Artist of the Week Mika Prestowitz (’24) on Em-Dashed Ephemeral Endings 

Almost a year ago, my friend invited me to his poetry reading in the Scheuer Room – a location completely unfamiliar to me at the time. I was an undecided first-year, oscillating between the periphery of religion, studio art, political science, and English literature majors but too indecisive to make a definitive decision. Sitting criss-cross applesauce on top of a desk, I watched every student confidently stride over to the microphone. I’m not sure when Mika Prestowitz ’24 stood in the center of the spotlight, but I remember locking into their syncopated rhythm, stunned by how visual and stimulating their poetry was. It was the first time I forced myself to understand poetry as a separate art form, not unlike my own studio practice or a solo in a philharmonic. 

Needless to say, I’ve been dying to interview Mika for over a year. So, unlike some of my other interviews, I excitedly plunged into the depths of deep analysis. I wanted to pick Mika’s inspirations apart, given that I’m just beginning my poetry journey. In particular, I was curious where Mika found their emotional autobiography (or inspiration) for their works. 

 “I think I write poems that are personal and yet not about me. I think they’re drawn from things that I feel and observe about the world around me. Generalized in the language of poetry, it feels a little inherently generalizable, because you’re comparing one thing to another, and you want that comparison to make sense to other people. You want to be able to export your feelings to other people,” Prestowitz said. “So I think you’ve got the roots in your own personal experiences. I like writing poems that feel more broadly emotional, I guess. I don’t know if I agree that all poetry has to have a narrative. I think much of it does, and I think much of it has a thesis, or like, there’s a central point of it. But I don’t know if that thesis has a beginning or end. I think many of these have a direction without more structure than that.”

One of Mika’s poems, “New Moon Sonnet,” blurs the line between relatability and intense personal significance. While the poem initially seems to romanticize the West, their personal connection to Northern California revealed a more complex relationship with “cowboy culture”.

“I was raised in Northern California, in the rural mountains right across the border from Nevada. So I think I spent a lot of time either in desert and cowboy culture or in mountain pioneer culture. I very firmly feel that I’m someone who was raised in the context of the West Coast and in the history of pioneer settler colonialism there. In both [cowboy culture and pioneer settler colonialism], it’s harmful obviously [and has caused] devastating effects,” they said. “There is so much fear in the landscape of my hometown, how it has been shaped by centuries of exploitation. My town was almost clear cut in the 1800s for logging for the construction of sales as cars, so all of our trees are less than 200 years old, which is incredibly rare or more common than it should be.”

They further elaborated, “So with the understanding of my history and the mythos of the cowboy in the heart of the American psyche, my poem represents ultimate American freedom expanding. I don’t think that we as a culture ever escaped this idea of going out west to find your fortune. It’s the land of discovery. That’s like the culture that I was raised in and that I think about all the time, and coming to the east coast was very strange. To be away from all of that for the first time,” Prestowitz said. “So, this poem is like a lot about the freedom of the West and big Western spaces. Made strange, because I think sometimes strangeness is the only way you can talk about an emotion so big you can’t communicate.”

New Moon Sonnet

actually, i will be yr cowgirl luver. eye

teeth keen & mighty suspicious in yr own fear-

less face. i will woo you, ya stubborn beast. you wax

& wane and i wend along wooing. i will ply

you with every adjective in alphabet array.

i will be girl flame in the midnight howl. you shant

slake yr thirst elsewhere—aye, you with a heart

silty as the river bottom & just as stolid.

we ll be so flirty & fecund in the dark.

us drunk on starshine and moon nouns, all lit

up in our junctured gaze. yr flinty eyes strike

me & my whole world catch aflame. yr aim

is true & the line you cast unspools a long way—

glossy blue ribbon winding thru craggy vales

to the open sky desert delta of yr regard.

I remember hearing “New Moon Sonnet ” for the first time and being enraptured. There was something about the staccato-ed “yrs” and cowboy lingo that was so unacademic and yet Shakespearean that I was entranced. The poem occupies the liminal space conflicting feelings bring. It’s both the image of running with spurs on, jumping onto a wild horse, and the scent of blood, tears, and destruction. It’s the American Dream at the cost of others. And yet, it begs the audience to believe in the light of a youth you might not realize is ephemeral. The poem is tragic, comedic, hopeful, and youthful. The ending is not quite an ending but a promise for more to come. 

“I was in a conversation with my poetry professor last week. We talked about this theory of poetry that’s borrowed from screenwriting, that every poem ends with punctuation, whether that’s an exclamation mark, a period, a question mark, or an ellipse. It doesn’t have to literally end with one of those, but that’s how it emotionally ends. And looking at those four categories of ending: does your poem end with a trailing off?” They further elaborated, “And I think, literally, many of my poems end with periods, but in my heart, they end with em dashes, where they just kind of trail off and I don’t know what happens after that, but a little hopeful, a little unsure.”

Mika’s latest poem, “The Robin Inside,” captures the beauty in the unsure and in perhaps the faintly hopeful. 

“I wrote this last week. Okay. It’s kind of a lie. I’ve been sitting on it in various permutations for a year. For a long time, I was struck by the last time I saw my uncle. It was in the ICU, covered with big windows. That felt very resonant for me, so I knew I wanted to talk about what it means to put a life in glass walls. I tried it for a couple of months, and it was not working. Then I realized that I needed to move the metaphor up to the beginning because I didn’t want it to be a poem that closed with this,” they admitted. “Moving the metaphor, and deepening it meant I could open it up at the end and leave it on this feeling of resolution and sadness and finality but also a little bit of acceptance and hope instead of closing on the finality of death.”

The Robin Inside

You died like a hobbled robin in spring:

watched and boxed behind glass, keening

away from warmth towards the crisp of day.

I am reading that bright morning

when I hear the thump of a softness at the window

and see the echo of feathers before the body below–

sprawled and wings akimbo. The cardboard box

doesn’t help nor the towel. I do what I can

which of course is not enough. Praying and calling–

but who will come for a broken bird dying? Nothing

to do but love. I will show you the window

before you go, the trees and the spring unfurling

across the glass. Would you stay a while? Take a breath. Rest

your eyes and I’ll tell the view. Let me hold your hand

before you sigh through the clear walls of this life

and heed that other flock calling.

The final result of “The Robin Inside” is undeniably heart-wrenching but equally bittersweet: “Let me hold your hand/before you sigh through the clear walls of this life/and heed that other flock calling.” Perhaps death is another flock, another plane of existence, and not quite fully the end. Rather, the end for now. There’s a certain comfort in the mentality of “not now, but maybe later” ending Mika chose because it’s not overwhelmingly bleak. It poses the question: what if we believe we can reconnect and peacefully fly off with our loved ones?

“‘The Robin Inside’ needs to end on freedom. And this idea that, like you’re freed from suffering and from the earth and now you’re free to fly, and that felt like the only true and honest ending”

Almost a year ago, I heard Mika’s poetry for the first time – only once – yet I remembered every poem they read through the microphone. I can’t share the experience of being in a room filled with their voice, but let me offer this article as an apology to those who couldn’t make it. I can’t speak to what lies in the future for Mika, but I hope they continue to end each poem and memory with an em dash instead of a period.

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