BWS 08.01.20: Nikki Sheppy

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Nikki Sheppy is a poet, editor, and educator with a background in literary scholarship. She is also past managing editor of filling Station magazine, and an organizer for the new East Loft Reading Series, a Leslieville literary salon launched in November. Her book, Fail Safe (University of Calgary Press), won the 2018 Robert Kroetsch Award for Poetry Book of the Year, and her chapbook, Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite (Kalamalka Press), won the 2013 John Lent Poetry-Prose Award. She loves dogs. Also puppies. And more dogs. And she volunteers at the Toronto Humane Society.


Over the years, talking with other poets whose works foreground exploratory or unfamiliar modes, I’ve heard a similar theme: not a complaint, but certainly a bewilderment. Poetry deemed ‘experimental’ in some way is sometimes dismissed as merely programmatic or, by contrast, arbitrary. But I’ve found that there’s pretty much always some bona fide subject of interest and poetic mandate in these works, and when writers actively address or acknowledge their poetics–even in brief–they stimulate engagement, whether or not readers ultimately enjoy the work. Although we expect poems to “speak for themselves,” it’s my experience that listeners appreciate hearing stories about process, creation, and sources of inspiration.

Reflecting on Poetics of Mouthfeel

I’ve become increasingly interested in what I’m calling a poetics of mouthfeel. Because I’ve begun to write more poems governed by the textures of speaking them, I decided this summer to reflect on what this exploration means to me—and how it might signify as an expression of both politics and agency. At public readings, I noticed that people were particularly interested in this focus and requested more context for thinking about it, so I share some of my reflections here.

In my 2017 book Fail Safe, I included a sequence of poems that explored the mouthfeel of its poetic language. Broadly used, the term “mouthfeel” refers to so-called “rheological properties: the consistency, flow and feel of something—typically food—inside the mouth. Rheology (the study of the flow of matter) & tribology (the science of friction and lubrication) are topics of study in food science and food marketing. My poems were intended to explore the mouthfeel of language itself: what felt ‘sticky’ or ‘wet’ or ‘chewy’ to say. I prioritized over considerations of sense or meaning what language I wanted to put in my mouth: what worded tactility I wanted to feel as saying.

These poems emphasized dimensions of mouthfeel like density, roughness, graininess and moisture, apparently proceeding as if the pieces were merely a linguistic exercise. This despite the truth that the conceptual underpinnings were both deeply personal and deeply political. I was interested in how language felt in my mouth as I spoke it because the saying was an embodied recovery of my mouth as a site of agency—not of occupation or silence. I could speak what had occupied me:

decipher the sleeping hot

spliff a dexterous smoke

half aspirated ghost                                       (from “Moisture Release”)

In Lexicon of the Mouth, Brandon LaBelle describes language as emanating from within its spatiality, its material dimensions within what Georges Bataille calls “the chief aperture”: “The mouth wraps the voice, and all such wording, in its wet and impressionable envelope, its paralanguages. […] It captures and figures the somatic, the alimentary, the resonant, and the viscous as always already surrounding language, ‘cutting and augmenting meaning’” (LaBelle 7). He experiences performed orality as akin to feeling “the mouth as a fleshy, wet lining around each syllable, as well as a texturing orifice” (1). Never is LaBelle’s mouth separate from the sounds, sensations, pleasures, and meanings of its linguistic or other activities.

Even LaBelle’s chapter headings resonate with my ongoing exploration into the poetics of mouthfeel. They include: Bite. Chew. Eat. Burp. Choke. Gag. Spit. Vomit. Cry. Scream. Shout. Sing. Gasp. Growl. Grunt. Sigh. Yawn. Kiss. Lick. Suck. Mumble. Mute. Pause. Stutter. Murmur. Whisper. Recite. Vow. These titles could summarize much of what my poetic project aspires to do: not to write but to growl, to spit and slurp, to whisper. I’m not sure I entirely succeed, but it is an ongoing exploration, with new works always in the works.

In “Cavity,” LaBelle writes into the symbolic terrain of precisely the oral imaginary that invigorated (and haunted) my initial poems, and the pieces that I later wrote: “The mouth as a collection of surfaces—of lips and teeth, tongue and cheek, and from the roof down to the throat—is […] an open space, an oral cavity. It is a small cavern in which resonances proliferate, where matter is held and ingested […]—the gap wherein one is entered to give space for the other. […] While the buccal surfaces channel a plethora of tastes and textures, the oral cavity gives room—for breaths and couplings, words and their shaping.” This oral complex is the site of my poetics.

We could pause to introduce biographical notes now, and they would resemble the tossing thoughts of a three-year-old who dreamt repeatedly of a terrifying dentist in whose haunting house every room could sprout a dental chair, and a plate of instruments to be introduced into the new young speaker’s oral cavity. We could detail the year-long silence that ensued, and the ongoing trouble through schools, where talking too little—and then, correctively, too much—was used to justify the decision not to accelerate the young speaker.

But the symbolic far outstrips this infancy. Anyway, who knows how to parse the knowledge and un-knowledge, the sound & the fugue, of a three-year-old?

In Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them, Mary Capello writes: “All acts of swallowing are psychosocial at the core. […] We test the body by putting things into its orifices, and we test our relations with others by projecting onto the body’s surface an idea of those relations” (35). So, swallowing is a form of breaching that relates. And the mouth is a site of spoken creativity “inflected with the powers of horror” (44). How then does the agency of sounding militate with, against, and within such states of impingement…?

What do I ask of the language with which I speak my true and created selves?

would it be possible to describe

the shape of the deformation?

the friction and relative lubrication of the word?

its filminess & afterfeel?

is the word brittle? does it gag?

what are its shear, fracture mechanics, tensions?

how does the sound respond when squeezed

or bitten? is it adhesive or elastic, viscous or crisp,

foamy or granular? is language a bolus

held in suspension? what is the word’s moisture content, its saliva secretion?

does it emulsify? is it fissile?

what single word or sound is most readily

swallowed? & what is the mouthfeel

of its regurgitation?




wools, blushing mosses, hairnets

the velvet naps

that antagonize my tongue

everything shafts wolverine

just shy of light

fallowing the blue ether

folding the unfold sign

of thistles & pencil-shavings

the glossy curling hair

that now threads

the moment I learned to speak

around it


**This piece excerpts some parts of my conference paper, “Mouthfeel: Please Witness Me by Feeling It as Saying It Out Loud to an Audience on my Behalf (A Rheological Poetry Presentation with Critical Contexts)” at SpokenWeb in Vancouver, May 2019, with thanks to Ryan Fitzpatrick who performed it. Quotations of LaBelle and Cappello are from Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and The Oral Imaginary by Brandon LaBelle (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). The poem “Moisture Release” appears in Fail Safe (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2017). “{{chokepoint}}” is an excerpt from one of my new poems.


Nikki Sheppy visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Leanne Toshiko Simpson, Manahil Bandukwala, Terese Mason Pierre, and guest speaker Ranjini George, who will guide us through “Meditation and Writing.”


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