Two years before her band Speedy Ortiz released its first album, Sadie Dupuis moved to Western Massachusetts to begin work on her master’s degree in poetry. She had been living in New York, where she’d put down roots: She played in a band called Quilty and felt connected to the city’s dynamic musical community. The move to Amherst was a rough one. She hardly knew anyone in her new home, and before she got the chance to settle in, she was confronted with a series of chronic and isolating health problems. “I didn’t really have any identity in this new place,” she says over the phone from England, where Speedy Ortiz is on tour. “I was struggling with sickness and I had no idea who I was.”
Dupuis’s first poetry book Mouthguard, out today, November 1, from Gramma Press, collects poems she wrote from 2011 to 2014 for her master’s degee. During that time span, she uploaded the first Speedy Ortiz demos to Bandcamp, signed to Carpark Records, released the band’s debut album Major Arcana to broad acclaim, and started touring full-time. The oldest poems in Mouthguard originate in the same year Dupuis decided to slap the name Speedy Ortiz on a handful of reflective, melancholy solo songs; the newest, she wrote in a van during the band’s first European tour. Her life has changed drastically since she started working on the manuscript she’s now preparing to release. When she reads her poems now, it feels as if they were written by a different person.
The music Dupuis makes now, with Speedy Ortiz and the poppier solo project Sad13, projects her sharp humor onto bright, ebullient backdrops. Her songs course with a surreal darkness — she often sings between gritted teeth about how misogyny haunts the world — but her keen ear for melody, along with the band’s choppy rock instrumentation, keeps her work light on its feet. Mouthguard has more in common with Speedy Ortiz’s early work. Water — a frozen lake — stands in for depression on the band’s 2013 song “No Below,” and water abets death in the poem “Ankle Bleeding Makes The Trail”: “Down along the dark road, cars upside down or in rivers. / What I mean is they get stuck in the water and time only needs / one accomplice to destroy.” Because of the illness she was shouldering at the time, Dupuis’s poems and early Speedy lyrics both focus on the body as a site of frustration and decay. “Don’t even care if they take my legs / I’ve limped before, I could limp again,” she sang on “Tiger Tank.” In the poem “I Don’t Even Like Candy,” she writes, “Oh there are people who survive / the tearing of their limb / on impact, I feel it.” The modes of delivery are different, but read Dupuis’s words together and it can seem as though her poems are commenting on her songs, and vice versa. Both play in the same bleak universe.
Mouthguard bristles with sick humor, the kind you might deploy in a last-ditch effort to keep from falling into totalizing despair. Poop jokes and quips about suicide poke holes in an otherwise chilly atmosphere. “I hear names as grey and I see them as grey / same-same pointless grey spitting in pointless space. / A name as if we don’t all shit from our guts,” goes a poem called “Man Is It Hard To Put Dogs In Machines.” Dupuis closes “Saturday Bulls” with a trio of lines that scans like a Twitter zinger in a washing machine: “it is this kind of world: / Kill yourself or kill yourself. / You suffer the same love.”
A handful of musical references pepper the book. A poem about bandages, originally titled “Mummy” (“My editors were like, ‘No…no, you cannot do this Halloweeny-ass title,'” says Dupuis) bears the title “Hot Heat,” a nod to Hot Hot Heat’s 2002 single “Bandages.” The Massachusetts rock band Pile, whose members are friends with Dupuis, makes an oblique appearance in “Saturday Bulls” by way of their 2010 album Magic Isn’t Real. “Magic isn’t real, but it is so hard / to think of a bull and not expect a bull,” Dupuis writes, and she’s right: I read the lines and an enraged bovine thrashes across my mind’s eye.
“When I was writing poetry, it was really just about laying out whatever dark feeling I felt I had to exorcise from myself at the time,” Dupuis says. She began lacing in-jokes and references to friends’ work to deflate what might have become an overbearingly dreary mood. “It’s funny to see how I was not only trying to work through these feelings, but doing it in a way that would make other people in my workshop not completely groan.” Dupuis saw her favorite poets striking that balance between venting the dark stuff and spiking their language with wit. While working on her MFA, she read a lot of poetry from the Seattle-based press Wave Books. Dorothea Lasky, one of the minds behind the Twitter account AstroPoets, and CAConrad were both foundational poets to Dupuis’s own practice. She also drew inspiration from fellow poets in her workshops, like Wendy Xu and Mark Leidner.
Working alongside other writers and attending readings every week, Dupuis felt immersed in the world of poetry. Then, towards the end of her time in Amherst, Speedy Ortiz started booking shows with increasing frequency, taking her away from the Massachusetts town where she finally felt like she had a home. Daunted by the thought of attending workshops, teaching classes, and fronting a rock band all at the same time, Dupuis finished her MFA early and devoted herself to music. The manuscript that would become Mouthguard sat untouched under her desk for years.
Not content to let her work lie dormant indefinitely, Dupuis reached out to her friend Colleen Louise Barry, who at the time ran a small press called Mount Analogue. They worked together to edit the book, swapping emails over the course of six months, rearranging poems and tweaking their titles. With so much distance between herself and the poems she had written, Dupuis was able to jump into the editing process with a new outlook — an opportunity she never gets in the faster-paced music business. “When I’ve done a record and we’re mixing, you don’t have the perspective to be as mutable as I was with this book,” she notes.
As she finishes the tour around Speedy Ortiz’s 2018 album Twerp Verse, Dupuis looks forward to realigning herself with the poems that occupied three years of her life. She’ll get to tour Mouthguard, an endeavor that both excites and terrifies her: When she’s reading a poem onstage, there’s no band to shield her, no guitar between her and the audience. She’s alone with the language. “If I have to do anything on stage by myself, I am so stressed out and sweating the entire time,” she says. “We’ll see how I do. It’ll be fun to be out of my comfort zone. And fun to tour with no gear.”
In 2011, when Dupuis left for Amherst, chasing a poetry degree might have seemed like a romantic career move — a niche investment made out of passion. In the years since, poetry has gained a greater foothold in the popular imagination. There are best-selling living poets now, poets with massive Twitter followings, poets with bona fide fanbases. As a poet publishing for the first time, Dupuis is in good company. Mouthguard fits neatly among the present crop of writers who see social media not just as an avenue for self-promotion but as an exercise in concision. Economic and playful with its language, the book isn’t afraid to snag its readers on a word used strangely, or an uncommon syntactical formulation. Like Dupuis’s lyrics, her poems ask you to retrace your steps and make sure you’ve heard everything right. They dare you to get on the same page as them even as they’re whizzing away.
In the prose poem “The Shadow On The Moon,” Dupuis writes, “With so many exclusions is it worth pretending that life is not pretend.” At first, I read the line as a declaration: “it is worth pretending.” I looked back and the “is” and the “it” had flipped. Dupuis had ended with a period but written a question. She’s not telling you how to cope with the banal hopelessness of the everyday. She’s asking you.
Mouthguard is out now on Gramma Press. Buy it here.