Ms. Muse: The Coffee Must Be Excellent and We Must Dance—to Defy Russia

Ms. Muse is a discovery place for riotous, righteous and resonant feminist poetry that nourishes and gives voice to a rising tide of resistance—brought to you by Ms. digital columnist Chivas Sandage.

“The coffee must be excellent and we must dance. And in doing this, in living life fiercely, we defy Russia.”

My old friend, Athena, a transgender American who volunteered as a teacher in Ukraine for several weeks in 2022, went on to explain, “In Ukraine, you really get, viscerally, that life. Is. Short. Things are urgent. There is no time to waste. It’s one thing to know this. It’s entirely different to be in a whole city where everyone around you knows it and lives it.”

This is why we need poems. Excellent coffee and songs. We dance and read poetry to live more fully. And to defy.

In America, many have some connection to Ukrainian people and/or culture, perhaps even a local Ukrainian diner or bakery they frequent, but Russia’s unprovoked, bizarrely medieval war against Ukraine can feel and is terribly far, far away. The daily media coverage of this war’s countless horrors, over time, can both overwhelm and desensitize.

Meanwhile, many Americans have lost someone or too many to cancer or opioids or COVID. To poverty or racism. Lack of mental healthcare or gun violence. A mass shooting or bombing. We’re witnessing the climate crisis strike in real time. The threat of nuclear disaster and war. Democracy is in grave danger. The Supreme Court has ruled that only biological males have bodily autonomy. And the Capitol siege makes it possible to imagine a 21st century civil war.

There are days when reading or writing poems feels like the most privileged, ridiculous thing one could possibly do in the face of so much suffering.

But just as we must dance, we must turn to poetry to resist, witness and persist. To remember and reconnect—with ourselves and each other. With our country. With those who came before us. With our children and the future we long to create.

Athena’s convinced that Ukraine can win this war and “the reason, ultimately, is because of poetry,” she said. “Because of narrative. A narrative of Ukrainian nationhood and a narrative of freedom that they have created together—that is what is driving them forward and giving them strength to prevail.”

“Story,” I said.

“There is an appreciation of freedom, history, a distinct identity. The power of the shared story—they’re creating together.”

This is what I thought about as I read poems sent in response to my call. Our poems, together, tell a larger story of us as a people—a story made of all our shared narratives. Our histories and identities. Our lived experiences of freedom—and freedom lost. Freedoms we’ve never known.

The following poems of resistance are written by five poets who identify as women or once did. These poems are about our lives, our mothers and grandmothers, our younger selves and changing selves. The myths, lies and abuse we were raised on. Our beauty and our truths, our lovers and marriages, children and childlessness. The particular deals we make with our lives and “the true honey of freedom.”

Our poetry and stories—our songs—bring us together, remind and ignite us, and make us strong.

Barbara Jane Reyes

Barbara Jane Reyes. (Peter Dressel)

Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, Philippines, and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books, 2003), Poeta en San Francisco (TinFish Press, 2005), Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010), To Love as Aswang (Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc., 2015), Invocation to Daughters (City Lights Publishing, 2017), Letters to a Young Brown Girl (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2020) and Wanna Peek Into My Notebook?: Notes on Pinay Liminality (Paloma Press, 2022). She is also the author of three chapbooks, For the City That Nearly Broke Me (Aztlan Libre Press, 2012), Cherry (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2007) and Easter Sunday (Ypolita Press, 2007).

Reyes received her bachelor’s in ethnic studies at U.C. Berkeley and an MFA at San Francisco State University. She teaches in the Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program at University of San Francisco. She lives with her husband, poet and educator Oscar Bermeo, in Oakland.

The Poem


Where did your mother live? 

In stories of bamboo and mischievous birds. 
In a time before mountains, when floodwaters rose. 
In the voice of cut reeds who were coaxed into speech. 

Where did your mother live? 

In gardens of bittermelon, singkamas at talong. 
In Sunday hymnals, novenas and penance. 
In Santo Niño and Papa Dios. 

Where did your mother live? 

In the well of genocide, in the well of amnesia, 
Toothless, ulcerated, weary in the womb. 
In hosts of women, coerced into muteness. 

Where did your mother live? 

In cartography, and in cathedrals. 
In mestiza curls, and hyphenated names. 
Beyond the frontera, no papers in hand. 

Where did your mother live? 

In labor, in labor, in fields, in ditches, 
In pesticides, stooped to harvest asparagus, 
Thick in the muck of American Dream. 

Where did your mother live? 

In crisp pencil skirts and prim kitten heels. 
In brain drain, suburbs, secretarial pool. 
In English only, in citizenship. 

Where did your mother live? 

In divorce, skyrocketing rent, and eviction. 
In anti-depressives, in food bank lines. 
In reruns, in gambling, in police reports. 

Where did your mother live? 

In rush hour gridlock, in 401(k). 
With four latch-key kids, and the family dog, 
Thick in the heart of American Dream. 

Where did your mother live? 

( ) 
( )
( ) 

From To Love as Aswang (San Francisco: Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc., 2015)

The Q&A

Chivas Sandage: Can you tell me about your process of writing this poem?

Barbara Jane Reyes: I wrote this poem after “One Question, Several Answers” by Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan, which sounds like an interrogation, no single answer the speaker provides sufficing. 

Sandage: What is your first memory of poetry?

Reyes: Rhyming poems, nursery rhymes, Filipino folk songs recited and sung from memory as a young child. Those musics.

Sandage: Can you share a few lines from a favorite poem, rhyme, or song? 

Reyes: My mother’s mother taught me this Tagalog song. I never knew exactly how to translate it. “Umakyat sa papaya” is “climbed the papaya tree.” For me, this was a beautiful, dreamy image of somewhere far away that I only knew from stories.

Leron, leron, sinta, umakyat sa papaya
Dala-dala'y buslo, sisidlan ng sinta

Sandage: How does the current political climate in the U.S. affect you as a woman and as a writer?

Reyes: Anger—both historical and contemporary anger have always fueled my work. What triggers me triggers my writing.

Hilary King

Hilary King. (Courtesy)

Originally from Virginia, Hilary King is a Pushcart-nominated and Best of the Web-nominated poet living with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. She is the author of the poetry collection, The Maid’s Car (2015), and her poems have appeared in numerous publications. She is working on a book of poems around the book, Lean In, and is pursuing an MFA at San Jose State University. Find her on Twitter at @hrk299 or at

The Poem

My grandmother sewing flowers,
her acumen a family legend.
Mother a weakness, support
of an active division.
The world I believed, percentages.
Idealistic biology drilling.
I married ambition. I breastfed ability.
I laughed frequently, unseemly. 
Rebellion no doll. Gender 
the fundamental assumption.
I started thinking without fear.
I shook to the stage.

An erasure poem of the book, Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg.

The Q&A

Chivas Sandage: Can you tell me about your process of writing this poem?

Hilary King: “Pipeline” is an erasure of a chapter from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and is part of a series I’m writing about this seminal book. Like many people, I had opinions about the book long before I read it. Once I did read it, I became fascinated and read it many times, trying to figure out both Sandberg’s story and my interest. I found her story to be a lonely one, a woman wanting more women around her. I had a strong adverse reaction to how she told that story—not just from privilege but using self-denigrating language to convey empathy.

Sandage: I’ve not read it. Can you give an example?

King: In the book, she talks more about her weaknesses or failures than her strengths and successes. Not knowing how to use the spreadsheet software when working at Treasury, crashing all the computers at Harvard, not doing the reading for class, her tendency to talk too much or blurt things out, etc. This seems to be an attempt to make her seem humble, but it’s also common among women–a refusal to take pride or simply state facts and instead insist we aren’t good at something. 

Sandage: What is your first memory of poetry?

King: I remember reading poems in the children’s magazine Cricket and being astonished by them. What were these? Why did they make me feel so buzzy? 

Sandage: How does the current political climate in the U.S. affect you as a woman and as a writer? 

King: As American women, our political lives are on fire. As writers, we must be the firefighters, going directly into the flames to beat them back. 

E.D. Watson

E.D. Watson. (Courtesy)

E. D. Watson teaches poetry-as-practice and mindful movement in Central Texas. Her creative writing and yoga workshops are designed to release held language from the body, to enhance healing and self-knowledge.

She has an MFA in creative writing, followed by training with the Institute for Poetic Medicine and is a Yoga Alliance certified CYT200. She also works as a clerk at a public library, and helps put together the library’s community poetry zine, When the River Speaks.

The Poem

In the Beginning

My mother taught me how to sit in church:
shoulders covered, knees pressed tight
lest they cause lust. The goal: to catch 
their eye, but not too much. 

Original sinners, daughters of Eve, 
makers of casserole and cake. Our job: 
to feed the men, tend their appetites. 
We were only as good as they said. 

Helpmeets, they called us, the weaker
sex, our bodies more prone to sin, 
both wanted and despised for the 
wanting we inspired. 

We took it in. We were cheerful 
despite it. We took their hunger and 
looked down demurely. We made it 
a pie and didn’t fight it.

The Father had certain tastes; 
we learned them like we learned 
our shapes: soft breasts, long hair, 
small waists. The shape of whipped

cream on a tongue. Our job was 
to know what he needed before he 
asked. To be docile, fertile, 
chaste. To make our children 

sit still in the pews, to look 
the other way when husbands’ 
hands pinched and struck 
and strayed.  

We deserved it; something to do
with some fruit, a snake. I knew
what I was, and whose. God watched. 
He followed me home from school. 

The Q&A

Chivas Sandage: Can you tell me about your process of writing this poem?

E.D. Watson: This poem emerged during a time when I was writing to understand and make peace with a past version of myself who inflicted on “our” body myriad forms of self harm, including years of anorexia. The more deeply I investigated, the more I realized some of the first lessons I was taught about my body were by the Evangelical Christian church my family attended, which has a weird obsession with and hatred for female bodies.

Sandage: What is your first memory of poetry?

Watson: When I was very young, my mother showed me some romantic poetry she’d written for my father when they were teenagers, and it made a big impression on me because it showed me a mysterious, previously unknown side of her. The first time I can remember turning to poetry to sort out my own big feelings was around ten or eleven, following the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.

Sandage: How does the current political climate in the U.S. affect you as a woman and as a writer?

Watson: I’d like to give a hopeful, inspirational answer, but honestly I tend to veer into dark headspaces, and often find myself googling things like “how many years until the sun explodes” and “sixth mass extinction.”

Sandage: I hear you. Let’s set hope aside. What gives you courage despite the headlines?

Watson: Teenagers give me lots of hope and courage—and I don’t just mean Malala and Greta, but my friends’ kids and kids I meet at the library where I work. I see in them a generation already light years ahead of where my generation was when we were their age, as far as knowing who they are and living their truth unapologetically. They remind me change is possible, and not as slow as I sometimes think it is. 

Gail Thomas

Gail Thomas. (Eric Fernandez)

Gail Thomas’ forthcoming collections of poetry in fall 2022 are Trail of Roots, winner of the A.V. Christie award (Seven Kitchens Press) and Leaving Paradise (Human Error Publishing). She has four other books and her poems are widely published in journals and anthologies. Awards include the Charlotte Mew Prize from Headmistress Press for Odd Mercy, the Narrative Poetry Prize from Naugatuck River Review, and the Massachusetts Center for the Book’s “Must Read” for Waving Back. She teaches poetry for Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshops, and volunteers helping to resettle Afghan refugees and visiting libraries with her “reading buddy” dog, Sunny.

The Poem


The thick trunk knotted around itself needed a dozen rusted pipes
            to hold its weight. Opulent globes dripped, a purple curtain
that rambled toward the house. The man
            I married with rash bravado chose to pour our years
into this stone shell that tilted over the road in a village
            tucked between cornfields and the Kittatinny Ridge.
In its shadow I posed, pale and tired holding my first-born.
            Vowing restoration and authenticity after running water, electricity,
and heat, we plastered cracks in horsehair walls,
            sanded plank floors, scraped decades of paper and paint, caulked
six-over-six window panes, mortared the chimney, shimmied
            a claw foot tub up winding stairs.
Then another baby came.
I dug up a cabinet buried in an outbuilding, scrubbed it
            with a toothbrush to uncover a painted tin ad for horse medicine.
This we haggled over in the divorce. 
            The general store gossip told of two maiden teachers
who last lived in this house and built a fairy
            garden of random flowers in the grass.
One woman was seen each week on hands and knees
            cutting the lawn with scissors. At public auction,
their goods on display, I bid on a somber, brown
            velvet quilt they may have slept under. 
Years later I peer into a deep window, see myself
            as the young mother who locked herself out one night,
wrote songs in the cellar, kissed a woman.
            The house unshuttered and painted the wrong color, lists
closer to the road, the vines, sparsely bloomed
            run rampant, the future trails ahead
on stony ground.

From the Naugatuck River Review, 2018, issue 19

The Q&A

Chivas Sandage: Can you tell me about your process of writing this poem? 

Gail Thomas: I thought about this story for many years, but didn’t know how to approach it until I remembered the gnarled wisteria vines. They provided an entry and metaphor.

Sandage: What is your first memory of poetry? 

Thomas: As a child I listened to A.A. Milne’s verses in When We Were Very Young, until I could read them myself.

Sandage: How does the current political climate in the U.S. affect you as a woman and as a writer? 

Thomas: As an older woman who has lived through upheaval that has affected women and people of color, the current climate is very frightening. I have been writing poems about immigration, discrimination, gun control and climate change—that’s what I know how to do.

Karen Poppy

Karen Poppy with her dog, Kitty. (Courtesy)

A non-binary poet, Karen Poppy’s debut full-length poetry collection, Diving at the Lip of the Water, is forthcoming in 2023 with Beltway Editions. Her chapbooks Crack Open / Emergency (2020) and Our Own Beautiful Brutality (2021) are both published by Finishing Line Press. Her chapbook, Every Possible Thing, is published by Homestead Lighthouse Press (2020). An attorney licensed in California and Texas, Karen Poppy lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Poem


Grow, crack soil like sky, create
Fire from water, red petaled and large.

Grow also in small ways, imperceptible
To all eyes except that which turns inward.

When Earth spins toward dusk, find yourself
At home in your skin, warm and limitless and alive.

The Q&A

Chivas Sandage: Can you tell me about your process of writing this poem?

Karen Poppy: I felt the deep need to address what it means to be alive and speak to this. To remind myself and others of the wondrous experience of life. The pandemic and other world events have focused us so intently and profoundly on fear, and while this is warranted, we also need to focus on life as a miracle and experience of joy.

Sandage: What is your first memory of poetry?

Poppy: My mom read to me Shakespeare and other poetry, and I created my first poem at age 3. She transcribed it for me. A poem about a nightingale. I only knew of nightingales from literature, and literature can teach us so much of what we have little or no access to, or understanding of, in our daily lives. 

I grew up in a time when few, if any, books existed in libraries and bookstores (that I had access to) about being gay and gender non-conforming. For many, that is still a reality. Fortunately, my local small-town library where I grew up had books on feminist topics and themes. I just wish there had also been books about being gay and gender non-conforming. I didn’t understand myself or my own existence. I knew more about a nightingale, a bird with which I had no real life experience, than about myself.

Sandage: How does the current political climate in the U.S. affect you as a woman and as a writer? 

Poppy: I’m non-binary, so not a woman, but assigned female at birth and socialized as a girl. Often, I’m misgendered, since our society still relies on cues of outward appearance and largely adheres to the gender binary. I find it wonderful that all of this is shifting to be more understanding and inclusive, even though we have seen tremendous backlash. 

With regard to how the current political climate in the U.S. affects me as a person with a uterus, and as a person who is gender non-conforming, whose body can be controlled and legislated in various ways by the government—this is inherently wrong, unethical and dangerous. 

With regard to how this affects me as a writer, I will keep writing and standing up for what is right, and as one of many voices.  

(I learned during the course of this interview that some non-binary folks use she/her pronouns.)

Ms. Muse: A Call for Poems About Choice and Daring to Remember

Ms. Muse is always seeking poems about the lived experience of being, having been or becoming a woman and/or girl. This is a call for sensory, image-rich writing that reflects women’s lives. I’m very open to poets who write from intersectional perspectives.

This call also welcomes poems about choice and/or the lack of it—about abortion and bodily autonomy.

Just as Ms. is collecting abortion stories, Ms. Muse seeks poems about abortion. To quote writer/editor Carmen Rios: “These may not be our own stories. They may be the stories whispered to us by our old classmates, by our aunts and cousins. They may be the stories our families and neighbors have dared us to never tell. They may be the stories of our grandmothers, sisters, daughters, mothers and friends. For too long, these stories have gone untold or been forgotten. Beginning today, we are daring to tell them. We are daring to remember.”

Email one to 10 poems in the body of your email, including your name, pronouns and contact information to Selections are made based entirely on work submitted—no letter or bio needed. Simultaneous submissions are fine. Previously published poems from books with modest print runs (like most collections of poetry) are fine, but the poem must not appear elsewhere on the internet.

Ms. Muse poets retain full rights to their poem(s) for republishing elsewhere. We will promote you and your work to the millions of readers connected via our website and social media. Contributors will receive a one-year subscription to Ms.

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Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms., winner of the 2021 Claire Keyes Poetry Award, and author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the Foreword Book of the Year Award in poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in the Texas Observer, The Rumpus, Salmagundi, Southern Humanities Review, and the print version of Ms. Magazine, among others. Her debut nonfiction book is forthcoming from the University of Texas Press. Ms. Muse, her column, features contemporary feminist poets and essays on the intersection of poetry, politics, and our lives. Follow her on Twitter: @ChivasSandage.