Before the posters were tacked to corkboards and taped to doors on campus, I had not heard of Joyelle McSweeney. In her picture on the poster, she was looking off into the distance, she had short black hair with a streak of purple, in her hand she held a purple wildflower and behind her profile were bright green leaves.
The poster read, “Joyelle McSweeney’s politically alert, sonically driven poetry moves and spills through a variety of genres…The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults, is a work of Goth ecopoetics.” Immediately, I decided to attend the reading, set for Tuesday, Oct 6. I didn’t know anything about “Goth ecopoetics,” but I wanted to know more.
On the night of the event, students and faculty stood in the halls on the second floor of McFarlin Library. Dr. Grant Jenkins spoke with our guest poet while we waited for the faculty study to be unlocked. She did have short hair, but no purple tonight; her jeans didn’t quite reach her combat boots, where her socks peeked out, bright red; she was cheery as we waited.
Unlike the two other literary events I attended this semester, our speaker was on time. No one seemed anxious. At only 8:04, a security guard unlocked the dark study.
McSweeney stood in front of a looming stone fireplace, which had a Dickinson quote carved into its face: “There is No Frighte Like a Book to Take Us Lands Away.” I later realized how well this quote applied to McSweeney’s work. McSweeney took us places I didn’t even know existed.
We sat in furniture arranged in a semicircle around McSweeney. She began with an ‘invocation,’ the poem “Warp Spasm,” which was inspired by Irish Epics. Her poetry is charged and energetic, crafted to be read aloud. She made references both obscure and relevant in pop culture; there were funny moments, sad lines and interesting phrases which stood out. McSweeny read with quirky confidence.
After reading several poems and a series of sonnets, she read excerpts from her new play, “Dead youth, or, The leaks”: a play in four acts (2014). I had never heard anything like this, and I doubt I will again until I buy the play and read it myself. The play features Julian Assange of Wikileaks, Henrietta Lacks (who passed away in 1951, the same year her cervical cancer cells were harvested. They still survive as the immortal cell line, HeLa), the jailed Somali pirate Abduwali Muse and the souls of innumerable dead teenagers.
Basically, Julian Assange is attempting to upload the souls of the dead teenagers to the internet when his ship bound for Magnetic Island is hijacked by Abduwali Muse. Lacks is a spirit mother guide who must be appeased…from what I understand. It’s all fascinating and strangely relative to our culture. McSweeney rambles in a lovely way. I honestly believe she conveyed a translation unobtainable without her being present.
During the Q&A, the first question was this, asked rather casually in my opinion: “This is just a guess, but from the viewpoints you’re taking, especially with the dead, it sounds like you had a near-death experience yourself, did you?”
“Yeah I did have a near-death experience,” she replied. “Why did you guess that?”
McSweeney, appearing rather shocked, went on to say no one had ever asked her that question at a reading and proceeded to tell her story. She almost died during childbirth, both her and her daughter’s lives were in jeopardy and the doctors were able to save them.
“I almost died becoming a mother. You think you heard that in the Henrietta Lacks section?” she asked the man.
Then it became apparent, the connection of her own life as a mother to Lacks, who had children herself. McSweeny has given Lacks a voice in her play. The billions of cells across the globe, all derived from Lacks’ body, will divide eternally and have helped medical research in infinite ways, though they cannot speak. Now, the mother’s voice is there too, connecting the living with the dead and evoking McSweeney’s listeners and readers. This sense of eternity is important to McSweeney. Just as the internet, Wikileaks and Assange’s work are eternal in their own ways.
The day after McSweeney’s reading I was at my job inside Tulsa International Airport. The poet was early for her flight back to Indiana when our paths crossed. We were able to chat before her flight arrived. McSweeney was enthusiastic about Tulsa and asked me how her reading went. I spoke my mind, that I was grateful she came to Tulsa and how I found her reading moving and humorous.
I had the opportunity to ask her about her writing style and she kindly asked me about my own. While talking with her, I realized how genuine she is. Joyelle has the ever curious and open mind of a poet. There seems to be nothing holding her back. I sensed this in her poems, discovered it while talking with her and she proved me correct as she talked about her life and work.
Any sense of deep curiosity the audience picked up on in the faculty study is genuine. Joyelle McSweeney is able to write about the human condition so well because she’s not afraid to live.