Welcome to LINE LEVEL: Craft Lessons from Poets of Color, a monthly column in which writer, editor, and educator Joanna Acevedo zooms in on an element of craft from the work of BIPOC poets. LINE LEVEL unfolds in three parts: an excerpt of a poem, followed by a contributor’s note, followed by Acevedo’s own exploration into the poet’s world of language. Guided by a curiosity that yields learning, we are invited to consider historical context, stylistic influences, and more, all the way down to the level of the line. This month, Acevedo discusses “i am unfit to raise daughters,” from Earthly Gods (2024, Variant Lit) by Jessica Nirvana Ram.

Contributor’s Note // Jessica Nirvana Ram

The first time I encountered backslashes in a poem was Hieu Minh Nguyen’s “White Boy Time Machine: Software” and it was the most fascinating thing because I held pretty tightly to lineation, never really writing a prose poem before so to see this form where it mimicked a prose block but still had the effect of lineation, it piqued my interest. I found particularly that it allowed me the permission to control the rhythm of the poem similar to the way I do when I read my poems aloud. I come from a spoken word background so I’m always thinking of how my poems sound on and off the page. Backslashes gave me some control over that, the way a reader would come to a poem, where they would pause, breathe, contemplate. Of course once a poem’s out of your hands it belongs to the reader but it felt like imbuing the poem with just a drop more of my voice. It also birthed a new voice writing this way from the start, a clipped, stuttered kind of voice that had an edge to it. I find when I write with backslashes I write quicker, like something about the form propels me forward through the poem since there are no commas, periods, or line breaks to stop me. Which is also not to say these poems can’t be slow only that the fluidity is smoother for me personally.   

Craft Lessons from Poets of Color //  Joanna Acevedo

Jessica Nirvana Ram’s “I am unfit to raise daughters,” is emotionally taut but the way she arranges the lines with regards to punctuation is even more fascinating than the visceral and lyric poetry inside these slashes, which she uses to create a powerful but disjointed experience for the reader. As she notes in her contributor’s comment, the application of the slashes brings together several techniques—specifically the prose poem and the more traditional and finite lineation of what we would typically consider or recognize as a “poem.” 

Prose poems have continued to rise in popularity as readers and writers push the boundaries of genre, breaking down the historical boundaries of what a poem can be, but these slashes illuminate another kind of solution to this problem of tension between traditional lineated poetry and the more trendy—but also equally impactful, when done well—prose poem. Each form has its own pros and cons, but Ram has found her happy medium. 


It’s common for those who have just come to discover, explore, or write poetry for the first time to feel as if punctuation has no role in poetry. This is a myth! There’s a lot of places that punctuation can find its footing in all kinds of poetry, and even ee cummings, who is famously known for eschewing capital letters in his name, used parentheses and other unconventional punctuation in order to create structure and tension in his work, as we can see here: r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r by E. E. Cummings – Poems | Academy of American Poets. This is a particularly dramatic example but you get the idea. 

Punctuation can help guide a reader through your work, showing them where to stop, start, and slow down, or where to linger for emphasis. It’s like a map for your reader as they move through your poem. Although there are definitely different rules for each poet, and you can be very creative with how you approach this (as Ram and cummings show us), there’s lots of ways to think about punctuation as you start writing poems, and experimenting with punctuation can be one of the most fun parts of writing and rewriting drafts. 

Reading your work aloud is a good place to start because it will help you to hear the natural stops and starts as well as where you breathe; this can help with comma and period placement. But in a poem like Ram’s, punctuation can do so much more. The slashes, as Ram notes, create a stuttering effect that disjoints the reader, putting them on edge but also forcing them to pay more attention to what was inside the slashes. Rather than skimming we bounce from place to place. The images stick: “sons are less likely / to inherit my mouth / stuffed full of cotton balls / slicked with gasoline…” Because we’re bumping in and out we get stuck momentarily on each image, so they stay with us for a moment longer and linger in our minds. 


These kinds of slashes and similar marks can be found in a variety of places but they’re often used to break up smaller chunks of prose poetry. Natalie Diaz uses them in her poem, “Hand-Me-Down-Halloween,”(Natalie Diaz’s “Hand-Me-Down Halloween”) which is a narrative poem about an experience she had while living outside of her Native American reservation as a child. In Diaz’ poem the slashes are used in a variety of different ways and they don’t always appear consistently, like in Ram’s poem. Rather, they come in and out, adding emphasis in some places and disappearing in others. Here’s an example: 


My mother’s boyfriend said

well / Kimosabe / you ruined your costume

wull / Kimo-sa-be / you fuckt up yer costume


We see Diaz’s ear for language and how she manipulates it here, but in her own contributor’s note at the end of the poem, she writes: “But in reference to the forward slashes, they aren’t meant to be exciting. I hope they make the readers’ eyes uncomfortable, that they physically and musically express the disjointed, jagged experience explored in the poem.”

The slashes often do precisely what they’ve done in the above example; show us the way that people around this child-version of Diaz is picking up on the nuances of language, the sounds and inflections of speech. Ram’s poem is quite cerebral, which is why the slashes work—they mimic the disjointed patterns of thought that we all experience, becoming distracted by this or that, or jumping from thought to thought as we circle a major theme, which in this case for Ram is about having a daughter and various anxieties about raising girls in our current socio-political climate. Diaz has a more linear approach and she’s essentially writing about the same concept—but the daughter is her child self. Her poem looks out and Ram’s looks in. 

Ram also notes in her contributor’s note: “I come from a spoken word background so I’m always thinking of how my poems sound on and off the page.” We can hear the breath of the poem, its frantic hiccup, as we read. The spoken word element is clear. We can see/hear from her ability to pair words and phrases: “honeysuckle sons / with sugarcane limbs,” and “chambers of my heart / sliced into thirds,” just to mention a few. But how do we read the slash? 

A slash can add a rhythmic element to a poem that can’t be mimicked with another kind of punctuation. This is an exciting idea for any poem. We’re always trying to find ways to control the language that spills out around us. In the way that Ram uses them, slashes can be a way to wrangle some of that complex language that feels too difficult to take on all at once. Emotions can be complicated, and giving them a repetitive structure might help access them more evenly on the page. 

A poet can’t reveal all their tricks at once. Sometimes we have to figure things out for ourselves. Which is a fancy way of saying there are many different answers, so pick the one that works best for you and our work.


There’s something energetic about this punctuation. As Ram notes it’s a quick, heartbeat kind of writing. There’s a speed and urgency to it, a kind of natural creativity that is waiting to be explored. Putting your own spin on this kind of trick can be as easy as adding slashes into preexisting writing and seeing what happens. Experimenting with punctuation is one of the easiest ways to move a poem that feels stuck into a new and unexpected place, and even if you don’t use this new version, you’ll learn something about how you work, what your obsessions are, and how to break free of your natural tics and move into a brand new space, all by pressing just a few computer keys. It sounds easy, right? 

The / sky / is / the / limit! 

Jessica Nirvana Ram is the author of Earthly Gods (Variant Literature, 2024) and in the aftermath (Prismatica Press, 2024).  Her work appears in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, Chicago Quarterly Review, amongst others. Jessica earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is a poetry reader for Okay Donkey Magazine and Split Lip Magazine, a poetry editor for Variant Literature, and the Director of Sticky Fingers at Honey Literary. She currently works as the Publicity and Outreach Manager for the Stadler Center for Poetry and Literary Arts. Find her on Twitter @jessnirvanapoet.

Joanna Acevedo

is a writer, editor, and educator from New York City. She is the author of two books and two chapbooks, and her writing has been seen across the web and in print, including in Jelly Bucket, Hobart, The Rumpus, and The Adroit Journal, among others. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2021, and also holds degrees from Bard College and The New School. Read more about her and her work at

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