How to Live on Bread and Music

Jennifer K. Sweeney

Life-affirming but without illusions, How to Live on Bread and Music showcases poet Jennifer K. Sweeney’s mature consciousness and circumspect intelligence. This collection takes us on a physical and spiritual trip, symbolized in recurring images of the train. Exploring broad themes such as identity formation, nostalgia, and impermanence, the poet passes through risk to find refuge in the sensory world. What is most remarkable is Sweeney’s ability to confide without burdening, her talent for arranging enough silence between words for us to locate the pulse of meaning.


There is a blue city in mind
constructed slantways

along a rippling canal,
clean and unpeopled but for a musician

who plays a harp without strings.
The city has one chair

where he sits by the broad strokes of water.
A lone streetlamp tends

a blue arc of light.
A Persian door. A zeppelin sky.

The world filters through
his empty frame as he plucks the air.

Maybe you hear a song or maybe you don’t.
That is the choice we are always making.

Cover image: How to Live on Bread and Music
Add to cart Teach this Book


James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, winner

The Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses, selected for inclusion

“Jennifer K. Sweeney’s How to Live on Bread and Music is a remarkable achievement from the hand of a poet with a subtle and compassionate mindfulness. These are poems that tell us we move forward in moments when motion seems all too risky and stillness all too intolerable. Adept at the delicate project of inventiveness in the line, she shows us time and again that language is the matter of the poet and that there is surprise in the gift, as this book is sure evidence of the gift.” —Afaa Michael Weaver, James Laughlin Award judge. See for more info about the prize.
“Jennifer Sweeney’s second collection of poems is generous and sympathetic, melodic and transforming. Her playful yet incisive language, rich in imagery and metaphor, serves the larger purpose of helping us see our relationship to each other and the natural world with fresh eyes.” Apalachee Review
How to Live on Bread and Music is not only a volume of great range and depth, but is full of sonorous, deeply felt poems that evoke Marianne Moore’s famous adage that our best verse strive to create ‘a place for the genuine.’” Emprise Review
“Jennifer Sweeney is one of the best young poets writing today, one other young poets should study as an example of the heights to which well-crafted image and form can take their own writing.” The Pedestal Magazine
“Each of Jennifer K. Sweeney’s poems is part of her quest to be fully alive to the beauty, terror, and wonder of living. Oh life with your falling open, / April is eating itself alive / and I can hear the splitting of the dahlias / when I sleep. Rich in sound patterns, imagery, and metaphor, and packed with surprise, these poems take special joy in wild and juicy words: for example, ‘lyrate,’ ‘paldrons,’ ‘guillotine/ of wind’ ‘the sloop and slag of childhood,’ ‘deckled,’ and ‘lantern-hearted.’ Enter Sweeney’s world, and perhaps you too will become lantern-hearted.” —Annie Boutelle
“In Jennifer K. Sweeney’s How to Live on Bread and Music we discover words that weigh the earth carefully and sing it into existence for this poet knows ‘song is the yeast / when the body wants.’ Her poetry is ‘pained with sensation’ and has the power to transform the reader, to resurrect dandelions from a field of armor.” —Mark Irwin
“Lucid, fluid, and lovely, How to Live on Bread and Music is a compendium of experiments in advancing the imagination.” —James Cihlar, Coldfront

Author photograph by Lauren Henley

Jennifer K. Sweeney

Jennifer K. Sweeney is the author of four poetry collections. Her most recent book, Foxlogic, Fireweed, won the 2019 Backwaters Prize from The Backwaters Press/University of Nebraska. Little Spells was a Green Rose selection from New Issues Press in 2015. After her second book How to Live on Bread and Music won the Perugia Press Prize, it was then awarded the prestigious James Laughlin Award from the Academy of America Poets and further nominated for the Poets’ Prize. Her first book of poems, Salt Memory, won the 2006 Main Street Rag Poetry Award. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, and a residency from Hedgebrook. Sweeney holds an MFA from Vermont College and teaches poetry at the University of Redlands, and is known for a decade-long practice of private instruction and manuscript critique. Visit her at

Browse Our Books

View All Books