Speedy Ortiz singer-guitarist Sadie Dupuis has one of the most distinct lyrical voices in indie rock. Over the last seven years, she’s filled albums like 2015’s Foil Deer and this year’s Twerp Verse with sharp, funny, surprising words that are impossible to mistake for anyone else’s. In fact, Dupuis trained as a poet in the early 2010s, and she’s continued to publish written work since then. “I get asked to do readings, and I’d like to have a book to read from,” she says over the phone after returning home from Speedy Ortiz’s latest tour. “Thirty thousand tours and a couple albums later, I realized I still hadn’t done anything with this book.”
The book she’s talking about is Mouthguard, a sly cycle of loss and renewal published this month through Gramma Poetry. The poems inside began as Dupuis’ final course work for a three-year MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She wrote them just as Speedy Ortiz was coming into existence, then put them aside as the band took off. The collection reads now as a fascinating companion piece to the music she’s made since then, and an affecting work of literature in its own right.
When Dupuis wrote the earliest verses in Mouthguard, in 2011, she had just moved from New York to western Massachusetts to enroll at UMass. Her last band back in the city had imploded, and her search for a journalism job hadn’t gone well (“kind of nightmarish,” she says), so poetry seemed worth a shot. Once there, though, Dupuis found herself working through the trauma of two friends’ deaths and dealing with health issues of her own, all while living in a town where she didn’t know anyone.
“When I look at [the work] now at age 30, knowing that it was written at age 23, there’s some really bleak death stuff in there,” she says. “But I’m also trying to have optimism in this new place, so it’s imbued with a sense of humor.”
Like her early work with Speedy Ortiz, which began that same year as a solo project, the poems in Mouthguard show a deep interest in the writing of Sylvia Plath and Dorothea Lasky, among other texts. “I was really into medieval imagery and dark magic — I mean, we did a whole album about tarot,” she says, meaning Speedy Ortiz’s 2013 LP Major Arcana. “I don’t tend to do that anymore, but some of these poems are in that same headspace, which is fun to return to.”
Take “Chariot,” one of the best in the collection, which you can read below. “It’s a little love poem that I did in this creepy language,” Dupuis says. The eight-line poem mixes ominous and sweet imagery, ending with an unexpected declaration: “You smell terrible and I love you/because I can smell you at all.”
“I really fought for that line,” Dupuis says. Editors suggested that she cut it, but she felt it was important to undercut the poem’s sense of drama with a joke. “I thought that at the end of this poem it was really crucial to keep that alive,” she says. “At the end of the day, you’re a real human.”
By the spring of 2014, when she completed her MFA thesis, Speedy Ortiz — now a four-piece band — was gaining national attention. Dupuis would teach and study three days a week, then play shows with her bandmates on the long weekends. “We got home from a tour in Europe, then I defended my thesis the next day,” she says. “Then immediately after the defense, I had to fly and meet [the band] in D.C., because they’d already gone down to start the next leg of the tour.”
Mouthguard is more or less that same thesis, plus or minus a few line edits. “It’s pretty darn close to the manuscript I finished at the end of that program,” she says. “It was interesting to revisit the poems — I enjoyed them more, because I didn’t have that self-critical tendency. Because it was written so long ago, I could observe it as a reader rather than as the author.”
2018 has been a big year for Speedy Ortiz, with a new album and tour dates opening for Liz Phair. This summer, Dupuis returned to Massachusetts when the band opened for Foo Fighters at Fenway Park. “I had never even been to an arena show until the week prior, when I went to see Charli XCX open for Taylor Swift,” she says. “To play one a few days later was very surreal.”
Her first round of readings for Mouthguard wraps up this weekend in Brooklyn, with more dates to come early next year. She’s also hoping to find time to work on a follow-up to Slugger, her 2016 solo debut as Sad13. “I’m hoping to have a little bit of time at home just to write some more music, ’cause it was so fun to work on the last one,” Dupuis says. “I’ve had a lot of ideas for that that I’ve been sitting on for a while.”
I direct the chariot
pulled by sphinxes.
You notice when I do something sweet
having solved the world’s riddles.
Do the snakes do it like you do.
Writhe out of themselves.
You smell terrible and I love you
because I can smell you at all.
– Sadie Dupuis
Speedy Ortiz tour dates:
November 27th, The Sinclair, Cambridge, Massachusetts
November 28th, First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia
November 30th, Gateway City Arts, Holyoke, Massachusetts
December 1st, ArtsRiot, Burlington, Vermont
December 2nd, Colony, Woodstock, New York