There’s a Poem for That: Domenica Martinello + Good Want

Poet Domenica Martinello walks us through how a daily ritual was the impetus for Good Want (Coach House Books), her collection of poems that entertains the notion that perhaps virtue isn’t all its cracked up to be.

Read our full interview with the poet and the poem “I Pray to Be Useful.”


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There's a poem for that... NPM on All Lit Up.

An interview with poet Domenica Martinello

All Lit Up: Can you tell us a bit about Good Want and how it came to be?

Domenica Martinello: The earliest poems in Good Want came to be from a daily ritual: Write one sestet per day for a year. One six-line poem, six words per line, like a tiny rosary bead. I needed to blank-slate my brain to discover what, if anything, was next for my writing. The durational aspect, the repetition, the simple constraint—it unlocked new subject matter for me. Not much remains from that ritual (at least not in its original form), but it allowed me to get out of my own way.  

As for the title, I saw the two words, “good” and “want,” spelled out on a portable dry erase board at 5AM. They were stacked one on top of the other, like being good trumped whatever else you may want. I’d been teaching English online to kids in different time zones that summer, and it was part of my lesson (the spelling, I mean). As soon as I saw the words like that, in red marker, I knew with 100% certainty that it was the title for whatever it was that I was writing. Which turned out to be, among other things, something about the uselessness and joy and unfairness of poetry and god.


ALU: What sparked your initial love of poetry?

DM: As a kid, I read tons of the kinds of novels you could easily find at garage sales. Poetry didn’t really exist for me back then—though I’d always unknowingly loved the lyric. I had a 60-page running Word doc during the Myspace era (2004?) where I recorded lines from all my favourite songs. 

When I finally made my way to a creative writing workshop, I was quickly dispelled of any notion that I was a novelist. I became obsessed with poetry as if it had just been invented, and solely for my benefit. I liked the dynamic of it. The more you learned the rules, the more successfully you could break them. 

ALU: Has your idea of poetry changed since you began writing?   

DM: At the beginning I thought poetry had to be about big and awe-inspiring moments—so I’d fabricate these grand, existential gestures. Ecstatic highs and degrading lows, all hollow. I didn’t think my life was all that interesting or worthy of examination. I also thought the act of writing poetry was precious and powerful. Like Kendall Jenner giving a Pepsi to a cop and ushering in an era of world peace, I thought poetry could be that can of cola.  

So, what’s changed is what I think poetry can “be about” and what it can accomplish. Revising some of these ideas about poetry is actually central to Good Want. Something that hasn’t changed, and that tethers me to poetry still, is that I find it as mysterious and unruly and surprising as I did when I first began writing. 

ALU: If you were to set your collection to a soundtrack, what song is at the top of the listing? 

DM: Great question, as I do love to create playlists or soundtracks for the things I’m working on. The first song on my actual soundtrack for Good Want is “Seventeen” by Sharon Van Etten.   

There’s a poem for a desiring spirit…
“I Pray to Be Useful” from Good Want

At the foot of the oratory
I halved my height and
bruised up the stairs.  

Each moment is a new
bead to balance on,  

and each bead felt
wrongly sumptuous 
as I prayed to want less.  

Around me people
worked with their hands
and were protected  

by the gift of calluses. 
Soft and immodest, I created 
the world in my image,  

inventor of tulips and gold.
I wanted to marry myself  

to a profession 
of kneeling, to kill 
two birds with one stone.  

Gardening, cleaning,
tending to babies. 
I tried to be useful.  

I asked for guidance. 
I atoned at each hot step  

burning urgently like a secret
UTI. Even on my knees  

I could not keep my gaze downcast,
humble, groundward. I could not fast.  

Like my hands,
my hunger never
hardened over.  

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Photo by Gino Visconti

Domenica Martinello holds an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was the recipient of the Deena Davidson Friedman Prize for Poetry. She currently lives in Montreal.

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Thanks to Domenica Martinello for answering our questions, and to Coach House Books for the text of “I Pray to Be Useful” from Good Want, which is available for pre-order now (and get 15% off with the code THERESAPROMO4THAT until April 30!).

For more poetry month, catch up on our “there’s a poem for that” series here, and visit our poetry shop here.

Thanks for following along with us this NPM as we read poems from 21 collections and interviewed 22 poets! We hope you connected with some of the poetry shared this month.