A love poem and the poet who wrote it

Poet Sasha Debevec-McKenney is the artist-in-residence at StartingBlock Madison.
Love Poem written by Sasha Debevec-McKenney. It reads: Johnny teaches me how to use a power drill in reverse to unscrew the screws out of his work desk, so we can fit it down his basement staircase. Then he teaches me how to drill the screws in again and we put it back together together. In the basement he teaches me how to hold a drumstick. He holds my hand and starts up a rhythm for me, my arms slack but on beat — a metaphor so clear it’s sickening — on my back porch he teaches me how to put air in my bike tires, and later I let him show me how to cut the seeds out of a jalapeno, stubborn and glad when he stops me from touching my own eye just as I was about to touch it. Sometimes in bed he puts the palm of his hand on my chest and says something like, what if we let your feelings in, instead, and I say let them into where? When he spins me around in his living room sometimes I spin the wrong way — Apparently I was supposed to know what it meant when he left his toothbrush at my apartment. I am supposed to stay still and let him pick the crust from my eyes in the morning. At night I let him see me with my hair tied up. I lay in bed next to him and read, just read. It’s not that bad, I guess, letting my feelings in. Today he’s teaching me how to paddle a canoe. You don’t have anything to worry about, he says. I feel the boat rocking beneath me but I keep my elbow straight like his. We’re sweethearts, he says, against the sunset — and I become the me in the middle of this lake —

Photo by Chris Hynes/Words by Sasha Debevec-McKenney

Love and Fellowship

Love is complicated. Sasha Debevec-McKenney, who wrote the poem above in the February issue, loves Madison — even though it lets her down sometimes. She loves working in restaurants (Morris Ramen, currently), even though they’ve been the scenes of some of the worst racial microaggressions she’s experienced in the city. And she loves, loves, loves the U.S. presidents — no, love isn’t the right word. “I’m deeply obsessed,” she says — but certainly not for who they’ve been as men.

“I’ve been obsessed with the presidents my whole life; they’ve touched everything that I’ve ever done, and it just became too big for a poem,” says Debevec-McKenney, who’s used the life stories, careers and transgressions of the presidents to help her see and understand herself and her place in a country that hasn’t always wanted to see and understand her. Now, as the first Dane Arts-funded artist-in-residence at StartingBlock Madison, Debevec-McKenney is not only finishing up a poetry manuscript for future publication, she’s also writing a nonfiction book about visiting all of the presidents’ graves. “I want to be able to say everything without anyone getting confused about how I feel. I feel like poems can sometimes be a place for multiple interpretations,” she says.

That doesn’t mean she’ll ever stop writing poems, some of which have appeared in numerous prestigious publications, including the Nov. 22 issue of The New Yorker, which featured her powerful, deceptively accessible poem “Kaepernick.” Its spare, plain, gut-punch language is a hallmark of Debevec-McKenney’s work, because she never wants her poetry to feel exclusionary or indecipherable.

“There’s a Lucille Clifton quote I think about all the time that’s just like, ‘The job of the art, it seems to me, is not to leave you where it found you,’” Debevec-McKenney says. “And I always think, if someone doesn’t understand it, or someone feels intimidated by it, then they’re not going to be able to feel what you’re feeling.”

Debevec-McKenney herself is still working out precisely what she’s feeling as a Wisconsin transplant for the second time around. She grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, attending public high school in the mornings and the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts in the afternoons. Her mom was from a small town in Wisconsin and so she’d visit family there, creating childhood memories that are special but now tinged with an adult’s understanding that she was exoticized in that homogeneously white community. At Beloit College she studied creative writing and politics under primarily white professors, amid primarily white students. After graduation, she moved to Madison for six years, working at Willy Street Co-op and “a bunch of restaurants.” It was not always an easy time. She read books and scribbled in notebooks at bars like The Robin Room or the Crystal Corner, made some “fun, poem-worthy and dramatic” mistakes and struggled to fit in and to reconnect with the writing that had always grounded her. She found both when she left for New York University in 2018 to pursue her master’s in poetry.

Sasha Debevec-McKenney

Photo by Miles Mullen

“I hadn’t had a lot of classes or workshops since high school with a lot of Black people and queer people,” she says. She began to feel healthier, more confident and better connected when she applied for an internationally competitive fellowship from the University of Wisconsin–Madison Institute for Creative Writing — one of the best postgraduate fellowships in the country, and one that only accepts two poets each year. She got the Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry fellowship — and with mixed feelings moved from Brooklyn back to Madison mid-pandemic in 2020.

“[I came] back here as the 30-year-old version of myself instead of the 23-year-old version of myself,” she says. “And it’s things like the fellowship and like StartingBlock that have made me like, ‘OK, this is where I’m supposed to be right now.’ ”

With the world mostly shut down, Debevec-McKenney forged a new relationship with Madison. She took two-hour walks, sliding boot-footed across the frozen lakes. She taught engaged creative writing students and found community with the other UW Creative Writing fellows — “all of these brilliant people,” she says, adding that she wishes people valued the arts more, especially considering how much art we all consume. “There are so many great writers and artists in Madison. There really, really are. Madison is a great writing town.”

And she worked — “like capital W work,” she says — which having space at StartingBlock has helped her do. When we contacted her to commission a love poem, Debevec-McKenney already had “Johnny teaches me how to use a power drill in reverse” in the works. It’s softer, she says, and more sentimental than she usually allows herself to be in her work. “It’s not that bad, I guess,” she writes, “letting my feelings in.”

UW–Madison’s Creative Writing Fellows
Each year, the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Institute for Creative Writing’s nine-month residential fellowship program awards time, health insurance and a generous monthly stipend to two poets and two fiction writers who have completed graduate degrees in creative writing but have not published more than one book. (A fifth fellowship is reserved each year for a current UW–Madison Master of Fine Arts student.) The program has drawn emerging writers from all over the world, many of whom have gone on to national acclaim. Some of them include Anthony Doerr, Judith Claire Mitchell, Ann Packer, Lucy Tan, Tiana Clark, Emma Straub, Susanna Daniel and Quan Barry. Fellows also teach one creative writing class while here, helping to shape the next generation of writers.

Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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