Poems as Prayer: A Conversation with Adrienne Novy

Adrienne Novy is one of the country’s most exciting young poets.  Her debut collection Crowd Surfing With God (published by Half Mystic Press) is sure to resonant with anyone who’s ever found community in a record, moshpit, or one line from a song.  We got a chance to speak with Novy about her poetry, religion, and pop punk.

What role does music play in your writing?

It plays a big role in my writing; at least, it does now.  It’s played a big role in my life for a long time. I’ve always loved music.  I’ve played clarinet since I was ten. It ended up getting into my writing, especially with this book.  I wrote “The Pop Punk Bible,” and I was like “Hey! Writing a poem about pop punk was a lot of fun. I should just keep doing this.”  It was also really fun for me to play with the terminology that comes with music. In high school, I took a music theory class, so when I was writing the book, I ended up looking back like “Wait, there’s theory terms I could be using in this writing.”  Then, I also want to make sure that I’m using it correctly or at least in a way that makes sense to the reader and to someone who’s a music theory person.

I’m trying to break out of it a little bit, but it’s also fun to just right about music.  A lot of lyrics will jump out at me. I have a couple notes pages on my phone that are just song lyrics that have stood out to me. I try to keep each note page by the same writer.  So, let’s say I want to write a Mitski poem, I have a couple ideas I can pull from or at least know the images those songs gave me when listening to them.

And it’s fun to read through the full book and then read the notes at the end where you point out where things come from!

Thank you! That’s actually one of my favorite parts of the book.  As a reader and listener of music and poetry and all genres of literature,  the coolest thing for me is to find out where the writer’s influence comes from and even just knowing even the playlist of music they were listening to while they were writing the book, it’s just super cool to know as a reader and listener.

And you included a mixtape of some of the songs you were listening to when you were writing Crowd Surfing With God?

It was and it wasn’t.  I listened to [those songs] a lot while writing it, but also, I would listen to those songs and end up getting a poem out of it, or hearing a song and being like “I wanna write a poem influenced by that,” be it influenced by the sound of the music or the lyrics itself or the image or the memory that it brought back.  With the book itself, I ended up having a lot of these songs that ended up becoming the playlist, and then, when I would listen to the playlist I would put the songs in different order. I would listen to those [songs] in that specific order to see how those poems would sound through those songs, and the order of the book and how that would work as a mixtape if you listened to it straight through.  Whenever I would change the order of the book, I would shift the songs around in the playlist.

That’s actually very cool.  I’ve been having a playlisting phase, so this very much appeals to me.

It’s also just fun to make playlists, especially when your friends have really cool playlists on Spotify.

Can you tell me some of your favorite picks from the mixtape?

It’s really kind of funny, because of the memories that some of these songs have.  I think my two top favorites that I love as songs. I love “Cigarettes & Saints.” I love all of The Wonder Years songs on here.  One of my favorites is definitely “River” by Joni Mitchell. In regards to The Wonder Years, I love the acoustic version of “A Song for Ernest Hemingway.”  I love also “The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me.” Also, “Conversations” from Lovely Thing Suite  by Watsky.

Religion plays a major role in your poems.  Can you tell me about your relationship with religion?

That’s really funny; I was talking about it last night with my roommates over dinner.  We were joking around, and one of my roommates said “And, Adrienne’s the only one here that believes in god,” and I’m like “Who says I believe in god?” and then my roommate [said], “But you’re Jewish,” and I [said], “Yeah, but I’m culturally Jewish.”

I was never really raised religiously.  If I’ve gone to synagogue or services, I’ve found more comfort in the community and music and seeing the scripture as poetry like poem as prayer, but I never grew up in a religious household.  My parents never raised me or my sibling religiously. My dad grew up Roman Catholic, and my mom is Jewish. We celebrated the major holidays. My family for the longest time had this tradition where my dad my sibling and me would go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve.  That was our main thing for Christmas, and we’d have Hanukkah and celebrate Passover, but my parents never pushed religion or anything on me or my sibling.

I think that’s a good way to feel the communal elements when it’s not pushed on you as opposed to when it is forced upon you.

I feel like with Judaism: I felt like I’ve never really known my mom’s side of the family, being able to connect with Judaism through music.  I’ve been studying klezmer with my clarinet professor for the last couple years now. So, being able to have that has given a lot of comfort to me.

Last time we spoke, you’d told me a little bit about [your poem] “Lupus,” and you said your mom has lupus, correct?

My mom does have lupus.  Initially [the poem] started out as just the four definitions.  A writer friend that was editing this wanted more from it. I included this in the book, because this was really my start of touching on the subject of how it feels to grow up with chronic illness and to have a parent that’s also chronically ill.  It’s really hard to describe your poems.

It is something of an oxymoron.  Being an English major in college, you break down works of poetry, but then I also had a professor who said, the poem should speak for itself, so yes.

I definitely agree with both the poem speaking for itself, but also being able to critically analyze the poem.  Because my family comes up quite a bit in this book, I did want to be able to bring my mom into this as well, because I’m not the only one in my family that’s struggled with health issues.

On the next page is another favorite poem of mine, “I Lit You a Candle in Every Cathedral Across Europe (Even Though I’ve Never Left the States),” which is a great Wonder Years reference. 

Thank you!  I was really excited about it.  This poem and the title poem are both about a very very very close family friend that I lost while I was in high school.   It was interesting for me to have the pain of losing somebody but also feeling like I wasn’t close enough with him to be able to fully understand that grief or fully be able to grieve or, at least, be able to grieve without feeling selfish or bringing attention to myself.

I chose the lyric from “Cigarettes & Saints” from The Wonder Years for this poem, because that song was the first time I was able to have something to connect me to that grief and have “oh shit” moments listening to a song and being able to see yourself and your own experiences in it.

It also has sort of what you described earlier with religion where it’s taking solace in aspects of religion without necessarily believing all of it.

Bringing religion into it also felt right with this piece.  A lot of times with pop-punk, specifically with My Chemical Romance and Green Day especially, they really thumbed their nose at religion, a lot of the times, specifically Catholicism or Christianity, so I really wanted to find a way into that and explore that.

Can you tell me more about “Billie Joe Armstrong and I Come Out to Each Other?”

I actually have a story about “Billie Joe Armstrong,” and it was after the book came out.  I had a lot of fun with this poem, playing with the lyrics. Are you a Green Day fan?

One of my favorite bands!

Okay, so you probably picked up on the “Jesus of Suburbia” and the “Coming Clean” references!  I think it was definitely a way that I could be able to talk about queerness through the lens of pop-punk, without just having the one Anne Frank poem, and still be vulnerable to the extent of the way that the Diary of a Young Girl poem was.

I was the feature at the University of Minnesota for their slam series.  Their slams are at The Hole music club, and The Hole was where Green Day played in 1991, before they got really big.  Performing this poem there was like a bucket list thing. That was the coolest thing ever.

I also wanted to talk about “My Chemical Romance Headlines The Reading Festival With Brian May,” which I was inspired to look up that video after reading, because I didn’t know that existed.

It’s so cool!  They headlined Reading, and their last song was “Helena,” and people were cheering for an encore.  All of a sudden the lights started coming back on, and you could hear the guitar a little bit. When the lights come back on, you start hearing the iconic opening to “We Will Rock You,” and Gerard Way comes out.  They performed “We Will Rock You” and “Welcome to the Black Parade” with Brian May. That was the coolest thing to watch the MCR guys and how they were reacting to that whole thing. Ray Toro has this grin on his face like “Oh my god. I can’t believe this is happening.  One of our heroes is onstage with us. I never thought we’d be here.”

I ended up writing this one in one sitting, but I ended up doing a bunch of edits to it.

When you write, do you feel you tend to write in one sitting and then come back and do edits?

It comes in waves.  Sometimes, I’ll write a poem in one sitting.  Sometimes, I’ll just get a couple lines out, and I’ll just have to let that poem take its time and give it space.  It’s interesting being a creative writing major, because I have to write all the time for classes, and I have to be constantly editing my work.  It depends on how I’m feeling.

How do you tend to approach if something belongs on the page or is a performance poem?

I don’t know.  Sometimes, when I sit down to write, I want to be able to create content I can perform with.  Being someone that’s in the slam poetry circuit, [I] want to create enough of a repertoire that I can be able to have a bunch of poems  that I can pull from, and I’m not feeling like I’m doing the same poems at slams, because I know they’re the strongest or the ones I feel most confident in.  I feel like I can try something new at each different thing.

The last poem I wanted to ask you about was the last one in the book, “All That Grows Here.”  It kind of ties up any loose ends that come up throughout the book; was it a conscious decision to tie up all the loose ends?

That’s really interesting.  It definitely was intentional to put this at the end of the book.  I never really thought of it as tying up loose ends, but seeing the collection as having a cycle to it, [I saw it as] being able to circle back to different themes, rather than [if] there were things that were missing that needed to be added in to fix everything, if that makes sense?

I think so!

It’s so hard to describe your own work, because I also feel very pretentious when I do it, and it bugs the heck out of me.  But, yeah, it allows the book to have closure, but it also leaves it open-ended at the same time. The concept of self-love being a constant process and a changing thing.


To purchase Crowd Surfing With God and stay up to date on all upcoming releases visit the Half Mystic Press website.

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