Welcome back, Lisa Dordal!

This month we are celebrating the titles that we’ve acquired over the past twelve months. These manuscripts came to us through our open reading periods. Today we bring you Lisa Dordal, whose poetry collection Water Lessons will be published next spring. 

Have a manuscript you think we’d like? During our June Open Reading Period we are looking for poetry (chapbooks and full-length collections), short fiction (again, both chapbooks and full-length collections), novels, novellas, nonfiction (CNF, biography, cultural studies), anthology proposals, and translations from German. 



The Author

Lisa Dordal holds a Master of Divinity and a Master of Fine Arts (in poetry), both from Vanderbilt University, and teaches in the English Department at Vanderbilt. Her first full-length collection of poetry, Mosaic of the Dark, was a finalist for the 2019 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets University Prize, the Robert Watson Poetry Prize, and the Betty Gabehart Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Best New Poets, New Ohio ReviewThe SunNarrativeRHINONinth LetterCALYXThe Greensboro Review, and Vinyl Poetry


On Writing Water Lessons


In many ways, Water Lessons is a continuation of the themes I wrestled with in Mosaic of the Dark: my mother’s alcoholism and eventual death, my experience of coming out as a lesbian, and my exploration of the patriarchal underpinnings of the world I grew up in. However, in Water Lessons, poems about these themes are now intertwined with poems about my father’s dementia, my own childlessness, and my growing awareness of my complicity in systemic racism as a white girl growing up in the 70s and 80s. On the surface, these themes might seem wide-ranging and even unrelated but the poems are all deeply linked in the way they interrogate the relationship between reality and imagination, faith and doubt, presence and absence.

My writing process always involves lots of reading. During the summer months (when I’m not teaching), I typically try to spend an hour or two a day reading poetry. I always keep pen and paper close by when I read because, invariably, something I read will trigger at least the beginning of a poem—a phrase or two or sometimes even a couples of pages. I write as much as I can until I feel something inside—an aha moment—that tells me the reason for the poem’s existence. After that, I move to my study (I typically do my reading in the living room) and type up whatever I’ve written and then take it from there. Once I have a draft of a poem, I’ll spend several days (sometimes weeks) revising and tweaking.

I also try to incorporate “morning writing” into my process—where I write 3 pages (often using a “ghost line” from another poem to get started) first thing in the morning. I have never been able to sustain a year-round practice of morning writing. But I find that even if I only sustain this practice for a month or two during the summer, that’s better than nothing.

For me, the writing process is as much about listening as it is about speaking—about opening myself up to whatever it is that is looking for me.




Daughter Poem

Sometimes I see her pressing her palms
against a windowpane in a house that is real

the way a house in a dream is real
until you start to describe it and all you can say is:

it was this house, only it wasn’t. It’s winter
and she likes to feel the cold entering her body.

Or it’s summer and it’s heat she’s after.
She wasn’t born, so she can’t die.

Sometimes there is a window but no girl,
and I am the one walking towards it.

Sometimes I see her peering in—
forehead against the screen of our back door—

or running ahead of me on a path that is real
the way a path in a dream is real, saying:

this way, this way.



Flipping the remote, I keep landing
on the hotel’s Welcome Channel.

Hello, a woman says. White woman,
pretty smile. May I have a minute of your time?

Be as alert as you are at home, she says.
Pretty woman, concerned for my safety.

She keeps walking towards me—there,
behind everything else. Like fear behind the eyes.

I keep flipping, taking in the news of the week.
People are protesting in the streets:

This Pussy Fights Back. No Ban, No Wall.
Never invite strangers into your room.
Pretty smile, pretty woman. As pretty
as my mother was when she was alive.

Pretty as she was in my dream. Be alert,
the woman says. As alert as you are at home.
I never knew, on Tuesdays, what she’d look like—
my mother, who drove to the Del Mar College
of Hair Design to get dolled up cheap
by a stranger. Sometimes, large, loopy curls.
Other times, tight and small—tucked in
like something sleeping. Use the viewport,
the woman says, if someone knocks on your door.
Hepburn-chestnut one week to a sassy blonde
the next. In the dream, she is reading
from my book. She looks happy.
Keep the doors and windows locked,
the woman says. In five pages,
my mother will be dead. First, the bottles
hidden in bookcases throughout
the house. Then, the heart wing. Locked,
the woman says, at all times. My mother
glances up. She is reading in the voice she used
for Sounder and The Chronicles of Narnia.
She reads as if the woman she is
will not die; as if the woman who dies
will not be her. As if she is not even there.
Like when she learned about my attempts—
aspirin, then the knife, my hand like Abraham’s
over Isaac. Nice story, my mother said.
We had learned to slip out of ourselves.
To squeeze our consciousness through a hole
the size of a dime. We were small inside
our bodies. My body is sin, she told me once.
Be alert, the woman says. As alert
as you are at home. Nice story, she said.
The Life I Live
I could feel them looking up at me—
imaginary customers in a lightly furnished room—
as I scribbled orders on a small pad of paper.
I was nine, bringing make-believe food
to people in a hurry or on vacation. One, I remember,
was grieving. Another, I could tell, was in love.
Sometimes I imagine myself at ninety, somewhere north
forever cold, cradling a doll—my mind
as demented as my father’s is now. The doll’s eyes
opening and closing, making a soft clicking sound—
like an upturned beetle trying to right itself.
My daughter, neither born nor conceived,
splits my life in two directions. I like my life,
who I’ve become and who I love. Still, my mind
bears a creek deep enough for swimming,
children’s shoes piling up by the back door.
My sorrow is as real as I am. Sometimes
I barely feel it—the way an animal, hibernating
in winter, might be cut and barely bleed.
Other times, the daughter I never had cups her hands
around fireflies—a glass jar on the grass beside her—
and asks Why doesn’t night stay in the jar?
Joanna Macy says we must face our despair,
look right at it. Which is why I looked at George,
Hawaiian tree snail, last of his kind, dead
the first of the year. His death, symbolic
as it was real. When you give something a name,
people pay attention, and everyone said
he must have been lonely. Here’s something
I can’t name: the peace I felt while looking at his photo.
As if looking was a kind of love. Not enough,
but more than nothing at all. My daughter
is a lovely fiction. And god. What shall I do
with god? A priest held hostage for three years
celebrated communion every day with his fellow prisoners.
Body of Christ broken for you, as he distributed
the invisible bread. Blood of Christ shed for you,
pretending to lift a chalice of wine. Everyone said
what happened was real. My sorrow twists dolls
out of willow, buries them in the shade of an old tree.
My daughter presses her hands over my eyes.
Now you see me, now you don’t. The doll’s eyes
open and close. I’m happier than this poem says I am.
And also sadder. Maybe this will be enough: at ninety,
walking through snow, holding what isn’t there
until what isn’t there calls my name.