The simple act of noticing: A Conversation with Domenica Martinello

Domenica Martinello is a writer from Montréal, Quebec and the author All Day I Dream about Sirens (Coach House Books, 2019). She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was the recipient of the Deena Davidson Friedman Prize for Poetry. Most recently, her poem “Parthenope & Virgil” was anthologized in Best Canadian Poetry 2019.


Shira Abramovich: Good morning! Thanks so much for the pleasure of reading your book—and now chatting about it! I have to start with the title, since that was the first part of the book I loved. How did you choose this particular one?

Domenica Martinello: I’m so happy you loved the title! I love it too—though I’d had a few suggestions from editors and peers to change it along the way, it felt non-negotiable. When I began writing the first few siren poems, before I understood them as part of something bigger, I named one of them “ADIDAS” as a placeholder (that poem never did get renamed in the end). It was just a little joke to myself, but as I continued writing through the emerging themes of the book it solidified itself as the perfect title. “All Day I Dream About Sirens” retains a playful element that feels necessary, speaks to the siren’s rebirth as corporate logo, and captures an obsessive, recursive quality that I like.

In short, a happy accident that stuck.

SA: Could you talk about how this project developed? For instance: why sirens?

DM: The project grew out of a simple act of noticing. I used to walk by a Starbucks on my way to work, and one day it just hit me how unsettling the implications of the siren logo are. Using the image of a feminized (and often sexualized) sea monster who lures sailors to their deaths with her enchanting song to sell coffee? The premise sounds like a devilish fable in and of itself, and I’ve always loved mythology so I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I initially thought I’d write a few sonnets in the voice of the Starbucks siren. Sonnets, because I had writer’s block at the time and formal constraints usually help lift me out. But the more I researched the Starbucks siren (herself born from the corporation’s literary allusion to Starbuck, the coffee-loving first mate in Moby Dick), the more all-encompassing the ancient and contemporary mythologies surrounding sirens and mermaids became.

They felt both real and familiar to me and while also being these doors into meditations on gender, power, agency, capitalism, feminism, ancestry, sexuality, ubiquity. In the end, the Starbucks siren plays a small role in the book but she was my first way in.

SA: Yes, I was particularly struck by the Starbucks siren in the book! Did any of those first sonnets find their way into the book?
DM: None at all! But reference to the sonnet form made its way into all the “Song” poems.

SA: And a question I’ve stolen from Kaveh Akbar’s Divedapper: how old are the oldest poems in this book?

DM: I wrote the oldest poem that predates the project but still felt relevant to include (“Virginia’s Moth”) in late 2013. The first book-specific poems were started in the spring of 2015, the site of that fateful act of noticing, while I was taking an independent workshop on “The Long Poem” with Book*Hug’s Jay Milar.

SA: There are so many intertextual moments throughout the book—you have quotations from Slate and Howard Schultz, references to Emily Wilson’s new Odyssey translation, IKEA and HBO, a line from Apollinaire, Bible verses, and ADIDAS of course—how did all these references (and more!) find their way into the book?

DM: I think it’s sort of a natural part of my poetic voice. There are poems that reference Classical Greek Literature, Homer, and mythology—and then there are also poems that reference Game of Thrones and Beach House and things like that.

I wanted to appeal to an audience that didn’t have to have a literature degree to understand these poems. I’m always juggling that, because I don’t come from a necessarily poetic background. I’m a first-generation university student and I don’t want to write these inaccessible, perfectly wrought yet cold poems, full of references that you need to get a dictionary or take a night course to understand. It’s really hard, because I do love classical literature—I’m not throwing it in for no reason; that is part of my register—but all of the more everyday, funnier aspects, the levity, that’s also part of my poetic voice. I didn’t want it to be too heavy and cerebral or just full of pop culture references and jokes, but to merge those two sensibilities.

I wanted my own voracious cultural consumerism to have space to fully roam around and for seemingly disparate ideas to interact with each other. It all found its way into the book organically. It would have been more effortful for me to pare down the intertext, honestly, so luckily here it felt right.

SA: Some of the moments I found most poignant in the book were in the poem “Unlettered,” in which you take on the voice of your grandmother. How did her voice (e)merge with the project?

DM: That poem was the hardest to write, the most heavily revised, and the most vulnerable. The process was really instructive to me and kind of laid bare the mechanisms I use to distance myself from writing from a personal place.

Working within an overarching theme can be one such mechanism, but while writing ADIDAS I discovered that siren mythology is integral to the origins of Naples, where my family is from in southern Italy. It was sign—and so the personal and ancestral were pulled into the mix. I was close with my grandmother, who passed away in 2015, right around the time I started writing the book. I inherited my name from her, something she was very proud of. Except that there’s an error in my last name, Martinello, which is missing an ‘i’ (Martiniello).

Long story, but I never corrected this error on my birth certificate and my grandmother, being an immigrant to Canada and illiterate, never knew or realized. I wanted to allow her to voice her disappointment while I also acknowledged my many privileges.

SA: That’s really beautiful. I was so impressed with the way you were able to blend that vulnerability, that intimacy, with both serious social critique and whimsy in your pieces. I’m thinking in particular of moments like the one in “Private Mythologies,” where you throw in an aside (“bye, beads!”) or throw in a line like “Xanax Xanax Xanax Xanax Xmas Xanax Xanax.” I love these moments of levity. How did you decide to keep, or put, them in? Were there more that you cut?

DM: Thank you so much! I prune my poems slowly over time so it’s hard to remember how much of those moments got trimmed out. Inevitably a lot, though. I do try to strike a balance between heaviness and levity, without using cleverness as a way to skirt the unsavory or complicated. But the lens of humor is undeniably how I’ve made the hardness in life softer, a little more malleable, which in turn allows me to feel around in difficult spaces—thinking, searching, learning, and finally writing.

Writers like Patricia Lockwood (in specific poems but especially in her memoir Priestdaddy), Morgan Parker, Dorothea Lasky, Tommy Pico, Frank O’Hara, Anne Carson, etc. are phenomenal guides in this endeavour.

SA: Yes! I read the book Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer last year—she’s got that poem called “Not Writing,” and I felt like there was a connection there. You write about things that might be considered “not poetry” but are poetry, the way Anne Boyer says, “I’m writing about not writing so now it’s writing.”

DM: That collection is amazing! I would never claim to be as skilled as Anne Boyer, but yeah. She talks about these huge themes of sickness and death and life and motherhood and feminism, but she also has these poems about how sometimes the cure for your problems is buying a box of hair dye from the store and putting streaks in your hair. I just love that meshing.

We’re all these brains encased in bodies. It’s just a nice reminder—being a poet is not just being a floating brain in a jar. We interact with the world in embarassing and trite and silly and funny ways too. So cool that you’d bring up Boyer—she’s awesome.

SA: Could you talk more about your process? Do you have a routine when it comes to writing?

DM: This type of question is so hard because I love the idea of routine (I pine over it, yearn for it) but I’m absolutely all over the place. And the process for each poem is always different, which sucks because each time can feel like I don’t know what I’m doing all over again.

SA: Also, I’ve been curious—do you drink Starbucks?

DM: Like, not exclusively, but I definitely do. I used to show up to my writing workshops with my Starbucks coffee. I know I’m complicit in the system I’m critiquing, so I try to do it with a wink.

SA: Classical literature and myth plays such a huge role in this book. Could you talk about the connections and reflections you see between myth and—as you said earlier—“gender, power, agency, capitalism, feminism, ancestry, sexuality, ubiquity”?

DM: To try to boil it down, classical literature and myth are so satisfying to me because of how I think about the place of history, storytelling, innovation, and progress in my life and practice.

History is a man-made structure that is designed to be accepted as natural and monolithic. But to me, mythology lays bare that history is storytelling, and who’s stories count and how they are told is related to what you mention above—gender, power, agency, and the rest.

History as progress is itself a myth, and a boring one. So is the avant-garde when it comes to writing, to an extent. No matter how innovative, we’ve been telling ourselves the same types of stories and struggling through the same emotional, social, and spiritual problems for thousands of years. Once I understood that I was mired in the muck of all that, myth became fertile space to reimagine possibilities.

SA: I believe you also work as an educator! How does being an educator affect your work or how you approach it?

DM: Teaching has been the most inspiring part of my writing life. I don’t mean to be cynical, but as much as I love being a writer, I’m not precious about it. As a solitary act, I don’t think publishing poetry is revolutionary or radical. Education, mentorship, and community are what activate the magic and possibility of poetry for me. It’s been my way to find value and meaning in what I do, and to feel like I am acting in the service of something greater than myself.

The best part of my MFA was the opportunity to teach creative writing, and currently in Montréal I work with the Quebec Writers’ Federation Writers in the Community program, which offers creative writing workshops and literacy programming to at-risk youth communities. I volunteered for a similar organization in Iowa City called The Iowa Youth Writing Project. I love people and I love the privilege of working with young people in particular. It’s so humbling and inspiring to get to connect with and nurture creativity in others.

SA: In the same vein, what’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

DM: Honestly, it’s hard to think of a favorite, but there were two pieces of writing advice that resonated with me at different points.

During my undergrad, I studied English Lit and Creative Writing at Concordia. Like many writers, I had severe impostor syndrome—I didn’t really know what I was getting into, and didn’t conceive of myself as a true writer yet, and I felt kind of alienated from some of my peers who seemed to have had such a headstart on me, because I come from a more working-class background. The poet Sina Queyras was one of my profs at the time, and they said—all of those writers who are at the bar talking about this novel that they’re writing—that person, in ten years, will still be working on the same thing because they’re not actually putting their butt in a chair and writing about it. The advice was just, don’t be intimidated by those people. Those people are not any more real writers than you are for being at home writing on a Friday night and not at the bar talking about the thing that you’re writing that you’re not actually writing because you’re at the bar.

So that was one thing, and another thing a bit later on—a friend and writer Spencer Gordon was talking about the value in slowing down and not rushing to publish something. I know that’s kind of hypocritical for me to say now, because I’m 28 and I have a first book out, and I know there’s  a lot of pressure to get a book out before you’re 30. But it can feel terrible. I feel that especially with poetry, it’s not something that needs to be rushed, or should be rushed, and that kind of pressure to rush to get something out really can hurt someone’s writing. I always try to remind myself to slow down and just focus on working on something until it’s done.

SA: I really like those two in conjunction.

DM: I don’t know what that says about me—it’s not writing advice like “always write early in the morning”—again, that is all chaos for me, but those are almost more personal and identity-based [pieces of advice]. They resonate with the kind of person I am and resonate with the kinds of insecurities and thoughts that can prevent me from just doing what I like to do.

SA: Last question—what was your favorite part of writing this book?

DM: How everyone had a mermaid or siren story, poem, movie, anecdote, or fact to share with me along the way!


Shira Abramovich

Shira Abramovich is very happy with her first name. Her writing has appeared in Crashtest and Polyphony HS, among others, and her work has been recognized by the Claudia Ann Seaman and Edwin M. Honig Memorial Awards. She is a student at Brown University, where she works across languages, spoken and computational. She has also lived and studied in Tel Aviv, Israel and Paris, France.

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