By Kira Houston
In the Higgins lounge on a quiet Autumn evening, students settled into couches with their eyes turned to guest reader and poet Sophia Dahlin. Dahlin visited campus as part of the Clark Poets and Writers Reading Series, an initiative which seeks to foster interdisciplinary dialogues and center minority voices while giving students an opportunity to learn from published writers. Through her reading event and poetry workshop, Dahlin generously shared her bold voice and generative teaching skills with us.
At Thursday’s reading, Dahlin’s selections came from her first poetry collection, Natch, published through City Lights in 2020. The book itself—petite, glossy, and alluring—made its appearance at the reading. Dahlin’s work has been published in a variety of journals including BOMB, Fence, Lambda Literary, Denver Quarterly, and The Recluse. She received her BA from Bard College, her MFA from the University of Iowa, and now makes her home base in Oakland, California.
Dahlin’s poetry playfully interweaves the ethereal, the airy, and the romantic with striking, erotic, and down-to-earth images. Formally, her poems are concise and compelling, with syntactical revolutions that meld together disparate phrases. They give the impression of snapshots which capture love and heartbreak; though they never slow to a standstill, but rather roll like a wave across the ear equal to the page. Moments of profound emotion blend with bits of humor and crass, carefree sentiment. Subjects range from Dahlin’s own childhood and young adulthood in southern California to fantastical, hysterical vernacular creations. Natch presents itself as “a dazzling array of queer erotic lyrics demanding pasture in the romantic sublime.. by turns dreamy, hysterical, earthy, and perverse.” These elements resurfaced time and time again in the poems and our post-reading discussion, enabling a deep understanding of Dahlin’s rhythmic language and whirlwind of image.
After the reading, I found the poems’ phonetics especially memorable. Dahlin spoke on how her “musical ear” allows her to select and revise poems through a rather intuitive process, and I felt that musicality throughout the reading. Sounds like the hard, flat “a” in “knatch” mixed together with words like “witch,” “dick,” “lizard,” and “couch” in the poems. Each syllable was punchy and arresting, drawing me into the quasi-narrative accounts and dreamy musings throughout every selection. In our discussion, Dahlin brought up the word “yearning” to describe the principal concoction of emotions in her work. Her poems play with images of the body, combining the erotic with the strange, the unsettling, and the downright confusing. Dahlin queers the body, and queers memory, while hovering in a state between audacity and vulnerability. These poems are hard to pin down, floating away when we try to catch them—yet they can catch us with surprising effect.
Dahlin visited ENG 206 the day after her reading to conduct a poetry workshop. Students from the English Department and Creative Writing Minors joined members of the Writing the Novel class for a series of generative, engaging exercises. After reading poems by Lyn Hejiian and Kim Hyesoon, students wrote our own compositions. Prompts for our writing were each based on unique characteristics of the works we read, encouraging us to take inspiration from the bizarre and the specific as well as the ordinary. Students read our work aloud, and Dahlin was not only delighted to hear each piece, but consistently insightful about our language.
I find myself continually taking inspiration from Dahlin’s daring syntax and audacious vocabulary as I continue my writing projects for the semester, whether they be essays or fiction. In the workshop, I gained a window into some of the sources and strategies Dahlin uses to produce her seemingly effortless interplay between tangible and intangible, familiar and unknown. For hosting the Poets and Writers Reading Series, I would like to thank The Higgins School of Humanities; and for arranging Dahlin’s participation, my professor Mandy Gutmann-Gonzalez. From fairies to lizards, pegasi to hamburgers, Dahlin’s captivating presence and breathtaking poems made up an essential component of my learning and growth this semester and will remain forever part of my writing.