Stephanie Burt and Mara Hampson

A Brief Portfolio
May 24, 2023 and Mara Hampson Stephanie Burt



You don’t have to do anything.
I know. Sometimes you have that day:
the sky serpentine, the humidity awful,
kids unable, or else too busy. It may not be lawful,
let alone lawful good, to regard this world
through the lens of its inevitable decay,
its future heat-
death, or advancing near-worth-
lessness, as if you
could tally the value
of every entity: half-dollar life, nickel moon, penny sun.
Sometimes you can’t help it. But if you think there’s no use
in getting out of the house, in fighting the grief
that goes nowhere, the sads
that could fell elephants
or render all literature confessional,
let us—no, let me– consider keeping you busy
with some extravagant irrelevance
dressed up as trivial pleasure: strawberry mousse,
gooseberries, or Cape gooseberries, or fizzy
water in flavors previously obscure
like “disaster rose” and “tea with Alfred, Lord Tennyson,”
and Gala apples, and an apple core
to pitch at a malefactor, and collages with school glue
and bicycle pictures, and tapioca pearls
in black or milk tea, and kids
who really grew up to be astronauts, in near-Earth
orbit, making a kind of rotating processional:
seen from up there or
down here, the whole of life
can taste so bitter and so sweet
it’s worth saving your teeth for,
even worth getting them seen by a professional.


Stephanie Burt





No sweeter
for their near-invisibility, they testify instead
to what can go wrong: too much sun;
some failures, among the weeds and other
stem-dependent plants, to claim
their space;
cane-cutting so aggressive that they will
not flourish in their original place.


They are all transplants,
grown out from bits of stem.
To the ongoing danger
of deer they oppose their fine thorns.
However long you had to wait
this year, they have waited longer, been through more.


Reaching for them in the dark–
parked car’s headlights
off so as not
to wake neighbors—you try to be gentle enough
to separate each of them
from their hard stem.
Their instances may fall,
or seem to roll, into your hand.


Their light resistance gives them luster.
They have their own lore, as if they understand
how much their growth requires inattention,
homeowners’ neglect, and shade
on the underside
of each cluster.


They may—it’s too soon
to know— make the final bit
for a family feast.
They may, collected
in spate, give you breakfast in bed.
Or else– deprived of rain,
cool evenings, and loam
that lets them drink up nutrients and turn
that familiar-to-us, strange-
to-each-of-them nearly chrome-
red– they may choose instead
to wither into the buds
from which they began,
like teens who want never to change,
and never leave home.


Stephanie Burt





Theatre people who know suppose them to bring good luck. Most of them, as adults, hide among theatre curtains, with a camouflage-based preference for the darkest, plushest reds.


They lay their eggs in curtains’ sandbags. As dust-eating larvae, they climb straight up any bits of wood or fabric at hand. They dangle as pupae from curtain rings, or—in at least one subspecies—from metal light grids; they hatch suddenly and shake their wings out quickly in the fringes of a follow spot or a Fresnel, more gradually in a PAR can. Once grown,  they will flit between fixtures, in between shows, and eat the dust off little-used props and especially off lighting glass, so that their presence reduces the need to clean.


Their antennae stay short, and fluffy, with tips that run from hot pink (on small stages, like the ones in the back of a bar), to the red of dried blood, to a smooth maroon. At their fullest these antennae resemble the brushes manufactured for cleaning trumpets, or else the softer ones used to clean drums.


Velvet-winged moths know how to stay out of the way. Only once, as far as records show, have they interfered with a live performance. In Sheffield, in 1976, the actor playing Beatrice had an onstage heart attack. A swarm of moths encircled her promptly from her knee to her clavicle, beating their silent wings, alerting the same production’s Benedick and Claudia and Don John to stop the production and take her offstage. Six weeks later the show reopened, with a grateful lead making silent gestures of thanks to the velvet-winged moths as she spoke her first lines.


If you work in a theatre lucky enough to have an infestation of velvet-winged moths, theatrical superstition says that you may not report to anyone that you have seen them, not even other people in your acting company, lighting team, or costume crew. Even in theatre circles, in the West End, on Broadway, in Wellington and Toronto, some actors believe they do not exist. But I have seen them with my own eyes, once, at the edge of an orchestra pit, struggling out of their pale cocoons, the droplets of metamorphosis still sticking to their wings, their shaky bodies pointed towards the stage.


Mara Hampson & Stephanie Burt





The language of sea anemones is slow, frustratingly so from the point of view of an octopus, or a dolphin, or (should any of them take an interest) a human being: it is a language of movement, inseparable—at least among fluent adults—from the leanings and flutterings, the vigorous tilts, of what terrestrial beings would label as dance.


This language—as far as we know—has had no written form. Such a thing, could it exist, would be a choreographer’s dream, recording the signals and tenses, moods and cases indicated by two lemon-yellow tentacles pointing up toward far-off sunlight, for example, followed by three more tentacles pointing down. Sea anemone language—gestural, real-time, shared—requires not only each anemone’s movements but also a sense of the collective, an already-ongoing conversation, and (above all) the shifting ocean currents. On those currents, the language depends.


A sea anemone can say, at a given time, only what currents permit them to say. If the ocean tends up around a certain anemone, only upward semantic units (verbs) can be made: if it is still, only slight and quiet movements, almost imperceptible unless you are already paying attention (we would call most of these adjectives, or adverbes). Undersea gales allow only gale-force clauses. And so on, down to the cues for when speech starts and ends, what counts as a question, , an interjection, an answer.


Between what we would call subject and we would call verb, let alone from one to the next complete utterance, sea anemones must wait for a current to run in whatever direction the grammar or the state of the sense requires.  Sea anemone communication—and they communicate almost constantly—therefore allows almost nothing that we would label as debate, or argument, or even extended, single-protagonist narrative.


Instead it consists of a moving consensus, and a network of tentative, changing propositions, along with a succession of near-ideas—about why, about how, about fish, about day and night and growing and hatching and fading—that we, on land,  might label (wrongly) as puzzles, or as koans. One often repeated (but rarely completed) asks how many bones. Another suggests that you try again to be. A third would not have been hungry except.  In this manner of continuous conversation the larger colonies of anemones pass their days.


Not only do individual anemones depend on the nuances and the whims of shifting currents to communicate; they know further limits, being sessile creatures, to what they, as individuals, can say. An anemone tilted 40 degrees towards the vertical, always facing the equator, may only ever end sentences, never begin them. One perpendicular to the sea floor may only phrase utterances in the form of a question. Such anemones, and there are many, must wait for appropriate invitations from the other members of their cluster before beginning, or responding, or taking part in whatever ongoing conversation—or, better, performance, or meeting—comes their way.


This movement-based language acquires nuance from color: the international orange of one tentacle pair, the copper-oxide green of another, the stripes inside a third, may do the work of case and mood, indicating (for example) which of two tentacles signifies an actor, which one a thing acted-on. The language of anemones here overlaps with the varieties of linguistic and other signals among octopuses, as well as the more sophisticated cuttlefish.  They can be, at times, mutually intelligible, if an octopus finds the patience.  Few do.


Nonetheless some octopuses have found a use for sea anemones. A young, frisky, impulsive, or over-eager octopus can endanger its far-off neighbors, calling attention to its own motions, to nearby egg-sacs or to trails left by predation. These all too frisky octopuses learn—or perhaps get sentenced—to calm down by living, for weeks or more, among anemones, which can neither kill them nor feed them; which can communicate with them only in mysterious, slow, half-sayings and cryptic advice; which can teach them caution in the way that a military school might teach a rambunctious human teen discipline, if that school were silent, at times, like a monastery, and parts of its walls formed a maze. Then the young octopuses go back to their kind.


Except for one who never did. Chartreuse-with-Brown-Speckles (named, like all octopuses, for her chromatophores’ resting colors) grew so curious about the morphology, the history and the content of anemone communication that after she spent the supposedly Purgatorial weeks of her adolescence with the anemones, she returned to live among them full-time, choosing never to mate (so as not to shorten her life), and trying to educate her fellow octopuses in her particular reef as to the beauty of this gestural, ongoing, slow-moving, language, in which no claim is ever either argued against, or complete.


Chartreuse-with-Brown-Speckles has counted, so far, among the sea anemones, five moods, ten tenses, three aspects, and a set of articles, prepositions and conjunctions dependent on what the tentacles do with their tips. She has tried to take part in their conversations, with some limited success.


As for the young octopuses who continue to live among the yellows and blues, the azures and crimsons, for days, or weeks, at a time—Chartreuse-with-Brown-Speckles has tried, over and over, to interest the brightest among them in her own work. But when their assigned time among the fronds comes to an end, the young cephalopods have so far uniformly chosen to rejoin their peers, and to live out the scattered life of their kind.


If Chartreuse-with-Brown-Speckles could find only one young octopus to continue her work, she herself could die happy. What Chartreuse has learned might otherwise die with her, since octopus language also has no written form. Nevertheless, she continues to record what she can learn of anemone language, noticing– when the tides and the deep shift direction, or foam on the surface makes for a sudden temperature change underneath—what can be said, what can no longer be said, who can say it, and how, and who goes silent, and who chimes in. She says she is happy this way, though she knows she will never be fluent: she says that it would be enough if she could ever feel she had understood all of something they say.


Mara Hampson & Stephanie Burt

Stephanie Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice from the Lights (2017), Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and Popular Music (1999). Burt’s works of criticism include The Poem is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (2016); Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (2009), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Art of the Sonnet, written with David Mikics (2010); The Forms of Youth: 20th-Century Poetry and Adolescence (2007); Randall Jarrell on W.H. Auden (2005), with Hannah Brooks-Motl; and Randall Jarrell and His Age (2002).






Mara Hampson is a queer artist living in the Boston area. They dabble in various mediums, such as podcasting, polymer clay, and watercolors.