sleeping with the dictionary

by harryette mullen

every time i read this poem i fall deep for language like it's the first time.

if you love the dictionary and aren't familiar with mullen's work, buy yourself a copy of Sleeping with the Dictionary (the book that houses the above poem of the same name) RIGHT NOW.

from UC Press's description of the book:

"Harryette Mullen's fifth poetry collection, Sleeping with the Dictionary, is the abecedarian offspring of her collaboration with two of the poet's most seductive writing partners, Roget's Thesaurus and The American Heritage Dictionary. In her ménage à trois with these faithful companions, the poet is aware that while Roget seems obsessed with categories and hierarchies, the American Heritage, whatever its faults, was compiled with the assistance of a democratic usage panel that included black poets Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, as well as feminist author and editor Gloria Steinem. With its arbitrary yet determinant alphabetical arrangement, its gleeful pursuit of the ludic pleasure of word games (acrostic, anagram, homophone, parody, pun), as well as its reflections on the politics of language and dialect, Mullen's work is serious play."

actually, buy everything harryette mullen has ever written because it's all perfect and she deserves your entire paycheck a thousand times over

come on, get it! by Fred Moten

A newish poem by Fred Moten, in collaboration with Thom Donovan, Malik Gaines, Ethan Philbrick, and online sources. Featured in Feb. 19 edition of The New Inquiry. A droolworthy excerpt:
"1. What if the problem isn’t coloniality as an episteme? What if the problem is that coloniality is always already given in the very idea of the episteme? What if coloniality is the age, or the locale, or more precisely, the spacetime, of the episteme? 2. Is bewilderment an expression or a refusal of the epistemic? Is bewilderment in line with other notions—such as techne or doxa—that are said to deviate from the epistemic? Or is it something like the unconscious, or the aesthetic, that might be best characterized as deviant within the epistemic? Is coloniality, or modernity, the episteme of the episteme, where the constrained motion of from and within indicate a common terroir, the general field of scientificity, which is space time itself, produced and then discovered?"

i'm not thirsty daddy i'm hungry

i sit on the floor and aim the remote, press down down down down until a lion chewing through a deer’s neck nabs my attention. the lion’s beard is foam and blood as he sucks the fight from his catch. the deer’s head surrenders and its face, now half-missing, shows solace. its hind legs kick the sky like a dog dream until they, too, concede. the lion tires of red-wet meat and maybe, just maybe, i get hungry. i get hungry, maybe, and i plan menus in my head: bones tossed in blenders, crushed like ice. livers coated in sand. i hadn’t felt hunger since you left and now i salivate.

the killing time, unwillingly mine

"in starlit nights i saw you,
so cruelly you kissed me
your lips a magic world
your sky all hung with jewels.
the killing moon
will come too soon.
up against your will
through the thick and thin
he will wait until
you give yourself to him"

perils of solo-rolling

this winter i wrote 89 pages of a novel but then trimmed it to 37. the page count then grew to 58, down to 7, up to144, and then plateaued around 46. the story became so real to me that two prominent people in my life asked me to throw it away. i'd frozen over in the real world. my whole heart became tied up in fictional characters, especially one. i fell for her, maybe. can you think of anything more narcissistic than falling in love with someone you created?

i scrapped the story mere weeks after scrapping relationships with everyone who begged me to do so. my story is dead and my love is dead, i killed her. i do better on my own. i do better on my own. i do better on my own. say something enough times and it becomes real. that's how affirmations work.

i do wish i could hire someone to go through all of my half-written works, tell me which are near-done, brood menacingly over my shoulder as i shape them into stories, and then submit the finished pieces to publications on my behalf. i'm tired. i have two jobs and a wobbly, walled-off heart.

never knew you had it so bad

"sacrifices" by tinashe on repeat
“it’s not my m.o. to fall in love
but fucking ‘round with me is dangerous
the lines are blurry now, this isn’t lust
but you like it
and i like it
never knew you had it so bad
never knew i’d do you so right
never felt this feeling so fast
never knew it’s worth the sacrifice”

struggling with oldness as a forever-young

i chew violet mints and have favorite medicinal strains and write in curly cursive and i need you to repeat yourself and i don’t go out most fridays and i’d prefer to tell you in person that my time’s nearly up so i smoke djarum milds and want the whisky straight and say no to cream and sugar and i vomit when it hurts and you can come inside actually no no you can't and i wish i could take my phone off the hook when i’m feeling petty because nothing feeds frustration like a busy signal

Leonor Fini

Leonor Fini was an Argentine artist whose work reflects preoccupation with dreams, Jung, Freud, feminity as power, sexual tension, and the psychic synergy of woman and cat. She was disguised as a boy for the first seven years of her life to avoid kidnapping. She learned to draw bodies by hanging out in morgues.

Fini went blind as a teenager, but later regained her vision. As an adult, she attended art openings in elaborate costumes, draped in feathers and tulle, with hair glowing unnatural blues and golds. Other times, she dressed in full male drag to avoid recognition.

Red Vision

Fini once said, “Marriage never appealed to me, I’ve never lived with one person. Since I was 18, I’ve always preferred to live in a sort of community - A big house with my atelier and cats and friends, one with a man who was rather a lover and another who was rather a friend. And it has always worked.

Dithyrambe, oil and paper on canvas.

I came across Fini's work and story a few years ago while researching mythological bird/woman similar to my favorites, the Alkanost and Gamayun of the Slavic pantheon, and the Greek Harpy. Since then, Fini's birdladies have become my favorites thanks to the thickness of their thighs.

I've decided this painting, Tres Gracias, is about her desire for two beautiful service bottoms (who may or may not be the aforementioned lover and friend).

"While she claimed categorically not to be a lesbian but open to everything, the temperature rises only when two of her elegant and immaculate girls are involved. On the other hand her men (or, to be more accurate, youths) are balletic and androgynous, lounging about lethargically, toyboys in a precise sense. It is the tall and seriously beautiful women, more often than not self- portraits, who one feels will direct or have directed the action." 1996, George Melly

Cortège, oil on canvas. When I tried to research this piece, I found nothing but references to the male surrealist painter who purchased it.

Leonor Fini's costume designs puts today's Met Gala to shame. Some believed her gowns, headpieces, and masks were a little too risky--when actress Margot Fonteyn refused to wear a feline-influenced mask designed by Fini, Fini threatened to burn down the theater.

The two women later became close friends.

preparing for a masked costume ball

The Least I Could Do is Spell My Name Right

My mother said she never shot up. She feared needles so instead used her nose.

I love needles. I love a bad blood draw. My defiant veins stonewall the most practiced phlebotomists. I love a bitter brow and I love the attention. I love purples and reds and blues all at once.


I used to tell new dates my mother died of cancer.

The first time I told a date my mother had AIDS we were on his dirty couch, me stuffed in his arm-crook, him flipping through channels with a comically large remote. We were nineteen. It was World AIDS Day in 1999 and he’d sped past a dramatic unfolding of the AIDS quilt.

I said, “You know my mother had AIDS?” and his body went stiff. He dropped the remote and slithered from beneath me. The TV was set to the surgery channel, thick skin and fat peeled from a forehead, meaty. A facelift.

“You let me fuck you without telling me that?” he said.

I said, “Chill out, I don’t have it, I swear.”

And it was true–my mother didn’t contract HIV until long after I was born.

But I was lying, because at that point, I hadn't been tested. And not only that, I’d convinced myself I definitely had AIDS and wasn’t ready to hear how soon I would die. After all, I’d used my mother’s razors when she’d said not to. She’d scraped schmutz from my lips with mouth-wetted fingers. I smoked cigarette butts she’d left in ashtrays. I was sure I had AIDS, so I made that boy and every boy use condoms, even when he begged, even when every boy begged, which was every time I fucked with boys.

Everyone I knew with AIDS, most of whom were involved in raising me, had died. They died after years of sickness and incoherence from the “cocktail,” and they died from neglect. After watching my mother’s painful death process, which happened to accelerate right after diagnosis, I couldn’t bring myself to get tested.

I was furious with that boy, with all boys, with everyone who perpetuated the stigma of people with AIDS as poisonous monsters.

My own role keeping that stigma alive didn’t occur to me until to me until much later.


I assumed the results of my first negative HIV test were wrong. I tested elsewhere, negative again. And then I became obsessed. I spiraled into frequent, too frequent, testing at various anonymous testing centers. Sometimes more than once a week, for something like five solid years, whether I’d fucked anyone at all. I’ve never told anyone until now.

In my early thirties I dated someone who “got” me. She “got” me and she “got” how the world really worked. She “got” racism and classism and fatphobia and mental illness. She “got” my background. My strange obsessions. My relationships with ghosts.

She was so right-on that it hurt that much worse when she had the same reaction to my mother’s AIDS as my teenage boyfriend in 1999.

“How often do you get tested?” she asked, trying to keep her voice steady.

“Every three months,” I said. I said this even though she already knew the answer. She knew the answer because I’d told her so many times.

After that night she fucked me different. Shallow, pain-free, even though we always used gloves. Every time I asked for more she pretended not to hear me.


I am not HIV positive but several people in my life are. I still encounter people who think and speak about AIDS the same way I did in 1999. Except it’s 2017 and these people, most of whom are queer, are a lot older than nineteen.

Imagine if queers fought for improved AIDS education, services, and research with the fervor they reserve for gay marriage.


My mother spelled my name N-I-K-I. I changed the spelling in school to better blend and now I misspell my name every day.

The things I miss about her are different now. They are selfish things, things more about me. Like I wish she could rub my head when I’m sick, and I miss making someone proud. They are selfish things but they are real things.

The least I could do is spell my name right.

knocking the hustle, or lack of

I’m in their homes with their dogs in their neighborhoods in their doorman buildings, sweating in their microfiber sheets. Their TVs have three clickers and no buttons called On. I assure them I’ll adjust my life to their dogs’ rigid schedules, but don’t ask how they work or fuck with dogs that require so much tending. I weigh powders and lay pills on pet tongues. Twice poisoned by raw pet food but I leave that out in interviews. I locate their cameras and remember no nose-picking, no chin-plucking, no crying. If they check their internet logs they’ll see my Otis Redding kick. Do they know Otis Redding kicks mean endings? Are their condos always this clean and do they really live here? And how do they find books on shelves organized by color? So many beat poets, and Infinite Jest. It takes until the end of each stay to determine whether they’ve read Infinite Jest. When their shelves are organized by color they probably haven’t read Infinite Jest, or Joyce, or the beat poets.
But what does it matter? I haven’t read any of that either, not Infinite Jest, not most Joyce, and very few beat poets. I’ve tried and bored quickly, instead devouring the words of women of color. That’s why I’m a pet-sitter with an MFA in Creative Writing instead of a writing professor.

Check out De-Canon, a literary arts project dedicated to undoing the great white delectus.


The bridges in other cities, DC, New Orleans, San Francisco, they’re different. In other cities you get on the bridge and you leave. In Portland you get on the bridge and you’re still in Portland, you’re always in Portland.


The dog I’m watching humped a husky at the park. Both the husky and the shepherd, “my” dog, stared at me, horrified. The next time I criticize myself for not being grounded I will meditate on this image.


I’ve fallen in love with this shepherd, even though he ate the cat food and dropped diarrhea all over his person’s light gray almost white carpet. This dog’s a “traveling pooper,” which, if you’re not a pet-care professional, means he keeps walking as he shits. I counted fourteen shit splats. After hours in panic mode, crying, sopping up shit with vinegar, terrified I’d have to pay for an expensive new carpet, I got it all out. The carpet looks brand new. I still expected to lose this recurring gig with my new shepherd love once his person learned what’d happened. The owner’s response was not to blame me, however. Instead, she said, “Thanks for the cleanup. Seems the cat food is too rich for his stomach.”

When I catch myself thinking “Why am I like this?” I don’t allow myself to answer.


I’ve been saying “yes” to every opportunity. That Shonda Rhimes thing, just say “yes.” Obviously I need to be more in the moment. Except now I forget to eat and sleep and write and kiss my girlfriend because I’m too busy yes-ing.


I once overheard a woman tell a friend, “We don’t say ‘no’ in our house.” That woman had a five year old son. A five year old son who never hears “no.”


In other news, the cat I’m watching is very Bauhaus.

Confidence is Sexy

There are nine calories in one serving of Rite-Aid chewable antacid. Two pills to a serving, four and a half calories per pill. I pop one into my mouth, typing zero point five into MyFitnessPal as I chew. I plop the phone into my gym bag and pull off my dress, careful not to rip its weakening seams.

On the locker room bench, a swimcapped woman with a tub of antifungal cream sits spread-eagle. She massages thick white medicine between her toes, then across the bottoms of her feet. As she aims another scoop at her groin, I look away. I step free from tights and underwear, weakly covering my stomach while I search my bag for shorts.

And then I realize I am naked.

Usually I put on shorts before taking off my dress. The locker room conversations I’ve overheard are enough to make me want to stay clothed. The day before Thanksgiving, one woman told another to do two hours of cardio if she wanted gravy with her turkey. The recipient of said advice didn’t ask for it. And the advice-giver is here today, strapping on her waist trainer post-workout. And here I am, naked before her, thrown off by a little antifungal cream.

Though I’ve always experienced disordered eating, I wasn’t diagnosed with an eating disorder until I was 34. I have EDNOS, which stands for Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified—a catch-all term for disordered eating that doesn’t fit the diagnostic criteria for anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. It’s a smattering of all three. At the height of my behavior, I was so afraid of being seen that I hardly left my house. As a part of my two-year intensive therapy program, I had to ditch both the food tracking apps and the compulsive workouts. The food tracking apps were the hardest to quit—once you become addicted to weighing your food and tracking macronutrients, you can’t unlearn the numbers, the weights and sizes. You can’t un-see serving sizes, or, in my case, half-serving-sizes—nothing was more satisfying than entering a number less than 1 as a serving size.

The swimcapped woman squeezes more cream from her tube, smears it under each breast, beneath both arms. She springs up and lobs across the tiled floor unclothed, medicated, smiling.

I’d chosen this gym above others because of this online review: “If I tour a gym and see greasy fatties panting on level 3 on the elliptical, the place won’t get my money. I don’t pay to commune with swine.”

A tiny photo of a white man’s abs, presumably those of the author, appeared alongside his words.
Despite that review, most of these ladies look different than me. Like they’ve been going to the gym the whole time. Like they didn’t have these breaks for drug use or bulimia or abusive relationships. Panic sets in and I’m digging furiously through my gym bag. Did I not pack my sports-bra? Where is my t-shirt? I pull everything from my gym bag and stack it in my locker, a locker I’d grabbed because of its proximity to the showers. I don’t like to walk far in wet flip-flops after my elliptical pig-pant.

But being near the showers also means being right next to the scale. A thin, somewhat twitchy woman with a silky ponytail is running back and forth from the scale to the exit. I mean, she’s actually running, like exercise running, in the locker room, ponytail flying behind her. After several laps, she gets on the scale and moves the little weight bar around. Fuck fuck fuck, she says. She stomps her little Reebok and a metal-clank echo bounces from every locker. All of the women in the locker room stare.

All except for the swimcapped woman with the antifungal cream, who’s humming that song “Happy” as she pulls on her underwear.

These women and I share many of the same fears. The fear of eating, of not eating, of being too much, of not being enough, or being seen by people with eyes. Of catching a fungus. Our bodies are up for scrutiny no matter their size. But as I scan the room, I realize, as I do sometimes, that I’m the fattest in the room. I look down at my gut hanging over my pubic bone. I grab a t-shirt and pull it over my whole situation, but not before the woman on the scale not only sees me watching, but watching with my stomach meat just hanging there.

She steps from the scale and we make eye contact. I smile apologetically, because what else do you do? Her smile back surprises me, the warmth of it. She was so frantic until now and I can’t tell if it’s because my smile brought her back to reality, or because she saw someone fatter than her at the exact right time.

I find my shorts and slip them on. The swimcapped woman with the antifungal cream uses sink soap to clean behind her ears, tits-out. Thin naked women with great posture pad between shower stalls and lockers. I contemplate level 6 on the elliptical, maybe level 7. I pull my hair into a ponytail, grab my water bottle, and hit the floor.

We have the same fears, I say to myself. And then I repeat it so I don’t accidentally hate other women, which has always been important, but is especially important now.


When I was nine I was this little fat kid wandering the West Side wondering what moms were for, where moms would go, what needles were for, whether everyone rinsed their own shit from a bucket in the kitchen sink, in kitchen sinks where goldfish die.

I’ll tell you how I found out I was fat. I was drinking fruit punch and it tasted all wrong, like chemicals. I spit it out, confused. My mother had been watching from the hall. I said, “There’s something wrong with it!” and she just cried. And I cried too because my mother was crying. She pulled out a magazine, pointed to a diet pill ad in the back. She’d hoped they’d have no taste. Her mother’s idea. Grandma said? I kept asking. I barely knew Grandma, or my mother, or anyone. My mother said I was beautiful, just fat, that it was her fault, not mine.

I hugged her. It’s okay, I said, I’m not mad, I said, over and over. I’m not mad, no, I won’t tell.

When I was ten my nightmares were about fires and my nightmares were nightly. My mother got a mainstream job for a few months. Overnights at a hospital. We got an apartment down the shore and her new job meant I’d sleep in it alone every night. I tried to be brave, but those fires. I’d call her ward every night, There was a fire, tell my mom to come home! So she had to start taking me to work. I loved it there because the nurses would give me Styrofoam cups quarter-full with fruit punch before bed, not spiked with diet pills. I slept on a soft red couch next to a coffee maker, soundly, only waking when the speakers spat Code Blue.

In mornings my mother drove me to school, high on stolen Demerol in a car with no front-end. Me with my bad teeth and matted hair and fat 10-year-old body, hungry, fat, and hungry. Most nights I ate Chef Boy R Dee straight from the can with a fork because it was delicious, and because it didn’t need to be cooked. I also ate school free school lunch. Lunch tickets are great for moms, but not for kids when you’re the only kid who qualifies, or the only fat kid, or the only new kid, or all of those kids combined. I always tried to get my lunch ticket quietly but the teacher didn’t get it. Nicole, come get your lunch ticket, she’d shout. The kids in my class whispered Oink under their breath, like Oink Oink, quiet enough that only I could hear it as I walked back to my seat, ticket in hand.

Sleeping at the hospital didn’t last long. The boss caught on. The nightmares returned. One night I dreamt my school exploded with everyone who ever oinked at me inside. They were melting and I woke up laughing.

My mother came home earlier than usual that morning and said I’m going away. She’d been caught stealing medicine from patients, and someone else would pick me up after school. And she wasn’t sure whom. And it would be my last day there. And she forgot to tell me the rest.

When the teacher called me up for my lunch ticket I marched proudly, grabbed it from her hand, and waved it in the air.

You’re all going to die in a fire, I announced to the class. I was sure of it.

The image of my school in flames kept me warm all night as I slept beneath an outdoor payphone, waiting for someone, anyone, to remember to pick me up.


So I do an hour of high-intensity interval training on the elliptical. Level 7. And everything hurts because of the white abs that wrote that review. And the women cursing at scales. And the pills from magazines. And the 750 calories I’m committed to burning, exactly how many calories I’ve consumed today. I don’t know if I am weak or strong.

I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a darkened window. When I look in a mirror after a workout, I can’t believe how thin I am. I see ribs and cheekbones, some sort of glow. Give me two Rite-Aid chewable antacid tablets instead of one, however, and I’m seeing someone else.

I refill my water bottle and hit the weight machines in an area where my phone lacks reception. Nicki Minaj, my workout muse, goes silent as I huff through shoulder presses, headphones still buried in my ears.

Chad and Brad stand in front of me drinking Muscle Milk, waiting for my machine. The smell coming from one or both stings my eyes. I end my final rep and let the weight fall into place. And I guess Chad or Brad thinks my music is still on because, barely audible over the clank, I hear exactly what he says.



My sweetheart asks me what’s wrong and I’m say “Everything is great!” because confidence is sexy. But I’m driving her nuts. She says, “You have to show me all of you.”

I’ve shown her the side of my face, the Levantine nose that dwarfs my chin, my knobby nipples that stare at the floor. Does she really need to know about the night under the payphone? The spiked punch? Chad and Brad?

I stay quiet. Remember: Confidence is sexy.