As part of the 2021 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Alexandria Peary in response to a video of her reading her poem “Like That” aloud. Alexandria Peary wrote letters back to five of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
Alexandria Peary reads "Like That" for Dear Poet 2021.
Dear Alexandria Peary:
Hello, my name is Ashton, and I am a senior at Bishop Kenny High School. Throughout middle school and the early parts of high school, I dreamed of becoming an author. I wanted to write novels that forced the reader to look deeper into the meaning of my work, to dive deep and dissect the purpose of the words and language I used to build my fictional worlds and my characters. Part of this desire was inspired by poetry since poems and their meaning often elude me unless I think deeply on it. My biggest struggle as an aspiring author was that my words often served no purpose and added no meaning to my work. Your poem, “Like That,” is probably the poem that has forced me to think the most about the purpose of words and figurative language. Your use of symbolism, particularly with the snow-covered branch, was so interesting to me. I did not know what the branch was at all at first glance. I probably reread this poem ten times trying to gain more clarity into the meaning. I was looking for specifics. Who, or what, was the branch? What purpose did it serve? Only after thinking about the poem in the most broad terms was I able to slightly understand the answer to those questions. The branch is something unspoken that threatens the peace of the home. If the branch is messed with, it will ruin the peace and cause a large disturbance within the home. Its disturbance is already felt, which is seen with the dead oak leaves in the doorway. You, your brother, and your sister shake the branch and cause the snow to fall. The meaning of the last stanza still escapes me, but the mystery behind those last few lines (specifically the giant embroidered chickadee) adds to the somber tone within the poem. Overall, I find this poem extremely thoughtful.
I still have a few questions about you and “Like That.” Was my interpretation of the poem correct? Or have I missed something? What was the giant embroidered chickadee? What was its meaning within the poem? Your use of symbolism in this poem was purposeful. You built your poem around snow-covered branch and its place in the home (more specifically, how it disturbed the home). How do you, as a poet, use figurative language to enhance your work and its meaning? After reading your poem, I feel inspired to write again. Thank you for writing this poem, for making me think, and for inspiring me to pursue a dream I had long forgotten. Thank you.
How lucky I feel to have my poem read by such a dedicated (ten times!) reader. I think a poem requires a thoughtful recipient like yourself, and I feel that you and my poem are now friends.
Clearly, your effort to dig into the poem and find meaning yielded results. Your interpretation that the “branch is something unspoken that threatens the peace of the home” is spot-on, along with what you say in your follow-up sentences.
Let me address the giant embroidered chickadee that tilts its way into the end of “Like That.” I spent my childhood in central Maine where chickadees were a sonic and visual staple—starring as the state bird, no less. Do you know chickadees? They’re rather small in the bird scheme of things and make a sound like chic-a-dee or if they’re particularly communicative, chic-a-dee-dee-dee (who ever named the bird was definitely into onomatopoeia). These birds are inquisitive, diving their black-capped heads toward bird feeders for sunflower seeds. Rumor has it that longtime Mainers used to tame the bird to the point where it would eat seeds out of their palms! My childhood memories of days off from school because of a heavy snow storm are imprinted with pine boughs and the black and white movements of these birds.
Since the chickadee in the poem has ventured to the interior, to a living room, I made the bird resemble another item in my childhood home, my mother’s needlepoint. A lot of this is intuitive for me: the chickadee puts a word—like a sunflower seed—in my ear to nurture my writing so I can better understand the unspoken snow, the human silences, in the house. It’s not entirely comfortable (because who wants a giant bird to deposit anything in their ear), but it’s not meant to be, just like I think writing isn’t supposed to feel 100% comfortable, but rather a bit jarring, making us alert enough to see differently.
Let me end by saying that there are few rewards more satisfying for me as a writer (and a writing teacher) than to hear that I have inspired you to write again, as you mention at the end of your letter. Don’t forget that dream. Let it put a word in your ear.
May this very moment be perfect for your writing,
Dear Alexandria Peary,
My name is Ahikara and I am a freshman at New Explorations into Science, Technology + Math (NEST+m) in Manhattan, New York. I like playing the piano, basketball and chess. I also live in Brooklyn.
Something that I think I notice from your poem is that the snow-covered tree branch might represent something else than what it literally means but I am not sure if that is true. I also noticed that the chickadee in the last stanza of the poem was described as giant even though chickadees are usually small birds. Something that stood out to me from the poem was the line, “If I walk into the room, snow will ruin the somber furniture.” That’s because it initially made me think that the speaker could actually be the snow-covered branch because if the branch were to go into the room, snow would get into the house. I also thought this because the speaker had not yet been introduced in the poem up until that point. “I” had not been used.
This poem makes me think about times in life when things feel out of place because there seem to be so many different images that are hard to connect. Even the title does not seem to relate to the contents in the poem but I think that it might have been that way on purpose. I find the image of the speaker cross-country skiing with their brother and sister possibly the most out of place because I interpreted it to have been inside even though cross-country skiing is done outside. Especially because cross-country has to be a far distance. The ending of the poem is also left pretty open and I would have expected it to continue if I had not already seen that it was the last stanza.
A related wondering that I have at the end of the poem is what the chickadee whispered into the speaker’s ear. The poem ends on that scene which makes me think that it could have been important. Even though chickadees cannot actually speak, it might have been made to represent something. It did make me connect to the phrase, “or the clumped, white language of animals juts into the living room.” The clumped, white language of animals was used to describe the snow earlier in the poem, so the chickadee could have been walking across the room from the snow-covered branch.
I really enjoyed reading your poem and I think that I will go away from it still thinking about the images, not quite knowing what they all mean. Leaving the puzzle open.
I think your phrase, “leaving the puzzle open,” is just marvelous and may repeat it to my own writing students. It’s precisely the open-ended reading and writing experience that I think I’m after. I practice mindful writing, which means that I try to stay comfortable with uncertainty, flux, and the larger verbal emptiness that surrounds all writing. It sounds like you are also comfortable sitting with verbal uncertainty. To me that’s far better than wanting everything tidied up and boxed into a five-paragraph structure, if you know what I mean.
You mention so many interesting ideas in conjunction with “Like That.” You’re right that how a poet ends is probably important, and I did close on the giant embroidered chickadee for a few reasons. One is that I am dissolving interior / exterior binaries, something you also note in your letter. So I wanted to relocate another living being, one who normally exists only in the outside world, to the inside.
The siblings are cross-country skiing across the dining room table because the table resembles a farmer’s field in Maine, like the kind I was lucky to grow up playing in. The action of the kids would resemble downhill skiing (something we definitely could not afford) if I selected more vertically-oriented furniture, such as a dining room chair or a china cabinet. You probably noticed that everything seems to be reversed or out of the normal order, so there are tree branches and snow in a room in a house, instead of outdoors. Instead of playing Connect Four or watching cartoons, which would be normally interior activities of three kids during the era of my childhood, I made their central activity something that usually only happens outdoors. I also wanted the three siblings to get a break from the pressures of family life, so they go skiing.
I really like how you point out the connection between the chickadee’s inserted word and the “clumped, white language of animals” from earlier in the poem. Meaning-making, intuition, interpretation, etc. are happening all around, not just from the mouths of humans. So much that happens in a family is on the unconscious, non-verbal level.
Thank you for writing such beautiful thoughts to me,
Dear Alexandria Peary,
You truly are one of the most inspiring and astounding poets I have ever heard of. Your writing style is so unique and intriguing compared to other poets. My favorite thing about the way you write is in your poem “Like That”. The thing that stood out to me in “Like That” was the way you used very common words in an uncommon way. You untangled ways to use the adjectives “enormous” and “tanned” in ways I would never have used them. You make those common words have a much deeper meaning and they bring so much more into the poem. Hello, my name is Katie and I am a 6th grade student at Sidwell Friends School. I love to write poetry and your work has truly been an inspiration to me.
I wanted to write to you because your very unique writing style has inspired me to think of ways to make the common words I use have a special meaning in my work. I can also relate to the story the poem “Like That” is telling. I have a strong connection to your poem “Like That” because this year on Christmas Eve, a very large tree fell on our house. It seems that a situation similar to that happened in your poem. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to go “cross country skiing across the dining room table,” but my family did have to make some adjustments in our life.
As much as “Like That” is a breathtaking, perplexing poem, your poem “The Gift” also caught my attention because it has a very intriguing format. The enjambment is very unusual and it drags the reader's attention to it, but without taking their attention away from the deep meaning of the poem itself. I was wondering why you chose to display your poem “The Gift” like this? How did you choose what words you wanted to have their own line? I would use a format similar to that of “The Gift” when I am writing about an adventure or a story that the reader has to untangle. This format keeps the reader engaged and makes them untangle the words themselves, which I like because it creates a mystery for the reader to solve.
Something that astounds me about your work is that not two poems are alike. This is very interesting and surprising to me because it takes lots of skill and creativity to do this. In the world, not two people are the same and you somehow found a way to incorporate that thought into your poems. The poem “Like That”, is much different than some of your other poems. “Like That” uses much more simplified, common, and vague words than your other poems such as “The water draft” that uses much more complicated and in-depth describing words. I also noticed that “Like That” is one of your shorter poems and the other ones are much longer. From my point of view, it looks like the change of format/style between your poems isn’t forced. Do you try to make your poems all very different or is it a “natural” coincidence?
I am very lucky that my teacher introduced your poems to me, I feel very privileged to be able to write to my favorite poet. You have definitely inspired me to become a better writer, and I am thankful for that. I admire the fact that you take a different path then the other poets out there. You find a way to pull the reader into each and every one of your poems. Personally, I like to write from personal experiences or life-like scenarios. How do you find inspiration, from personal experiences or do you like to write about made up scenarios? Before I wrap this letter up, I have one more question for you. How did you come up with the title of your poem “Like That”? It is a very creative title and I would love to know the thoughts behind it. Is the poem titled “Like That” because the story happened like that?
Thank you for taking the time to read this I hope you have a great day,
OMG! A large tree fell on your house last Christmas!?! I hope everyone was okay—and your house, too. I am wondering if you were home when it happened. Now that would make quite the poem. A literal tree never fell on my childhood home; the tree in the poem is a stand-in for a minor human menace. That menace isn’t 100% bad because it seems to hang around and protect the speaker in the poem by not dropping its bad news on her.
It’s wonderful that you love to write poetry! I think it’s terrific what you say about common words: I often talk to my creative writing students about universal details (timeless, understood by anyone from any era) and more time-specific details (limited to a particular time). The second kind of detail paints a picture of a fleeting moment, before things change and move on. Isn’t it great how words can make experiences last? How we can offer our perceptions and experiences to other people long after the world (and we’ve) changed? Our 2021-specific words—technology, brands, etc.—won’t always be so familiar. Readers might need a lot of help from footnotes to understand. The more common words, though, can be powerful because they connect people through time. Birds, water, stones, trees, a smile.
I think it’s so neat that you went on to find another poem by me, “The Gift.” Now that’s a poem most definitely rooted in sadness. I wrote it in relation to my first daughter’s premature birth. She’s a healthy high school junior now, but at the time, her father and I faced the potential sorrow of losing her. My baby had to stay for weeks in a high-tech hospital in Boston, and I was separated from her, living in New Hampshire. “The Gift” carries a second meaning, that of being able to “see” or sense things before they happened. During the weeks when my daughter was in the hospital, I was constantly searching for signs that the future would be okay.
What you say about not repeating a poem’s structure really resonates. One of my favorite poets, Caroline Knox, tries to make sure the poems in her books look distinct on the page. While I appreciate why poets might return to a form or shape-on-the-page or style, I think different-looking poems are their own creatures responsive to the inventive moment. To answer your question, it’s a natural coincidence in my work, not a conscious attempt.
“Like That” is an utterance, meaning, it’s something we’d say, along the lines of “Sure Thing” or “OMG” or “What are you up to?” I wanted something that sounded spoken to counterbalance the imagistic density of the body of the poem.
I am so honored that such a gifted reader and enthusiastic writer of poetry like yourself wrote to me. Perhaps we will meet in other poetry circles some day!
May this very moment be perfect for your writing,
Dear Alexandria Peary,
Hello I am Kaiden, a 6th grader that goes to a middle school called East in Michigan, and I am writing this poem because I am interested in the poem “Like That” and also connected to it a lot.
The Poem “Like That” really had me thinking about how I created memories with my family, specifically when you mentioned your brother and sister cross-country skiing with you, seeing a chickadee run across is something you will definitely remember. It also had me thinking about the outdoors, and how it is our home, yet we sometimes don't always keep it nice. It’s like our room, it gives us a place to sleep and rest, yet we might not keep it clean. I wonder what inspired you to make this about the outdoors, maybe it was the memories you created out here skiing with your siblings. I wonder if you had older siblings or younger. Maybe both? I personally have pretty much all younger siblings. Did you look up to your siblings or did they look up to you.
Studies have proven that a person’s personality is based on your memories. What were your memories and inspiration that made you the poet and person you are today? I have a lot of memories of me playing sports and camping. I want to be a baseball player when I grow up. What did you want to be when you were a kid. A poet maybe? Or a cross-country skier? I love how simple and fun “Like That” was. It reminded me how much simpler life was when I was little.
In the end, nothing can shape you more than memories. I am excited to see if I can hear some of your memories, and see if I connect to them.
I appreciate the infinite wisdom in what you said, how the outdoors “is our home, yet we sometimes don’t always keep it nice. It’s like our room, it gives us a place to sleep and rest.”
What I especially like about writing this letter to you is how you’ve taught me a new way to look at my own poem: that’s one of the best things about being a writer, how readers bring the gifts of their own understanding. Your view erases the wrong-headed thinking of dualisms of interior/exterior or home/natural world. Most of us tend to think of the natural world as “other,” and that does damage.
I do have actual siblings, a younger sister and a younger brother. I wonder what it’s like for you to be the oldest, since you say that you “pretty much have all younger siblings.” That question about who-looked-up-to-whom is a challenging one, no? Sibling rivalry seeps in, even at my age! Siblings are complex. In fact, one motivation for writing “Like That” might have been to recall a season in life when my siblings and I were unified, when we shared a common activity, independent from adults. The very motion of skiing means moving in tandem. Maybe I miss the days when we were so like-minded. Have you written about your many younger siblings? If so, did you share your writing with them or did you keep it private writing?
It sounds like you enjoy writing poems about your own memories with baseball and camping. As a kid, I definitely wasn’t athletic, but if I could travel backwards in time to high school or middle school, I’d play a team sport. I pretty much knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer. I even remember when I made that pivot: it was a rainy afterschool afternoon, and I was performing an amateur autopsy on a goldfish that had leaped from our living room aquarium. I was using a professional-grade microscope, given to me by a family physician who lived in town—the microscope he used when he was in medical school. Until that afternoon, I wanted to be a doctor. I looked up from the microscope and noticed the way the April light was hitting the lawn in the rain, and a funny feeling washed over me, so I started writing my first outside-of-language-arts-class poem. I never used the microscope again. Memories are ultra-influential, no doubt, but the present moment, as it arises, and its cargo of possibility is also really influential. I hope your life and your writing brings you many moments of happy surprise.
Best wishes to you in all of your endeavors, baseball and otherwise,
Dear Ms. Alexandria Peary:
I am an English II student, and I am almost 16 years old. I write music, play the guitar, violin, piano, and I sing, and on top of it all I do cheerleading. Poetry has always had a piece of my mind. Every stanza is another potential lyric for my next upcoming single. When reading your poem, I felt a sense of my own song inside of your words.
Having the chance to read your poem has allotted me the opportunity to hear poetry in a different tone. When you read your poem, you read it slowly and suspensefully, truly capturing the warmth and coziness of a cabin in the snowy woods. When I write music it is often about the sadnesses I face in life, and it always seems to glow a blue aura. Reading your poem gave me an isolated and sad, yet almost orange aura of warmth and comfort—but with loneliness. I would like to know more about when you felt inspired to write this. Was it while you were in a snowy cabin? Was it during quarantine, during that isolated feeling while you reminisced? Was it just something you felt like writing? I’d like to know more about the process of writing something so solemn yet warm. I noticed that you used the word “enormous” to describe the branch twice at the beginning. The relation of the enormity of the branch to that lonely feeling that makes you feel small connects very nicely. I often wonder what it would be like to be completely isolated in peaceful mountain or ocean silence, and this poem allowed me to almost hear each snowflake as they fell. I would also like to know how you are able to provide such a clear and sensory scene by only using a few lines and stanzas. I think it is very impressive to be able to depict such vivid scenes with your words.
I am very thankful to have had the chance to listen to and read your poem. I hope to come across more of your poetry or at least more poetry like this. Your poem has inspired me to work on using my words to say more than a sentence.
You sound like a remarkably busy sixteen year old. (I’m guessing you’ve had your birthday since you wrote your letter to me.) Did you know you do what’s called synesthesia? That’s the blending of the senses: instead of confining the five senses to five silos, synesthesia lets us describe something with sensory detail usually not reserved for it. Miles Davis would hear the color blue, for example, and in your letter you say that you perceive a blue aura when you write music. I really like what you say too about “Like That” having an “almost orange aura.”
This poem wasn’t written during quarantine, though I can see why you might think that. It’s in Control Bird Alt Delete, a book I published in 2014. It took me a long time to process this poem; I transported its images (the pile of leaves, that threatening branch) in my unconscious for a decade. Then one day in 2013 I heard the poem’s structure in entirety. I may have been waiting for that embroidered chickadee to resolve the piece, which is a funny mandate for the bird, if you are familiar with small and unassuming chickadees. I see you live in Texas, and I’m not sure this official state bird of Maine hops around your neighborhood pine boughs.
I was really moved by your letter. Speaking of isolation (you mention quarantine and winter-cabin loneliness), what writers sometimes experience is isolation from readers. It can be years between finishing a poem and hearing another person’s response to it. Writers are often separated in space and time from their readers—totally different from a pianist performing before a live audience. Do you ever feel that way when you write music? Are you excited to see a listener’s reaction to your music?
Your responses have made me feel that my poem truly made contact with you, a reader who hears the snowflakes fall inside my poem. I’m not sure a writer could ever want anything more from her readers!
I wish you much joy in your music & writing & cheerleading adventures,
Dear Alexandria Peary,
Recently I read the poem Like That and it inspired me to read more poems. This poem really spoke to me because I noticed the main theme of the poem is winter.
I saw this as the theme because of the line that says “An enormous snow covered branch.” This line reminded me about the snow that covers the trees during winter. So I was able to visualize a tree in the middle of winter.
My second reason why I think that this poem connects to winter is from the quote “If I walk into the room, snow will ruin the somber furniture.” again snow comes in the winter and sometimes winter can be somber. Personally this is my favorite quote because it is interesting to me how we can have different points of view on winter, because personally I have never thought of it as somber, I always thought of it as a joyful time.
My last quote is “And the doily, my sister, brother and I are cross-country skiing.” And I know that people ski in the winter, I personally have never gone skiing, but it has always been my dream to go.
The reason I noticed winter most in the poem is because, whenever it is winter my family and I always have fun playing in the snow. When it snows we have this tradition that me and my brother go out and play in the snow while my mom stays in making delicious hot chocolate for us to drink to warm us up from the cold.
So with all of the quotes from the poem and my personal experience, that is why I think this poem is associated with winter and I have gotten more interested in poetry because your poem really reminded me of winter. But I would like to know, did you purposely write about winter?
It’s fun when a reader has different associations than the poet, like the way you see winter with joy, whereas I might see winter as a bit of a grind. I grew up in central Maine, so that might be why. I associate winter with multiple months (late November-late March) of snow ploughs making dirty rinds of snow, with customers kicking their leather work boots on the concrete steps of my parents’ gas station to knock off the road salt that left stains like perspiration on a shirt. I suffered from blinding migraines in middle school from looking too long at the blue glare of January. My occasional bouts of existence in warmer climates as an adult have always seemed like a mirage, one with palm trees of joy.
Your family’s tradition around snow sounds delightful! When I was in sixth grade, I used to have a lot of fun with my younger brother and sister, cross-country skiing, or at an earlier age, building multi-story forts from the enormous embankments of snow left in the parking lot of my parents’ convenience store from the street ploughs. I can recall crawling in my slightly damp snow suit through those blue-lit tunnels.
I selected winter in this poem for those reasons—for the way it can be chilly and off-putting (making people retreat into themselves) but also because it was a time of sustained outdoors play in my childhood. Snow is a kind of silence, but maybe silence between people isn’t 100% negative. It can be filled with other kinds of communication, ones based on intuition and unspoken connection, like the clumped, white language of animals.
Thank you so much for writing to me,