January 9–15, 2023
Lilly Perry is a Brooklyn-based poet and educator. She currently teaches comprehensive sex-ed workshops at middle and high schools across NYC and works with adults as a certified lactation counselor. She also studies English education as a graduate student at Hunter College. Lilly began her poetry career as a spoken-word competitor and has performed on stages across the globe. She created a spoken-word album in 2019 while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa. In 2020, she self-published Anti-Body, her first chapbook. Lilly’s poetry appears in Anti-Heroin Chic, Bluff & Vine, Foundlings Press and elsewhere. Her poem below tied for runner-up at the 2022 Yawp Poem of the Year contest. Connect with Lilly on Instagram @lilly.r.perry.
Ode to Seventh Grade
it was the year we got detention for making eye contact
so often. Mrs. D couldn’t stand it—
the way she’d speak one word and our eyes
would flit up from our desks at the same exact time,
we couldn’t help it—
every ordinary thing sent us tumbling through a portal
into our shared world,
something in the bar graph, the word problem,
or the squeak of a chair made it impossible to resist
acknowledging our private mythology,
we were best friends—meaning, the whole of the cosmos was our inside joke, so
Mrs. D said we couldn’t look at each other anymore.
we added our minds to the list of body parts that others found distracting,
there were so many silent things we were punished for.
after school you showed me how to make a voodoo doll in our teacher’s image,
she was right to be scared
—of the invisible girl-thoughts swirling palpably through the ether.
it was the year all the girls carried purses to and from the bathroom.
yours was an elegant polka dot in black and white, mine,
a dreamy, green-sequined number from Claire’s.
the idea was to fill it with pads and tampons,
an extra pair of underwear,
the idea was to be ready, to be subtle,
to create an air of mystery among our coed peers.
in my book about puberty we marked our perceived breast growth
across the page with a number two pencil like a family
tracks height on a door jamb. we took off our clothes
and compared ourselves to the illustrations, we’d say
you look like this one,
as we did math in the margins:
breast buds + 2 years meant our periods should be coming.
you changed first, as you always had, by a season.
you left school early that day
and when I called you, you were crying.
it scared me
—the way getting older hadn’t felt like we’d imagined.
it was the year your parents accused me of exposing you to atheism.
we went to the computer lab and googled
“meaning of life,” we googled “what is humanism.”
i refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance but god, i loved
sitting next to you in homeroom,
you’d draw on my skin with pen while we sorted out the world
into things we believed in and things we didn’t.
we each wanted to be a good person.
it was an election year.
mckenzie f. started a rumor that my parents believed in killing babies
so my parents said her parents must believe in killing innocent civilians
and we agreed
that my crush looked like the painting of Franklin Pierce
hanging on the US Presidents wall of our social studies classroom.
not to be dramatic
but i would have died for you at every age i’ve been since we met,
i would’ve gone anywhere with you,
you believed in that.
i believed in you so
i wasn’t really worried about the rest of it.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I’ve been teaching at the middle-school level for five years, and I often find inspiration through conversations with students. I think that good teachers always remember how it felt to be young, and honor the richness and complexity of adolescence. I’ve noticed that seventh-graders in particular tend to get a bad rap, so in writing this poem I wanted to meditate on the tenderest moments of my own middle-school years. I recorded my memories as a series of vignettes, which formed this three-part poem. The process revealed to me that friendship-love was (and still is!) absolutely central to my life story so far.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a guided sexuality journal for teenagers and adults. I’m also working on a chapbook about things in my apartment!
What’s a good day for you?
My best days involve the outdoors, creativity, learning and love. I enjoy nature walks with my parents, journaling in the park, having friends over for dinner, meeting my partner for hot chocolate, attending poetry performances, listening to an engrossing audiobook, teaching or attending a great class, and riding my bike along the river!
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Wanting to be closer to friends and family.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I currently live in Clinton Hill. I love Fort Greene Park, the way neighbors greet each other, and all of the sweet families that allow me to people-watch (this time of year, babies in snowsuits!!) while I swing on the swingset across from my apartment.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Furnishing my apartment with beautiful sidewalk furniture, transported home on the B38 bus.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I believe that art is meant to be shared. For me, a poetry community is a group of artists and friends who experience and believe in each other’s work. Yes, I have found that here, but I would love to grow my community.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I saw Mahogany Browne perform at a poetry slam in college, bought her book, and returned to it for years and years. I got into Audre Lorde for a girl that I liked, but of course, ended up finding my own deep meaning in her stunning work. Also, sad but true—I loved Whitman as a teen because of the Nicholas Sparks book / movie The Notebook.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My entry into poetry came from watching spoken-word poets such as Anis Mojgani, Andrea Gibson, Alysia Harris and Jasmine Mans on YouTube. I started performing spoken word at school and coffee shops at age fourteen after watching these giants. Andrea and Alysia taught me never to hold back from writing love poems!
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I just read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, and I’m feeling motivated to develop a more intentional relationship with modern technology. I have so many IRL hobbies, passions and relationships that add deep meaning to my life, and I want to prioritize them more purposefully over my online activities.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’m planning on borrowing my mom’s copy of Devotions by Mary Oliver again. Third time’s the charm, right?
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
Forget what I said about digital minimalism. I read everything on my Kindle Paperwhite and listen to audiobooks using the free Libby app. I also download my ebooks for my Kindle using Libby. (Libby people, hit me up to talk about a sponsorship.) Hot tip for Libby users—if you put your Kindle on airplane mode after downloading your ebooks, they will not be automatically returned! I usually like to have one novel, one poetry collection and one nonfiction audiobook going at all times. I switch between them depending on my mood, but I do read any books that I’m enjoying cover to cover.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
An abecedarian poem!
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
At the park, my favorite diners, Hunter College and at work (oops).
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love listening to music on the swingset across the street from my apartment. I love swimming laps and going to a morning water-aerobics class with the nice retired ladies at the Bed-Stuy YMCA. I love literary spaces like Brooklyn Poets, the Center for Fiction and Greenlight Bookstore. I love having a Rocky moment on the steps in Fort Greene Park. I love my brother’s apartment because it’s a little piece of home.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate this earthly distance.
And what I miss, you miss, right?
For every life that will come from me as good as came from you.
Friends, family, art, history.