Mariah is one of the most versatile poets in Grand Rapids, and her strong finishes at several of the Mentally Distilled Poetry Slams have proven this. In May, her passionate performances earned her first place out of sixteen incredible poets. (She is now leading the score brackets alongside Rachel Gleason.) In June, she featured alongside Angela “Hot Sauce” Cluley at The Drunken Retort. And at the end of July, she will be moving to Wichita, Kansas to pursue her MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in poetry (of course) at Wichita State University.
But enough of the facts! I sat down with Mariah last month over dinner and a six-pack of Soft Parade and unearthed her backstory, and that’s far more interesting than all of these bragging rights.
“In my life,” she says, “music started everything.” As a kid, she often invented her own words to popular songs. From there, she moved on to journaling and storytelling. “My first ever poem was ‘The Lakeshore.’” Her poetry today is still tied closely with those environmental and physical themes. Take one of her most recent poems, “Calamine Lotion and Why I am Thankful for Poison Ivy”:
“She had a rosary made of turquoise hanging from the rearview mirror of her black Prius
and I saw our spirits collide—
mine draped in Catholic mysteries
the kind filled with relics—
bones of ancient saints hidden under altars,
hers in the way she rolled down the windows
when I look at the redwoods, I can see things in them.”
Mariah has found much of her inspiration from reading the Beats. “I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac [and] Allen Ginsberg is probably my favorite poet of all time. Then I saw Sarah Kay’s poem “Hands” and I was like, ‘This is a lot like [the] Beatniks and a lot like music.’” This combination of two of her favorite genres resulted in her love of and eventual expertise in spoken word poetry.
And the Drunken Retort has played a huge role in developing her ear: “…it wasn’t until Retort that I studied spoken word for its craft. We have such a great community. I’ve gotten better because of everyone’s talent,” she says.
She owes a lot of her early college enthrallment with poetry to her Aquinas College mentor, Pamela Dail Whiting. “[She] helped me elevate a spoken word poem for the Resourceful Women’s Conference [at Aquinas]. That was my first experience writing spoken word. [Now], I want to get my MFA and be [to others] what Pamela was to me.”
“I write a lot about my anxiety and hypochondria,” she continues, as anyone familiar with her poem about hypochondria or her piece “The day the debt collector called” knows. “I’ve definitely come a long way [in dealing] with social anxiety…” At her Retort feature, she smiled and said, “I feel spirit in a lot of things.”
One of Mariah’s winning poems from the May slam was “How to Grieve at a Punk Show.” I’ve been known to say that the best performance poems are literary poems, and this piece is my case in point.
“When they sing about the ex-girlfriend,
replace the word “break-up” with “death.”
No one will recognize the difference—
both require loss—
both require a washing of hands
both require a pouring out—
pour yourself out…
The band plays “your song”—
you notice it is everyone’s song…
They do not know that you are grieving:
No one recognizes the difference in their pain and yours
but they still choose to come together…”
Where did this poem originate? Mariah had recently lost someone and needed to cope with her grief. “I love going to shows and pushing people around,” Mariah grins. “So I said, ‘I need to find a concert.’ That poem is about how everyone at a concert [is feeling something].”
“And your favorite song is everyone’s favorite song,” I agree. The poem remarks on the hope that many of us poets have: the power of art to unite people.
Mariah’s favorite poetry-related memory was when she saw Andrea Gibson, which was “pretty fucking awesome.” She also recommends that everyone read Adrienne Rich’s “Cartographies of Silence.” “It’s really great,” Mariah says. “She does really cool stuff with form and numbered poems.” Lastly, her advice for other writers: “Focusing on being fearless is important. Be vulnerable in writing your poems. [Write] what you’re afraid to write.”
I’ll leave you with a passage you might not be familiar with. It’s from “Laughter,” one of Mariah’s page poems:
“When our lips met, I laughed.
It was filled with your breath
like the moment you were born again—
beneath moonlight. Found
that love wasn’t always a lie drenched in panic,
but a moment eager to be released from its cocoon.
So. I found this bench at midnight
laughing and laughing like the breeze.”