy and happy… like a crush, or realizing for the first time how in love with someone you are.” We rise and fall with it, experiencing an “exhausted, / exhilarated, ecstatic” ride alongside the speaker. How do the exclamation points, second-person focus, other literary devices, and overall tone combine to create this effect?
The first line of this poem puts the reader in the middle of the speaker’s realization of just how much they like this person, represented by their sudden craving for the color of their eyes. The next few lines weave a scattered storyline of this speaker pursuing their fantasy in fantastical and cinematic ways. The images used call to mind joyful art and joyful movies: the reader pictures Gene Kelly’s energetic dancing, an over-caffeinated reunion at the end of a trip, the wonderfully accessible art sold by vendors outside of the Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue, trumpet music. The exclamation points indicate the non-ironic cheerfulness of the speaker and their emotions. This poem was fun for me to write, as I put myself in the shoes of a person much more capable and willing to perform grand romantic gestures than I. Looking back at the poem, however, I consider the poem itself to be a grand romantic gesture. Its tone and imagery contribute to a sense of 1950s-movie romance that was enjoyable to create and hopefully also enjoyable to read!
3. The final line has a soft, complete ending, the speaker finally falling to sleep in their lover’s arms. This is a step away from the earlier, whirling extravagance. How do you successfully shift the emotional focus of a poem like this? How do you know where the emotional ending of a poem lies?
A poem’s emotional focus can be shifted with something as simple as as an image with a clear feeling associated with it: I find that the idea of falling asleep in someone’s arms nearly always connotes comfortable romance. It’s important to make sure that the emotional shift makes sense in the context of the poem: in this one, for example, I thought that after the whimsical, fantastical romance of the earlier lines, the poem needed a calm, but still happy, resolution. I found that after the city-crossing, colorful, loud nature of the earlier lines, the idea of coming home to rest with the person for whom you did all that made sense. I think, therefore, that the emotional end of a poem can be found wherever the speaker is coming to rest, whether literally or metaphorically. Poetry often builds up a particular emotion and ends when that emotion is sufficiently clear and well-explained to the reader, but it can also cross multiple emotions and tell more of a story. Whichever is the case, I think that a poem always “rests” somewhere, and so must the poet.
on the “N” shelf
was that thick-spined collection of love / letters from Nabokov to his wife, / Vera, and i dreamed about
a large window, and a pen, / and you, leaning over the railing / to kiss me before i left, / and me,
wanting you into being, / so badly that i dull the ache / with commas, and line breaks, / small hints
of variety and dynamism, / attempts to find energy in your absence.
A Conversation on “on the ‘N’ shelf”
1. Nabokov is a complicated literary figure who has taken on wildly different meanings for different people, especially given the cultural legacy of Lolita. What does Nabokov mean to this poem, and how does it use and recreate the image of him anew?
Nabokov is a literary figure who means a lot to me personally, given that his prose style has been a major influence on my own. His writing is beautiful and vivid, satirical and real. Lolita is his most famous book, and the enduring symbolism of the Lolita figure has been appropriated into innumerable other artworks, demonstrating the vastness of his legacy. However disturbing or insane the subject matter that he treats is, he writes with the same unflinching beauty. That was the sense in which I employed him in this poem: his love letters represent his beautiful writing style applied to the most personal and romantic thing in his life, his relationship with his wife. In this poem, I compare myself to Nabokov, and highlight perhaps the only similarity between myself and him: our inclination to write love letters. Here, the only work by Nabokov that matters is the collection Letters to Vera (which I highly recommend)!
2. This poem explores the lives that writers lead outside of their writing and how those lives ultimately relate to the work they create. We see Nabokov penning letters just to his wife, letters he never expected to publish, linked to the speaker’s own poetry. How does this function in the context of the second-person perspective, since this is a poem addressed expressly to its readers?
My last name, if you haven’t noticed by now, starts with N, much like Nabokov’s (another similarity!). If I ever published a book, it would end up on the N shelf as well. Ultimately, every book, no matter how much significance it carries for the writer or readers, is also a physical object. Nabokov never expected his personal letters to be turned into a thick-spined book that a certain sixteen-year-old girl would see in a book shop on the Upper West Side. He had his own window, and pen, and railing-kisses, which resulted in these love letters, but are ultimately fully accessible only in his memory and not in the reader’s imagination. This poem weaves from the perspective of me, a reader of Nabokov’s work, to Nabokov the writer, to me as a writer. This structure illustrates the different angles through which any work of seemingly extremely personal literature can be seen. This poem discusses another work of literature and then depicts the author of the poem (me) writing poetry, but it is still itself a poem and a work of literature, meant to be read and interpreted and related to by people other than myself. In that sense, myself, Nabokov, and anyone who reads it are all switching roles throughout the whole experience of this poem.
A Conversation between Grace Novarr and Courtney Felle
1. Hi, Grace! We love the worlds that each of these poems create, both as their own units and as a suite. How do you see them interacting with each other and with the world?
I actually wrote all these poems on the same day this July. I was going through an emotionally interesting time in my personal life; the summer was generally a very formative one, something that I was acutely aware of while it was happening. These words flowed out of me rather quickly, but while looking back on them, I discovered several layers that I had barely intended to include. I think poetry can often tell the writer more than it can tell the reader. Each of these poems was intended to explore a slightly different aspect of my life at the moment. “Freddie Mercury Says” was my ode to the summer; “beloved” was my ode to the person who was beginning to define that summer for me; “LOUVER” represented a fantasy that I was interested in carrying out; and “on the ’N’ shelf” depicted a more realistic angle of my life at the moment. As a collection of poems, they represent four ways of looking at a phase of life.
2. Rather than using line breaks, these poems separate ideas with forward slashes, making them feel faster-paced, more pressing and pushing forward. How do you feel this style changed how readers interact with these works?
Forward slashes are a trend I’ve noticed recently in poetry, and I was being a bit experimental when I included them in these poems. I was pleased with the result, however: I think it makes the poems more energetic. It also helped them all fit on one page, which contributed towards making the four poems feel like a cohesive, singular work. You can choose to view these poems as one work all together, or as four individual poems; I can’t speak to which interpretation is more correct.
3. More than simply the forward slashes, these poems use typography and white space in unique ways, playing with formatting and its impact on meaning. They also have vivid, imagistic narratives and a soft whimsicality, uniting them as a set. Do you consider this your personal style, or do you approach each poem separately and create its style from scratch?
I definitely approach each poem separately when considering style. When writing, I go through stylistic phases that can range from days- to weeks-long. I do enjoy playing with formatting generally, as I feel it can either really add to the narrative of a poem, or describe a narrative of its own. I think “whimsicality,” as you call it, is definitely one of my signature stylistic elements. I think playfulness is so important in poetry; a sense of fun and humor is often key to creativity. I think the style of a poem often comes out while I’m writing it–it’s rarely something that I consider ahead of time. Often, the style and the content of the poem will be apparent to me after I’ve written the first lines, and these two in combination will dictate how the rest of the poem comes out.
4. In your bio, you mention spending a lot of time “lovesick,” and we can certainly feel that theme in these poems. However, in my experience, writing about heartbreak and longing, especially from young, female poets, is often dismissed as “angsty” or “cliche.” How do you see yourself and these poems as pushing back against those critiques, as providing a defense of lovesickness? What is the power of love or heartbreak poetry, and how can it be done well?
I’m so glad you asked this question! The dismissive attitude with which young, female poets who write about love are treated is something I’ve noticed many, many times. (This also applies to the treatment of young pop stars who sing about love, by the way.) When I was first beginning to write poetry regularly, I felt some pressure to write about topics on which I didn’t really have much of an authority, because I had the impression that it would lead me to be taken more
seriously as a writer. However, as I continued to write, I learned that my best work comes when I write about things that I am passionate about, which for me is often love and heartbreak. I strongly dislike the perception that teen girls who write about love are not serious writers, or are merely going through a phase where they’re consumed by their silly emotions and their “art” is just a product of their girl-ness. Love poetry and heartbreak poetry make for some of the most powerful art in the universe. Love poetry is true vulnerability. It’s bravery. It’s saying something that you truly feel. When someone’s emotions are so strong that they are inspired to make art, I think that’s truly beautiful. Most human beings will spend at least some time in their life being extremely sad or extremely happy as the result of romance, but not all have the ability to create art based off of it. Of course, some love poetry can be cliche or generic or poorly written, but the fact that it’s love poetry should never be a cause for its denigration. Many of the most popular and critically acclaimed songs in the world are love songs, which are just another form of love poetry. I dislike the misogynistic perception that a teen girl writing about love can’t be as valid or talented as any other artist. If the writing is honest and well-done and vivid and real, it’s good art.
5. If you had to distill one piece of advice from your current lovesickness and bottle it for your future self, making sure you never forget the real, vivid meaning behind it, what would it be?
The “bad times,” or the unhappy times, can be just as powerful as the good times, and vice versa. You shouldn’t try to immediately force yourself out of a sad or uncomfortable lovesick feeling; you should feel it for as long as you feel it and explore it, seeing what possibilities it might contain. I hope my future self doesn’t try to completely forget about the times during which she was sad, because those were some of the most important and informative times of all.