Book Interview: Sheila McMullin & Penelope Jeanne Brannen

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In poems like “Olga’s Book” (“‘he blames me’ ‘for’ ‘not having pregnancies’”), you talk about gender expectations and inequality. How does your work as an intersectional feminist and activist affect your poetry? How is poetry feminist work?

I want to thank you, first, Nellie, for inviting me to participate in the interview. The act of invitation is feminist work, and then for the occasion to be poetry reminds me of the heart of the matter. I am grateful to take this offer. 

Labor is relational. And is often held in the extremes of unequal power dynamics. So the work for an activist becomes holding a relationship that bends those dynamics, and for me unfolds on feminist foundation. When feminism contains the propelling motion of reclaiming space—alchemizing the historic and cultural perspectives of land, voice, body fostered by creative plurality—poetry, then, can refract light onto the unnamed. I talk about intersectionality to acknowledge systematized workings of hierarchy that diminish innate value, to recognize we will always be finding ourselves and finding ourselves changed, and in solidarity against community and law-making built through the consciousness of white supremacy that depletes human ambition and destroys our earth’s immune system. 

And then, I also feel like I’m not holding these tenants in balance lately. In the beginning, poetry gave me space to think about myself, and feminism gave me space from which to write. As an activist today, I feel burnt out knowing the seriousness of the 11th hour, feeling like there’s no time to catch up, knowing simultaneously this is capitalism working within me, and every moment I give to it will be devoured. So the work becomes not the harmony of poetry and activism and feminism like I want, but the active state of balancing plates. I’ve really been looking toward others for guidance in the answer to this question, fully knowing there many varied ways that these very crucial aspects of my life can cohabitate, but not quite being there yet. Having a lingering taste from a moment when I did and working to be here again, naming my relationships based in uneven power dynamics, and resituating to take back my space. 

The discrete poems in your book are interrupted by pages of short, italicized lines without titles. How did you arrive at this structure?

I admire poems that seemingly get to the heart of the matter and then buckle your knees with a deeper story told as if in an aside. One of my colleagues in grad school, Catee Baugh, did this beautifully. Sarah Vap is a goddess of this work. I’m reading Samantha Hunt’s The Sea currently and I find this magic in every scene. In writing the Firelight Mediations, I looked toward form as a way to say what I was struggling to write. What I needed for myself at that time was a pep talk. And I needed a pep talk that wasn’t dismissive of the anger I was conjuring. I appreciate your naming the poems discrete, because I feel that too. Writing them was uncomfortable for me, both in the way I was looking at myself and in metaphor. I was listening daily to the old lectures of Ram Dass while working at the front desk of a venture capital firm (I about community feminist work and writing…but hey, I finished my manuscript thanks to that job) and was hearing repeated messages on the art of returning. That our work is in the practice of remembering and witnessing our coming into being at every opportunity. So what I wrote was my work of remembering. And saying it plainly, buffered by space, and in short bursts was as much bravery as I could muster.

And thanks to CSU Poetry Center’s editor, Caryl Pagel, who was able to translate the integrity of my manuscript into book form, dedicating two pages to each of the mediations which signals a slowing down to the reader. The practice of each page turn, an arriving into the present. 

What advice would you give to emerging poets?

Keep close your explorer’s mind. That meditating on patience helps with a lot of anxiety around perceived notions of productivity, success, and worthwhile creativity. That if even talking about patience makes you feel like you have a knot in your chest it’s normal, because I feel that myself right now too. That small compounding actions are how poetry is written. Making rituals out of your daily habits can bring a lot of joy back into areas that may have started to feel mundane or uninspired, and bonus if you share some of those rituals and compound your joy. That journaling is important, and so is sharing your work, as well as taking the risks to ask people to participate in that process with you.

Which dead person would you say your work is most informed by, that you’re in dialogue with most urgently in this book?

While her passing is recent and she was very much alive during my writing of daughterrarium, Ursula K. LeGuin refracted light on my desire of divine feminine power. After reading “She Unnames Them” the glow stick of my intestines cracked into a neon dance party, and I started digesting so much love and admiration for feminine willfulness, living outside of the obedient/disobedient binary, and being a self-propelled actor. A feeling of clarity of purpose is always strong after reading LeGuin’s works. Similarly, with poets like H.D. I feel that urgency of spirit to transmute what was told to us was evolution, but was really a caging of our wild nature. I chose to purge stagnation and give light to creativity. So, in pursuing publication for daughterrarium I made a commitment that if I was going to create an artifact out of the persona writing the book, I would honor my wild woman nature and speak as truthfully as I could for where I was in that time in my life.

What are you currently working on?

My root chakra. As an apprenticing green witch with the Gaia School of Healing and Earth Education, I have begun a revolutionary understanding of myself and the way I want to tend my time. Writing this on the first day of the new year, I can acknowledge the expansion I began in 2018 with a building allyship with plants and a reweaving of ancestral knowledge into my daily movements. I’m working on a new manuscript, tentatively titled Thank You that deepens the conversation of shame, blame, and anger initiated in daughterrarium.


Sheila McMullin is the author of daughterrarium, winner of the 2016 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize chosen by Daniel Borzutzky. She co-edited the collections Humans of Ballou and The Day Tajon Got Shot from Shout Mouse Press. She is a community organizer working with youth to amplify their voices through storytelling and civic participation. She holds an M.F.A. from George Mason University and volunteers to maintain the free little libraries in her neighborhood. Find more about her writing, editing, and activism online at