Rhiannon McGavin on Poems, Dreams, and Tkhines

With odes to future revolutions and sonnets about dreams, Rhiannon McGavin is a rising Jewish feminist voice in poetry. McGavin was named Youth Poet Laureate of LA in 2016. Her sophomore collection, Grocery List Poems, was published in June of this year and pulls inspiration from Yiddish women’s prayer books, Agnès Varda, local art, and more. She spoke to Lilith intern Alexa Hulse about the inspirations, processes, and acts of self-care that helped birth Grocery List Poems

AH: Grocery List Poems has been a long time coming. What was the process of turning the manuscript into a physical copy?

RM: I wanted the book to be rooted in sensuality, very grounded in a physical experience. Originally, I wanted the book to be entirely printed in my handwriting. As it kept getting bigger and bigger, it became a bit unfeasible, but that element felt really important to me, so the section breaks are handwritten bits of my own grocery lists! Any food or flower that’s mentioned in the section appears somewhere on the grocery lists too.

AH: What was making Grocery List Mixtape, the accompanying playlist for the collection like? How did you choose those songs? 

RM: There are so many things I do so I can make space in my head for thinking about poems. One of the things I do is make really long playlists. For Grocery List Poems I had a five-hour-long playlist of every song that could possibly touch the concepts I was working in, or the feelings or atmosphere I wanted to evoke. When the book came out I narrowed it down to one song/per poem and arranged it in order of the book. I listen to it before I do shows now to get back in the mindset.

AH: You have mentioned that one of your goals of this collection was to talk about trauma in a way that isn’t inherently triggering to the reader. How did you take care of yourself while writing the collection?

RM: Around the time that I started thinking about GLP as a book was right when the #MeToo movement was kicking off, when you could not go on your phone or computer or eavesdrop on a conversation without the most gruesome details coming up. It was impossible for me to check the news for weeks. Before that, I had written on my phone or computer for the most part and after, I switched entirely to handwriting so I would not have any reason to be online and that helps so much. Even if I’m having a good time looking at Tweets, I need to clear space in my head. Reading a book for twenty minutes is a completely different experience than scrolling your timeline for twenty minutes. It’s sitting with one person’s thoughts that they’ve labored through rather than sifting through hundreds of strangers’ half-baked ideas. 

What else do I do? I exercise a lot when I’m writing because it’s a hunched over, brainy activity—so it’s really nice to throw my back in the other direction. And I cook a lot. I will make so much comfort food, just a giant casserole or a giant thing of matzo ball soup and eat that for like four days.

AH: Matzo ball soup is a great thinking cure.

RM: It’s beautiful.

AH: Let’s talk about “Dream Diary,” the series of sonnets that sits directly in the middle of the book. Why dreams? Why sonnets? 

RM: A few years ago I was in a workshop taught by sam sax where he read us a crown of sonnets that he’d written and I was like “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen, I need to be able to write one.” When I’m working in a strict form like that, I have to find the right idea that fits the form. So I was thinking: What is something that would be in a series? That would repeat itself, would have refrains, but also would be fun to read all the way through, that would keep changing and keep picking up? I settled on “Dream Diary” because I have a really active dream life.

AH:  Are any of them based on real dreams that you’ve had?

RM: Yeah, some of them are. I have a long drafting process before I actually sit down with a blank piece of paper. For weeks before that, or years even, I’ll be collecting scraps and outlining things. I had a giant wall poster that was just mapping out all the refrains in “DD,” the way that the lines would change over, the rhyme scheme, and the order that they would go in. Part of that outlining process for the series was every interpretation of a dream — an actual dream, a nightmare, a dissociative state, a daydream, dream lover, etc. Everything in the first sonnet is something that I’ve actually dreamed about, like “the dream where my first teeth slid like zippers along my gum, or/ the world where boiled eggs charge cameras…”

AH: One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Prayer to be said at a graveside.” You cite Yiddish women’s prayer books (tkhines) as one of the inspirations for the piece and the title of the book. Can you tell me more about that?

RM: The day after the shooting at the Tree of Life, I was scheduled to help my friend’s mom conduct a poetry workshop. Her name is Racelle Rosett and she has this group where Jewish and Muslim mothers get together every month, have a writing workshop, and go on a hike. It was already scheduled, so we were all going. It was a prayer-writing workshop and Racelle was the one who introduced me to the old Yiddish books. She gave us this beautiful talk, explaining how there were the Hebrew prayer books and Yiddish prayer books. The Hebrew books were bound, leather, well-printed, and for learned men. And the Yiddish prayer books were for everybody else, especially women. They were printed on scrap paper, there might be typos, there’s not as many of them remaining because they were just paper bound together. But the prayers that did survive are beautiful, and many of the authors were anonymous. It was a lot of women writing prayers for other women to read and use and incorporate into their lives. Racelle brought a bunch of scrappy recycled paper and we wrote prayers on it. It’s part of where the title comes from, where it is literally poems on the backs of grocery lists.

For this poem, the left side of the text comes from one of the prayer books, it’s where the title comes from, and then the right side is me. It feels like exegesis, like Torah commentary, like me scribbling in the margins of it. It took me a while to find the right prayer to cite for this one.

AH:  Since finishing GLP, what has been inspiring you?

R: I took a very long break from writing after I turned the book in. I have been on some kind of deadline consistently for the last four years so I just vegetated over the summer. I was just laying out in my backyard in the sun, staring at trees, not thinking about anything, it was wonderful! So rest, rest has been very inspirational to me.

I am starting to get back into my drafts now and my next project is a lot more violent and scary than GLP, so what’s inspiring to me is news headlines and all the ways people use the internet to hurt each other. I’m also really inspired by the work that my friends are doing. They’re working on their own art projects and music and movies right now and seeing the people I grew up with step into their power and their ability has been really beautiful.

Find Rhiannon Here:

Instagram: @rhiannonmcgavin

YouTube: rhiannon mcgavin

Website: https://www.rhiannonmcgavin.com/

Twitter: @rhiannonmcgavin

Alexa Hulse (she/they) is a sophomore at Hollins University. She studies Gender and Women’s Studies and Studio Art. Alexa is Lilith’s current social media and archival intern and you can find them on Instagram @alexabhulse and @t00.soft.

Photo by Sadie Jean Spezzano.