Contributor Conversations

Conversations with Contributors: Anna Rose Welch by Peter LaBerge

BY SAMANTHA SETO

 Anna Rose Welch, contributor to  Issue Twelve  and author of  We, the Almighty Fires  (Alice James Books, 2018).

Anna Rose Welch, contributor to Issue Twelve and author of We, the Almighty Fires (Alice James Books, 2018).

Anna Rose Welch earned her MFA from Bowling Green State University. Her poems can be found in a number of publications, including Best New Poets 2014, The Kenyon Review Online, The Paris-American, Guernica, The Adroit Journal, Crab Orchard Review, and others. Her first book, We, the Almighty Fires, won the 2016 Alice James Award and was published by Alice James Books in April 2018. She currently lives in Erie, PA, where she is the Chief Editor of an online pharmaceutical publication (Biosimilar Development) and a violinist in the Presque Isle Pro Musica chamber orchestra.

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Samantha Seto: Congratulations on your book!

Anna Rose Welch: Thank you so much and thank you even more for reading and taking the time to chat with me about it!

SS: Why were you drawn to the Old Testament stories around which the book is written? How did you come to the decision to arrange the book into its four parts?

ARW: To be honest—and this is going to sound more demented than I would like it to—but I was drawn to the violence of those stories. If we’re looking at the Old Testament stories as works of fiction or myths, they carry so much more emotional heft. I’m also drawn to the notion of a vengeful God because it’s a more interesting concept for my narrator to grapple with and challenge. So much of what my narrator struggles with is how to balance free will in the face of whatever has some kind of power over them—whether it be another person, a deity, lust/love, or even art. I am a spiritual person, and I had a positive experience growing up in the church. I was never taught to fear God, which is probably a big part of why I’m drawn to the darkness of the Old Testament. There are so many silences in these stories—so many instances of being told to do something or face the consequences with the rest of humanity that have lost their way. And though I studied these darker stories in Sunday School, I was never told that I was doomed or that one wrong step would lead me astray and throw me outside of God’s good graces. The Great Flood story, which is the most prominent biblical story explored throughout the book, is just as much a story about rebirth as it is destruction. God didn’t like the world he’d created and destroyed it. What came next He hoped would be a better creation. My narrator, I think, has the same hope.

I wish I could say that the organization of the Bible had something to do with the organization of my book into four parts. But I felt it fit best in four sections because of the two longer poems in the book—Noah’s Wife and Noah’s Woods—which fit so organically as their own sections. The six Noah’s Wife poems—one for each time she’s referred to and never given a name in the Bible—served as an interlude or inflection point for the narrator. I wanted to give voice to some of these silenced old testament voices, and in turn, spur the narrator on towards their own “genesis story” in Noah’s Woods.

SS: There are many references to art in this collection, many of which depict religious or classical imagery: Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy in “Rough Music,” for example, or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in “Noah’s Woods.” In the second part of “Noah’s Woods,” the speaker points to the simple art of the craft, “we glued popsicle sticks into rafts,” reminding your readers that anyone is able to create art. Why did you pick the pieces that you did? Do you have a background in art history? Where did your interest in writing about art come from?

ARW: I had a feeling when I went to college that I’d end up an English major, but I also wanted to explore other subjects on the off-chance that I’d find something I loved just as much, or more. Art history almost seduced me away from pursuing English. My freshman year, I enrolled in an art history survey class, and despite the fact it was at 8 AM, there was something wonderful about being sleep deprived in that dark room watching the slides and hearing my professor talk about art techniques and subject matter—a majority of which was religious. Though, in the end, English/creative writing became my major, I loved art history so much that I ended up getting a minor in Medieval Renaissance studies because it combined history, religious studies, and, most importantly, art history. One course in particular—an upper level seminar on “The Renaissance Woman”—continued to haunt me for years after and was a big influence on my work. So much of the scholarly literature we read in that class circled around the female body and how the body was depicted through art, or how women altered, abused, or subjected their bodies to extreme conditions in an effort to express piety. I was also drawn to the merging of the sacred and the erotic. So much of the artwork in the Renaissance played with this—and there’s no better example than St. Theresa in Ecstasy. I love how this almost in-your-face erotic clashes with The Birth of Venus, which is an image of demure innocence.

SS: Tell me more about the love affair you describe in your book. In “After You Left,” for example, you elaborate on making love: “He whispered: Listen. Something’s devouring the leaves. / Like this, he said, searching my mouth until I tasted salt. / Like this, his palms said, sinking to my hipbones.” The narrative seems to be grounded in the lyrical present. Are you writing about how you experience love, or have you imagined the lover who appears in your poems?

ARW: There are actually very few instances in the book in which the lovers or love affairs described are truly how I have experienced love—and that’s the case in After You Left. A lot of these poems were written during a period of my life in graduate school when I was trying to take more risks and shock myself by what I was writing. I was newly single, spending hours in the same café night after night writing, and I was in love with the thought of being able to create any kind of relationship (or sexy goings-on) I wanted to on the page. After You Left was an exercise in vulnerability; up until that point, I’d never written anything that forwardly sensual and disturbing.    

SS: In these poems, the body illustrates the beauty of movement and seems to be used to express human nature. In “Rough Music,” you’ve used sensory detail to portray the body of the speaker’s lover, “Without clothes / you’re evidence man was created in the Lord’s image.” In “As If Out of Clay,” you write, “I wore pearls like any other bride / and he bit them from my neck like any other man / tears the apple from its core.” And in part VI of “Noah’s Woods,” you describe the beauty of the human body: “I saw two photographs of a dancer: one where her lover lay on the ground before her, his arm pressed to her breastbone.” Why do you find the human body to be the best conduit for these particular stories and/or for your poems?

ARW: I’ve always been fascinated by the body and the different ways it works from person to person. Once, I went with my brother to his appointment at the Cleveland Clinic. I remember looking around at the people walking through the hallways and sitting in waiting rooms filling out forms, thinking about all that can go wrong with the body. And, often, there’s no way to keep whatever is going to happen to it from happening. The body presents us with a fascinating duality. There’s nothing we really understand more than our own bodies—we come to learn what foods will be harmful for us, what medicines we shouldn’t take, what makes us feel good, and when doesn’t. But at the same time, we can’t always control what our body chooses to do to itself; we are at the mercy of our genes, which means we have proclivities for certain chronic diseases or addictions, and for frustrating (yet fascinating) scientific reasons, medicines work differently from person to person.

I also was drawn to the body given my background studying texts about Medieval/Renaissance women and how female saints in particular demonstrated their loyalty to God. So often it involved deprivation and suffering. One of the many non-poetry scholarly books I was reading during my writing spree in grad school was The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 by Caroline Walker Bynum. There was much discussion about the fragmentation of the body, one particularly beautiful passage being, “The body decays only into indestructible bits which God can reassemble or recast as a statue, or as a jeweler, making a mosaic, puts the stones back together again.” I have notebooks full of snippets from texts such as these about the body, and several of the poems in the book—for instance, Redemption, Ravishment, and even pieces of Noah’s Woods—play around with the fragmentation of the body. Depending on who the early Christian writer was, that fragmentation was either something that was a threat to your redemption or a symbol of the spiritual over the physiological.  

SS: Your collection is full of classical Greek and Roman mythology. What is it about antiquity—classical or biblical, or a combination of the two—that allows you to speak to female desire and empowerment?

ARW: When I was first getting into my book, I was fascinated with mining culture: the act of digging into the earth and harvesting the darkest pieces of it that would give the world light. Though I failed miserably at actually writing solely about mining (though my family’s roots are in mining culture), it turned out that my book ended up being an excavation. My poems became obsessed with digging into history and unearthing the stories and voices that haven’t always been heard and finding solidarity with them. I’d like to believe the women that came before me—or the mythmakers—had some of the same questions, frustrations, and identity-shaping experiences as I have had.  

SS: Many of your lines are musical. Eugene Gloria, whose blurb graces your book’s back cover, wrote, “There is a keen attention to music in these poems—a crafting of sound as sturdy as an ark in a biblical flood and as obsessive as the water’s recursive singing.” You’re also a violinist. How do you see music influencing your poetry, and your poetry influencing your music?

ARW: When I was younger, music was a big influence on my writing. The poems I wrote in high school were not completed poems until I had included references to every instrument found in an orchestra. If I learned anything as I became a more advanced writer, it was that, A.) a literal orchestra doesn’t belong in a poem, and B.) that the more time I spent practicing violin, the fewer poems I actually wrote. When I was in grad school, I took private lessons for two years and played in the orchestra for a semester. Given the regular rehearsal schedule and the practice required for the orchestra, on top of private lessons, I was devoting a significant portion of my days to practicing as opposed to writing. So, I ended up leaving the orchestra (though I loved it) and was better able to balance lessons/daily practice and poems.

I’m currently floating about in seemingly unending silence, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I find myself thinking more and more about the Bach d-minor sonata for unaccompanied violin. Playing violin was my first love—I started when I was five—and it was always a critical part of my identity and a huge source of pride (and it still is). It was my second voice—where words failed, my violin was there. Music undoubtedly influenced the sounds and rhythms of each poem. But what I find puzzling is the fact that, while the violin is a lyrical and romantic instrument, known for its soaring melodies in orchestras, so many of my poems—especially today—reject long lines. I’m drawn to stark, brief, end-stopped declarative sentences and double-spaced lines. It’s the absolute opposite of the sound I strive for when playing violin. It’s an interesting dichotomy I don’t quite understand, and I probably never will.

SS: What is your writing process? You’re an editor for Biosimilar Development; is your writing process for poetry different from that of your editorial work? Did you write each poem in Fires to stand alone, individually, or did you write the poems collectively for this book? How long did it take you to put together this collection?

ARW: So much of this collection was written in a quick burst in about a six-month period during my final year of grad school. I could barely keep up with myself at the time. Some of the other poems eventually came out in the year or so after graduation. Overall, during the process of writing the poems, I was aware that I loved writing about water in all forms and many of the poems had to do with God or womanhood. But I wasn’t thinking about them as an overarching conversation or collection outside of putting them together into my thesis. It ended up that, once I put them all together into a thesis, the poems were quite cohesive with each other in a way that leant itself well to a book manuscript. My thesis advisor encouraged me to take a chance and start submitting it.

SS: Along those same lines, how does your work with Biosimilar Development affect your poetry and/or your poetry-writing process?

ARW: My job was a pleasant surprise. When I first started working for my company managing a variety of different pharmaceutical publications, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I felt lucky enough to be an English major and to have ended up in an editorial position at all. But I also expected it would be a step towards something else non-pharmaceutical related eventually. When I first took the helm of Biosimilar Development, I legitimately began to love what I was doing. I’ve always been a curious person. But before taking this job, I don’t think I quite realized what a gift and necessity it is for me to have a job that would regularly challenge me (and pay the bills). Since I don’t have a background in science, business, political science, or regulatory affair, I have to step outside my comfort zone daily and talk to industry experts and do research to learn the ins-and-outs of these more technical aspects of the industry. I’ve actually had to become a “personality” in this space—in fact, I dare say I’m better known today in the pharma industry than I am in the poetry world right now. Another good thing is the fact this process requires me to use the left side of my brain, while poetry stimulates the right side of my brain. So I don’t generally feel “burned out” from my job. But I think it has made me a more analytical writer. I approach each poem from a more narrative, organizational sense. Just like I have to consider organization and pacing of an article, I’ve begun to focus more on the movement of my poem and what the progression of each new image or statement can mean for the poem and what it can ultimately become.

SS: We, Almighty the Fires won the Alice James Award in 2016. What was your experience working with Alice James Books? Your book was also shortlisted for prizes from Tupelo Press, The Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, and The OSU Press. What are your thoughts about literary contest culture?

ARW: Right before my book was picked up, I’d really begun to marvel at a number of Alice James’ books—especially Cecily Parks’ book, O’Nights, and Richie Hoffman’s Second Empire. They’d also signed on to publish my thesis advisor and good friend Jennifer Chang’s second book, Some Say The Lark. So, when I got the call, I remember being stunned because I never thought my book would fit into the caliber of the other writers they published before me. Working with them was wonderful. Though I only interacted with Carey Salerno a few times in the course of editing my book, she was thorough, intelligent, and supportive. The same goes for the other editors when it comes to post-publication awards, review copies, or ordering books/reading promotion.

I’ve personally benefited from the contest culture, given that that’s how my book came into this world. I know it can be depressing and exhausting for many people in the thick of it—and at times I felt the panic of “what if this never happens?”. But what I do like about the contest culture is the fact that you never really know who is on the editorial board or board of readers, and contests with guest judges always change your chances. There’s no way of predicting what anyone is going to like. When I was in the thick of it, I was a finalist for a prize at Tupelo and didn’t win. For the next two submission periods, I wasn’t long or short-listed at all. I submitted to Alice James three times, and the first two times, I was rejected. I went from that to winning. And there’s really no rhyme or reason to it. I often joke that the day the readers discovered my manuscript, they liked it only because they had gotten a lot of great sleep the night before, were well hydrated, and were probably in a happy place eating donuts just coated with rainbow sprinkles.

I think it’s also a good reminder of just how big the writing world is today; I hardly ever know or recognize the names in a list of book prize finalists and semi-finalists. When I was reviewing the list of finalists for the National Poetry Series just this year, I was thrilled to see so many names I didn’t know. I find that so refreshing, given the echo chambers you can run into with social media.      

SS: The cover of your book is really striking. How do you see it being representative of your poetry? How was the image chosen?

ARW: Shortly after I signed my contract, the first thing the editors asked for was a document of 20 different images that I liked. I spent weeks poring over Pinterest and found (too) many images I loved. I found a lot of images by the artist who made my cover—Brooke Shaden—and suggested a few of them, but honestly never would have predicted the folks at AJB would’ve picked the one they did. A few months later the editors sent me several different cover options. I decided to go with the current cover because it felt the most symbolic of the subject matter. It reminded me of the “tongues of fire” from the Pentecost story in the Bible and had a similar drama that I associate with cathedrals and sacred relics. It also implied that the main figure on the cover was looking down on something, like she was an almighty figure, and I thought that complemented the juggling act between free will and faith throughout my book.

SS: It’s hard to find books that interest and resonate with me, but I loved your book. Do you have any recommendations for me, re: further reading?

ARW: So many! I would highly suggest Jennifer Chang, Cecily Park, Sarah Eliza Johnson, Traci Brimhall, and Cynthia Cruz. I recently discovered Susannah Nevison’s Teratology and Anna Journey’s If Birds Gather Your Hair For Nesting, and I’m stunned I hadn’t found their work until now (but that’s the beauty of poetry books). I’m currently picnicking my way through Diana Khoi Nguyen’s The Ghost Of, Nicole Cooley’s Of Marriage, and Monica Youn’s Blackacre, which have been forcing me to stop and really think my way through the individual poems and collections as wholes. In the past year or so I’ve also enjoyed Lauren Clark’s Music for the Wedding, Ruth Awad’s Set Music To A Wildfire, Jenny Molberg’s Marvels of the Invisible, and anything by Jennifer Militello and Katie Ford. As you can see, I’m a huge proponent of reading other women, though I’m also a sucker for Ocean Vuong, Jack Gilbert, Chris Santiago, Paul Guest, Mark Wagenaar, and Richie Hoffman.  

SS: Is another poetry collection in your future?

ARW: God, I hope so (LOL). It’s likely at least another 10 years out, if I am being realistic. In order to write well, I need to be questioning or rebelling against something. Writing has become much slower going and I’ve become even more critical of what I do manage to write since finishing the poems in my book. At this point, I’m trying to remain open to a new project, whatever that might be, and it’ll come to me when the time is right.

SS: Thanks, Anna Rose. I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to talk to me about your book. I really admire your devastatingly beautiful work.

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Samantha Seto graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a B.A. as a Writing Seminars major and History of Art minor in December 2017. Her work is published at The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, Cornerstone Magazine, The Harvard Ichthus, The Yale Logos, Scarlet Leaf Review, Chicago Literati, The Penn Review, Global Vantage, Compulsive Reader, North of Oxford, Writing for Peace/DoveTales Journal, The Los Angeles Review, and The Collagist. She wrote a book, Midnight, published in August 2015. She loves comparative literature. Samantha lives in Washington, D.C.

Conversations with Contributors: José Olivarez by Peter LaBerge

BY DUJIE TAHAT

 Photo credit: RJ Eldridge. José Olivarez, author of  Citizen Illegal  (Haymarket Books, 2018) and contributor to  Issue Twenty-Four .

Photo credit: RJ Eldridge. José Olivarez, author of Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books, 2018) and contributor to Issue Twenty-Four.

José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants and the author of the book of poems, Citizen Illegal. Along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he is co-editing the forthcoming anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT. He is the co-host of the poetry podcast, The Poetry Gods and a recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, Poets House, the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, & the Conversation Literary Festival. He lives in Chicago.

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Dujie Tahat: I want to start off by thanking you for writing Citizen Illegal. As an immigrant myself, it was really heartening. I’m not a Mexican immigrant, but I grew up working in the fields of Eastern Washington. My family and I picked fruit alongside undocumented immigrants, and they were my best homies growing up. So in a lot of different resonances, the book really spoke to me.

José Olivarez: Thank you. That really fills me with joy. I wrote the book in part for the students that I work with here in Chicago and in part to a younger version of myself that I’m imagining. So to hear that it resonates with people not to just here in Chicago but in other parts of the country has just been—I don’t have the words. I’m filled with gratitude. Thank you.

DT: Of course. Of course. Let’s jump in. In the tile poem “(Citizen) (Illegal),” the parentheticals almost enact the way immigration—the process or the politics of it—can interrupt the normal course of life. There’s a certain shock that feels particularly familiar to me. In your crafting of the poem, how did you arrive at interruption as a formal mechanism? And why, specifically, the parenthetical?

JO: Yeah, there are a few answers to that question. One is that I was attempting to do exactly what you’re talking about. I was thinking about the ways in my own life an everyday experience becomes interrupted with this realization. Or it’s like I’m having a day and everything is fine, then someone will say something or a headline will creep by, and suddenly, I’m once again aware and present in my own body, in my own experience, aware of everyone else in the room. So I was trying to recreate the way that that experience occurs, the way it interrupts just constantly this routine from time to time. In the book, the parts that are not parentheticals are not necessarily wild experiences, you know? It’s a baby growing up singing Selena songs or hiding from El Cucuy. But I was trying to figure out a way to interrupt that narrative, to interrupt that experience with these quick judgments.

In terms of how I arrived at the parentheticals, part of that comes from my deep love of hip hop and ad libstrying to find a way to play with poems in a way that mimic some of what I love about rap songs. So thinking about how you layer a text with multiple voices and different experiences, the parentheticals felt like a good way to accomplish both what I was trying to do in terms of layering voices as well as a good way to interrupt this experience, to bring the reader back to this constant recollection of where one stands at any given moment.

DT: You know, I hadn’t thought of ad libs, but that makes perfect sense. I really love that. In my first reading of the poem, I thought of boundaries a lot, and borders—both because the physical shape of the parentheses and the notion of a border or line cutting into someone just living an ordinary life. I’m curious too in the writing of that poem, when you knew you wanted to do that, did you write the whole poem and then insert the parentheses or did you write the parentheses in as you went along?

JO: I wrote one part, the first part: “Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal) have / a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen).” I wrote that first sentence and put the parentheticals in because I was trying to interrupt it. And when I read it and thought about it, not only did it work for that sentence, but I could think of any number of moments and experiences that are also interrupted, that also have this judgement placed on them whether it’s silent or spoken. From there, I started to build out the rest of the poem. So it was that first sentence and then thinking through how else I could play with the form that I had developed.

DT: You have a pretty incredible resumé and bio on many accounts. In the traditional sense, you have Harvard, Poetry Foundation, Lincoln Center, the Met. Another way to read the interruption of the parentheticals in “(Citizen) (Illegal)” is the immigrant interrupting “traditionally American” spaces—if we limit “traditionally American” to mean institutional, exceptional, superlative, white. Do you ever get imposter syndrome? How do you claim your space within those institutions?

JO: Oh man. Yeah. Absolutely. I get impostor syndrome all the time. That’s one of the things that I’m thinking about right now even as I’m talking to you, like who am I to pretend like I have any more knowledge than anyone else? I have always battled impostor syndrome because I’m in these spaces where I’m acutely aware that there aren’t a ton of other people of color or a ton of other people with immigrant backgrounds or a ton of other people who are non-traditional in the way that you explained. And that can make me feel like I have to be everything, like I have to be almost a Super Mexican and make sure that I’m doing right by all. You know what I mean? Like really make sure I’m putting on properly for all my people at all times. And that’s just an impossible thing to do.

Also, my being in those spaces is not going to fundamentally change those spaces, so it’s not a mistake that I feel that way when I’m in any one of those cultural institutions, right? It’s by design that they are predominantly cis, het, white, upper middle class, whatever. It’s by design that those institutions are that way. I don’t have any more faith in those cultural institutions than I do our government. I know that likewise they are only kind to me and other people from marginalized background when it’s beneficial to them, when it’s useful to them. That’s part of why I feel impostor syndrome in those spaces too. Because I know that a lot of the other people in those spaces have been trained to be there. They feel like they own the place, and I never feel that way. I never feel like when I’m in a big museum that I own that space or that it’s for me. I always feel like I’m on the outside even when I’ve been brought in. Maybe that’s just a personal thing, but I’m always constantly battling that.

In terms of the second part of your question, I guess I take care of myself by trying to create space not necessarily within those institutions, sometimes outside of those institutions, and by making sure that when I am in partnership with institutions, that I’m there with a purpose. That it’s beneficial not just to myself but for the people I care about. I partner with the Poetry Foundation because it allows me to teach in a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, for instance. So I’m very clear about why I take on these partnerships and why I am building partnership with them. That helps.

Another thing is, within those spaces, I’m trying to find people that do understand and are in solidarity with me—building those connections so that within those institutions, none of us feel like we are isolated or alone but that we are working together and finding ways to collaborate with each other. Those are two things, but you know, a lot of it, honestly, goes back to building spaces outside of those places.

One of the things that’s been important for me that I’m really interested in is building pathways for young Latinx writers in Chicago. And I can go to those different institutions to try to find ways to collaborate with them, but I can also just immediately start to do that myself working with neighborhood spots to host an open mic or workshop. Having that place then feels good, feels powerful and safe. So when I do interact with other people in institutions, I’m doing good, I feel nourished, and I don’t always feel like ‘'m in a space where I’m othered or marginalized.

DT: The point you make that those institutions aren’t actually designed for your or my comfort is something I think of a lot. Thinking of my own interaction with institutions, I think those things are useful in so far as they give me access and a certain capital—both real capital and social capital—that then allow me to hopefully do the work that I’m actually interested in, which it sounds like you’re really invested in. The other half of your bio I find personally fascinating. My come-up was with Youth Speaks Seattle. I went to Brave New Voices, and I know you did too. You’re also a big part of LTAB and Young Chicago Authors. You’re clearly invested in youth education and cultivating young voices. How much of teaching and working with youth is part of your writing process? Does working with young people keep your language fresh?

JO: In terms of how being an educator and working with young people is part of my artistic process, it’s not that they keep my language fresh. I think working with young people is useful because it means that, for me, there are stakes to my work. When I write my poems, I’m not just theoretically considering the fifteen year olds that I want to save or the fifteen year old that I was. I’m not just remembering that fifteen year old version of me. I have young people that are going through their own lives and trying to process and figure out their own place in the world. So it matters to me that they see the poems and that they gain something of use beyond just like, “Oh José is dope.” You know what I mean? And in a way that they can articulate that goes beyond “He’s older than us and therefore he must be skilled in this particular way,” but that they really connect with the poems. I’m pursuing the craft of poetry not just for the sake of the craft itself but because I really believe in the power of language and stories to build bridges and to help create new possibilities. It’s completely connected to that for me. I give those poems to my students and then they tell me that they begin to lead workshops for young people using those poems and poems of other writers that we studied, and we begin to build a conversation between us that hopefully then results in their writing of books and inviting more people into that conversation.

As for the language part, I like my language from, like, 2006, you know. I still say “Word” and things that are way out of fashion. I kind of love that. I love old-timey language. I love saying that I’m going to get into shenanigans. And I love the language that young people are using, but I don’t feel compelled to use it. I love the language of my own youth and try to work with that.

DT: Would it be fair to say that working with youth rejuvenates your poetics? How would you characterize that relationship?

JO: I think it it gives the work a different energy, for sure. In part, the way that I was able to finish the book was coming back to Chicago and getting into deep conversation with three students in particular who are now going off into the world. They’ve graduated from high school. They just finished the first years of college and are beginning to lead community writing workshops and become teaching artists. In particular, working deeply with them and seeing what kinds of questions they were grappling with gave my own poems a new energy. I was thinking about their frustration with the walls that were getting in the way of their own writing, and that helped me gain a sense of clarity about what kind of boundaries or walls I was coming up against in trying to make these poems fresh, trying to turn the story and find new ways in, trying to find more nuances, and trying to find new possibilities for the poems. Working with them to find their own limitations helped me see my own limitations as a writer. Then figuring out how I could show them, with this book, my own way through those limitations.

DT: It strikes me that your sense of poetics is deeply rooted in community, and I think when folks with Youth Speaks or BNV backgrounds say “poetry community,” we mean something a little different than “traditional” institutional poetry communities. There’s something really urgent about it. The slam scene and spoken word culture has obviously shifted—and I think juiced, in a really good way—contemporary American poetry, especially as this crop of BNV youth age into adulthood. Obviously there’s The Breakbeat anthology you’re in, folks like Nate Marshall, Danez Smith, sam sax, and Safia Elhillo that are breaking into or are fully in the institutions of poetry. Given that sense of poetics, both in the actual speaking of a poem in a room where there’s performance and urgency and then also the bigger sense of what you’re talking about—working with former students who are leading their own workshops—there’s this real-time thing happening. Do you see that as crucial to understanding contemporary American poetics? And how does that urgency translate?

JO: Let me see if I can try to answer that. The first way that I got feedback on my poems was via the open mic. And that was important because I could see people react. Everyone is nice at an open mic, but there’s a difference when I’ve read a poem that sends a jolt electricity through the room. That was useful in beginning to be able to see what part hit and what part I could cut or needed to rework in some way. It made me a good listener.

People think of an open mic as a performer reading their poem but it’s really a conversation. The audience is giving you notes. The audience is part of it. You can learn to read that conversation and get feedback on the poems. For me that was crucial in becoming and continuing to grow as an artist. It’s still something that I love to do, to read poems an open mic—and to read new poems because it gives me a better sense of if I’m getting closer to what I’m trying to accomplish. It gives me a sense of if I’m being successful or not.

In terms of how going from the open mic or the slam has helped to give an urgency to the work on the page, both of those things require craft. Like I said, they require you to listen and pay attention and figure out what has energy and what does not. Part of this for me, it just so happens, is that some of the best craft writers right now are also really attuned to their craft as performers. They’re also really strong in that regard. Either they started that way or they didn’t, but if you write a bad poem you can’t perform it into being a good poem. Both of those spaces require one to pay attention and listen and be thoughtful about their work and make decisions about how they want the work to live in the world.

It also just so happens that before publishing came around to younger poets of color, the slam was one of the places that was somewhat open to young poets of color. I think it’s just a matter of opportunity and now that there’s been more of an opportunity, you see people not just winning slams but winning all of these book awards.

DT: Definitely. And I think of youth slam culture as very fundamentally opposed to the long-standing narrative of the rugged, solitary, romantic writer who is tortured and writes on their own—

JO: Yes. Yes. I didn’t even think about that, but yeah I think you’re absolutely right. I think the ethos now is a lot more shared, and I do really get excited when I see my peers do well. When I read their poems and they move me, I get excited for their own possibilities and my own work. You’re right. It is a shift from this idea of a writer going into the woods and pursuing their craft separate from the universe. I think the world of spoken word—in particular, the youth poetry culture at Young Chicago Authors and Brave New Voices and all these other places—is all about how to get connected with the world, how to become more in tune with the world. They’re not try to separate themselves from that, and I think that has absolutely given the work new urgency. I don’t want to say that it’s made the work real, but it’s work that has urgency today. It’s useful right now. It helps us envision the future, and it helps us reckon with the past. And, you’re right, it’s in community, which makes it all the more powerful because it is rooted in the work of making connections with people and not trying to separate oneself from people.

DT: And to your point of it being rooted in connection and listening and responding and being thoughtful about how you speak into a room, it also has implications for the urgency of your narrative. You, José Olivarez, your narrative in contemporary American politics and what that means for an immigrant on the other side of the country who’s not a Mexican immigrant but can, like myself, can read your book and see themself in these pages. Poetry has always been written in time, but it seems like this new ethos has even amplified that. The narrative of the individual poets, in some of ways, are as urgent as the craft of the poems that they’re putting out there.

JO: I hear that. Part of me wants to push back a little bit.

DT: Please do.

JO: I guess the reason why I feel a little bit of hesitancy towards that is because the narratives that we’re telling are absolutely important, but it still doesn't work unless you’re attuned to the room and attuned to the craft. I sometimes get backhanded compliments that are like, “Your poems are so timely. Congratulations!” But I worked really hard on writing the best poems that I could. It’s so much deeper than just the narrative that I tell. But I hear you. The narratives are important.

DT: I’m with you, and I don’t mean to mischaracterize the poetry itself or diminish the craft of the poems. The way I think I meant that question is in the way that you can’t perform a bad problem into being a good poem. Obviously people have different relationships to poetry, but the poet’s narrative shouldn’t supplant how good the poems are. But it’s an element of it, right?

JO: Yeah, absolutely. There’s also an element of who’s being invited to read poems now. There was just that report that came out not too long ago explaining that the readership of poetry has increased over the last however many years, and for me the reason why is because more people have been invited to partake in poetry now than in a long time. Part of that, for sure, is because the stories have had more appeal to  young people of color, to queer young people of color. There’s been an intentional invitation to them to come in and listen to the poem and participate and write their own poems. Before, it was a lot harder. Poetry felt a lot harder to access in some ways. It required an advanced degree or it required a particular class upbringing or race or whatever. And now it feels like the door has been flung open to so many people who are so excited to see these different narratives.

DT: And that kind of gets back to what we started the conversation with—inhabiting these spaces but at scale. Shifting gears a bit, though, how do you practice tenderness in your writing?

JO: Tenderness is hard. I love trying to write with tenderness in part because the risk is being corny, is being overly sentimental. That’s easy to fall into, and yet tenderness feels so urgent for me. I wake up and I could use some tenderness, so I try to craft that space into the poems. I try to do that not at the expense of the real world that we live in that is constantly showing us these images and reminding us of all the violence and pain that’s being inflicted here in the United States and all over the world. But tenderness feels like a way to interrupt that stream of violence. It comes in a similar way to what we were talking about with the first poem “(Citizen) (Illegal)”—to try and interrupt every day violence with a stream of tenderness can sharpen the edges on both those things, so I can make tenderness feel as important as I think it is. I can get at it the proper way. That’s one of the ways that I try to practice tenderness: thinking about how I can interrupt life and all of its reminders of violence and insistences on violence with the things that make me feel good, with the things that make me feel tender and soft—writing about my  family members and the people I love and everything else in a way that is as soft as I want them to feel.

DT: That’s beautiful. Family figures very strongly in your work. In “The Day My Little Brother Gets Accepted into Grad School,” you write “my dad prays between gulps. My mom / drinks when god blinks.” I think that perfectly summarizes the characters you’ve rendered out of your parents in the meta-poem that is the book. Do your parents like the portrayal of themselves? Do they feel that they’re true? If not, how do you navigate that with them?

JO: That’s a good question. I hope that they like the portrayal of them. In reality, I don’t know exactly how they feel about the book. My mom doesn’t speak or read English, so I don’t know. I have to sit there and explain each of the poems to her. I get the sense that they’re proud though. In part because the other day I was supposed to meet someone for an interview at a taquería here in Chicago, and we canceled because their flight was delayed. But when they landed in Chicago, they went to this taqueríia, and they’re sitting there. They just got in from New York. They’re preparing for the interview, and they hear someone talk about poetry. So they think maybe this person is a poet. Then they hear them say “breakbeat poets,” and they’re like, “Oh maybe this person knows José.” And it turned out that it was my dad and his friends. They were at the taquería talking about my poems. My dad doesn’t tell me directly if he’s proud of me or not, you know what I mean? But I hear these stories. My brother Pedro will tell me he’s picked up the book and that he’s reading it, so I get the sense that, at the very least, they’re cool with it.

When I wrote the book, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just writing about them to exploit their lives and their own stories, but that I was trying to deepen my relationship with them through these imaginings and through these poems. That was very important to me. I haven’t had a chance to talk to them about the book yet, but I hope they’re proud. I hope that they love it. I’m excited that my brothers really dig the book, and my cousins who have read it are excited. They’re buying copies for their friends and talking to coworkers about it, so I feel good, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to them yet.

DT: Yeah. It strikes me that for immigrants and children of immigrants, the concerns about writing about family are a bit unique. I mean in my experience of even exposing my status and talking about it out loud outside the family, the different sensibilities we had were clear. My dad was super private, and he struggled to even articulate why. He’s just said, “Don't do that.” There’s this inherent—I don't know if it’s politics or polarization or exposure—certainly, potential for exploitation that happens when you just speak it into being. That’s a thing I struggle with. When you were putting the book together and when you were thinking about deepening your relationship, hoping that that’s the outcome you were driving towards, what were the questions you were asking of yourself? How did you stay away from exploiting stories? And then there are times too when they are overt political statements that need to be made—do you then just do that?

JO: A couple things: One, it’s not just one poem about my mom or one poem about my dad. They are characters in the book. Each of them are treated from multiple angles, and you get to see them in different ways. One of the critiques I got early on as a young poet was when I wrote a poem that was meant to be an ode to my mom. And in that poem, my mom was making food for the rest of the family, which is one of the things that my mom did. But a poet, Toni Asante Lightfoot, read that problem and told me, “There are parts of this poem that are beautiful, but I wonder if you could write a poem about your mom that doesn’t have her just be your mom in the poem.”

In all these poems I’m trying to think about my parents even beyond the ways that I know them as just my parents. I have to imagine who my parents are not just in relation to their children but in relation to the world, in relation to their own youthful dreams and desires, in relation to what they consider their work and purpose, and what their goals still are in this life—not just to treat them as people responsible for me and my brothers but as people with dreams and ambitions completely outside of being parents. So I was trying to make sure that that was happening, that I didn’t just imagine my mom at work for the family or that I didn’t just imagine my dad at work for the family.

Part of the reason that they’re in this book is because when I think about the interruption—the violent part of being Chicano in this country, of being first generation—that puts a distance between me and my parents sometimes. That’s one of the ways that I see it and feel it. So it felt important to include them and to try to write through those violences, to try to find ways across.

It was also important for me that before I publish the book, that I sent the book to my younger brother Pedro. And I asked him, “I think that these things are true, but could I be making them up?” Memory isn’t 100% accurate, so I sent it to Pedro. When he got really excited about the book, that’s when I felt comforted knowing that I wasn’t just packaging my family story into a commodity for the sake of somebody else’s learning. That this was something that my family would feel excited about, that they would take pride in.

DT: That’s beautiful, too. In terms of memory, does poetry give you the freedom, or alternatively the constraint, to engage with memory? Or do you feel an ethical obligation to remain one hundred percent factual knowing that that’s obviously impossible due to the nature of memory? How do you balance the intent to have your memory in the service or something and then be true to that memory?

JO: Absolutely I struggle with how to write the poems as ethically as possible with regards to the people in the book. I can’t help but write towards memory. I’m naturally a super nostalgic person. I was on the Internet yesterday, and I saw an article pop up about Pokémon and I got really excited. I love memory and I love the past. I love history and personal history. I love learning where people are from and what they used to do when they were kids and what gets them hype about the world. All of those things are just what I’m naturally drawn to.

In terms of how I try to engage with memory, I tried to create a voice where the faulty narrator contradicts themself and different parts of the story. One of the poems might tell the story one way, but then the poem gets told another way. Using a faulty narrator, not as a way of contradicting different stories but using stories as a way to complement one another—using contradictory stories as a way to compliment what might be missing from another story. So then that releases the pressures to be one hundred percent accurate all the time because if I visit the memory in another poem then maybe I get some more of the facts right that second time, and altogether the book—the meta-poem, as you said—hopefully gets closer that ethical truth—if not factually the truth, then at least an emotional truth.

DT: So, I want to talk about humor. I’m impressed by and deeply obsessed with how humor works in poems. When you set out to write a funny poem, they often feel like the hardest ones to do right. All of the “Mexican Heavens” are some of the funniest poems I’ve read, and you’re very playful in your book. It’s super interesting to me the ways playfulness reconciles with seriousness and the other major themes throughout. It almost seems playfulness raises the stakes for seriousness. Do you see playfulness as a way to get more serious? Is there a way that poems can be more serious the more playful they seem?

JO: I think that’s absolutely true, but that wasn’t the intention in writing the poems. Again, I was coming up against a problem: I was writing these poems about being Mexican that all felt tragic. And they felt tragic in a way that didn’t jive with the way that I experience it or the way I think about the experience. I kept writing and I would tell different stories but it would still end up being tragic. Those poems were failing in part because they were missing humor, because the entire time me and my brothers were going up together, we didn’t just see ourselves as tragic. We were cracking jokes about each other. There was a playfulness that was missing in those poems. I set out to try and use humor and playfulness as a way to leap this hurdle that had presented itself, which was that I had internalized too much of this tragic way of writing about myself. I needed to find a way to do more than that for the poems to have the type of life that I wanted to give them. Does that make sense?

DT: Yeah. I’m thinking specifically about “I Ask Jesus How I Got So White.” I think of White Jesus as more of a punchline than anything—at least in my experience. But baked into that, White Jesus is obviously a vehicle for white supremacy, racial politics, and that history. It makes me think of George Saunders, I think, who wrote something like, “We laugh when told the truth too bluntly.” So in a way, it is speaking a truth in the most forward kind of way—

JO: You’re right! And so the problem with the poems that I was writing wasn’t that they were tragic but that they weren’t the whole truth. They weren’t truthful enough. Absolutely. In order to make the poems closer to the truth, I needed to change something about how I was telling those stories. And I was able to find at least one way via humor.

DT: “Mexican American Disambiguation” is one of my favorite poems in the book. It puts a finger right on the conflict and the division and the cleaving of immigrant identity—what you have throughout our conversation so eloquently called an “everyday violence.” How the immigrant perceives themselves depending on what country they’re in or who’s in the room with them at the time, how others perceive them, all the euphemisms they’re confronted with day to day. Walt Whitman would say that he’s all these things, that he contains multitudes. Obviously it’s easy being a White dude in the time he was a White dude. But in your sense of poetics—or if you’re willing to make a statement about immigrant poetics, whatever that is—is it important to parse out all of those things like what you are v. what you aren’t v. how others see you? Or are you all those things?

JO: I will try to answer for myself. For immigrant poetics, that feels a little bit harder.

This was another one of those poems that I couldn’t write in a tragic way, but I needed to figure out how to write the fluidity of experience. I had this experience when I was a college student. I studied abroad in Brazil and it didn’t matter that I was just Mexican. You know what I mean? It didn’t matter that I was of Latin American origin. Everyone there is of Latin American origin. Having that kind of disruption to the way that I identified and how I moved through the world—the way I saw myself was just suddenly gone. And how I could see myself, at least in Brazil, made me realize all the ways that identity is always shifting and moving. It made me want to play with that. So I don’t know that I have any particular answer about whether it was important to parse out all of those parts or whether it’s important to claim all of those parts. For me, what was important was to show the ways that this identity is always moving. That this identity that we generally think of as static and one thing, this idea of what it needs to be Mexican American is actually this huge multitude of things way beyond any one particular story about Mexican American identity.

DT: Your poem “If Anything Is Missing, Then It’s Nothing Big Enough to Remember” asks similar questions about identity, I think—but more explicitly through the form of language:

“…you scissor yourself along the lines,
you choose a side, you cut & cut & one day you wake up & the
voice in your head speaks English, you stop coming around here,
the old photos fade down here, your name mispronounced
here on your own tongue, your grandparents graying like
your memory of them & you graduate from college, & your
classmates say you must be so happy to be so American now”

In this poem, is the narrator speaking to the you before or after the voice in his head started speaking English? Are the memories in your book related to when the voice in your head made that shift? 

JO: One of the things that jolted me was realizing—and this is only probably like four or five years ago—that the voice in my head was speaking a different language. At one time, my only language was Spanish, and I was translating everything from Spanish to English. And now, I have to translate the other way. Throughout the book I’m trying to reckon with what that means, and how that does affect my memories because a lot of those early memories I experienced in the completely different language. That means that I had a completely separate experience than what I can remember because I remember now only in English. Maybe that is why I’m so enchanted with this idea of a faulty narrator. It’s in part because there are entire scenes from my childhood that I can never truly remember because I just don’t have the language anymore. I still speak Spanish but I don’t have the intimate relationship with Spanish and with those memories I once did. In a lot of ways, there’s no way that I can ever hope to reconstruct those memories again. At least not right now.

DT: It strikes me fluidity might be the commonality here, but how much does language then have to do with your identity? Obviously, there’s something really important about that shift, and there’s something really important about your ability reflect on memory through different languages. But if the poet’s businesses is language, if our work is language, then what does that mean for your identity?

JO: With language, I’m trying to tease open all of these places that feel closed. So I’m trying to take these identities that feel static—or are shown as static—and open them up to everything. I’m trying to see if Mexican American is put under a microscope, then what do you really see? What is everything that grows out of there? And if you take these different memories and you tease them open and you try to find language for them, what are all of the ways that you can then stretch that language. What I’m trying to do is both create a language for these memories that I can’t possibly piece back together and also, within the present time, find ways to open up the possibilities for the language that I’m existing in today. I’m trying to open up the ways that I can inhabit English. If English in a colonial language, then so is Spanish, you know what I mean? In my relationship with English, I’m trying to stretch and figure out how I can make space for myself and claim the language as my own. 

DT: If excavating both memory and language is the activity that you’re engaged in, then is the outcome a more full self, or is there something else?

JO: I mean, I think that’s what I'm hoping for, right? I’m hoping that the outcome is a more full self. And I’m hoping for that outcome because I’m hoping, then, that the young people and people in general—in particular, those who have felt similar disruptive experiences—will read the book and feel that they’re seen too, that they feel more possible and less like anomalies. I’m hoping that’s the result—not just for myself but for others as well.

DT: That’s lovely. Chicago has a rich literary tradition, and people from Chicago love talking about Chicago.

JO: That’s true. 

DT: How has the city shaped your writing? Which past and present Chi-city poets do you turn to or inherent from?

JO: Chicago has given me so much as a writer in terms of language. I think of my language as being a very local language. I think I make most sense in Chicago. The city has given me not just a backdrop, but I almost think of the city like another character that I’m always in conversation with. So I’m always asking the city of Chicago for more. And the city of Chicago is also terrible at times, so it’s also like an antagonist. The city of Chicago is a huge part of my writing.

In terms of the poets from Chicago that have helped shape me, poets from right now include Eve Ewing, Nate Marshall, Raych Jackson, H. Melt, Kevin Coval, Jamila Woods, Britteny Black Rose Capri, also a lot of my students: Kara Jackson, Pat Frazier, Victoria Chávez Peralta, and Luis Carranza. There are people like Melissa Castro and Keren Díaz de León, who's really lovely, and Alison Rollins lives here now and she’s dope, Beyza Ozer, Luis Tubens, and Erika L. Sánchez, who doesn't live here anymore but is still really dope. I could shout out Chicago poets for days like Avery R. Young, Krista Franklin, Toni Asante Lightfoot, and Michael Heflinger, who used to live in Chicago and actually now lives in Washington.

Then in terms of past poets, the two big influences on me are Gwendolyn Brooks and then Sandra Cisneros. When I was learning to write at YCA, everything started with Gwendolyn Brooks. We always read her poems before workshops, and we aspired to be poets in conversation with community in the way that Gwendolyn Brooks was always so giving and always in conversation with her neighborhood and the people around her. So I grew up with that understanding of what poetry was and what poetry could be like. Then Sandra Cisneros, discovering that she was from Chicago too. Her books and her poems have given me the language to begin to start to tell my own stories and have allowed me to enter particular memories that I had no idea were worth touching on as stories until I read her writing. For me, those two are the ones I come back to the most. But then there’s also Studs Terkel, who’s book Working is one of my favorite books of all time just for how it gives language to so much of the angst that I feel around working and so much of the wonder of working. Studs Terkel is really important. I’m sure I’m missing like a million people, but I’ll leave it at those three for now.

DT: Last question. Maybe the most important question. I know that you’re a big fan of the Netflix show Lovesick, so I need to know whether you’re team Dylan or team Evie?

Why do we have to choose a team? Why is it team Dylan or team Evie? I don't understand. They are in a relationship together. I’m team Dylan and team Evie. I want that relationship to succeed so badly, and I’m so worried that it’s not going to. I just feel like it can’t work and that stresses me out because they’re so thoughtful towards one another. I was wondering how the show was going to treat their eventual getting together and whether that was just going to be the end of the show. But to see them go through their own anxieties about themselves and themselves in relationship to this person, helps me practice being communicative and just fills me with so much joy. It makes me feel like I’m not so clueless. So I’m rooting for both of them. I’m team Dylan and Evie and, really, I’m team anyone who watches Lovesick because, in my opinion, it’s—if not the best show on Netflix—then one of the top three or four shows, for sure.

DT: Hey, I’m with you on that. Thank you, José, so much. I appreciate you and the extra time you were willing to spend talking to me.

JO: Of course. I wasn’t going to miss the question about Lovesick. I appreciate your questions. I’m glad we got to talk. A lot of the questions you asked are questions I haven’t been asked before, so I’m excited to keep grappling with them. Hopefully, the answers were good. Thank you for talking to me.

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Dujie Tahat is a Filipino-Jordanian-American writer living in the Pacific Northwest. His poems have appeared or will soon in Shenandoah, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Strange Horizons, The American Journal of Poetry, and elsewhere. Dujie is a recipient of fellowships from the Richard Hugo House and Jack Straw. He serves as poetry editor at Moss and Homology Lit.

Conversations with Contributors: Gala Mukomolova by Peter LaBerge

BY ALI SHAPIRO

 Gala Mukomolova, author of  One Above / One Below: Positions & Lamentations  (YesYes Books, 2018) and contributor to  Issue Seventeen .

Gala Mukomolova, author of One Above / One Below: Positions & Lamentations (YesYes Books, 2018) and contributor to Issue Seventeen.

Gala Mukomolova earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in the PENPOETRYPANKVINYL and elsewhere. In 2016 Mukomolova won the 92nd Street Y Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Her first chapbook, One Above / One Below : Positions & Lamentations is available from YesYes Books.

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Ali Shapiro: Can you talk a bit about the title—how you chose it, why you liked it, how you got that Hole song out of your head (assuming you have at this point, which I haven’t)?

Gala Mukomolova: You know what? I can’t get that whole album out of my head. I’m a sucker for a hook and Courtney has so many sharp and jagged ones. I think I wanted to invoke a certain kind of girl when I chose this title, and I want to assert here that both parts of my title are important. When I chose One Above One Below, I was speaking to a girl who grew up radicalized by Courtney on stage with her leg up on an amp flashing her pussy and daring you to shame her. I was speaking to a girl who grew up desperately consuming every and any mention to magic—to negotiating the veil between. It’s one of my deep beliefs that Live Through This is a powerful ritual turned record, that Courtney was a medium for the divine feminine, and these songs were sacred offerings for survivors. My book is not an ode to Courtney Love or Hole or even that record; it’s an ode to the divine feminine force that permeated so much music at that time, to the Lilith part of Lilith Fair. Regarding Positions & Lamentations, I wanted to make sure that these poems were not tops or bottoms, that they didn’t lie prone on a pillow waiting to be deified or defiled, that they didn’t hover hungrily waiting for permission. This book, as you might have guessed, is a switch.

AS: I did guess—or rather, I noticed and felt—lots of switchiness in this book. In some ways I think it parallels what Courtney Love does in “Violet,” the way she flips between registers—she’s laid back, she doesn’t care, then all of a sudden SHE’S FUCKING SCREAMING, then she’s laid back again. The line “one above and one below” is a moment like this—a mid-sentence flip. That strikes me as paralleling a thing you do in your poems, often in the space of a single line or stanza: “you give her a name, you break her neck,” for example. Is this part of what you mean by “this book is a switch”? And how does that relate to the girl you just talked about—the one who negotiates the veil?

GM: My friend Sara Jane says I’m a poet who’s interested in embodiment, and I’m so prone to dissociation that I didn’t see it until she said it. Embodiment, what’s that? I think I’m getting to it; like some people who feel with their eyes first, I’m feeling with my words. Sometimes to know something, you’ve got to find its edges—the parameters that keep it in place and keep you from slipping into it. To investigate that edge, to claim knowledge, that’s a kind of violence, and it’s beautiful, right? I need the rough and the gentle in the same body, I need to know you’re capable of both. Now I’m thinking of a mosh pit in 2007, a Team Dresch reunion show, and the ecstatic crush of women’s bodies against mine chanting lyrics to "Fagetarian" and "Dyke." That was a ritual too, so many daggers digging the ground; when I fell in the pit, my ex-girlfriend’s new lover extended her hand and pulled me back up into her arms.

AS: Your description of falling in the pit is so lovely and communal and safe (despite and because of the crushing, I guess)—it reminds me of other references to deep friendship between women in your book, “deep friendship” being kind of too cheesy and platonic to capture it. What I mean is that your book feels populated by women who care for you, who visit, bring flowers from Home Depot, and so on. And yet these relationships also remind me, paradoxically or perversely, of all the times in your poems when there’s a reference to not belonging, to aloneness or loneliness. The speaker says it sometimes—belonging to no one; I don’t belong to you; accept aloneness—or it’s explored via images, often animals who are lost or unclaimed. Can you talk a bit about how this idea of being claimed/unclaimed fits into your book? And maybe also about all those dogs?

GM: I think the problem of aloneness in my work is a problem of alienness. I think it might be an immigrant problem, rootless and refusing to be solved, even when transplanted amongst companion species—plants that can copacetically grow alongside. Friendship is so powerful to me, so vital to my survival, I want to honor it at all costs—to crown my friend family in flowers. To be loved, to feel cared for and protected, is not paradoxical to the feeling of aloneness for me. There’s a poem I touch in the chapbook, a Rumi poem I used to treat as a prayer when I was young, it ends with the words “there are love dogs no one knows the name of, give your life to be one of them.” All my life I thought that kind of love was sacred. I still do. But, I’m tired. Who calls love dogs in to rest by their hearth? An alien problem, if no one knows my name then no one can call me home. I’ve got to call myself—that’s an aloneness I used to fall down heart-heavy from but now I’m rising.

AS: OK yes, I see that—not paradoxical at all. Let’s talk about the other kinds of relationships in the book—I’m thinking about the poems that deal more explicitly with sex, thinking (because of what you just said about being called) of the various moments in which you’re called or claimed in italics: pretty fag, for example. How does sex in this book relate (or not) to the kinds of aloneness you’re talking about? To the question of being claimed?

GM: Sometimes the questions you ask me make me feel like you missed your calling as a therapist. I want to imitate the poem here so that I might maintain some level of personal mystery, but I want to be candid with you... How to be both opaque and candid at once? A pet name means nothing until a lover enters it into your poetic memory (yes, this is an Unbearable Lightness reference). All of a sudden your body collapses around the words sweet girl, becomes a mess of sugar. Some lost dogs don’t come by the name etched into their tag when they’re found because it’s not about the name, it’s about the mouth that first spoke it. Sex is the tug of a leash, a reminder, it only works when both animals choose it. By that reasoning, this book might be full of poems that are carrying their names like useless collars. Sniffing the air, marking their territory.

AS: Sometimes the answers you give make me feel like you missed your calling as a—oh wait, you are a poet. But listen, what about that bird: “you give her a name, you break her neck”? And what about those bad bitches in the second poem, the one that ends: “Don’t linger, I won't give anything a name?” Are those examples of what you’ve just described—poems that carry their names like useless collars? Or are they different animals—names the speaker gave, instead of names that were given to the speaker?

It won’t surprise you to know that typing the word “name” so many times has summoned up a Richard Siken poem, “Saying Your Names”—his is a long list of names, a torrent, a howl—an effort, I think, to not only call but name an absent lover home. And then perhaps it won’t surprise you to know that I’m thinking of your dedication: I wrote this book for a handsome woman and her handsome absence.

GM: Perhaps, in my dedication I meant to say something that I hadn’t truly managed to say throughout the whole book—since so much of it catalogues what I witness rather than what I feel. I guess I want to reveal two things to you. One, which will come as no surprise to you, is that this dedication is very deep lez of me—it references Rita Mae Brown’s small book of poems titled Songs to a Handsome Woman, which is about Rita’s relationship with an older woman (it was written to seduce Alexis Smith, I’ve read); and two, which is an impulse I know you’ll understand, is my choice to use the word handsome twice: once, to underscore my devotion to female masculinity as a site of desire, and the second time to measure the absence—handsome as significant, as substantial.

[As for the absence itself,] all absences are a kind of wound, aren’t they? A kind of cut or ditch. Some of us love a concave we can store things in. Some dykes. Sorry not sorry, dad joke, I know.

The poems you’re picking up, they’re the ones where the speaker did the naming, and in participating in it, recognized her own vulnerability. That to name something is by no means to claim it or insure that it belongs to you. In fact, I’ve found that every time I named something, a poem, a relationship, I was already letting it go. Maybe that’s my bad luck but maybe it’s a dynamic understanding of love and attachment. Anything alive can leave, it’s what’s dead that stays with you forever.

AS: Speaking of claiming and reclaiming, what role does form play in your work? I’m thinking first of the “found” forms—the Craigslist emails and the essay on The Awakening—but also of the poems that are kind of contrapuntals, or those that start off looking like contrapuntals but often become something else, cleaved and then rejoined. What strikes me about these formal decisions is that they feel, ultimately, quite unconstrained—like, you take what you want from form but don’t worry about breaking the rules….

GM: Form is a funny thing for me. I respect form, I’ve learned and relearned the names and syllabic measures. I have a feeling half my poems arrived to me subconscious in some ancient form and crumbled into sapphic fragments once they reached my brain.

I like to play with restraints, I like feeling like I’m buckled in tight by a shape or margin. I’m sensitive to syllabic balance in a line. All of this and a kind of chaos, a refusal to surrender entirely to anything that wants control. If I’m going to submit to a poem, an energy, I want it to be toward boundlessness.

AS: It occurs to me that this kind of play creates a similar experience in the reader—of being controlled, of having our expectations set up and then subverted, of your poems’ refusal to stay still or be just one way, just one thing. In other words, we’ve now arrived at the idea that your poems are actually… Tops?

GM: But isn’t the subversion where a switch really shines?

AS: So, um, speaking of fucking, the end of this book breaks my heart. Is the fucking the thing, or isn’t it? And what if it is? And what if it isn’t?

GM: It took me a long time to get here, and it’s true that sometimes it’s easy for me to convince myself of things I want to believe, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t matter if the fucking is the thing. So what? You know? Partnerships have roots, love is born somewhere in the body. Maybe like Greek goddesses, some connections are born of foam and some from the head. I know this isn’t what you asked me but I've got to tell you how, just now, I needed to understand how Athena was born from Zeus’s head and so I looked it up. I think in grade school I was taught that Athena didn’t have a mother, that the goddess of war and wisdom came from Zeus as if she was Eve transforming a rib. But, Athena had a mother. Her name was Metis and she was an oceanic Titan known for her wisdom. Zeus raped her like he did almost all the mothers of his children. He raped her because he wanted her and killed her because he was afraid of her. He killed her by swallowing her while she was trying to escape in the form of a fly. That’s how Athena came to gestate inside Zeus and that is why she sprang from his head. I guess I shouldn’t compare any kind of love to the ways in which goddesses are born. But, and this is something I might whisper to you after one drink too many in a dark booth, isn’t desire the root, symptom, and cure for violence? As if there’s someone out there that can love us in all the ways we want to be loved, as if there’s a human being out there born to serve our every hunger gladly. If someone can only love me in one way, let them.

AS: You also write horoscopes for NYLON. Do you see similarities between your horoscopes and poetry? Or does the process/tone/persona you inhabit feel totally different?

GM: It’s a different work, the horoscopes, no matter how lyrical I make them. When I write them, I’m trying to reach a large audience, I’m trying to speak in a language that NYLON readers will more-or-less “get.” Even when I write an essay, I get lost in this endeavor—to somehow bend the rivers that flow through me and make them into one cohesive body of water that’s easy to recognize. With poetry, I feel wild. I’m tempted to play God and suck the rivers dry. I don’t care so much what you “get” or don’t “get.” I’m working the realm of feeling and tone—I sew a veil and I place it over your head. You see, just talking about making poems has got me mixing weird metaphors… Veils, rivers, what? I’m coming back to it. No matter what about the process is different, one thing is the same and that’s my antennae. I’m always fiddling the rods and opening up the channel, listening to something bigger than me that speaks from the other side.

AS: You’ve got a book coming out—WITHOUT PROTECTION. How do you think about the book in relation to the chapbook? Sister? Mother? Other half?

GM: The mother, for sure. The big romantic cunt without protection that birthed my chapbook animal.

AS: Can we listen to that Hole song again?

GM: Yes. Come over.

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Ali Shapiro writes, teaches, and draws comics in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Conversations with Contributors: Meg Freitag by Peter LaBerge

BY LAUREN R. KORN

 Meg Freitag, author of  Edith  (BOAAT, 2018) and contributor to  Issue Twenty-Two .

Meg Freitag, author of Edith (BOAAT, 2018) and contributor to Issue Twenty-Two.

Meg Freitag was born in Maine. She has degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and UT Austin's Michener Center for Writers. Her poems can be found in Tin House, Boston Review, and Black Warrior Review, among other journals. Her first book, Edith, won the 2016 BOAAT Book Prize and was published by BOAAT Press in late 2017.

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The following interview took place over Google Hangout and GMail between March and July 2018.

Lauren R. Korn: Edith is your first book. What has the process of publishing a first book been like?

Meg Freitag: It’s been really good! I’ve loved working with the folks at BOAAT. As far as the book is concerned, because it is a first book, I didn’t feel much outside pressure to publish it right away. I ended up spending a lot of time—a couple of years—revising it. I’m really proud of the finished product.

LRK: You said you didn’t feel a pressure to publish. You earned an MFA at UT-Austin’s Michener Center for Writers—you felt no pressure to publish while in the program, either?

MF: No. Not so much. My professors in the MFA program were pretty encouraging of me making the work into what I wanted it to be.

LRK: What is your day job?

MF: I work as a conference producer. I put together industry conferences on esoteric tech topics for Silicon Valley folks. It’s unlike anything I thought I’d end up doing but it’s been fun. I’m learning a lot and I travel a ton.

LRK: It doesn’t sound like you have much writing time, then?

MF: No, I don’t. It can be hard. I have to really muscle it into my schedule.

LRK: With so little time afforded to you, have you been able to tour with the book?

MF: A tiny bit, yeah. I went to Austin for the book launch. I still have a lot of friends there and some of my family’s there, so it made sense to do it there. And I’ve toured a little bit around the Bay Area doing readings. I did a reading when I was in Tampa for AWP in March. I’m hoping to do a little more of it before the end of the year.

LRK: The poem that begins your collection, “When Edith Doesn’t Have a Body” is not addressed to Edith—it speaks of her in the third person. It is also separate from the rest of your collection—it is not part of Parts One, Two, Three, or Four. The poem reads, then, as a preface to the collection, and I’m curious as to why you chose that particular poem to act as such when there are other poems in the collection that speak to life after Edith; e.g., in “Sometimes It’s Easier to See Into the Future Than It Is to See Into the Self,” you write, “So much goes on without you, Edith.” Are you speaking directly to your readers here, introducing us to the parakeet who becomes not only the subject of your narrative, but the object, as well?

MF: You know, it’s funny, I actually hadn’t realized until you mentioned it that it’s the only poem in which she’s addressed in the third person. I guess it does serve as a kind of introduction to Edith in that way, and introduces my impulse to speak directly to her. I like that it also establishes Edith’s death and the circumstances surrounding her death right away so it’s not a distracting mystery throughout the book.

LRK: That’s a good point. Putting that poem at the front, you wouldn’t have to keep mentioning her death in other poems; you could just put it out front.

MF: Yeah. I feel like sometimes, when you have something big that’s unsaid, it ends up taking over everything. It can be so distracting.

LRK: Was that a pretty big question brought to you in your workshops?

MF: [Laughs] No, not so much. My workshop peers were really close to everything that happened. I had started writing these poems to Edith as a writing exercise. I didn’t realize they were going to turn into an entire book. I was just interested in experimenting with apostrophic address. At the time I started writing to Edith, it was quirky and fun, because she was still alive. And then a few months into the project, she died, so the tone of the poems changed (obviously) due to that. And, you know, I was close with everyone in my workshop, so everyone knew what had happened. 

LRK: How long did you have Edith before she died?

MF: Five and a half years.

LRK: Is that pretty typical?

MF: I think 7-8 years is typical—in captivity, and even longer in the wild. There are a lot of accidents when birds are kept in captivity, as proven by my situation. I thought I had a couple more years with her.

LRK: You mention “captivity.” Containment and boxes, too, play a large role in your collection—from Edith’s cage to an airplane’s black box, from the internality of one’s body to loneliness (read: the relationship of one’s body to another’s). In “A Limitation of Mockingbirds,” you write, “If someone hurts your feelings, there is an impulse to thrash around / Inside your own body.” How did your relationship with Edith exemplify or make clear the poet-speaker’s reality of containment and/or captivity?

MF: This is a great question, but I’m not sure how to answer it. The truth is, I think, it didn’t really. You’re definitely onto something here, and I think that’s the case with a lot of the themes that you’ve drawn out with your questions, but these themes aren’t always apparent to me at the time I am writing. This relationship, inside versus outside—it wasn’t something that I was really consciously infusing into my work. But I’m sure there was something going on in the back of my mind or deep down in my psyche that kept putting those images into the poems.

LRK: It’s interesting to me, the way that you brought captivity into our conversation: that there is danger in keeping an animal in captivity, that their life can be shortened. This isn’t really a question, but there seems to be some semblance of guilt there, that Edith may have lived longer had she not been held captive in an indoor space.

MF: Absolutely.

LRK: In that way, I feel like this manuscript acted as a vessel for your grief. You came out the other side not only with this enormous product, but you probably dealt with your feelings in a way that was a lot more manageable.

MF: Yeah, I think so. The project worked to bring a kind of heuristic order to my world, which is helpful when you’re going through something that feels otherwise bottomlessly meaningless. But I think part of it was also just the time it took to write it. The fact that the manuscript took me several years—during that time, the natural grieving process was also working itself out. And I mean, any time you lose someone who is really dear to you, you’ll always have feelings of regret and a kind of imagining of a different life in which that loss didn’t happen. It’s still something that is very sad to me, and I’m sure always will be, but time takes the edge off. By the time the first draft of the book was finished, the grief had aged--it was less of a visceral, emotional experience and more of an intellectual mind-fuck. Like, it had reached a point where it wasn’t so much, “GUH…,” but more like, “It’s so fucked up that she’s not still here.” 

LRK: It becomes a logical reaction versus an emotional reaction.

MF: Right.

LRK: So many of your poems speak to your dreaming life in relationship to your waking life in a seamless way. In thinking about poetry and its place in genre (i.e., its place in literary marketing), I can’t help but think of how poets utilize fictional narratives as metaphors. Is this what you’re doing with dreams in Edith, or should your readers see these references as literal?

MF: It’s a little bit of both. They're definitely not solely metaphorical devices, but there were times when it was convenient to use them as such. A lot of the dreams are based on dreams I actually had, and some of them aren’t, or they’re kind of revised dreams. Dreams, to me personally, are really important and inform the way that I live my life. I have a Jungian sensibility about dreams in that I believe dreams reveal truths to you, they teach you how to live. And so there was no way that dreams weren’t going to be a huge part of the speaker’s experience of the world of the book, because it’s something that’s so present in my own life.

LRK: You say, “the speaker.” There is the confessional “I” so present in these poems. This book reads so confessionally, so narratively, and I’m wondering, do you want your readers to read the “I” as you?

MF: That’s a good question. There is of course a natural inclination to see the speaker as the writer in “I”-centric poetry. Even as someone who writes and reads a lot of poetry, and as someone who’s taken a lot of poetry workshops, I still tend to assume sometimes in the back of my head that the “I” is the author, the “I” is the writer. I have to constantly remind myself that that’s not the case.

I would say that the speaker of my book is someone who is very close to me and someone who is very similar to me, but is not me. And I agree with you: Edith is arguably in the big-C Confessional tradition, but at the same time, it’s not completely autobiographical. A lot of it is. A lot of the big, important things that happen in the book are, but the art of narrative is also at work. I’m trying to tell an interesting story.

I believe that a poem can absolutely be written in the “confessional” mode without having to be entirely factually true. Take Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” for instance. One of the pillars of Confessional poetry, but it’s also a personae poem. Sometimes you must circumvent the self to get to a deeper, more vivid truth.

LRK: I assume the speaker-author relationship a lot, too. And so often I find myself having to bring myself out of that. Some writers even get agitated by that assumption.

MF: While I don’t feel agitated by it, I do understand the resistance to it. It can feel a little reductive I think. Even if you are writing exclusively from personal experiences, the work ends up being this kind of false or constructed life. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end to a poem or book of poems. But who experiences the world like that?

I think there is also resistance to feeling like, as poets, we owe the world our deepest, sloppiest truths.

LRK: I get that, too.

I’d like to talk with you about your writing practice, the spaces that you were able to write from (or in) and the spaces in the book, itself. There is an astounding sense of space or place in Edith. A good many of its poems mention a “kitchen” or “tile” or “floor” in a way that has me wondering whether a) Edith’s cage was kept in the kitchen; and/or b) this manuscript took its shape in the kitchen (if those two questions aren’t one and the same).

And what does your writing process (in the kitchen, if that is, indeed, where the manuscript was written) look like? How has it changed throughout your movement through educational institutions, and how do you see it changing in your immediate future (whether that question portends a forthcoming project or career change, etc.)?

MF: So, first, Edith’s cage was not in the kitchen. It was in my living room. And just a PSA for anyone thinking about getting a parakeet, you're actually not supposed to keep their cages in the kitchen. Birds are really sensitive to smells, particularly chemical smells. Like Teflon. Like, if you burn a non-stick pan—that can kill them. But that’s where Edith’s remains were found, in the kitchen, on the floor, so that brought it explicitly into a couple of the poems.

And as far as my writing process, I’m not the kind of person who works at a desk. I’m a rover. When I started Edith, I lived in a tiny one-bedroom house. It was a very small, 500-square-foot square that was divided into four tiny rooms. One of them was a kitchen, one of them was a bedroom, one was a sort of living room, and one was an office. I think most of the poems were written from my bed. I’m a big bed-writer. I think zero percent were written from my office. My office is a place where I end up stashing stuff. Some of the book was written in the kitchen, though.

It’s hard to say exactly how my process has changed over the years. It’s always been somewhat of a fluid thing for me. Just like I move around my environment when I’m working, I move in and out of different phases, different processes. Different things work well for me at different times. I’m pretty adaptable in that way, which I feel lucky about. But the flip side of my procedural easy-goingness is that I struggle with self-discipline. If I find a project that has a lot of natural momentum for me, then all’s well. But I can get really squirrelly when I’m working on something more challenging or elusive to me. I let myself off the hook pretty easily. I’m trying to be better about it. I’ll say that entering grad school did have a big impact, just because of the vast amounts of time I was suddenly allowed. I could plan my whole day around the writing. I could stay up all night working on something and sleep until 1 if it felt right. 

And yes—to answer your last question, I do see this all changing once again in the near future. I’ll be leaving my current job at the end of July, actually, and moving once again to go back to school. To study fiction of all things. I’ve never focused on prose-writing full-time, so I’m not even quite sure what that’ll be like for me. 

LRK: Where will you be studying fiction, and how did you come to decide to try your hand at fiction in a workshop setting? Are you solely looking for a lengthy time to write, the time afforded to graduate students?

MF: I’ll be attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. I’ve been working on fiction for a while now, but the more I work on it, the more I realize I have a lot to learn. I think my fiction has something going for it on the sentence level, but I have a really hard time with structure, pacing, character development, etc. That is all totally overwhelming to me. I want to get better at it. Part of that is taking classes with people who can teach me how to do these things, and part of it is, yes, just having the time to practice.

LRK: I think it’s easy to understand how craft at “the sentence level” might be a strength for a poet, and how things like structure and character development might be, initially, out of reach. That said, I think your poetic inclinations towards character may be stronger than you think. I’m interested in how you created a speaker in Edith who is so transparent, and I’d like to talk with you about lying and how you use it as a device in your poetry (and how it operates outside of your poetry).

More than one of your poems “sees” your speaker lying, but that lying is either transparent: “I’ve been lying a lot lately,” or it’s introduced only to be re-examined in a come-clean sort of way: “When I was ten I found a dinosaur bone / In my backyard, beneath the Slip ’n Slide. // … When I was ten I lied a lot—About…finding a dinosaur bone / In my backyard, about having a Slip ’n Slide.” I think there’s a vulnerability to announcing yourself in a such a way, and not only does it elicit a child-like interest in perception, it also creates a striking intimacy between the poet-speaker and her readers. Can you speak to that desire for transparency and, ultimately, that page-playfulness?

MF: The way that I play with “lying” in this collection is a little more intentional than some of the other things you’ve mentioned. This goes back to what we were talking about earlier, about the speaker and the self. Like I said, I do think it’s natural to come to an “I”-centric book and assume that it’s entirely autobiographical. To bring up the idea that there is even the possibility of un-truth in a poem is destabilizing in a way that I think disrupts the assumption of writer/speaker continuity.

Also, there’s just something really exciting about an unreliable narrator or speaker. There’s a complexity there that’s interesting to me.

LRK: I read this as being a collection of events that probably did happen, but that destabilization made me question that assumption. Like, there was a point at which I was like, Did this actually happen? Was there, actually, a bird? Was this all constructed in order to bring these internal things into focus? So, I, too, am really interested in the unreliable narrator—in both poetry and in prose. I mean, it’s very clever, and you’ve done it so well.

MF: Thank you.

LRK: So, I’m at an age where I’m very conscious of the female, child-bearing body that I inhabit. Assuming that you, too, identify with that feeling and that embodiment, I’d like to know the thought- and writing-processes that birthed a collection so tightly threaded together by the repetition of that imagery. “Birthed” is a good word, actually, because birth and babies are two (or one) of the motifs I see in Edith. I think that each works with and against Edith’s character in certain ways; how did you imagine babies working within your Edith concept? Babies and birth (and milk, too) are, at times, paired with animals and insects—also very prevalent in your collection. Aside from Edith, what roles do animals and insects play in your every-day? What role did you wish them to play in Edith and/or in the characterization of your speaker?

MF: Again, this wasn’t really conscious for me. Both of these things are just a part of my world, the world that I draw from in order to write what feels real and alive to me. I think those are two separate things for me, though, animals and birth/babies. I don’t think the themes are so related in my head. Animals represent the natural world, which is something that I think about a lot. And being a woman of childbearing age, it’s inevitable that it’s a part of my psyche. So even though it may not be something I’m actively thinking about, it makes sense to me that it would be something subliminally revealed in my work.

LRK: Can you go into a little more detail about how animals are a part of your world?

MF: I’m looking at my dog right now. So, I have a dog, and I had a bunch—well, not a bunch, but I had several birds. Edith wasn’t my only bird. And other pets, too. For a long time I worked for a reptile sanctuary that also did educational programming. I’d bring snakes, lizards, tortoises around to different schools in the Bay Area. We even had an 80-lb. Burmese python I’d take around sometimes. I’d bring her on the city bus in a rolling suitcase. Everyone would think I was just on my way to the airport. Her name was Julie. 

I love animals and have a lot of respect for them. I feel like we have a lot to learn from them—about ourselves, about our relationships with each other and with the earth. About death.

LRK: That’s amazing. I love that. I hope that’s something that continues to thread itself throughout your poetry. It’s unique. It’s not “nature poetry,” per se, but the connection I felt in reading Edith was similar to the inextricable sense of being “at one with.”

MF: Thank you! I hope it continues, too. I think it will.

LRK: Was there a point at which you knew this collection was, indeed, going to be a collection? Did its cohesiveness come about through workshop input, or…?

MF: It was pretty late in the process of actually writing the book when I realized I was writing a collection. I was just focused on writing the individual poems at first. I had a lot of energy for them. I’d sit down to write, and I’d get really excited. So, the collection sort of took off from that point, that energy. I kept going, and at some point, I was like, maybe there’s a book in here.

LRK: You begin your collection with an epigraph by Édith Piaf: “Formerly you were breathing the golden sun. / You were walking on treasures. / We were tramps. / We were loving songs.” Can you speak to how that epigraph defines or best suits your collection?

MF: Edith—the bird—is named after Edith Piaf. And I’m just a big Edith Piaf fan. I knew I wanted her to be present in the book somehow, but that presence just never worked out in any of the poems. And that song really speaks to me. It’s a song about loss. I thought it was appropriate in that way.

LRK: Edith won the 2016 BOAAT Book Prize, judged by Dorianne Laux. What is your poetic relationship to Laux’s work? Did you see Laux as someone who would read your manuscript with a certain amount of enthusiasm, or was she peripheral to you entering the contest?

MF: She wasn’t the main reason I entered the contest. I love BOAAT, and so I was excited to see that they were doing a first book contest. And I love her work, and I do think there is a little bit of a thread there. She writes pretty narratively-cohesive poems, and I guess, when I saw that she was judging the contest, I did think it could make sense. But when you submit to a contest, you have to get by other very discerning eyes before you get to the contest judge anyway, so was hard to imagine that she was going to end up seeing the manuscript. But she’s great. I met her once, and she’s wonderful. Very generous, very irreverent.

LRK: Your dog is named Ramona Quimby. You must have been a Beverly Cleary fan as a child? Can you speak briefly to your evolution as a reader? How did you come to poetry?

MF: Yeah, I love Beverly Cleary. I used to really, really love books when I was a kid. My favorite was horror-writing, scary stories. By the time I was in fifth grade I’d read every Stephen King book that had been published at the time. But when I got to middle school—or maybe I was a bit older—I started resenting books, because they reminded me of homework. I was very into visual arts—painting, drawing, photography. That’s all I wanted to do. But when I discovered Sylvia Plath [laughs] and Anne Sexton—maybe my sophomore year of high school—they totally blew open my world. Their work gave me a lot of renewed energy for reading and writing.

LRK: It’s always interesting to me when Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton come up in any referential spaces. I mean, a lot of girls, a lot of women, a lot of people, came to poetry through them. And in your book, I can see a bit of that influence, too. Especially in the confessional mode and your speaker’s unabashed attitude, re: truth and un-truth. I don’t know whether the conversation has to be new, regarding those poets… I wish I had something more insightful to say, except that I see their influence in Edith.

MF: That’s high praise.

LRK: Good. It was meant to be.

You’ve said you read a lot. Because I’m a book hoarder and greedy reader myself, can you throw some book or author recommendations my way?

MF: Okay, full disclosure: I’m in a writing phase at the moment. I don’t really write and read at the same time. I get too enamored with the voices of writers I admire and end up losing myself. And I’ve been trying to be in a writing phase, and so I’ve been reading very lightly.

But as far as what books or writers have really excited me recently, I’d first have to mention Hera Lindsay Bird, a younger poet from New Zealand. Her first book came out on Penguin, and it’s self-titled. So bold. I’m recommending her to everyone right now. Um, Emily Kendal Frey’s Sorrow Arrow, which was published by Octopus a few years ago. Their whole catalog, really. Larry Levis’ Winter Stars is a book I’ve been returning to a lot. Laura Kasischke. A dear friend of mine, Bridget Talone, just published her first book on Wonder. It’s called The Soft Life and it’s out-of-this-world good. Hieu Minh Nguyen’s new book Not Here. Frank Stanford has been speaking to me a lot in recent years. His opus, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, is enduring and powerful. No one’s ever written anything like that. It’s an exhausting read but 100% worth it. Anne Carson is a big influence. I re-read “The Glass Essay” recently and can’t stop thinking about it. And Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, of course.

LRK: You should pick up Sina Queyras’ My Ariel, from Coach House Books. It’s in direct conversation with Ariel. It’s a big collection—it’s 120-some pages. But it’s really beautiful and really dynamic.

MF: I have to admit, the recommendations question always stresses me out. I just know that I’m going to end the conversation and then think of someone else I want to add. This question is something I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking about. So many wonderful, necessary writers out there right now. It’s a golden hour for poetry. 

LRK: That’s a great note to end on, Meg. Congratulations, again, and good luck with your book tour and new writing life in Iowa!

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Lauren R. Korn is a poet and graphic designer currently living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. An M.A. student in English at the University of New Brunswick, she is also the Director of Content for The Adroit Journal. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming.

Conversations with Contributors: Kayleb Rae Candrilli by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Six.

BY RACHEL FRANKLIN WOOD

 Kayleb Rae Candrilli, author of  What Runs Over  (YesYes Books, 2017) and contributor to Issues  Twenty  and  Twenty-Four .

Kayleb Rae Candrilli, author of What Runs Over (YesYes Books, 2017) and contributor to Issues Twenty and Twenty-Four.

Kayleb Rae Candrilli is author of What Runs Over with YesYes Books, which was a 2017 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender poetry. Candrilli is published or forthcoming in TriQuarterly Review, Cream City Review, Bettering American Poetry, and many others. You can read more here.

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Rachel Franklin Wood: I'm so excited to begin this interview with you. Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me. If at any point I ask you about something that you don't want to address, please say so. I'm happy to redirect.

I've read and reread What Runs Over leading up to our conversation, and having this collection as a companion has carried me through the rough first weeks of spring. I don't mean to report that this is a comforting read. Yet, as I read, I felt myself settle into what felt like an old friendship in which intimacy and candor and shared history function in equal parts. Before we begin, I want to take the opportunity to thank you for writing this tremendously generous book and setting it loose in the world.

For a collection so honest, so transparent, I'm struck by the presence of absence in What Runs Over. For example, in the opening poem, you write,

my daddy almost pumped me full
of lead.                 my daddy almost left me
for
                            so ask me why I hate animals

With the omission of the expected rhyme of "dead," you draw more attention to what is being implied than what is explicit. What role does absence play in your work? What do you omit, consciously or otherwise?

Kayleb Rae Candrilli: This is a super good question, and one I’m happy you asked. I think absence and omission operate in a few ways in WRO. In the case of the omitted rhyme “dead,” I think I am trying to do a few things: build tension, yes, but also let readers know that I will never be willing (or able, for that matter) to give them the whole story. The ways in which I’ve dissociated from my own memories are powerful, and, of course, part of the reason I’ve been able to move forward at all. Sometimes, when I omit, or redirect, or redact, I am trying to protect myself/&/or my family. It’s not always tethered to a consideration of craft. Sometimes, I just don’t want to remember how close my father was to killing me, my mother, my sister.

On page 58 I redact visually and “black out” what my sister was wearing at the DHR office. I did this in one part because I don’t remember what she wore. But I also redacted this way to protect her. I did this to exert control and feel as though, as an older sibling, I could still exhibit some protective qualities—even though my whole childhood was without agency, and truly, I couldn’t protect her at all. Much of this book is just a clamoring to retroactively claim agency.

In early drafts of WRO I had much more visually redacted. I remember bringing in a few early pages to a workshop at the University of Alabama and a peer used an electronic version of the pages to look underneath the redactions, and they found long strings of periods and slashes and underscores. In the moment, I felt so invaded by that action, but it also helped me understand the ways in which I was coping with my trauma, or, maybe more accurately, not coping.

After that, I really started to use surrealism to reclaim the memories. On page 83 I write:

as a child i made lists / i made lists of meat and meaty parts / my mother would caldron catch me stirring rabbit’s feet, my dog’s clipped toe nails, beaks of turkey and grouse, the liver of a fawn daddy killed out of season / daddy’d say, the young ones are so tender / and i’d keep stirring and my mother started to worry that i wasn’t getting enough sun, that all the meat i ate was just a little too green to be good / she said what’s wrong with you and i poured her an elixir / i said here mommy, this is for you and me, it will invisible us, it will make daddy wonder where we’ve gone to / mommy, this is the good drink / she humored me, took the glass-vialed potion and put it on a shelf of birthday party sand arts / and it sat there and it sat there and it rotted through the glass and it acid tore through each floor and me and mommy lava jumped through the living room right before the whole damn house burnt down with daddy still in it / and after i took mommy’s hand, said, pointing to only ash, see? invisible.

There is no lava in rural Pennsylvania, but there is heroin addiction, and domestic abuse, and an undying desire to escape. I don’t have to tell you that life would have been easier with my father dead. I don’t have to tell you that I wanted the heroin to take him—or that the house never burnt down. You already know that.

But all the omission, the redactions, the reclamation of memory through surrealism, is how all of this trauma can live inside of me without consuming all the good stuff. And I’m so invested in the good.

RFW: In your answer, you’ve touched on something that I experienced during my time with WRO. For every instance of trauma, there are responding moments of exhilaration, joy even, at the experience of existing in your body. In this, what is “bad” and what is “good” become complicated, tangled. Perhaps my favorite moment of this occurs in the poem on page 17 in which young Kayleb violently rushes at deer, only to lie in the “dry-warm patches” of grass exposed after the animals scatter. Here, what is professed to be an aggressive act reveals what is hidden beneath bodies and what is revealed is beautiful and feels warm on the skin.

I understand that you are currently working on a new collection that allows for transness and joy to exist simultaneously. First, thank you. Second, is this new collection more anticipatory, more forward-thinking? Or will it return to moments in childhood where joy was present? Could it do one without the other?

KCR: I think the second collection, tentatively titled All the Gay Saints, intentionally strays from childhood. I needed a full departure from WRO in regards to content and tonal register. I needed that departure to grow as a writer, but also have some respite from writing about trauma.

So instead, All the Gay Saints, is, I believe, a book of trans boy love poems, to my partner, but also to my body—as you can see me think through the decision to get top surgery.

A poem that, I think, does work in both regards is “During my top surgery consultation, my partner says to the doctor, tell me what you will do to their veins.” Which is right here with Tinderbox if you want to check it out in full. But the last few couplets read:

I am scared
of my partner

being face to face with my blood
because I love them.

When we talk of the future, my future chest is as flat
as our future backyard. We plant

a lemon tree and it grows
even in winter.

This tone of hope is one I try to maintain and cultivate throughout All the Gay Saints. In this way, it feels like it’s a productive sequel to WRO. I joke a lot that the happiest part of WRO is seeing my author photo at the end, where I am grinning ear to ear. But really, it’s so exciting to be alive and to have lived and be living through it all. It was a contentious decision to make that my author photo. Young trans folx will read the book, and that’s the last thing they will see. I love that.

But to get back to the question, the new book names my partner my “future husband-wife” and runs that nomenclature throughout the book. So in a very textual, up-front kind of way, the book is anticipatory and thinking toward a future—a future where two gender non-conforming people are alive, and happy, and thriving outside of the pain that is so often prescribed to us by this world.

Childhood appears sometimes, but namely as a way to show how cool it is to be owning these bodies in the present. In “My horoscope is my future husband’s horoscope & we are both considering T” I write:

Husband, nothing is holy
like self-construction.

Our fathers built staircases & we are bringing
sledgehammers to our bodies so gently
only we can hear this pleasure.

There is nowhere to go
but into one another.

Something I’m aware of is the book’s (and my) participation in the social, capitalist, and hetro-patriarchal subscription to marriage. I believe that mine and my partners’ bodies do a lot to queer the institution of marriage but surely not, and perhaps never, enough. I think the future I reference so often will teach us how to productively queer the institution more once we are in it, but we will still be “in it.” It’s just something I recognize and would rather be forthright about. I, and we, are still learning, as queer people, how to mitigate our desire for marriage with the ethical hang-ups that inherently come hand-in-hand.

RFW: In both of the poems you've shared above, future seems to be a thing gently built by your own hands. My impression is that the future envisioned here could not manifest in an urban environment and exists, if only within the landscape of these poems, in a rural space. If in WRO you write of the violence and unpredictability of the rural, in these poems rural landscapes allow for the freedom to explore change. But in both WRO and these newer poems, I see creation of remarkably queer rural spaces in the inextricable relationships between body and environment. Can you speak some to your understanding of rural queerness? Does it have definable aesthetic?

KRC: This is perhaps one of the most nuanced and intuitive questions I’ve ever been asked. So, thank you for it.

Everything can be two things. Rural Pennsylvania can be where heroin addiction tore my family apart, it can be where animals were cruelly poached out of season, where I was beaten, etc. But it can also be where I first kissed another queer person, where I was shirtless in the forest alone and only worried about ticks, where I realized the trees didn’t care much about my gender, and maybe I shouldn’t either. It was all of those things simultaneously.

When you are inside of something, lost in something, it is hard to see where one begins and another ends. It’s taken me a while, but I don’t fault the land for the behavior of those who lived on it. I think that’s why my “future” is willing to inhabit a rural space, a rural space where two queer people will treat each other with gentleness and love and respect, a rural space where two queer people will grocery shop and a young trans kid will see us, and thusly see a possible future for themselves.

I reflect a lot on my time chopping wood, and how that performance of “masculinity” helped lead me through the conscious beginnings of my queerness, and how I also used it as a violent physical outlet to work through the trauma that was happening around and onto me. And, additionally, it was an act that kept my mother and sister warm during winter. It’s hard not to be thankful for that kind of physical work, when it yielded so much I still consider productive and fundamental to my personhood. I think that admiration and appreciation comes through in most of my poetry.

I think too, and your question gets to this, that rural space provides just that, space—both literal and figurative. There is room to be alone, room to spend time thinking about your body and your body’s relationship to the landscape. What you lose in all that space, of course, is seeing other bodies like yours. Rural queers are, rightfully, so hungry for representation.

I have a new poem and a sentence in it reads, “I believe strongly that had I known one trans person as a child I’d have half as many scars as an adult.” I believe that, but I also know said scars look more to me like the wet earth after a tree uproots, than a pothole in pavement. And that, after all this time I’ve spent healing, is beautiful and peaceful in its own right.

I guess what I wish for the future is that rural queer representation is more prevalent in all the artistic fields. I certainly write hoping that young rural trans folxs will find my work, and then find something to hold in it.

Sometimes, when I know I’m signing a book for someone who came up rural, I sign with something like “This landscape can’t keep us down.” And for me, that is the rural aesthetic. The rural aesthetic is saying “this landscape can’t keep us down” a million different ways, until we all really believe it.

RFW: What you've written about existing in a rural space as a queer person resonated with me and I hope to forgive my rural landscape in the same way that you have. The only way that I felt it possible to transition was to partition my lives, was to move, was to cut off communication. For many years, I equated rural to the closet, and, though nothing charges my spirit like Wyoming landscapes, being in that state has been in the past an act of silence. But recently, my two distinct identities have begun to join more frequently. The experience is often odd and anxiety-making, but the relief that has come in the joining has been tremendous. In it, I believe I've begun to allow others to really be with me. Not as I am on the page or in selfies, but as a physical body before them in that moment. Perhaps this will get me home again. I'd like if it would.

One thing I've realized in transition is that nearly everything I've held true about myself is tenuous and demands to be turned and turned again. With that exploration, transition becomes contradiction and frustrates my conception of self unless I allow for spontaneous, near constant re-calibration. If transition is contradiction, writing about transition is an effort to make movement tangible, and perhaps what I find most confounding about creating art from transition is that it grants rigidity to an amorphous and continual progress. What has been your experience of having WRO as a physical representation of your self in the world shaping the perceptions of others who may not personally know you? Do you think others look to it to understand trans identity as a whole? Should they?

KRC: I’m glad it resonated and I think a partition is so healthy. The end of WRO is in fact a marker of partition:

The last deer I reach for meets
the front of a metro north.

What is more of a partition than that?—the epitome of urban life, the metro north, crashing into a quintessential signifier of the American rural, the white-tailed deer. And though that partition helped me move forward, I am thankful for the ways it is currently dissolving, as it is helping me grow into a more honest version of myself.

But to your question, I wrote WRO as I was coming out as trans. It is written very much in a moment of realization and power and reclamation. That said, I think it’s very likely that some cis readers might mistake WRO for a text meant to understand a wholistic “trans identity.” I really hope they don’t. And I’m sure many cis readers will have the nuance and political awareness to understand that my body in one moment isn’t the end-all be-all of the trans identity—not even close. But I think trans readers are already so well versed in transition as amorphous and confounding that they won’t mistake WRO as anything more than a moment, a beginning of one person’s transition—a transition that will exist and last as long as my earthly body exists. There is no point A or point B, just a body chugging along.

I notice more from readers how the BDSM strains throughout WRO shape their perceptions of me. I think that may be just as dangerous a tendency as assuming I’m some ~trans~ monolith. Sexuality is just as fluid as gender, and it’s interesting to see people make assumptions about my sexuality/kinks/etc. with not much consideration of how time and new relationships and, in my case, less alcohol abuse can alter behavior and preference and a sex life. Again, there is just a body chugging along, and the things it wants are always shifting.

But to get back to writing about and through transition, I do find it important to write and then just move along. When I revise, I revise for craft and not for the content or the ways in which I handle my own body. It’s going to change. It’s going to keep changing. In that way it feels like a productive way to document whatever “transition” it is I’m walking through. The whole body of my work is what can illustrate transition as amorphous and spontaneous. It’s important for me that each piece not try to be to big for its britches. That said though, the most recent poem I drafted tried very much to gesture to the feeling of spontaneity and recalibration you’ve described. And while it may not be a slamming poem, it matters to me. The last lines read:

this poem is not so much about a beach
as it is about arriving there,

blowing stop signs
until the coast affirms

that lines are always changing,
and the tide

tells me my body can morph,
just as many times as it needs.

RFW: So much of the work that you are doing, both with WRO and in your daily existence, pushes you towards community. But, having returned to a rural place after completing your MFA (and please correct me if I'm mistaken), you must have greater access to extended community than you did as a young person. Has leaving altered your understanding of what a rural community is? Do your communities (local, extended, poetry) ever join?

KRC: Well, though the future I reference so often in the new book is rural, I actually live in Philadelphia right now—which is pretty chalk full of community in all respects. It can be overwhelming sometimes, actually. I certainly don’t think I’m cut out for city living long term.

That all said, after my MFA, I spent half a year in Throop, PA, trying to get my feet under me and prepare for and heal from top surgery. My time there was so dreamy. It’s a relatively low income town with all these brightly colored small houses—a ton of pinwheels and “beware of dog signs” in yards and windows. Almost like an inland beach town. There, I felt myself spending a lot of time on the phone with friends from my MFA, and from Penn State before that. I would spend time on the phone while walking through the town—willfully ignoring any stares from locals that might not want me there. I thought that was a big indication of how extended community was protecting me, and helping me feel supported—despite their distance. Throop, PA was also where I crowd-funded my top surgery. And all my communities (familial, local, extended, poetry) held me up and joined to facilitate my having a better quality of life. The kindness still astonishes me and I feel grateful every day. Though loneliness, in an immediate physical sense, was still something that happened in Throop, it was so very different than my young experience.

But in terms of rural community, I believe it’s important to outsource (I’m thinking virtually here) while you try to build or join something on the ground. I think it’s important to understand, too, that in rural settings, if you’re lacking a feeling of community, there is a chance it really just doesn’t exist yet. You’re often not missing out on something already in existence. You may just have to build it, as small or as big as you’re comfortable with. And they will come. Queers are everywhere. Cute, and everywhere.

RFW: I truly don’t think you could have set up my final question any better. We’ve spent so much of this interview speaking about the future, and about what is involved in its realization. Will you do so one more time? When you look to the future, what does your community look like? Your home? Tell me about the trees, the animals, the people.

KRC: When I look to the future I see a community of queer people hell-bent on helping to facilitate one another’s happiness and wellbeing. I see contentious mentorship and support for the younger generation. I see a community that won’t allow young folxs to reach their mid-twenties before they can see themselves in poems, in stories, in music, in film and in painting, in all art and media in general. I see timely torch-passing, and the equitable sharing of capital in all forms. These are idealistic, yes, but I promise to help make it so. And I know so many others who have promised the same. So that gives me hope.

And my home, that’s wherever my partner is. Cliche? I don’t care at all lol! We are so excited to get old together, and drink coffee together, and poorly tend the house plants together, and name a BernieDoodle Drew Berniemore together, and make home videos together, and make zines together, and one day abandon all things to work summer jobs at the Jersey Shore, just because. Life is short and life is long. We’re going to try to fit it all. <3

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Rachel Franklin Wood is from Laramie, Wyoming, but she hasn't lived there for nearly 10 years. Since leaving, she's moved around the west thinking about what it is to be a rural queer. She's leaving wherever she is now as soon as she's able. She writes poems. 

Conversations with Contributors: Matt W. Miller by Peter LaBerge

BY ALEXA GARVOILLE

 Matt W. Miller, author of  The Wounded for the Water  (Salmon Poetry, 2018) and contributor to  Issue Eighteen .

Matt W. Miller, author of The Wounded for the Water (Salmon Poetry, 2018) and contributor to Issue Eighteen.

Matt W. Miller is a poet, father, surfer, and teacher from Lowell, Massachusetts. His third book, The Wounded for the Water, published in by Salmon Poetry in 2018, explores the lure of the water, the pulse of the body, and the ways in which drowning and fluidity surface in the grit of daily life. Miller has been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a Walker E. Dakin Fellow at Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and recently completed a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. He teaches English at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

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I met Matt as participant in Philips Exeter’s summer Writers’ Workshop for teachers in 2016, which he co-facilitated with his colleagues Mercy Carbonell and Willie Perdomo. I called him recently to discuss his new book, craft, teaching, and navigating the writing world.

Alexa Garvoille: Did this whole book start with the long poem, “Ordeal by Water”?

Matt W. Miller: I think it started to organize around that poem. That poem almost made it into my last book. It wasn't quite fully cooked, and I think the editor at UNT kind of felt that when I was trying to put it into Club Icarus. But I'm glad I was patient with it because it wasn't done. It had a lot of fat on it. But then I was writing other stuff, and this theme was coming up again: water, physical wounds, drowning. They started to coalesce. But every time I actually tried to write a poem like that, a drowning poem, it would always be terrible. If I stumbled into it, I'd go, Oh, look at that, it's another one. But when I was trying to do it and acting like, Oh, I'm writing a book, this is my next chapter, it always came off just terrible.

AG: And were you aware that you were working towards a book focused on water?

MM: Not at first, no. But as I was looking at a group of poems, I knew these were all kind of connected in some way. Connected in a temporal way and in a subject matter way. And then the final way, where there's all types of drowning. It may not even mention water or literal drowning, but it's happening anyway. Like the part where they guy's drowning in his job working at a prison. You know, it's just burying him.

I was getting closer, and then all of the sudden I had to cut stuff out, wait for more stuff to arrive. Literally, I feel like you have to wait for them to show up sometimes, some of these poems.

AG: When you're writing poems that come from lived experiences, as many of your poems seem to, are you living that moment thinking, Oh man, this is a poem?

MM: Nah, I don't usually know. I think if I do think, Oh, this would be a great poem moment, it usually turns out to be a really bad poem. You're usually making it too conscious of itself. Usually kind of thinking back, you'll stumble on something. And all of the sudden, it becomes something that could be a poem. And even then, it's not always going to happen, but you sit on it for long enough—years, decades go by—and you say, Oh yeah, remember that thing that happened? Let's see if I can get that down.

But especially stuff out of our youth, it's never a poem. It was just a fight. Or an argument that later on, perhaps, becomes something else by sitting on it and looking at it, trying to make it more than just some moment. It's just life happening. I just kind of look at it and think, No this is something worth looking at. Cause it is life happening.

AG: In a recent interview for an Exeter profile, you said, "Writing isn't therapy, but it can be therapeutic." Talk more about that and how it played out in this book, or how it plays out in your work right now. Just thinking about old childhood memories, some really intense memories—smashing your fist through the window, for instance.

MM: I feel like I'm quoting somebody who said that once, but I also kind of believe it. I had gone to college thinking about the idea of becoming a writer, but I got sucked into the script of just being a jock-football player kind of guy. And I was miserable. I didn't like playing, it was just easy to do it. I wasn't enjoying myself that much. I just felt sad all the time. And then when I got hurt my senior year, I starteud spending time in the library or standing on top of my apartment building, listening to the funk-jazz bands playing at the bar across the street and reading a lot. And I started writing again and realizing that's what I wanted to do. It made me less sad. I don't know if it was therapy as much as realizing that it was what I want I wanted to be doing. I'd been denying what I wanted to do.

But it's not always therapeutic, either, because you could be just there picking a scab, something you don't even want to look at. Like, Why don't you just forget about it and not deal with it? Gabby Calvocoressi was here at Exeter a couple months ago. They were saying kind of the same thing, that sometimes you don't want to look at this stuff. It's not always an easy thing, something you can easily get by without thinking about. If you decide to look at it, and you keep looking at it, you feel kind of terrible sometimes.

And that one poem you were just talking about, where I put my arm through a window after my father's act of violence against us—the second part of that poem is me being violent with my daughter. And I hate that poem. I hate that I wrote it, my wife doesn't ever want me to read it, but I couldn't not put it in there because that was also something that I needed to have there. I've thought, I'm going to come off as an awful person in this. And I'm doing a similar thing. You know, the sins of the father type of thing. I think to not put that in would be a cop-out. To make yourself look all nice and, you know, Oh woe is me, my dad was tough sometimes. So I gotta go, to myself, Well, you're kind of a prick, too.

That’s a tough poem for me. I flip by it in the book—I don't know where it is. It's there. "Of the Father," it's called. I do not like that that me is in there, but that is me, too. And I had to be honest with that. I don't feel like I walked out of a nice session. Having that poem in there? No, it's a terrible stain in that book that I have this, me slightly slapping my daughter about. God, I keep seeing it over and over again. And reading that poem makes me see it again and again and again. And even though I try to pull back from it in the poem, try to explain to her anger and what this word that set me off was—all she knows is her father betrayed her. He struck out at her. And I can never take that back. That's forever. I hate that poem so much. But it had to go in there, I think.

AG: You were talking about "Ordeal by Water" not being quite ready for the last book. For you, when do you know something is ready?

MM: You know, you never know. “You die without knowing.”

AG: But you can know it's not ready.

MM: Yeah, yeah. I still wonder on some of them. Like, I don't know if that's quite right. Or you look back at something you've written before and, even if you publish it, you're like, Oh, no... That shouldn't be out there like that. But you're not the same person who wrote that, either. Somebody else wrote it. Somebody else put it out there. The experience of writing, it changes the person who wrote it. And every other experience you have. You know, that idea of you can't stand in the same river twice because the water changes, but so do you. You can't take off on the same wave twice.

I mean, sometimes it helps, in some ways to throw them out there. To submit them to publications or to let people read them. That can give you a false sense. You might get two hundred rejections and think, This thing's terrible, it's the worst thing I've ever read. And then you read it to somebody and they cry. And you know it’s working on that level. Who's right? Who's wrong? And you're totally confused. You don't know.

But sometimes you get to a point where you’ve got to say, This is as far as I'm going to take it. I'm not going to do any more of this. I need to move on. We had a good time together, but it's not you, it's me. We have to go our separate ways. You go over into some other place where I'm not going to keep playing with you, tweaking you, changing you, because you’re just not going to change any more. You don't have that same space creatively or energy-wise.

AG: Are you one of those people who writes a draft and then puts it away for a while, then comes back to it? Or do you work on a piece in a chunk until you're done with it, sick of it, or ready to abandon it?

MM: I keep playing around with it, put it away. And then if I think it's really good, I might send it out, and then I'll get a bunch of rejections. And then go, Wait, why are they rejecting it? Oh, wait, this is terrible. And I'm right. And I know. You've gotta wait because, you know, you write something and the first couple weeks, you think, This thing's awesome! Look what I did! And then if you would have waited three weeks you would have realized, No, it's not there yet. Why did you send it out? But sometimes I'll send stuff out just so I won't look at it.

AG: You're the person who makes a copy of the poem and works on the newer version in the same document right above it?

MM: Right, I do that, yeah. A lot of times I'll start from a notebook, a first draft. Then I'll type it out. Copy it, paste it above it, so I have the same poem, and then I'll start to play with that one. And then I'll do that again and again so I might have twenty pages of a twenty-line poem that's only one page long, but I'll have twenty pages deep of it. I just keep playing with it. I don't want to lose something that might have been good, but I was just hasty, thinking Oh, that's terrible, but then a week later, I'll go, What was that other thing I did? That might have worked, actually. So I like to keep it around.

AG: That is exactly what I do now. Thank you, Matt Miller. You gave me that. It's so great. Because those older versions—sometimes I edit parts out and then I realize that I lost something.

MM: Yeah, that helps you get back to the original energy of it. Now the editorial side of you, the sculptor side, is writing the new drafts, but you lose some of the juice, the chutzpah, the just throwing-stuff-at-a-wall energy. You've gotta find a balance between craft and—I don't know what the other word is—

AG: The gut.

MM: The gut, yeah. The "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." I think Wordsworth said that. You wanna balance that. But if you lose all that, then it just becomes really kind of dry. But well-crafted! But it might just have lost any of the blood. You have to keep the blood.

AG: So I’ve got a nerdy question about verbs and adjectives: in many of your poems, you match adjectives with nouns that are unconventional pairs, but the adjective would fit conventionally with a different noun within the world of the poem. Like, "stubbled light," or "kettled bellies," or with a verb, "sweat beetles down his face." How do those happen? Does it just come out that way when you're writing? Or do you revise toward that?

MM: I think what I want to do is shorten things and get there quicker. I remember in my first book, Cameo Diner, I was thinking about the traffic helicopters flying over Boston. The original version was like, "Traffic copters flying like mosquitoes over the upper deck." And I'm like, Oof, flying like mosquitoes is so—So I just decided, I'm going to get there quicker, so "The copters mosquitoed over the upper deck." I just turned mosquito into a verb. Probably, you shouldn't do that, but it just felt better. Instead of relying on the simile, I just made it into a verb, and it had an energy. Something about a mosquito as a verb worked for me.

It might not work for people who might think you can't break the rules like that. I know I shouldn't always, but Shakespeare did it. I think maybe reading Kerouac when I was younger helped because I think he would do a lot of that stuff. He didn't learn English until he was about eight or nine years old because he spoke Patois French, and when he discovered English, he just played in it, I think. I maybe saw some of that and what he had done when I read him when I was younger. And I didn't know you weren't supposed to do it as much, and so it became fun to do it.

You know, "stubbled light"—that was just imagery. I just saw the early morning light and these guys' shaved heads and shaved faces. Here's the stubble. Here's the light coming off it. It just felt right to say "stubbled light." And that idea of a stubbled light—how does light stubble? I don't know.

AG: It works.

MM: It works. Major Jackson was looking at one of my poems once, and there was a phrase in there, "assignments of lightning." It was about the forest or something. And a person goes, "What does that mean? That doesn't mean anything." And he says, "Yeah, but sometimes somethin' just works." So I took that as permission. Sometimes if it works, it breaks the rules, but it just hits the right note. And it's just a surprise in the language, and I love when I see that in other writers. Like, Ooh, you did—? Oh, that's fun. You did something different. I hadn't thought of that. It's energizing. Language isn't completely dead yet.

AG: Another thing I love so much about your poems, and hearing you read them, is how musical they are. For you, where does that musicality comes from?

MM: I think I start with a rhythm a lot of times, in my head. Where my head will be bobbing a little bit, like, Here's the poem, this is what it's doing. I'll start writing with it. Sometimes words will be filler words that are going to change later, but it's just to get the tune down with words before I actually have the words. If that makes sense. Even if I'm writing sometimes in a more formal verse, I'll have a tune down, even if it's a sonnet or a villanelle. I know what to do here, I know what I'm trying to do anyway. Let's see if I can catch it, even in a stricter form like that.

AG: So you're saying you have the rhythm and the sound of what you're trying to say before you even have the words sometimes?

MM: Yeah, sometimes. And that's why maybe I need to change a noun into an adjective or a verb, it's because I need to make it match this beat in my head. There's probably a little hip-hop influence there, a lot of early rap—Beastie Boys, NWA floating through my head. From middle school. The line's too long, I gotta get the music right, so I'm going to mess with this word. I can't afford a simile right now, it's going to slow it all down, so I have to change it.

AG: I'm really interested in the poems that start in some lived reality and then shift into an imagined world. So, for instance, in The Wounded for the Water, "Under Blue Blankets," starts with a man trying to pick up the speaker (in a Subway!), then tells the possible love story between them that might follow.

MM: It was a poem I was really worried about missing or appropriating. I think I was going for a poem about love and the ways that if you're looking for it, it can show up. It's probably not a poem I could have written at twenty-five, when I thought, This is the way it is, these are the lines drawn.

In the poem itself, literally the narrator talks about a dream he had about a girl he met when he was in college, and then he runs into her. And they have this moment of connection, but then it kind of goes away. Literally, that was a dream I had freshman year of college about a girl, wearing black jeans and a red sweater. And I called up a friend the next day and said, Yeah, I just had this weird dream about Emily and me, but it wasn't sexual in any way. We were just hanging out at a party, and she was there. But all of the sudden, she became alive to me. Like I was aware of her womanness, or something about her. So then literally, maybe ten years later, I married her.

But in the poem, he meets someone else who he has a relationship with and it turns out to be a male, and that's just the person he falls in love with. Maybe it's just that the person you fall in love with is the person you fall in love with. You know, I think about that. I don't know …Actually, I ran this by Meg Day, this poem. And she said, I love this poem! It's about love. I thought, Oh god, thank god. I don't want to be this white, male, heterosexual, cisgender who's just like, Heyyy, I can do the gay thing, too! I'm not trying to do that—

AG: No, it's actually so great.

MM: I'm not trying to check off a box. I just thought—that's where the poem went, and I was going for the poem: He's with him. They have a fight. And then he runs into the girl he had a dream about. It's surreal how Emily shows up in this poem. But then, he doesn't go with her. He's in love with this guy. That's the relationship. They put in time, and he wants to be with him. And it's hard.

I remember I showed that poem to my wife. We were in a coffee shop, and she cried. She said, This is a love poem. And I tell her, Emily, it's a poem for you. And she says, I know it is. It's about working through the tough times. And it's not always going to work out, but you stay with that person because you love them. And I think that's what I was trying to do with these two people. They had a life together, and they didn't want to throw that away, off on a chance meeting with somebody who maybe you could have liked, whether they're male, female, whatever, you know.

AG: I think it's so beautiful. And it's even more endearing that you wrote it. You’re telling a story about love through this other narrator, through this side-step into a fictionalized world.

MM: If the narrator went home with that person, he could have had a wonderful life. Or if he went to a club that night and met some girl or guy. That other person, they could have had a life. It doesn't have to be one person, really. People are looking for love, you know. Maybe broaden your look. You might find it in places you didn't expect, or you weren't told to expect.

AG: I think a poem that deals with a similar topic—the idea of love and what's meant to be and who you're meant to be with—is "Three Center Two Electron Bond."

MM: [Laughs]

AG: What can you say about that?

MM: What can I say about that poem?

AG: How it came to be?

MM: That was a fun poem to write. That one, I just kind of let it rip. A three-center two-electron bond is a chemical bond… where there's… I can't remember now, but it's a—

AG: It's in your very generous notes in the back of the book.

MM: Oh yeah, I put a lot of notes back there. I was like, I gotta put a bunch of notes back here just for fun.

AG: I love it. [Reading:] It's "an electron-deficient chemical bond where three atoms share two electrons. The combination of three atomic orbitals forms three molecular orbitals, one bonding, one non-bonding, and one anti-bonding."

MM: Yeah.

AG: From Wikipedia.

MM: I am not a chemist. But there are three people in the story. And one of the people might be focused on the wrong person. I remember I read something that had that bond, and I was like, What's that bond? So I looked it up. Interesting. And then Bradley Cooper, the actor, was on the cover of People Magazine as the Sexiest Man Alive, right around that time. I think I was in a bookstore or a coffee shop and somebody had it. So I sat down, and I just started writing about this, having a drink with him and being fascinated by the person you shouldn't be looking at because you're just sort of drawn in by this appearance. Yeah, it was a weird poem to write, and sometimes I hate to explain it because I don't know where it came from or how it came about and then how I arrived at that end. In the poem, they totally got caught up in this whole other thing. And they lost the thing they had.

AG: Right, and it's almost like the opposite of what's happening in "Under Blue Blankets."

MM: Yeah. That's probably why it's toward the front of the book. I think I organized things so, hopefully, there's a lot of ups and downs, but the end of the book, I wanted to end on these affirmations of love in some way. Yeah, it's harrowing but it's possible.

AG: Speaking of the Sexiest Man Alive… I went on this memoir retreat with Garrard Conley, which was so great.

MM: [Screams] Ah! Garrard!

AG: It was amazing. It was on his birthday, a couple years ago. It was at the Holes in the Wall Collective which was then in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania and there was a lake and we had one-on-one writing conferences in a boat. Anyway, at one point—I hate to objectify you—but at one point during that weekend, we were just sharing about the common people that we knew, and how I found his book through you giving it to me after he gave Exeter a bunch of copies of Boy Erased. And then, we were all like, Yes, Sexiest Man Alive: Matt Miller. I have to admit, there was a moment where somebody pulled up a picture and showed it to other workshop participants.

[Laughter]

AG: Is it difficult being handsome?

MM: There’s a poem in the book, "Bully Pulpit.” It’s an idea that I write a lot about—blue-eyed, blond men…

AG: “Our handsome / is a lie” you say in that poem.

MM: Yeah, well the handsome is luck of time and place. Like this Western or European ideal of, This thing is what looks pretty. It's temporary, and it's toxic as hell. And it's doing a couple things. In America most of the kids shooting up schools are blue-eyed, blond-haired kids. I’ve been writing a lot about how these kids’ baby pictures look like my son's baby pictures. These are my children. You know at the end of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," where the grandmother reaches out to The Misfit, and she realizes, “You were one of my own babies”? She's the reason he exists because her cruelty and meanness to the world has created something like that. And, so, I think to myself, I've created this. I'm complicit in this. Because I've benefited from a certain time and space. You've got these shooters, but on the other side you've got Brock Turner of Stanford, who uses his privilege to rape a girl and only have to do three months of prison for it. And all this violence. And it's that same idea of, We have a right to other people's bodies. Because we've always had a right to that.

AG: Lots of poems over the course of this book and in your last book Club Icarus, too, are about gun violence and having children in the world. What do you think is a poet's job in terms of shifting people's views or the political landscape?

MM: I think the poet's job is to show the world. Hamlet says, "Hold a mirror up to nature." And I think if you show it right, people might get something out of that. Especially in a capitalistic society when we ask, What's this good for? It can't make you money, it can't do anything. It has no use. To do something that has no use is terrifying in some ways. It's a political statement, I think.

I always think if you try to write a political view, it comes off as propaganda. If you're just trying to show something as it happened, or show the reality of it, it should be apparent what's right and what's wrong.

AG: Do you find yourself reading those political poems more at readings, or not necessarily?

MM: That's a good question. Sometimes it depends, I think, where I'm reading. A couple of those poems, like "Child's Play," that deal with gun violence right now, I feel like those poems are going to resonate. Because everyone has a stake in that.

Somebody was asking after the shooting in Texas, Did you ever expect this to happen at your school? And a student, Paige Curry, said, Yes, I did. The banal answer is supposed to be, I never thought it would happen here. That's the basic answer we've been giving for twenty years. But now, kids are like, Yeah, I did.

I think about it every time I drop my kids off at school. I think, This could be a day. Or every time I'm walking across campus—god, my gut seizes up for no reason. I think, There could be someone here. Or I was at a beach two weeks ago, and I thought, Wow, this would be the perfect spot. Someone comes over the dunes… And I'm older, so kids, teenagers now, that is the reality they live with. And I think we're all living with the trauma of that without necessarily knowing it. So when you read something like "Child's Play" or "Repose," even the person not thinking about politics feels it. That's an exhaustion that they're going through.

AG: So, what's going on right now? What are you working on? You're on sabbatical, you've got a new book out…

MM: I kind of started working on some stuff last summer that I'm going back to. I'm working on trying to look at my hometown and the river valley that I grew up in. Of the Merrimack, where the Industrial Revolution started in America with the mill girl and immigrant labor. Passaconoway was a sachem, an indigenous chief, who saw the Mayflower land. He was a major figure of this place. And then the Europeans came, and you've got King Phillip's War in this area, and then the Industrial Age, and then the mills go under, the Depression, the War, Creative Economy, new talent. I actually started with the Ice Age and I'm trying to build up in this one little space. This little bit of an area where all this stuff sort of happened, this microcosm of the country as a whole. And I'm writing all these poems about that place. Plus, trying to weave in personal narratives, little poems that show up of my own experiences growing up in this funky little mill town.

Individually, the poems are doing okay. I don't know if they're ever going to come together, so it might not even work. I think reading Tyehimba Jess' Olio gave me delusions of grandeur about what I could do with a project. I thought, Ooh, I could do this big thing about this area. He was here at Exeter and hanging out with us. And I'm like, Ugh, I'm totally screwed. I'm going to try to do that. Mix that with Hart Crane's The Bridge, and just do this kind of Small Place, Big Story. I don't know if it's going to work. Probably, it'll be one of those books that kills the writer.

[Laughter]

AG: So you're doing a lot of reading and research going into that.

MM: Reading a lot of indigenous people, reading a lot of geological history, reading narrative accounts of mill girls. Dickens, his accounts of going there and watching this stuff. Obviously Thoreau and his Merrimack and Concord River essay, his take on it. And then it's just such an immigrant town, so there's an interesting take on that because immigration is a hot topic, it always has been. It's a thing where we say, We hate immigrants! We need immigrants. Or we dig in and go, Be American. What the hell is that?

As it gets bigger, I think, How can I get some other voices in here? And then the problem is appropriating voices. Not wanting to steal someone else's story, not wanting to take. Persona poems are fun, but I don't know if I have the right to speak in Passaconoway's voice, or speak in the voice of the Cambodian boy killed on his way home from school when I was in high school cause he was trying to quit a gang. Do I get to speak from his voice? Who am I to assume a teenage Cambodian kid's voice, or a mill girl's voice? Can I do that? How do I get into these places? Do I have a right to their stories? Which is, you know, interesting. Because the time we're in is just more, Just let them tell the story, dude.

AG: Right. That sounds fascinating and complex. And quite different from your other work that's out there.

MM: It's going to be less "I" and less family. My kids don't probably want to be in poems anymore.

[Laughter]

AG: Can we talk about teaching and assignments for a moment? There are multiple poems in The Wounded For the Water where I thought, I could write a prompt that would generate this poem, or I bet he wrote this while he was teaching Moby Dick, or Was this a challenge to rewrite Walt Whitman's "This Compost"? Could you talk about the ways in which the prompt, the assignment, or other texts from class play into your own writing and discovery process?

MM: It's not just me, but a number of people in my department will write from prompts like, Try to write a poem in the style of Emily Dickinson. Or, Take any line from "Diving into the Wreck" and write your poem from there. Or, let's do, Find the missing chapter from Sula. Write the chapter that's not there. You know, that kind of thing where it becomes this imitative work. And it's fun to go from there. It gives you a start sometimes. And then you can throw that off. It becomes like a scaffolding, or the stone in the soup so that you don't need it anymore, but it can really be a great way to get into a piece. When a kid asked Jill McDonough what was her process, she just said, "Well, when I hear a poem I like, I rewrite it in my own words." Which is kind of brilliant. She was being kind of glib, but she was also saying if it's something that stirs you, you write from it.

When I was working on "Ordeal by Water," I was deep inside reading a lot of Hamlet and Milton and Moby Dick and Dickinson and Eliot. And all those things were just popping out as I was getting to them. And I thought, Oh my god, this is where I am. This is Ophelia. Or, like, I used "grendel" as a verb because I had been doing Beowulf. Yep, what's the monster that pulls you down? There you go. And then the Moby Dick thing was a lot because that opening chapter of the book where Melville says, "Whenever's a damp, drizzly November in my soul. […] I know I have to get to the water as soon as I can. It is my substitute for the pistol and ball." You know, I know that. When I am in a down place, I get to the water and it can switch things up. And then that poem becomes, What is the water? Literal water, but you're drowning in the water of the people you live with and love, and people in the world in general.

AG: As a writing teacher, what are some of the biggest hurdles you see young people struggle with as young writers?

MM: Some of the kids just not believing that they have a skill, a talent for this, or that they have a voice—they have a story—worth telling. Everyone has a story to tell and worth telling. You gotta get them to buy into that a little bit.

The tough part is, if the kids are trying to write for an A, they're just going to listen to what you say, like, Tell me how to get it down so it's an A. That's not how writing works, you know. This is all about writing and rewriting. You might have something that's terrible right now that in ten years might be amazing. It's not ready yet, so you've got to let it cook a little more. But you might write something amazing right away. They're like, What? I don't understand how that works. Well, that's just the way it is.

And then this idea as a teacher of writing, I think Richard Hugo had that great opening moment of Triggering Town where he says, "All the time, I'm not teaching you how to write; I'm teaching you to write like me. But I want you to write like yourself." That's the trick, to let them write like themselves and get away from your ego. You want to give them some guidance, but you also want to give them a voice that's their own. And sometimes you've just got to step back from yourself. Like, What are you doing, dude? You're trying to tell them how to write this like you would write it. So you've got to be wary of that. You've gotta get out of their way a little bit.

And then they always want to know: am I any good at writing? And I always think of that Merwin poem by Berryman that ends with the lines—Merwin sort of asking his teacher Berryman, How do I know if anything I write is ever any good? You don't, he said. You die without knowing. If you need to know, don't write.

AG: Oh, that's such a good zinger.

MM: Yeah. You're writing for a different reason. And that's so antithetical to prize culture, to the culture even in writing, the capitalism of poetry. Like, What is it good for? What can it do? What prizes can I get? I mean, it's nice to get those things. It's nice to get into good programs, but is that why you're doing it? If you're still doing it for that reason… Maybe I'm totally wrong, and I could have been more capitalistic. I mean, you gotta write because what's the alternative, right? You gotta do it because you wanna do it.

AG: It seems stressful to navigate the world of writing: the prizes, the programs, the submissions. Just seeing what you do in terms of connecting with other people, being a good person, and just making friends in a way that does not seem motivated by capitalism is great to watch.

MM: You want those successes. It's nice to get those. But some days you sit back and think, Do I really care about it that much? What do I care more about? Is my daughter healthy? Is she being hurt at school? Is my son happy? Is he sad today? That's actually what I give a shit about. But you can get caught up in all that other stuff.

It's a different brain. It's not the writing brain, it's the PoBiz mindset. I can do that for a couple hours a week, you know. Just be like [Miller affects a nerdy but moneyed voice], Yes, I'm being a professional poet right now. I'm going to submit some stuff, look for prizes. Blah, blah, blah. You know? And then you go take a shower, get that off ya, and go do something else.

I feel gross every time I put something on Facebook. I ask friends, Is it too much? They say, No, it's a balance, it's good. It took me years just to get on Facebook. When Club Icarus came out, I once asked Emily, “Can you post that I published a book?” She was like, “Really? No. Come on.” So I've kind of come around. If you're, I think, a normal person, you don't want to do that stuff. But sometimes you can switch into a person who just does that stuff. Yeah, so find some way to check yourself. However you're gonna do it.

The whole thing of being a good person—if there's this little world you can be a part of, it's a little easier to just have fun with it. Give love, if you can. People like Jill McDonough and—I can name a ton of them—Brandon Courtney, Meg Day, Malachi Black, all these people who I've met who are just good. They're good people. You might read them on the page going, Oh, I'd probably hate them! They're so damn talented! And then you meet them and you're think, That's it. That's an awesome person. I love that person. You love when you love them as much as you love their poetry or their writing. When you think, They're even better than their poetry! And their poetry's freakin' great. For the most part, I think it's a lot of good people.

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Alexa Garvoille has taught high school English and Creative Writing for a decade. Her pedagogical work is focused on providing quality creative writing resources to high school students and teachers. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Virginia Tech.

Conversations with Contributors: Nancy Reddy by Peter LaBerge

BY BRANDON NORTH

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Nancy Reddy is the author of Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a 2014 winner of the National Poetry Series, and Acadiana (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Pleiades, Blackbird, The Iowa Review, Smartish Pace, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, she teaches writing at Stockton University in southern New Jersey.

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Brandon North: Let's start with the title of your chapbook, Acadiana. Being from Ohio, I had actually never heard of the coastal, French Louisiana region called Acadiana, so at first glance the word looked vaguely like Arcadia, a place often idealized in art as an idyllic land lost to the forces of civilization and colonization. (The actual Arcadia was near water, too, being in the Peloponnese region of Greece). Considering that your chapbook starts with a poem called "Dirge," can you discuss whether Acadiana was inspired by the mythological version of Arcadia, as it relates to a lost place, a place that, once it’s gone, might be idealized?

Nancy Reddy: The title of the chapbook came pretty late, actually. (I find, in general, that I either have a title right away, or I really have to search for it!) When it won the Black River competition, the chapbook was titled Barataria, which is a small town in south Louisiana. I wasn’t quite satisfied with that—the sound is a bit clunky, and I worried the name was too obscure—and I was lucky that Kit Frick, my amazing editor, let me change it. I spent a long time searching for a new title and was really taken by the idea of a long, kind of mystical-sounding title that would set a tone for the chapbook. (I sent a bunch of those ideas in an email to my poet-girlfriends—I’ll spare you the specific examples—but let’s say that they were Not Good, and I was lucky those dear friends gently pointed me in a different direction.) In the end, I settled on Acadiana for some of the reasons you mention—it calls up Arcadia for people who aren’t familiar with south Louisiana, and for people who are (or people familiar with Google) it establishes the landscape of the chapbook. So, though the chapbook wasn’t explicitly inspired by the ideas about Arcadia that you mention, there are certainly resonances, and I’m so happy those came through.

BN: Acadiana is a very polyvocal book: there are sibyls as well as saints speaking, and there are also narrator-like personae that discuss characters like the Thibodeaux girls and sometimes speak with the "we" pronoun, as if in possession of knowledge about an entire community. Can you discuss how these varied points of view and personae relate to a place ravaged by natural disasters, as Acadiana has been? Are the perspectives meant to be blurred together in intimate ways? I'm thinking of how hurricanes and floods erode, shift, and replace boundaries, and whether those phenomena inform your poems.

NR: The many voices of Acadiana are tied to my interest in exploring different ways of knowing. The sibyls (women whom the ancient Greeks believed acted as oracles) speak with this absolute certainty that I’m rarely able to muster in my own everyday life. In “Dirge,” which opens the chapbook, they foretell the hurricane and the inevitability of disaster, and in “Town Anatomy II” (a bit farther down in the Connotation Press link above) they’re arbiters of the fates of the desperate men and pregnant girls who come to them for guidance—and they’re entirely confident in their judgments. (It probably helps that they’re literally inspired—breathed into—by the gods, at least in Greek mythology, though in my version, by the end, they refuse that forcible wisdom and speak for themselves.) So the sibyls represent a kind of divine wisdom, but one that’s troubling and violent.

The saints, on the other hand, are aligned to a more conventional Catholic and Christian worldview, though these saints are just as troubling, if not more so, than the sibyls. Saint James was the first saint I wrote, and while he says he left the girl unharmed, I’m not entirely sure about that.

Your question is making me realize that these ways of knowing—prophesy, prayer, received wisdom—also have a spatial component. The men leave town and turn to the sibyls only when they’re desperate, when the strategies of civilization have stopped working. So the knowledge of the sibyls belongs to the swamps, this liminal space between (so-called) civilization and a pre-modern way of life, between this life and the next.

BN: Polyvocality also seems related to how many poems reference "the god." With Catholic saints and Greco-Roman mythological figures sharing the same space (especially since Christian myths are historically entangled with Greco-Roman ones), could you discuss how this reference functions in Acadiana? It sounds ominously universal, yet feels like each speaker could be referencing a different, specific god.

NR: I was raised Catholic (that’s probably obvious) and one of the things I find fascinating about the history of Catholicism is how gleefully (as you note in your question) the early church absorbed the gods and the symbols and the traditions of the people they converted. (The Romans did this too, of course, so there was a solid precedent.) The monks who made illuminated copies of The Aeneid, for example, changed Vergil’s name to Virgil to make it look more like Virgin, to be more acceptable to the church. So they’re responsible for our having access to that remarkable, foundational story, but that access came at the cost of its alteration.

In terms of the god(s) of Acadiana: yes. I think all these gods—the pagan gods, the mortals touched by them, the saints—all move through this same space, all hobbled and imperfect. This is a world in which everyone’s praying and pleading, and occasionally they receive an answer, but it’s rarely a comforting one, and there are no answers that explain or even really alleviate suffering. (In that way it’s much like our world.)

BN: I'm very intrigued by how Acadiana's poems situate femininity and womanhood within the consciousnesses of its speakers. There seems to be a sustained consideration of how prophecy relates to labor. If, historically, women have not been encouraged to be designers of Western civilization, and yet there are many female seers and prophets in Western mythology, is there a sense in your poems that womanhood and femininity is therefore historically linked to the actual details of building societies, which in turn could provide visionary understandings of how tenuous and easily destroyed those societies can be? This is definitely a complicated dynamic, and thinking about it makes me return to the final poem in your chapbook, "After, the Sibyls Fall Out of Words,” which ends: "Saved and spared are different / and you will know that now." These lines seem to suggest that male-dominated cultures have tried to "save" so much (like women themselves, of course) that they miss the importance of what could be spared—left undisturbed—for the future, like entire ecosystems that are destroyed by the very attempts to "save" something else (climate change as fueled by societal attempts to sustain harmful human ways of life and the hierarchies that promote them).

NR: I love your observation about the connection between prophesy and labor. In the myths, prophesy is, especially when worked by the oracles, a form of bodily labor. (For other forms of prophesy, the labor is different—following the flight of birds in augury, or offering a sacrifice and watching the smoke of burnt flesh as its ascends to the gods. But there’s still a bodily component, rather than the primarily cerebral work of prayer and confession and absolution in the Catholic tradition.) There’s a complicated relationship between prophesy and agency in the myths: the sibyls are oracles, meaning that their speech is divinely inspired; it’s not their own. They’re momentarily possessed, and their speech has to be interpreted by (male) priests.

Speech is powerful, right? Its policing shows us this. There’s a reason women still can’t read the Gospel or give a homily in the Catholic church, though they’re now allowed to give communion. (After a man’s worked the miracle of transubstantiation, of course.) I’ll say that again: a woman cannot read the words of the Gospel from the altar, though deacons—men—now can. I sometimes miss the Church—it was an important force in my childhood and its rituals have given me enormous comfort over the years—and then I remember how hard it’s worked to ensure that women are barred from meaningful participation in its most important rituals.

In the end, as you point out, the sibyls refuse to be possessed—they “won’t have / the man’s hands on us now.” They’re able to work their own liberation, but only after enormous devastation.  

BN: That trade off—devastation as the condition for the sibyls’ liberation—has an apocalyptic feeling to it, and it definitely suggests Acadiana’s complex emotionality, which had me oscillating between senses of doom and senses of freedom. Could you address whether you see Acadiana as belonging to the genre of apocalypse literature? I often think poetry is well-suited to the sorts of imagining required for the genre, though maybe there isn’t a widespread sense that this is the case, despite there being some great books of apocalyptic poetry, like Inger Christensen’s Alphabet or Rebecca Gayle Howell’s Render  / An Apocalypse, which came out more recently.

NR: I hadn’t thought of Acadiana in those terms—but I’m certainly interested in the transformation wrought by disaster, which is a common theme in the apocalyptic. And that’s something that many poets are engaging with, I think—Leah Umansky, Maggie Smith, Meghan Privitello, and Dena Rash Guzman had that great panel on Apocalypse Poetry by Women at AWP 2017 in DC, and I think also of the Afrofuturist strain in Eve Ewing’s stunning Electric Arches.

There’s an ecological component here, too, of course. The escalating intensity of hurricane season - which underpins both the landscape of the chapbook and the reality of life in the gulf south - is just one dramatic consequence of climate change and ongoing environmental disaster.

BN: Switching gears, could you discuss your process for writing the poems in Acadiana? The forms and rhythms are varied, so I’m wondering how you went about writing them. Did you have a lot of this work in mind, and then decided on many of the forms? Did some or most poems happen organically and eventually you started seeing them as interrelated?

NR: I wrote the bulk of these poems in a few weeks, in the summer between the first and second years of my MFA. During most of my years in graduate school, I worked at Teach for America’s Summer Institute, training new teachers in Houston, then Atlanta, then Tulsa, and it was intense, exhausting, and energizing work. (It also paid, for 6 weeks’ summer work plus prep time in the spring, nearly the same amount as my graduate student stipend. I add those details because I think it’s helpful for writers to be a bit more transparent about the practical considerations—income, healthcare, childcare, domestic/second shift work, the support (or not) of a partner, and so on—that support or impede the creation of art.)

So I’d spent the beginning of that summer working 80+ hour weeks in Atlanta, and when I wasn’t working, I was trying to get my head around the beginnings of this project. I’d written a few swampy poems (several of which didn’t make it into the chapbook; you have to be willing to shed the things that help you enter the project but don’t serve it in the end) and, to keep me moving in that direction, I bought a field guide to south Louisiana when I visited New Orleans for a few days before going to Atlanta to work. That field guide taught me the names of specific plants, the history of the Mississippi’s shifting delta—things that allowed me to write my way into the swamp.

Then, when I returned to Madison, I knew I had just a few weeks before the semester started again. I got a little carrel in the library, and I’d take the bus to campus early every morning and drink coffee from my thermos and visit the saints and sibyls and everyone else who lived in and around the swamp. I haven’t experienced that in quite the same way again, but I felt like each poem was pointing me toward the new poem. Early on, I wrote “Dirge” in the voice of the sibyls, then I wrote others, like, oh, what would they say about these men who show up in the swamp looking for help? What would they say to these pitiful pregnant teenagers? The same thing with the two Thibodeaux Girl poems—I’d written the first one, then I wondered what that speaker would have to say when she saw her neighborhood transformed by the hurricane. And I followed her into the next poem.

BN: To end on a related question, could you discuss how you decided that these poems should be in a chapbook as opposed to a full length collection? I’ve often thought that the chapbook length is good for intense, sequenced, “project”-like, etc., types of collections, but Acadiana feels more open than these kinds of chapbooks, and in a meaningful way. The many present voices—in such a compressed setting as a chapbook—seems to suggest both that there once were many more voices, now lost to natural disaster or simply time, and also that there could be more voices, whether in the form of ghosts or spirits or previously silenced perspectives that could now be shared. This openness feels welcoming to readers, too, as if the condensed form of your work asks readers to add their own voices to the landscape your poems inhabit.

NR: For a long time, I thought of these poems as just kind of an oddball project I’d written and abandoned. (I’d originally written them for inclusion in my MFA thesis, but it became clear that they didn’t fit.) I’d send a couple out every once in a while, and then, in the summer of 2016, a group of them were finalists for the Coniston Prize at Radar Poetry. I was so honored by that—Dara-Lyn and Rachel publish consistently excellent work, and in a visually beautiful journal—and I was like, hey, these poems are actually pretty well-published. So I put them together and submitted them to two chapbook contests, and I was beyond thrilled when they won the Black River competition at Black Lawrence Press. And, in an amazing bit of serendipity, I was able to work with Lise Latreille, whose artwork Dara-Lyn and Rachel had paired with my poems at Radar, to create the cover for the chapbook.  

I’m glad you perceive that kind of openness. For me, the shared landscape and time period (before and after a hurricane) holds these poems together. And so, in one way, I was mapping that landscape—going into town, then back out, talking to the sibyls, then watching Saint Charlene offer up one final prayer, watching Saint Catherine as she sat beneath her carport and waited for the hurricane to come in—but any map is necessarily incomplete. That’s part of why I named the poem “Town Anatomy II”—the suggestion that there’s a I and a III and perhaps even a IV that have been lost to time or water.

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Brandon North writes from Ohio, where he attended the Northeast Ohio MFA program (NEOMFA). He is the recipient of a scholarship to attend the Juniper Summer Writing Institute and has been poetry editor for Whiskey Island. Recent writing is forthcoming or appears in Ghost Proposal, Crixeo, The Bombay Gin, and Quarterly West.

Conversations with Contributors: Ben Purkert by Peter LaBerge

BY ERICA BERNHEIM

Ben Purkert is the author of FOR THE LOVE OF ENDINGS (Four Way Books, 2018). His poems, essays, and book reviews appear or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Tin House Online, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. A former New York Times Fellow at NYU, he teaches at Rutgers. He is also the editor of Back Draft for Guernica.

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Erica Bernheim: As I was reading For the Love of Endings, one of the first poems that I returned to was about midway through your collection: “Setting Bear Traps for Myself.” I think of the loss articulated in this poem, particularly when the speaker describes the doomed salmon leaping out of its skin and wants a love as powerful and transcendent as that. For me, this also describes part of the editing process, the cutting away of connections in order to liberate a poem. How do you whittle the poem down to becoming the knife itself?

Ben Purkert: Hm, I’ve never conceived of a poem as a knife before! Truthfully, I don’t love thinking about editing in terms of violence, though I’m into the idea of liberation. The salmon leaping out from its skin—that, to me, is the ideal form of revision. The shedding of what’s close but unnecessary, in order to pick up speed. A greater fluency, freedom of movement. It’s interesting to me, if unsettling, how commonly we turn to metaphors of violence when discussing revision. It’s always about whittling down, cutting fat, slicing away, killing darlings, etc. To be clear, I’m all for revising rigorously! But I’m not sure why we frame the relationship between author and text as a confrontational one. I started Back Draft for Guernica precisely for this reason: to better understand how different poets revise, so we might expand our editing vocabulary in new ways.

EB: You list some incredible poets as your mentors and teachers. As an instructor of poetry yourself now, what value do you place on obtaining a formal education in poetry?

BP: To me, the education is what matters, less so the “formal” part. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to the academy, or anti-MFAs, or anything like that. I love teaching creative writing at Rutgers, but that’s because of the community there, not the campus or the institution. A group of poets hanging out in a garage somewhere… That could potentially be the best classroom you’ll ever find. A garage is a form, if not a formal one. But maybe your question is more about grounding oneself in certain poetic traditions, reading “the classics,” stuff like that?

EB: Could you talk a bit more about the "form" part of the question, and how you approach it, which forms you use most often in class, how you navigate form with your students. I know from my own experiences that students can be incredibly resistant to trying form themselves or, conversely, incredibly resistant to writing poetry without form.

BP: You're right, it's an interesting contradiction: how is it that the same student who believes Poems Must Rhyme is also resistant to form? The first thing I usually stress with my students is that every poem has a form; even the word "poem" constitutes a formal imposition. I also think there's this perception that form is necessarily stodgy. Which, of course, it can be! Neo Formalism is its own thing. But form can also be liberating, it can free the mind to do other things. I love to juxtapose these two poems: Shane Book's "Sestina" and Ciara Shuttleworth's "Sestina." The two are different in every way, yet they both exist within a given set of constraints. Same birdcage, wildly different birds.

EB: Maureen McLane describes your work as “compact, yet aerated,” which can apply as much to the content, perhaps, as well as the form. How do you envision your poems before moving towards committing them to the page?

BP: I don’t really! I like what Donald Hall says: “There is no poem inside the head.” For me, the poem is a collaboration between me and the page. Whenever I try to conceive of a poem and then write it as envisioned, it always fails. The page sees right through me! It’s like it senses that I’m trying to transcribe, rather than participating in a genuine creative process. It has to be a kind of mutual arrangement, give and take. In that way, every poem is a group effort, even if it’s a lonely one.

EB: One of the questions I hear most frequently is about knowing when a piece of writing is complete, but I’m also interested in how other writers read texts until we’re “done” with them. Are there writers who were once crucial to you, but that you don’t return to anymore, or that you view differently now? What has been most recently on your reading list? And what texts do you find yourself continually returning to? 

BP: I’ve been thinking recently about what we do when we finish reading books, how we tend to place them on bookshelves, which are usually found along the walls of a room. And so there’s this centrifugal thing that happens: we consume the books, and then they get relegated to the perimeter of our lives, in a way. I think my answer is informed by the fact that I have a pretty bad memory… I’ll read something, profoundly love it, but then once it’s on the bookshelf, it’s out of reach somehow. I’d almost prefer to keep my books scattered all over the floor, so I could just stumble over them/into them constantly. There are some books that I carry with me pretty much everywhere. Heather Christle’s The Trees The Trees has been in my backpack since it came out in 2011. Too many recent favorites to choose, but here’s a few: Eye Level by Jenny Xie; Bridled by Amy Meng; Equilibrium by Tiana Clark.

EB: Your website says that you do freelance writing work for branding agencies, and that you are working on a novel about branding. As someone who spent a few years working in the marketing and PR side of publishing, I’m fascinated by branding and am hoping you can describe that part of your writing life in a little more detail, without giving away trade secrets, of course! I also wonder if you see any overlap in developing a poetic “voice” and the idea of branding, especially in your students’ work and in the literary world. 

BP: I wish I had trade secrets to give away! I find working as a branding copywriter to be fascinating/bewildering in a bunch of ways. In terms of overlap, there’s no shortage of poets who have worked on Madison Avenue (Ogden Nash, Stephen Dunn, Matthew Dickman, many more). I’ll be honest and say that I think applying the logic of branding to poetry (or any art-making) is dangerous. David Remnick wrote this piece recently about Philip Roth where he noted how most writers experience a burst of originality early on, and then self-imitate for the rest of their careers. He’s arguing that Roth didn’t follow that model, but it still bummed me out to read. Because what is self-imitation if not the glorification of one’s own brand? It’s an awesome thing when a writer—or a student—finds their voice, so to speak. But it’s no less awesome when that same writer discovers a multiplicity of voices, even discordant ones. Art offers an escape from the tyrannical constraints of brand, this notion that everything Coca-Cola does must feel Coca-Cola. My novel tries to explore this stuff, looking at the self as a mix of artificiality and authenticity.

EB: In her blurb for your book, a poem unto itself, Brenda Shaughnessy writes about an era to come when human life may be extinct, and how this collection might reach “future and existing forms of intelligence—to let them know there was at least one beautiful/difficult, dark/brilliant side to us earthlings.” What’s your next poetry project?

BP: I’m hesitant to describe in too much detail, because the new poems are still so malleable, you know? But the ones I’ve been writing recently are born out of the kinds of anxieties Brenda is articulating. We’re living in a time of great inequality, growing scarcity. And so these new poems seek to confront—if at a slant—that urgent reality. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how the various changes imperiling our planet will change how we read. You put a rose in a poem and it’s automatically a cliché. Too many roses in poems, damnit! But what happens when there’s widespread blight or sustained drought? What happens when roses die out entirely, and then poems are the last remaining place for them to live? It’s risky to characterize any image as cliché. You never know how much longer it will appear.

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Erica Bernheim is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Mimic Sea, and of a chapbook, Between the Room and the City. She is currently Associate Professor of English at Florida Southern College, where she directs the creative writing program. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, The Missouri Review, Hobart, and Burnside Review.

Conversations with Contributors: Michael Bazzett by Peter LaBerge

BY DOYALI ISLAM

 Michael Bazzett, author of  The Interrogation  (Milkweed Editions, 2017) and   contributor to  Issue Thirteen .

Michael Bazzett, author of The Interrogation (Milkweed Editions, 2017) and contributor to Issue Thirteen.

Michael Bazzett is an NEA fellow & the author of three books of poetry: You Must Remember This, (Winner of the 2014 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry); Our Lands Are Not So Different (Horsethief Books); and The Interrogation (Milkweed Editions). His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Sun, The American Poetry Review, Tin House, and The Iowa Review, among others. His translation of the Mayan creation epic, The Popol Vuh, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. He lives in Minneapolis. You can find out more at www.michaelbazzett.com.

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On April 12th, 2018, poet Michael Bazzett and I had this conversation over Skype—him in Minneapolis, me in Toronto. We discussed his latest book, The Interrogation (Milkweed, 2017), as well as his work as a whole. The following is a transcription.

Doyali Islam: Hello! We made it!

Michael Bazzett: [Laughs] We did! I’m very impressed that I figured this out.

DI: How’s your morning going?

MB: So far so good. We’re having coffee together. I stopped at a café on my way in to work. I’m one of those bike commuter people. Are you familiar with Minneapolis at all? I’m at The Lynhall; it’s a nice place.

DI: So let’s jump in. I really enjoyed The Interrogation. It wasn’t what I expected from the title and the cover. It felt wider and more capacious, which I loved. There are so many facets to it, and I liked that you explored the idea of ‘interrogation’ in different ways.

MB: That’s neat to hear. I love the cover because it’s so arresting. And captures the idea of interrogating the self.

The cover’s actually an Alec Soth photograph, and I believe that’s his face that’s been digitized. So the photographer is photographing himself, and, of course, given the fact that it was used as a target, it all seemed to fit metaphorically. It’s striking how many people, when they first hold it, they put a finger—they reach toward the bullet holes, so there’s something tactile and almost three-dimensional about them where they want to go into the book.

I’m a huge fan of his work. My first book, You Must Remember This, has a photo from him as well, which was a project where he was trying to capture—essentially—men who go off the grid, men who disappear. So he was trying to photograph the unphotographable. And the image was just a simple knife that someone had fixed using wire. Rather than going in to buy a new one… So almost like a natural history of all of this guy’s possessions that had been retooled and fixed and rehashed... But a friend of mine said they weren’t sure it was a knife; they thought it was a whaler’s harpoon dipped in ink, and I was like, “Okay.” I definitely judge my book by its cover, if that’s the case.

I was really excited to go with Alec Soth again, but I do think the book maybe has a range. I think that there’s a masculine energy it brings, and also a kind of… I mean, there is a fair amount of brutality, and it’s looking at cruelty and violence and our capacity for that, but I think there’s also a lot of tenderness in the book.

DI: Yeah! I was just going to say that I did sort of feel the masculine energies from it, but also these lovely little moments of tenderness. That was exactly the word I was thinking about. It’s funny that you mention the debut cover with the knife, because one of my questions about this book was the recurring images of knives, in different ways.

MB: Yeah.

DI: Sometimes women are cutting carrots or cucumber, or knives are used to kill pigs. And then the poem about the light, with the wound, and the interrogation, how did this happen? The speaker’s saying, “It was the light.” I was wondering, what is your preoccupation with knives?

MB: I think, well, poems can serve as blades, yeah? And I like the fact that you’re looking at the duality; the knife’s not always an agent of violence there; it’s also used to cut bread; we don’t just tear it off in hunks with our hands. And I’m thinking a blade is something that opens up. I remember being really young when I first encountered that Emily Dickinson quote where she’s reading poetry and feels the top of her head has been taken off. And I do love when poetry does that, opens you up without surgery [laughs], and I think that duality and also humor—which is a technique I enjoy, and sometimes I’ll employ joke structures in poems that aren’t even funny— almost always has a blade in it; it’s got an edge. And so much of how the knife is used depends on… I mean, I think you can extend the metaphor: a really well-honed blade hurts less, goes deeper, can perhaps be more useful but also more deadly, and I think that idea of craft as opposed to the dull blade when you’re reading just flabby prose [laughs] doesn’t do quite as much. I’m one of those people that’s acutely aware that the surfaces of things aren’t real; they’re just the surfaces of things. So that desire to get into the depth, I think, is probably muddied a lot by… I almost think of it as ‘blade’ as opposed to ‘knife.’ Because that’s what needs to be honed and have the edge.

But it was interesting when I saw that catalogue of references. You’d run through the quotes you noticed, and I was like, “Oh my goodness; it’s strong.” I wasn’t even totally aware of the pattern.

DI: Yeah, I guess it’s sometimes easier as a reader, because one is completely new to the work.

MB: I’m still carrying around the 60-80 pages of poems that were cut, so the book still has the nimbus of that energy a little bit.

DI: I was thinking about that yesterday, because I’m working on a book of poems that comes out next year, and I’ve cut a lot of poems as well, and a lot of verses from certain poems. And I was thinking that, in the end, it’s not necessary to have certain things, because I think every poet has a different energy—almost this tangible thing that, even if certain diction doesn’t get into the text proper, I feel almost like it still carries forward from the work as a whole.

MB: It somehow maintains that energy. Like the last thing you cut, you know, it’s like the pit of the peach. You know you’re not going to eat it, but it needs to be there for the fruit to grow. And you see that concavity and that redness that’s bled into the flesh that’s often the sweetest part of the fruit. No, I completely agree with that. Poems are like little bodies. They carry energy with them.

DI: That’s beautiful. I like what you said about ‘surfaces’ just now. I can’t remember the name of the poem, but there’s a poem where you say that we are human, but we all think we’re individual…

MB: “The Fact.”

DI: That was an interesting poem for me, because I do feel that we’re all interconnected in so many ways—like our physicality, what we’re made of… We eat something, and it’s true, we do become it. But then, also, I have chronic/recurrent pain, and for me at this stage… Like, maybe there are some mindfulness techniques or something to think about pain differently or experience it differently, but I feel like that pain is mine—so, again, it’s a weird tension where we’re all connected, and yet we still have to bear these individual sufferings. So that poem made me think a lot.

MB: Yeah. Well, I think, too, of that line, “What arises from the body is irrefutable.” And the fact that I think so much of the individual agency we have in the world really is an extension of social constructs and post-enlightenment thinking where the smallest possible unit of human society became the individual. But for, what, a quarter of a million years, homo sapiens have been around, and, generally speaking, the smallest viable unit has been a family, a tribe, a collective—some gathering. At the very least, our identities have always been relational. So this is the new aberration, thinking of ourselves as these autonomous atoms and forgetting that there’s gravity, that there are forces that are always at play on us. So, it’s an idea that I’m really very fascinated with.

An editor, I think it was Melissa Crowe at Beloit Poetry Journal, said that poem was my accidental ars poetica.  And I think it’s kind of true. I wasn’t thinking about it in that way at all, because it’s kind of like Philip K. Dick-replicant Blade Runner territory. I am also fascinated with artificial intelligences—Plato’s allegory of the cave and all of that epistemological stuff, too—so if you think you’re an individual, you’re an individual, in your mind, and of course you might not be at all. It would be a great way to program clones. [Laughs]

DI: [Laughs] So how do you think that might play out in your future poetic endeavors? Do you think you might move toward collaboration, or what might it mean?

MB: That’s a good question. These first three books, they feel like siblings to me. And they’re of a piece. I was 48 when my first book came out, so I’d been writing solidly and seriously for more than two decades. And Our Lands Are Not So Different is very much the companion book to You Must Remember This. But The Interrogation contains the poems that were made in the flush of those books landing in the world and my seeing a poetry audience for the first time, and realizing that it was this animal that actually exists; it’s not one of Borges’s imaginary creatures. And also hearing responses. Because I do have a storytelling bent, and I will use humor. I was kind of writing on my own. I didn’t get an MFA. I didn’t really have a community. So my first reading in Minneapolis at the book launch was one of the first poetry readings I’d ever done in my life, so I’d truly never met eyes with a poetry audience. And I didn’t go to a lot: I’m a high school teacher. I’m busy. I’ve got a full-time job. I have two young children.

DI: Yeah, you have a family!

MB: Yeah. When Seamus Heaney was in town I would go see him, but it often took someone of that stature to kind of penetrate the stupor, the busyness of having kids. Now I’m suddenly at this point where I’m like, “What’s next?”—but in a good way. It seems plausible that there will be another book. I’m intrigued by the idea of collaboration, but I also just finished a translation project that was really ten years in the making: The Popul Vuh is the Mayan creation epic. It was a book-length project. It’s gonna be coming out in September from Milkweed as well. I’m really fascinated with mythology.

I don’t know why, but I’ve been doing a ton of re-tellings and refractions of the myth of Echo and Narcissus which seems to me just perfect for 20th century late-stage capitalist culture. But I think I’m gonna just take my time with that. I have that kind of restlessness… that all my poems don’t sound the same. And letting something be polyphonic, where I can be inside Echo’s voice and inside Narcissus’s voice. I think it would be very fascinating to tell that story in a 21st century context, so we’ll see.

DI: I really look forward to hearing more about how that progresses! It sounds great.

MB: I look forward to reading your book, too!

DI: Thank you. I’ve been working on it since 2010, so it’s been a long time, and I feel like I’ve been very patient with it—letting it unfold slowly, and I’m okay with that.

You mentioned your family, which reminds me of that poem, “The Meat of It.” [Laughs]

MB: [Laughs]

DI: Because you mention—or, the speaker mentions a son, and so I don’t want to assume that that exact moment happened in real life, but it was such a great poem for the humor and metadiscursive aspects of it, and also it made me kind of hungry. [Laughs] This is such a random question, but what’s the best burger you’ve ever eaten?

MB: I love that question and, I think, coming up in the context of the poem it makes me think of a moment I had with my son, almost ten years ago now. We were playing pond hockey on a Saturday afternoon. He was very young—probably six or seven. It was about the first time he could go out and be in the mix and not get run over, you know. And we ran into some folks who were very good, including a couple of Swedish women. I don’t know who they were. They were speaking Swedish, and they were ridiculously skilled players, and they had Bruno, my son, on their team and they kind of adopted him. They kept setting him up for these beautiful tap-in goals. It was this amazing moment for him as a little boy. And afterward, we kind of had that glow, and I said, “Let’s go get a burger.” I took him to a place in Minneapolis called Matt’s, which is really kind of a dive bar, not really where you take a six, seven year-old boy. But they make a burger called the “Jucy Lucy,” where it’s two patties, and they put American cheese on the inside, and then they crimp the edges. So the cheese is melted on the inside of the burger—

DI: Yum.

MB:—and there’s a griddle that I don’t know has ever been properly cleaned in the last 40 years, with that kind of accumulation of chopped onions… And you have to be careful when you bite into the burger, ‘cause it’s this molten experience. It is a great burger, but the look on his face—[laughs]—was remarkable. They don’t even have dishes. They serve it in a basket of wax paper, and if you order a drink, you get a can of root beer, you know. It’s a kind of dive-y place. It just comes with onions on it, and it’s got the cheese on the inside of it. There’s no frills, but it’s a remarkable burger. It was a nice kind of almost-accidental ending to a perfect day.

DI: Oh, that’s lovely. I think soda always tastes better straight from the can. I don’t know why. It’s like a weird—

MB: Yeah. Well, he was pretty excited about it.

DI: [Laughs] That grill is well-seasoned. [Laughs]

MB: [Laughs] Exactly. Seasoned. That’s such a lovely word. [Laughs] Or, hasn’t been properly cleaned. [Laughs]

DI: [Laughs] Trust a poet to have all of the euphemisms.

What else shall we talk about? What do you wish somebody would ask you in an interview that you’ve never been asked? Is there something that always seems missing that you’re sort of hoping an interview approaches?

MB: Well, I think you touched upon it with the cover, and maybe it’s… I just feel there’s poems in the collection that I felt quite vulnerable about, in terms of how they take risks with points of view. A poem like “They,” for instance, that is thinking of whiteness as absence or being drained. Or “Miles,” where the speaker is kind of inside this—not liberal guilt exactly, but it’s in that voice, where it’s like, “Oh I get to meet Miles Davis,” sort of missing the entire racial context. Or “On the Subway,” where there’s this voice that’s using a sort of humor, but what’s happening is creepy. You’re giving something to someone that they don’t want, which made me re-think that poem a little bit in the context of #MeToo. But I think the reality of the book is that it’s polyphonic enough that that element, generally speaking, people don’t comment on. It doesn’t come out.

One of the main things the book is interrogating is a certain version of masculinity that I grew up inside. Someone who is straight, who is white—that cis-gendered football-playing poster boy for privilege, in some respects. And I think the ways in which poetry is trying to address and question and sometimes dismantle that, to me, right now, in the poetics of the 21st century, is really intriguing.

Many people are confronting this idea of how we—I’m almost tempted to use the word ‘perform’—perform race. We assert and recognize race as a social construct, sure. But it’s also profoundly real, with profoundly real consequences—i.e., that assertion doesn’t undercut it. And in some demographics, in the zeitgeist—you see white people becoming aware of the fact that they’re performing race, too; they’re not the default. But it’s a slowly creeping, quiet thing, and some of the poems inhabit voices or explore liminal spaces where those ideas are stirring…. That was kind of a wayward answer, but does that make sense?

DI: Yeah, for sure. It’s reminding me of two things: first, your e-mail comment. We were talking about how the book went missing—[laughs]—twice in transit, and you said something like, “The border is a construct,” or, “Borders are constructs, but they’re also a pain in the ass because the construct does have real effects on bodies and whole communities.” But the other thing I was thinking of was, I always think it’s so funny how, in an interview situation, it always seems the burden of a person of color to talk about oppression—

MB: Right.

DI:—and how their ‘heritage’ has affected their writing.

MB: [Laughs] Yeah, and if you’re writing a poem about gardening, everyone’s like, “When’s the rest of it going to arrive?” and you’re like, “No, I’m writing a poem about gardening.”

DI: [Laughs] Right. And you’re always, I feel, called upon to talk about race and other things, and I always think, maybe able-bodied, white, cis-gendered men don’t get asked these questions. So that’s an interesting dynamic. It’s like, I don’t think the interviewers should be asking me; I think the questions should go somewhere else.

MB: I think that’s well-said. In a way, your question’s saying, what’s the absence in the book? It’s not like that’s necessarily the predominant thread in the book, but it’s certainly present, and I think once it’s pointed out, people are like, “Oh yeah, I see it there.” But they see the funny stuff, or they see the human cruelty and brutality… They see the themes that are present in the book that almost always come up. Surrealism comes up every time. I mean, obviously, that’s one of my defaults.

DI: I was wondering if maybe we could turn there, just to go back to the poem “Rain” and to your use of surrealism. What I love about “Rain” is, first, the music. It’s almost intuitive the way I read a poem. Even if I’m not reading it aloud, which usually I do, I can instantly hear when there’s music there. It always feels like a current that’s pulling me under the surface of the text, and in “Rain” I really feel that prominently. And the imagery is beautiful. There is such a gentleness in that poem, and then its audacious ending, “like a lover”—I was like, “Whoa, who does that?!” [Laughs] 

MB: [Laughs]

DI: Could you talk a bit about why you use surrealism? Was it conscious, or did you start to do it and then sort of interrogate the turn toward it?

MB: It was integral to me finding my voice as a poet. Because I think everyone is profoundly a weirdo. It’s that paradox that unites us all, because we’re so utterly our own weirdos. Yet the world will assign that much more readily to some people than to others. I think that notion of the inner weird, of carrying that around inside… The way we experience the world is so utterly internal. And it’s filtered almost immediately through all sorts of lenses, but also the imagination. So for me, surrealism is a way toward honesty. The way some of Russell Edson’s fables sometimes read like beautiful little dreams that reveal something very profound—about family or gender or about suburban life in late 20th century America—that well-observed lyric poems couldn’t achieve.

I think my poems didn’t fully start to sound like me until they became weird. And my imagination is a huge part of how I experience and interpret the world. And so then you take a poem like “Rain,” where the rhyme became internal and the music’s there, because it had a different line length…

A lot of my poems I will write formally and then they shift, or, I loved how you said ‘a current that pulls you under,’ because that’s what happens with a lot of my poems. I don’t feel fully comfortable with the formal chops, or I’ll run into some kind of issue with prosody and I feel like I can’t solve it, so I’ll let the poem melt out of that form, but it will hold the husk of it. And with that one, I think it’s still quite strong where the rhyme starts to be a little syncopated as opposed to regular.

So on the one hand, I am sometimes really driven by music and sound, but then there’s that pull toward the one weird element that gets to the truth. ‘Cause once I find that, I usually tell everything very straight. French surrealism will sometimes lose me, because it’s so out there. It’s so out there. It’s so anarchic. I think I still probably have a bit of faith in language to convey a story and to build bridges between people, and I understand how power and authority intersect with that, but that’s just me being an artist looking at poetry almost as a form of prayer among people, not to any sort of divine.

DI: That’s beautiful.

MB: [Laughs] Oh, it was your question! [Laughs]

DI: [Laughs] This is so great; I’m having such a lovely time talking with you.

MB: I’ve not done a ton of interviews face to face. It’s so nice. It’s better—as opposed to me just staring at questions and generating a paragraph for each one, which feels perilously close to writing an essay; it’s like someone’s tricked you into writing an essay. [Laughs]

DI: For sure. Well, I’ve been thinking more and more about the times we’re living in, and how it’s more urgent for us to figure out how to come together in various ways, and I just think that being together and, like, being in somebody’s presence as fully as you can be, is important—so Skype if we’re not in the same city, but you know, trying to get out, and being together with humans. There’s something deeply nourishing and… I want to say it’s an act of resistance, I guess. Like, the most basic kind. [Laughs]

MB: Yeah, yeah.

DI: What else…? You mentioned that you feel like your books are all siblings to one another.

MB: The first three? Yeah.

DI: So I had asked you, do you perceive each of your books as a kind of person that you encounter every time you pick that book up? And are you still happy with your debut? I know a lot of authors ‘get over’ their debut—[laughs]—maybe within a year. They’re just over it; they want to move on to the next thing. So how do you feel about all of these works?

MB: I love the idea of the book as a person. You know, when I think of books that I return to again and again, it’s like they’re old friends. Szymborska’s View with a Grain of Sand, or The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic, or Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, or Lucille Clifton’s Selected Poems

DI: Book of Light?!

MB: Yeah… Where you can just go into it like, “[sigh of relief] I’m home.” It’s like those friends you get back together with and you don’t catch up with them in the interim, and you’re immediately talking about the light coming through the window, and what’s happened. You’re just present. You’re in the now. And then there are those books that could be really marvelous, and you’re in the moment, and then sometimes they’ll evaporate for a while, and it takes you a long time to rediscover them.

There are times when you’re in conversation with somebody, and it’s just marvelous. It’s magic, and it is the light through the window, and the coffee you’re drinking, and there’s Thelonious Monk in the background, and it’s all kind of perfect. And then there are other times when you’ve got a slight headache from looking at a screen too long, you pick the book up, something’s pulsing behind your left eye. It’s the same poem. [Laughs] I like that way of thinking about it.

I’m lucky. I didn’t feel this way at the time, but not having a book come out until you’re 48, I think helps. If I had what I had thought was my first book come out so long ago, I might feel a little estranged from it. There’s still some proximity, because it only was, what, four years ago, but, honestly, I feel gratitude and a lot of affection [laughs], you know, for the fact that this was the little book that finally broke through somehow, and connected with Kevin Prufer as a judge, and suddenly I was a writer. It was coming out. It had won [the Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry]. And it was interesting because my wife assembled the manuscript.

DI: Leslie?

MB: Yes. she’s really a partner in all these endeavors. It’s a funny story, but I guess we’ve got time.

DI: Yeah! Please.

MB: I’d been a finalist the year before; it was the only time I’d ever been a finalist for anything, and the prize at that time—this is no longer true—demanded exclusivity. And the majority of what eventually became Our Lands Are Not So Different had been a finalist before. So I had submitted it to like 8 or 10 places, which is you know, that’s like $250-300 in submission fees and 6-8 months of waiting, sometimes.

DI: Yep. [Laughs]

MB: So, the deadline rolled around for the Lindquist & Vennum Prize, and I wanted to act with integrity. They’d been good to me, I’d come close. I had about 200 pages either that were new or that I felt were good… And she offered to do it—she took some of those favorite collections and read them and said, “Okay, I’ll put together a book for you.”

DI: Wow!

MB: She came up with the title, You Must Remember This. It actually came out of a conversation we had a couple of days prior, when... I’d been reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go with my students, and I just said [to her], “You know, it occurred to me today in class that the opposite—the etymological opposite—of the word remember is dis-member. It’s not forget. So when we’re remembering something, we assemble it; we’re making it whole again.” It just made the word more tactile.

It was one of those cool things where you realize there’s this profound truth inside a word you’ve said 10,000 times, and you’re hearing it for the first time. It was the convergence of that little moment of us having a drink in the evening and me sharing a little anecdote, and then she did: she put the book together. She sectioned it, she ordered it, and that’s the manuscript I took literally through the snow to deliver to Milkweed by hand, you know, on the day that it was due. She included poems in there that I felt really vulnerable about or that I hadn’t submitted. I’d put them in there because I’d somewhat wanted to make her laugh, or—I don’t know. She was my only audience.

DI: Wow…

MB: And so my first emotion was utter delight—but my second one was kind of terror, like, “Oh my god, I’m being honest, and this is what’s going to go into the world.” [Laughs]

DI: I totally understand that.

MB: I think there was a profound lesson in it, though, that you have to go to that place, even if it frightens you.

DI: Yeah, I’m at that place now, ‘cause I’ve started writing about my body and chronic pain and just… My first book, which was in 2011, was a little too ethereal and not grounded enough, and this one is so much more personal, and it’s very scary, because basically every night I go to sleep thinking, “Oh my god, this is what’s going to go out into the world, and you can’t take it back; it’s irretrievable at that point,” but I have to do it, so I just block it out and I’m like, “These poems are meant to go in this direction.” So yeah. That’s wonderful.

MB: Yeah, yeah. And when you’re really following the work, it is a little scary. I always have this idea of, like, you know, seeing footprints in the snow. You don’t quite know what it is. You see the tracks of something you don’t fully recognize. Those are good poems.

DI: Yeah. It’s funny, with this manuscript I’m doing now, I feel like… I don’t know if you felt like this, but, I felt like the manuscript, up until recently, was within my control, and that I could see almost the whole of it as like a broad cloth or something that I could hold up, and now it almost feels like it’s passed beyond, um, my… I don’t know… My sense of it as a whole. Like it’s become so large it’s impossible to hold it all in my mind. And I like that. I’ve never had that before. I wonder if you experienced that with your manuscript.

MB: That’s a good question, but I almost feel like, in some ways, because Leslie writes fiction—she’s a novelist—so she’s got that gift of seeing the big narrative arc and holding it together, so I’m really blessed to be in the partnership. It’s a fantasy to bring 200 pages to someone, and then they hand you a book 3 days later, like, “Oh! Here it is.” I have folders that are usually titled with preoccupations; I don’t really compose books, per se, and that was really true of the first one. This new project—the Echo and Narcissus thing—might look different because it has a narrative shape already, but often when I read books—especially initially—I start in the middle. I move around. I must be a little maddening, because people spend all this time ordering to get this beautiful narrative arc. It is a box of chocolates, and if I’ve read seven or eight and say these are all really good, then I’ll sometimes go back and say, “Okay, I’m gonna read the book, you know, and see them in their context, in their natural habitat.” I’m that same way with journals when I’m composing.

DI: Oh!

MB: Someone will give me a beautiful bound journal, and I start writing in the middle and the back and sometimes it’s upside down. I just am not a linear person in that sense. And I think it’s one of the reasons I gravitate toward poetry. So for me, I write poems more than books. But I think people being who they are, you’re still always probably writing books. You just sort of gather them.

DI: The word ‘preoccupation’ made me think of my first question [when I formed them], about truth and the limits of knowing. What do you teach in high school?

MB: Eleventh- to twelfth-grade English. The kids are 16, 17, 18 years old.

DI: Uh-huh… I was just thinking back to my favorite class in high school, which was a Philosophy class, and how we talked about metaphysics, epistemology… But I was wondering about these wonderful lines like, “Scent / cannot lie” in the poem “Lazarus,” or “It was the first handshake of my life / that did not feel contrived” in the poem “Confessions.” And so, how do you think these preoccupations began? Maybe that’s a hard question, I don’t know!

MB: That’s a good one. I mean I think some of it is an awareness of one of my favorite ways to access the world. I was a big reader as a kid. The illusions contained truth. That right there is already a riddle, right? Sitting in the cool of my basement on a hot summer day, completely lost in another world… I read pretty widely and idiosyncratically: the magazines that my parents had, a lot of science fiction. I was a big Ray Bradbury fan. I remember finding all of these late Leo Tolstoy fables that he wrote after he renounced the aristocracy and went back to the land. Robinson Crusoe. It totally took off the top of my head. I read whatever was around. Reader’s Digest books. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan. It’s unbelievable how racist that book is, but it’s something I didn’t see at the time, because I was inside of reading these amazing adventure stories.

All the reading created this buried awareness that you make stuff up and put it in a story and that’s somehow going to access deeper things. And then, there’s the fact that I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic schools for twelve years. The Nicene Creed, “All things seen and unseen”—you have an entire religion based on the idea that what you see is not what you get. You know, the real world is beyond this one. That’s just the price of admission. If the real world is beyond this one, you’ve got to get good at looking. [Laughs]

DI: [Laughs]

MB: I think that leads me to that place that you’re talking about, all those epistemological moments—whether it’s The Matrix or the Allegory of the Cave or The Tempest—that’s just the same story in different clothing, you know, again and again. And it’s a story that I like, just because there’s that sense of being always at the limits of our knowledge, right? We’re always like, “We know now more than we ever have.” That’s the human condition. That was the truth 20,000 years ago. The fact of what really matters is probably just beyond the horizon—I mean, in 300 years, god knows what people will be, but I’m sure there will be a lot that we look back upon and realize how wrong we were.

DI: This is a terrible analogy, but it makes me think of shampoo commercials—

MB: [Laughs]

DI:—or, you know, like skin-care products. They’re always, like, “New and improved!” And you’re like, “So you were trying to sell me the crappier version, and now you’re telling me this is the one.” Anyway, I sometimes think about scientific knowledge like that.

MB: [Laughs]

DI: You mentioned a lot of authors. One was Lucille Clifton. For me, if I had to choose one poem only that I could only live with forever and remember forever, it would be Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me,” and I wonder if you have one. If you had to only keep one poem.

MB: It’s funny, I just re-read that poem a few days ago and pulled out that chunk about the bridge, that section…

DI: “starshine and clay”

MB: Yeah… That one would be in my top ten.

I grew up in Rochester, Minnesota. As an undergrad, I went to Carleton College, and I encountered “A Blessing” by James Wright in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, and he name-checks Rochester, Minnesota in the first line. I didn’t know you could be a poet from there. And that ending, “I would break / into blossom,” I think I may have re-written that poem in different ways for, like, the first ten years of being a poet, again and again and again. That would be a big one for me.

DI: I don’t know that poem!

MB: “A Blessing.” James Wright.

DI: I’ll have to look it up.

MB: That would be a big one for me. And probably closest to my poetic heart. Well, I have a picture of Wislawa Szymborska on the buffet in my house, and another of Saramago—kind of in the hopes that people will mistake them for my grandparents—[Laughs]

DI: [Laughs]

MB: Saramago, I just loved his novels. I think I’ve started off every summer—and you know how important summers are to teachers—maybe for the last ten or 11 years reading a Saramago novel in my hammock. And Szymborska, it would be very very hard to bring it down to one poem, but I’m tempted to say “The People on the Bridge.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with that?

DI: No.

MB: It’s an ekphrastic poem where she’s looking at a wood carving by Hiroshige Utagawa from 19th century Japan, and it’s got this framing device, where this person is looking at other people looking at this painting. And as they’re looking at it, there’s this sudden downpour. All the laws of physics have been broken. Time has been stopped. They’re actually feeling raindrops, even though they’re in a museum. It captures a lot of what we’ve been talking about in all of 30 lines. The whole body of her work—her sardonic sense of humor, the fact that she had such a twinkle in her eye when you think about what it means to live in Poland during her lifetime. What she saw, what she lived. And the persistence and endurance and liveliness. Her work just seems so deeply human to me.

And I think her approach appealed to me as a mid-westerner. You know, Minnesota… Wisconsin… the Dakotas... where it’s not ‘the’ mid-west; it’s more of this northern thing—particularly in Minnesota, there’s this Scandinavian reticence. There’s a lot more implied than is ever said. So the late 20th century Cold War poets…The Polish poets, folks like Simic—I get them completely. You can’t say it straight. It has to be buried, or come out sideways. So in a weird way, I feel very at home in that aesthetic. When I discovered those poems, I was like, “I’m home,” which is weird, but, you know, it just shows what poems can do.

DI: For sure. Yeah. I forget where I was reading it—it might have been another interview—but you mentioned Zbigniew Herbert, and I love his work. In Against Forgetting, there’s a beautiful poem called “The Wall.” (It’s very short.) And I love how he works with time in the poem, and it’s such an enduring poem. And so I think I understand what you mean about feeling at home, even though you’re crossing cultures and time. I don’t know… I mean, I guess we can’t think—I won’t go there. Never mind. [Laughs]

MB: Yeah this could crack wide open. [Laughs]

DI: [Laughs] Yeah. …Okay, checking the time. We have ten minutes. Do your children write poetry? Are they drawn toward any artistic discipline?

MB: No, not in an extended way, although I think they both have their own lovely relationship with language. My oldest, definitely, has written some poetry and gravitates toward, really, like, Victorian, Lord Byron-type stuff. And my youngest, he just turned 15, so writing, with him, right now, is very much associated with schoolwork, yet when he has a chance to… I’m trying to think… They were doing a poetry thing a year or two ago. I remember he came home and told me he referred to fire as “the Devil’s shag carpeting,” and I was like, “Oh, that’s pretty good,” and was delighted that he felt like he wanted to share that with me. But they’re both creative in their own ways. I think given that my wife, too, is a writer—that’s a lot of people scribbling and staring at screens and talking about books in our house. [Laughs] It’s sunk into them somehow. The meat always takes on the flavor of the marinade. [Laughs]

DI: Did any of your ancestors write? Do you have anyone in your lineage?

MB: My grandmother was an English teacher. My father was one of six kids, so she was only an English teacher for a year or two. Because she married my grandfather, and they had this enormous family—a good share of it was on a farm on upstate Michigan in a small town. But one of my father’s brothers began writing when he retired. Three or four novels by now. Yet it was always kind of post-retirement. So there are inklings of it, but I think, for the most part, there was, I guess, a sense of work getting in the way. Does that make sense?

DI: Yeah. For sure.

MB: Yeah. Like, “Oh, well, that would be nice, but I have to go, you know, hoe beans,” or whatever. What I do come from, though, is big readers: all of my uncles and aunts, my mom and dad. The fact that there were just books littering the house… Saul Bellow has this quote that I love: “the writer is a reader who is moved to emulation,” and I love that. The river’s always flowing, the current just changes direction. So I think if you really raise someone who’s reading—especially in the non-distracted way—to sit down with a book and have that feeling of looking up when the sun is setting, and it feels as if you’ve been hit by a frying pan and you forgot you had a body, and you’re like, “How did it become 5:30?” That, I think is a gift.

DI: That’s beautiful. I liked how you said [in your e-mail] that you don’t have a cell phone. I was like, “You’re so cool!” [Laughs]

MB: [Laughs] For a long time people didn’t think that was cool. It’s started to come out the other end now. It’s not really as much as an ideological move as I was just lazy. [Laughs]

DI: [Laughs]

MB: I was a late adopter. Like, “Oh, I have a landline. It works!” My teaching persona and working at school takes a lot of work and energy. So I’m kind of a closet introvert, you know, in the sense that there are times when it’s nice not to be reached.

DI: Oh, yeah!

MB: I have two teenagers. I do have an iPod, so I get on the wi-fi and I can text them, you know, but I only have three contacts: it’s my wife and my two kids. [Laughs]

I bike pretty much year-round. In Minnesota that means a lot of snow biking, winter biking. It’s certainly better than taking the bus. From the outside, this stuff can look sort of ideological, but so much of it is accidental, organic. It’s what happens. But I’m very happy not to have a phone now.

DI: I’m thinking about how I always turn my phone on silent when I’m working on poems. It’s just so intrusive to have something pinging. I’m glad we managed to Skype successfully.

MB: Yeah, this was very fun! I enjoyed the conversation immensely. It felt really organic and easy. Your questions were wonderful. You’re so thoughtful. You’ve clearly given the book such a generous reading. I was just happy to hand myself over to them.

DI: Well, have a wonderful day!

MB: Thanks again for the lovely questions and the kind, generous reading, and I’ll hope for our paths to meet finally in the flesh, and then I can buy you a cup of coffee. [Laughs]

DI: [Laughs] That would be cool. Maybe I’ll make it to Minnesota one day.

MB: [Laughs] Well, it was very nice to meet you.

DI: You too! Take care. Bye!

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Doyali Islam’s second poetry book is heft (McClelland & Stewart, 2019). Poems from this collection can be found in Kenyon Review Online; CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition; and The Best Canadian Poetry in English: 2018. Doyali is an award-winning poet, a 2017 National Magazine Award finalist, a Chalmers Arts Fellow, and the poetry editor of Arc Poetry Magazine. She lives in Toronto, Canada. Hear some poems at www.doyalifarahislam.com.

Conversations with Contributors: Katie Willingham by Peter LaBerge

BY MARLIN M. JENKINS

 Katie Willingham, author of  Unlikely Designs  (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and contributor to  Issue Nineteen .

Katie Willingham, author of Unlikely Designs (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and contributor to Issue Nineteen.

Katie Willingham is the author of Unlikely Designs (University of Chicago Press, 2017). She earned her MFA at the Helen Zell Writers Program, where she was the recipient of a Hopwood Award in Poetry, a Theodore Roethke Prize, and a Nicholas Delbanco Thesis Prize. You can find her poems in such journals as The Kenyon Review, Bennington Review, Poem-a-Day, Third Coast, West Branch, Grist, and others. She has taught both composition and creative writing at the University of Michigan. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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During our overlapping time at University of Michigan’s MFA program, Katie Willingham and I had many ongoing conversations about  poetry and literary citizenship. I was excited for us to build on those conversations for this interview, which we conducted when she came back to Ann Arbor following the publication of her debut book.

Marlin Jenkins: Before we really jump in to talk specifically about your book, I want to start a little bit outside of it, and then we can funnel in. I just want to ask about the things that are bringing you joy recently; or, what things are you fascinated with—what is Katie Willingham thinking about?

Katie Willingham: I really like that you're starting our focus around joy. There is a lot of humor in this book, and I think humor is related to joy. It's often about finding joy where it doesn't belong and how that's where the laughter happens. Lately where I've been finding joy is—I've been getting back into reading plays, and that's been bringing me joy. I actually think theatre is more related to poetry than I've previously thought, but I routinely keep plays on my thought shelf, which is where I keep all the books that I'm currently thinking about. And I kind of think about my writing as, like, if I could channel my entire thought shelf at once, that would bring me the most poetic joy. I don't know if that's ever possible, but that's how I think about it.

MJ: Tell me more about the thought shelf. What else is on it?

KW: There's always poetry on it, and often they’re books that surprised me. So I might read a book that's really beautiful, but it won't make it onto my thought shelf unless I'm, like, I don't know how you made this and I want to keep learning and write into that space—write into the space of discovering for myself how that thing happens. I think that's why other genres make it onto the shelf a lot, although rarely fiction. Often, there’s nonfiction theory, which I think could be close to poetry, the way theory uses language and turns it over and tries to define and find terms for things feels very related. With the plays it's more about simultaneity; I'm really interested in simultaneity. And, oh! Angels in America! I always have Angels in America on my shelf! Because of the way it has multiple scenes happening at once (which if you watch the film, FYI, it doesn't exist that way, ‘cause that looks really silly on camera: to have simultaneous scenes next to each other). But on stage many things are actually happening simultaneously, and that has a really different effect.

MJ: I think that gets us thinking about genre, but I think genre is a very loaded term, so maybe a better way to think about it—to funnel it—is medium. It's interesting to me that you mentioned theatre and poetry as closely related, and you also mentioned learning and discovery. I think your book is very much making the argument that learning and discovery are present in poetry, in the way that you explore it—but then also through science, through technology, through various forms of logic. Can you talk a little bit more about those relationships?

KW: Yes! So, I have no idea if this book does this, but what I care about in poetry are poems and books that answer “Why poetry?” Like, “Why is this a poem?” And that's when I think about genre and medium. Like, “Why is this a painting?” And, “How is it doing what it's doing because of that medium?” And I do think poetry thinks differently from other genres. It moves differently and, because of that, it has a different mode of discovery, and I think that you can find different things by writing poems than you can by writing fiction. A part of that reasoning exists, because if you don't have a “plot” in the same way, then you have different things, right? You have different things that are recurring or circulating or creating a thread or a line that's leading you somewhere.

MJ: That idea of being led somewhere is really interesting, too, because it seems like your collection is very invested in forward movement. We have this idea of the past coming into the present, we're thinking about evolution, we're thinking about technology—both inherently have that forward movement. And if I can pull a couple of quick quotes: the first poem “Terrifying Robot Update,” for example, ends with with, “again and again the sound like plastic gears clicking forward forward.” A moment I think resonated, too, was just a few pages later in the poem “Eight Years Ago,” in which you write, “and the search is ongoing.” It seems like this collection is really invested in setting us up to think that way. Can you talk to us more about that process and those themes?

KW: Yeah! This is definitely a book that's interested in time because it's really interested in preservation. I actually spent a lot of time thinking that it can be somewhat oriented towards the past, that it's about picking stuff up that's already there and bringing it into the present. Like, “What is it you want to hold onto?” But another way of thinking about that is actually to think about it as an investment in the future. What will you want to have? What will you want to be thinking about or have written down? That forward motion seems important to that, but it also becomes really interested in our failure to recognize what that future will look like, what it will bring. That we could ever finish the process of deactivating landmines, or that we could ever finish the process of un-doing violence, or that we could ever finish knowing—that we could ever have complete knowledge of what we would have wanted to save—I think the book is interested in these unimaginable futures.

MJ: I think it's really interesting that the further the book gets into those futures, especially in that last numbered section, we’re introduced to a lot of artifacts. I want to ask about the process of research for the book. As you said, you’re very interested in theory, but then also we’re also given a lot of news references, like current events, and speculation as to whether those things are present or in the past and being brought into the present. What's that process of research like for you?

KW: I love research, although I didn't go seeking for many of the things I included in the book. I saved them at various times and then returned to them—they came up again, and then I re-read them in the process of writing. But at the time that I was writing this…. We're concerned with all sorts of other fears now than we were, but the huge thing in the media at the time that I was writing the book was that technology is going to ruin us. And I think now the vibe is like, technology has ruined us. And at the time it seemed like a lively discussion of inquiry around science and technology, and I wanted to bring us back to the fact that we've generated all of it. If technology destroys us, it will be we who destroyed us; it won't be that technology destroyed us. And what I wanted was to bring that humanness back to technology.

MJ: I think that human element really speaks to the way that you have a real relationship with the figures in this book. Most present, we have Darwin—not only as a scientist, or as a theorist, we have Darwin as keeper of journals and as somebody with whom you're interacting, with his personhood. I think your process also resonates in your poem “Honey Locust.” I believe you’re quoting Brian Nash Gil when you write, “‘I find a lot of materials by accident.’” I love that we have these parallels within the book, seeing your process mirrored. Does that feel accurate to the process of writing about these figures?

KW: I found myself quoting a lot because someone said something that was a spark for me, and instead of trying to translate that, I just offered it and moved on. Sometimes there's a tension, there are things that are conflicts in the book. Like, the Pac-Man poem was sparked by a conflict. It was inspired by a lecture by Jonathan Blow, the video game designer. Offhandedly, in a lecture, he made this comment that Pac-man has nothing to do with the human condition, and I was like, “Challenge accepted! I will write that poem!”

Another example is “Correction: Tonight is Not the Longest Night in History of Earth.” Frank O'Hara is kind of mis-quoted there because Frank O'Hara insisted pain doesn't produce logic, that it produces something else. And I was like, No. Pain of course produces logic. It produces discussions of causality, and it seemed so clear to me that the opposite of what he said was true.

And with Darwin, I really felt connected to the opposite of his success story: he is remembered as kind of a scientific hero, and he spent a lot of time ill, and he spent a lot of time struggling, and he also spent a lot of time bored on a boat sailing around with, you know, a terrible diet, probably. I’m interested in bringing that humanness to his (and others’) stories and exploring the record for sentiment.

MJ: I want to talk more about that idea of pain producing logic. It feels like your book is making an argument against logic as this singular, monolithic idea. And instead, it seems like there are logics, plural. In the poem “Dear Charlie” you write, “Forgive me sir unlike evolution / I find I prioritize symbolic logic / over functionality.” Can you talk more about what that means to you, what you feel about symbolic logic?

KW: I think it relates to how we were discussing genre—like, “Why poetry?” It's a way of answering that question for me. What is offered? What can you learn? What is the discovery process that takes place when you offer some other method or path? The scientific method is a method. It’s not the only method or way of being, and I think poems are extremely flexible in that way. They offer a lot of methods, a lot of logics. But also, it's something I struggled with in making this book, getting the right tension around logic. Logic is also tied up in rhetoric, and there are ways that a sentence can sound really logical without having a lot of content going for it. Or you can feel really against something and still get caught up in the syntactic logic. I was really interested in that and in producing that feeling that the rhetoric or logic has gotten ahead or away—you've somehow leaped, and it's like, “How did I get here? Where’s the logic? The logic is gone.” And it’s kind of pulling the rug out from under that, as well, and saying, “This is symbolic. This is artifice.” We're already functioning in this space all the time, and if we're already in that space, what else can we do when we make it visible?

MJ: I can’t help but think about the relationship between creative work and composition. Many of us who have gone through the whole MFA thing have been required to teach freshman composition. You were hired by the University of Michigan to teach after your fellowship year, as well. Can you talk about the relationship between teaching composition and writing creative work?

KW: One thing I can say about teaching creative writing is that I wanted to bring in that idea of argument, and maybe returning to composition was a given, in that I didn't have to put pressure on my students. But I did prioritize questions over statements or claims in a way that was not only unusual for my students entering college but is also unusual for many teaching composition. The questions are sort of at this early stage of the process, and I encourage my students to stay there and live there and refine their questions and move towards inquiry, as opposed to figuring out just enough to make a claim. That's not the only way to process something; the scientific method, again, works with claims: you make a claim, and then you figure out if your claim is right. That's actually a thesis-driven method. But that's not the only way, and I really wanted to offer a different way of processing, and that, I think, is really alive and well in this book, in these poems, because there's kind of a chain effect. A lot of the poems seemed to leap, but there's these little links that tie everything together and create that movement. We did that a lot in my composition classroom. I often insisted on the transitions between paragraphs or ideas, and I weighted that really heavily compared to, maybe, the organization of a whole essay and where it might go or where it might lead. Instead, it's like, “Just show me how you get from place to place.”

MJ: That makes me think of the way that you chose to end the book. In the last poem we have, “the sound / like stroking for backwards against the eagerness of all things / to dissolve to cohere.” Can you talk a little bit about that relationship between dissolving and cohering?

KW: First of all, “cohere” is a really weird word. It's one of those words that works like “scan.” When you scan something, you can read it really carefully or you can kind of rush through and pull out the main parts, so it means both things: it means the opposite of itself. Cohere works that way too, because even though it means to collect, that could mean to create boundaries and separate from something, or it could mean to cohere and stick and become part of something. It works both ways, and I really wanted that sense of double-ness at the end. That felt very right for me. This wasn't always the last poem in the book, though; I should say that too. Once I imagined it as the end, it made sense for me because of that double-ness.

MJ: One thing that we've talked about before is how you felt like a lot of the poems in your book gained momentum in their timeliness: when they were written or when they were originally published they meant something different than what they meant by the time they made it into this book, considering current events.

KW: There's a poem in the book about smallpox literally discovered in a warehouse in Maryland. There was a box of vials in this back office, and it's like, “Oh! It's smallpox! Oops!” And there was a big discussion in this side article, very low on the list on, like, BBC News (I read a lot of BBC News because it puts weird things in conversation—if you want to have the experience of weird things in conversation with each other, BBC news is your media outlet). Back to the smallpox—the United States has refused to destroy its smallpox, even though (and I put a note about this in the back of the book because I think it's important) the World Health Organization did a study and determined that there's no reason to keep smallpox for vaccine purposes. But the United States and Russia have not destroyed theirs. And, of course, now there's a lot more discussion about Russia, and that mood feels very different, right? Like, the only reason to keep these things is biological warfare. That seems pretty obvious, but now it seems pressing and not just in the background.

MJ: Especially because a lot of the material in this book is very heavy, even though the book is very interested in humor, and is very interested in kind of a sense of the personal as well as the macro, big picture: how do you practice self-care within doing the work?

KW: Scale is really important to this book and my future book. I don’t think that we're ever going to deal with climate change, first of all, unless we can figure out how it feels. How does climate change feel for you? That seems impossible to answer without poetry to me. So I'm trying to do that in poetry, in that poetry acts as its own method of self-care in that way.

But I think, too, you have to live in stuff that's really hard, and how do you leave those spaces? What do I do? I continue to read people who are good at doing things that I can't do, to be amazed at what writing continues to offer. I have to keep asking that because I definitely forget in my own writing. When I'm really bogged down and feeling like I don't know if this poem is going anywhere, I don't know if that poem is going anywhere, I don't know if these poems go together, reading really helps with that. And talking to people about work abstractly, which most people hate, I actually really enjoy—for someone to tell me, “I'm working on a new thing and I'm writing this.” And I'm like, “Cool!” I don't need to know what it's about. The fact that you feel motivated and have energy and have questions and are writing is helping you go there—it’s magic to hear about. I like to ask people if they're writing: Are you doing stuff? That's great. That's so great.

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Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit and studied poetry in University of Michigan's MFA program. His writings have been given homes by Indiana Review, Salt Hill, and Iowa Review, among others. He is an editor for HEArt Online.

Conversations with Contributors: Rachel Heng by Peter LaBerge

BY ALANA MOHAMED

 Rachel Heng, author of  Suicide Club  (Henry Holt &amp; Co., 2018) and contributor to  Issue Twenty-Three .

Rachel Heng, author of Suicide Club (Henry Holt & Co., 2018) and contributor to Issue Twenty-Three.

Rachel Heng’s debut novel Suicide Club will be published on July 10, 2018, by Henry Holt, Macmillan (US) and Sceptre, Hachette (UK). Suicide Club will also be translated into six languages. Rachel’s short stories have appeared in The OffingPrairie Schooner, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. Her fiction has won Prairie Schooner’s Jane Geske Award, was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has been recommended by the Huffington Post. Rachel graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Comparative Literature & Society. She is currently a James A. Michener Fellow at UT Austin’s Michener Center for Writers, pursuing her MFA in Fiction and Screenwriting.

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Alana Mohamed: Suicide Club, aside from being a pleasure to read, can also be very funny. A lot of that comes from the contradictions of wellness culture. I wanted to start by asking for your definition wellness culture. How do you see that as relating to the Ministry’s lingo?

Rachel Heng: I don’t know if I have a definition, per se. Thank you for appreciating the humor. It’s weird, I always have this conversation with my husband, and he asks me when I’m going to write something funny, and I’m like, “I think I am writing stuff that’s funny!” He’s like, “That’s not funny.” We have very different ideas of what constitutes funny.

I think the book definitely deals with the absurdity of some of this controlled, sanitized existence. It’s not like I think everyone should be unhealthy, or not take care of their bodies, but I do think wellness culture in overdrive has a comic element to it. What the latest super food is and what the latest hot exercise is, because the previous one was not as good; the short attention span we have for products and treatments and how it’s always about fads and the next new thing. I tried to get that into the book as well.

AM: I was fascinated by the language the Ministry employs. “Life-loving” vs. “antisact,” the coded language of their Directives. Where did you pull that language from, and were there any real-life things you were influenced by?

RH: I was working in the corporate world at the time and I’ve always been fascinated by corporate lingo. Have you read Station Eleven (by Emily St. John Mandel)? There’s this moment in it—it’s about this post apocalyptic world, and people are escaping this flu—and there’s this moment where there’s a bunch of executives sitting around, looking at their emails, and they’re sort of speaking in their corporate lingo, but also realizing that they talk that way. I remember when I read it, I thought I had never read anything like that before, but it spoke so well to my daily life and what was going on in my head. Even reading government websites and newspapers, you see the euphemisms for things and the way that language can hide so much. It encodes so much inequality and violence, and just the ways in which we talk ourselves into things as a society, by calling them certain things.

A more extreme example is if you look at the kind of documents that were deployed in WWII, or anything like that. Any kind of war documents, any propaganda. I recently read Solmaz Sharif’s collection Look, which is based on, I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s the American military dictionary. What she does is she writes poems around the definitions of different terms in the military dictionary to try and do that precisely and shake that language out of its formal, supposedly value-free terms that actually encode so much violence. And how do we think about the ways in which we use language to hide that?

All of the directives, the names of programs, the numbers, all of that to me was something I had fun with, but also is something I think about a lot in our daily lives as well.

AM: I started to wonder about what happens to institutional memory when people get to live for so long. How does that function in a world shaped by government double-speak? How do people preserve that knowledge? Do they get to? The relationship between Lea and Kaito seems to point to the importance of that.

RH: Institutional memory and collective memory as a society was really interesting to me. I’m someone who’s a hoarder and really obsessed with losing things, as you might be able to tell from reading the book. But I’ll keep receipts and tickets and all those types of things. And because of my deep fear of loss—and death, but loss generally—my reaction to that has always been to preserve and keep memories. I write journals, I write stories. That’s why I write so much, it’s a recording exercise. What was really interesting to me was in this world where people essentially no longer fear loss—because they no longer fear death, because they can live forever—what that does to memory and the conscious preservation of stuff. What I came to, unconsciously, because it’s not like I had a thesis I was putting into the book, but unconsciously something that emerged was this day-to-day self-obsession. There’s this weirdly long-term thinking, while still being very much in the present, because it’s kind of about preserving one’s self and maintaining this ritual of wellness and health, but also never really reflecting on it. So in a way the absence of death leaves them in a suspended state of immortality, and that suspension is also the suspension of collective memory.  

AH: I got the sense of a claustrophobic world, but you go to lengths to point out that this obsession with immortality, the way it’s institutionalized in people’s lives, is not a global thing yet. It seems to be based mostly in New York, so why did you choose New York for the setting of this novel, and what makes New York so integral to the lives of the Suicide Club that they couldn’t leave?

RH: I was living in the U.K. when I wrote this book. It seemed natural at the time that it would be set in New York, and upon reflection I think it’s because I associate that kind of drastic inequality with the U.S. In many ways it’s because of the lack of social safety net, the fact that health insurance is so expensive, while in the U.K. you have this universal healthcare system, which, despite its flaws, provides free health care. No matter what happens you are going to be able to see a doctor, you are going to be able to have surgery or get treatment for cancer. You’re never going to be out on the streets because you can’t afford these things, which to me seems like a very sensible thing to do and I’ve never understood that about the U.S.

I’m from Singapore, and while there isn’t the same level of universal health care, there are subsidies and government hospitals and so on. The fact that in America there isn’t that kind of government subsidized health care, or a social safety net more generally, always struck me as deeply fascinating—like, this incredibly rich country that just doesn’t do that. And I’m not an economist, but I feel, intuitively, that America can afford these things since so many other developed countries can afford them.
 
I was thinking about the implications of that sort of deep inequality, and New York seemed to embody that. It’s a city of such extremes, of claustrophobia in many ways, but also housing the mega-rich with people who are really poor and what that means to have all those contradictions in one place.

AM: There’s a moment when you write about Kaito having to carry his son, who’s supposed to be younger or healthier, 30 blocks to the hospital because he’s ailing. It’s so powerful, because it’s such a reversal. I was wondering what’s at stake when these norms have shifted, or when we view health as an investment as opposed to a general good?
 
RH: There’s another great book by Michael Sandel called What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of the Markets. I really love that book. He writes about the market-ization of sectors like health care, and what he argues is that when you put something into a free market, you are changing the way we think of that public good, regardless of whether it results in more economic efficiency, because now it's regarded as a commodity. One example he gives is people trying to get more blood donations. They started paying people a fee to donate their blood in order to increase the rate of blood donation. And what happened, actually, is the rate of blood donations dropped. Because people started to regard it as, “Oh, this is something I get money for,” and you start thinking about how you value that. And you’re like, “Oh, well I’m only earning $10 from this—is it really worth it to go all the way there for $10?” Whereas previously, you would donate blood out of altruism and because you wanted to. It wasn’t to earn anything. By making that a financial product and something people could make money off of, it changed the way we view it as human beings. And taken to the logical extreme, thinking about, as you say, the investment in other people’s health, that seems very terrifying to me. Just having a financial interest in other people's life spans. It changes the way we regard humanity and other people in society, and it is very scary and dystopian.

AM: There are so many wide-ranging effects of that. Part of what struck me as sad about the novel is that Lea has all these deep-seated issues with rage and violent tendencies. There’s this whole system structured to encourage her to keep that locked away, as opposed to getting treatment. As readers, who are we supposed to sympathize with here?

RH: The dystopias that I’m most interested in are the ones in which we don’t know who’s at fault. You have this feeling of helplessness and you wonder, “How did we get to this point?” Because in real life, it’s never that straight forward. In a dystopia where you have the oppressed and the oppressor, you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. But I think in life, so often everyone is propagating these systems and these harmful structures of power, so what I wanted to do in the book was create exactly that type of situation where you can’t tell who you are supposed to sympathize with.

Lea has kind of bought into this system. She is not the most likeable character and has a lot of flaws. But at the same time, you do sympathize with her because she’s just a human being caught up in this society, who has a sad and dysfunctional relationship with her dad. At the same time, she wants to prolong his life so she can spend time with him, but she also recognizes his wishes as a human being.

And thank you for pointing that out, because its something I think about a lot. People ask me, “Why is she so dislikable,” and I’m like, “Because I didn’t just want to write someone who’s likeable, and have the system against her!” To me, it's an easy answer. It's like, “Oh, okay. The problem is the system.” I wanted her to be invested in it and also accountable for propagating the very system that harms her.  

AM: You do a great job of following Lea down this rabbit hole, essentially because she has this complicated relationship with her father. With Anja, she’s already suffered significant enough loss to become disillusioned with the entire system when we meet her. I know that she’s from a foreign country with socialized medicine. Do you think that changes the way she views the system that’s cropped up in America?

RH: In the book, Anja’s from Sweden, and when she left, they didn’t have the same system in place as the U.S. But at the point we meet her in the book, the rest of the world has gone the same way as the U.S., but is just a few steps behind. So she doesn’t really have an exit option anymore. I think she is more disillusioned with it. She wasn’t even born into it. Her mother became obsessed with this American way of life, and Anja went along with that. Eventually she got sucked in and then stuck in the situation she’s in today. I would say she’s definitely bought into it less, and that accounts for her role in the Suicide Club. She feels like she has to do something but doesn’t know quite what to do, and that’s her way of taking action.

AM: Anja and Lea’s relationship seems so interdependent and I feel like part of that is because they are both artists surviving in an artless world. I was wondering if you could talk about the ways art keeps people connected in dystopias; or, what is art's role in this kind of mind-controlling society?

RH: I recently re-read A Brave New World, which was a book that I loved when I was a teenager, and I realized just how much I unconsciously borrowed from it. [Laughs] The absence of art in that world was definitely a big aspect of it. In A Brave New World, art is banned, music is banned, and all they listen to is this synthetic, really calming stuff that’s meant to keep people happy and floaty, but not really thinking about stuff or having deep, compassionate emotions. So I think that was the inspiration for [my dystopia]. And similarly, in the [Suicide Club’s] world, art is outlawed and certain types of music aren’t allowed. The kind of music that they listen to in office buildings and so on is triangles and birds and wind songs, sort of spa music. Because art is dangerous in many ways. Making art and consuming art is the stuff that unsettles people and jolts them to action, and that’s not what the society wants.

AM: I wanted to talk about the Suicide Club itself for a moment. It’s such a weird indulgence in richness and levity, but it also uses such grim language to extol their mission (“They leave us no choice”). I was struck by that tension. Do you think that tone is necessary in the world that they’re dealing with, or is it a choice they’re making?

RH: Because of the title of the book, people have asked me about mental health issues, and I didn’t write this book about mental health issues. The people in the book are not
depressed. It’s very divorced from the broader conversation around suicide. Suicide in the context of this novel is very much the terrible and logical conclusion to the world I have set up— one of a sanitized existence. Immortality is almost becoming the norm, and mandatory, and people are almost unable to die natural deaths. So in a way, it’s two polar opposites, both of which are horrible and, ultimately, Lea doesn’t choose either one. That grimness, I didn’t want to shy away from it. I felt like if I was going to include it, it had to be what it was. It was better to include it with all of its grim depictions within this highly sanitized world, so you do see the two polar opposites and so that you can see Lea being torn between them. The decadence is the counterweight to this sort of sanitized, sterile, immortal existence.

AM: I wanted to ask, because we’ve been talking about dystopias you’ve been influenced by, what, in your mind, makes a good dystopia?

RH: I like dystopias where you get a sense that it’s pervasive and everyone is accountable to it and it’s not just one party. It’s complex and holds people accountable. I think that’s why I love the Hulu remake of The Handmaid’s Tale, seeing it from the Commander’s perspective and from the Commander’s wife’s perspective. What’s really interesting is, seeing that, you almost understand where they’re coming from. It’s not just that you are the good guys and these are the bad guys. You can still tell that some people are more morally aligned than others, but at the same time, they are human beings. They’re not just dismissed as evil anomalies. You can see how society actually got there. Those are the types of dystopias that I really love. They feel realistic and even more inevitable in some ways.

I always feel like my favorite dystopias have at their heart a utopia that’s failed. That’s always really fascinating to me. You can say, “Oh, what if the world was this terrible place?” but the thing is, that feels like an action movie. But if you say, “This world is terrible, but you can understand why they got there,” that’s different. I think the most heartbreaking dystopias are the ones where you see why the people are convinced into doing what they’re doing. In A Brave New World, when the commander in chief is like, “Well, everyone’s happy now! What’s wrong with that?” that to me is so terrifying, because it seems like it could happen so easily. And it’s so heartbreaking, because people are just trying to do their best and things sort of spiral out of control.

AH: I don’t want to ask about the future, since we’ve already talked so much about the future. I wanted to ask, in writing Suicide Club, what have you learned about your writing and your attachment to certain themes. Going forward, has writing the book encouraged you to explore other themes further?  

RH: It made me realize just how obsessed with death I am. [Laughs] I always knew that I guess, but writing an entire book about it, I was like, “Oh, I should probably see someone about this.” I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these kinds of things, which probably helped the book. I think those themes will always be present in my work, because even in my short fiction, implicitly, there is some theme of loss or the passage of time and aging, and it’s still popping up but in different ways. I’m working on another book right now, not dystopian, it’s kind of realist and historical. I already see similar themes starting to creep in. As a writer there are certain things that you’re preoccupied with, and they haunt your writing all of your life. For me, it might be aging and loss. [Laughs]

Before I wrote this book, I was always worried that I wasn’t doing it the right way, or that I wasn’t planning well, or the outlining was really all over the place and it wasn’t proceeding logically. It was so messy and so much trial and error. At the time, I thought this meant I was doing something wrong and that it wasn’t going to be a book, that I was never going to find the story. But now, after having gone through that, the many rounds of edits, the cutting of hundreds of thousands of words, I’m realizing that is my process. Which is, on one hand, depressing and stressful, but at the same time it’s quite reassuring. Even as I start this new book and feel that this is hopeless, I know from my experience writing Suicide Club that even if it feels that way, it can still turn out to be a cohesive piece of work that I’m happy with.

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Alana Mohamed is a freelance writer and librarian based in Queens, NY. Her criticism and essays have appeared in the Village Voice, BuzzFeed and Mental Floss. Her fiction has most recently appeared in wildness and BULL Magazine. She is the founder of Anxiety Dream Zine and previously edited fiction and essays for the Coalition Zine. She writes about books, history, and culture, and tweets about everything else @alanamhmd.

Conversations with Contributors: William Evans by Peter LaBerge

BY SHANNON BRADY

 William Evans, author of  Still Can't Do My Daughter's Hair  (Button Poetry, 2017) and contributor to  Issue Twenty-One .

William Evans, author of Still Can't Do My Daughter's Hair (Button Poetry, 2017) and contributor to Issue Twenty-One.

William Evans is a writer from Columbus, Ohio, the founder of the Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam (September 2008), and a Callaloo Fellow. In addition to being the editor-in-chief of Blacknerdproblems.com, William has published three collections of poetry with his latest, Still Can't Do My Daughter's Hair, on Button Poetry. His work can be found online in or forthcoming from Winter TangerineMuzzle Magazine, the OffingUnion Station Magazine, and other online publications.

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Shannon Brady: You have a strong slam poetry presence. You founded the Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam, have made it onto national teams, and have had National Slam finals appearances. How did you begin writing slam pieces? Is there a difference in your process when writing pieces that are written toward a live reading versus those that are written for the page and a book reading?

William Evans: When I began writing, I was definitely writing with the intent to perform, but not necessarily to slam. I was pretty oblivious to what slam was, even after I had been performing at my preferred open mic for a couple of months. Naturally, though, the competitive person that I was (having played sports all my life), slam was a natural fit for me now that I had this newfound passion for performing. But I never angled myself towards writing for slam, though I think I edited for slam. I want to be clear on the difference. I could discern that I could structure a line around clarity or digestion to a live crowd in the editing process, but I always wanted to maintain that the content of the poem wasn't determined by an audience scoring rubric.

I don't think I've changed my writing to better accommodate the page as much as I hope I've become a better writer, period. I truly believe that developing the tools of making you a more effective writer is a way of physically building the thing you are actually trying to say. I think that's a relentless and unending journey, but hopefully one I continue to progress.

SB: You mention The Black Panther and use other pop cultural references in your poems, and you also started the website Black Nerd Problems. How did that begin, and how has it evolved—both in your own work and as the moderator of a larger forum?

WE: Black Nerd Problems began in May 2014 after my co-founder Omar Holmon and myself came up with a vision to house a lot of our pop culture and nerd commentary in one spot. We felt that the content we digested and the way it was covered lacked our perspective. So we added ours. I think for myself and for the community that we've built with Black Nerd Problems, all of it pushes forward the idea that there was not only an audience for the things we had to say, but a yearning for that perspective as well. I'm not sure what we expected, but the response was a validation that we were both welcomed and necessary in these spaces that don't always make room for us. That's a responsibility I don't take lightly.

SB: Your title, Still Can’t Do My Daughter’s Hair, and your cover—an illustration of a small, black girl, one of her pigtails braided and neat, the other not, with a crooked part—set me up to expect a conflicted and lighthearted exploration of parenthood. Yet that was only the tip of what you explore. What led you to choose your title piece and cover? How do you describe this collection?

WE: When I wrote the title piece (probably about half way through the process), I knew it was going to be the title of the book. It was my closest attempt at surmising my insecurities and outright fear of being father and the implications of what my unpreparedness could bring. I don't think it's an unique feeling in parenthood, but for me it's also colored in my journey through masculinity and maturation. And I knew that if I was going to write a book about my experiences in the present as a father, then I needed to show my work and demonstrate the events that delivered me here. I definitely wanted readers to see the tension of my adolescence, especially in how my experiences with intimacy were either pathways or challenges for me in becoming a father. I think something I learned early on is that to write about these experiences, such as raising a daughter or trying damn hard to be a good husband/partner, meant I couldn't be the hero of these stories, because I'm not. I'm really just a dude trying to make sure the folks in my life know how they impact me and have saved me, and I wanted the poems to reflect that.

As for the cover, that was the easiest part of this whole process. Once I knew the title, I knew that I wanted Keturah Bobo, an artist I am lucky to share a city with, to draw the cover. She has done so much profound work on representation and portrayals of black girls and women, that she was my first choice. I am beyond honored that she agreed to do it.

SB: In your poem “Auribus Teneo Lupum,” which is about your daughter being the minority in a private school, it seemed that there was a certain freedom to talk back on the page where you were not able to speak publicly. The title is Latin for “I grasp the wolf by the ears” (I had to Google it), signifying a situation where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. This sense of ambivalence runs throughout your work, along with a leitmotif of fear, violence, and death. As a white woman, I don’t experience that level of fear or risk of harm, but I see it in your work and in our society. For example, people were just arrested in Starbucks for being black. It’s also evident in the unending shootings of young black men. What do you think can be done against institutionalized racism on a poetry level? Or in other words, how can poetry be used to raise awareness about institutionalized racism?

WE: So many folks far smarter than I am have tried to unravel the placement of art in social justice and its real world impact. What I can say is that the most powerful tool in my arsenal is reminding people that I'm still here. That I didn't fade into the shadows of someone's biased fear. That I didn't blink myself awake in some other plane where everything is better. I write to keep the lights on, in the sense that I'm always visible to the folks that would feel more comfortable forgetting I was there. My wife and I both graduated from a huge Predominantly White Institution. We both work in corporate-like environments, both of us with responsibilities of managing other people. I think we are both very determined to show that this game, one that definitely was not designed for us—who occupy not only predominantly white spaces, but gatekeeper institutions—can be played in the way we see fit and on our own terms. Vievee Francis has this amazing term, which is Radical Normativity. It essentially means, in this context, that I try to write about things that seem like typical day-in-the-life events, except they’re not typical because I am black and visible in a hostile landscape. Going for a run around your neighborhood sounds typical unless people feel you are running for nefarious reasons. Dropping your daughter off at school is about as routine as it gets, unless you're worried about the relatability of the teachers to your young black daughter's experiences. So that's what I try to show.

I have a video of a poem called "Bathroom Etiquette" that begins as a funny and ridiculous interaction I had with a coworker about some of the weird things going on with maintenance at our employer. But the poem turns much more serious in how I interact with things in comparison to my white co-worker. A number of people have commented, "Oh, I wish the poem just stayed funny," or "why does race have to come into it?" And that's my point. White supremacy and its legacy are not gentle nudges when you have the time. It interrupts the narrative. It reshapes the story already in progress. That's what I hope to accomplish in my writing, that these things that pull me away from bliss are ever present.

SE: I chose a few of your poems to present to some of my high school students. Your language, images, and emotional expression helped them engage. How are your poems being used to teach in your community?

WE: I think my proclivity towards being a storyteller and a visual storyteller are things I hear most often. I'm a big fan of efficiency in my writing, when I can afford to be. So I'm obsessed with letting the devices I have at play do multiple things to earn their keep. And it’s more interesting to me that way. I don't want to tell you what someone said that left an impact on me, I want you see what I felt immediately after. I want to be shown how human emotions mirror the most mechanical or gentle things we interact with, so I try to bend towards those types of irony. My hope is that readers are generous enough with me to indulge my story and see how it relates to them.

SB: With a full-time job, a young family, a website to moderate, and other projects, when do you find time to write? How has your writing life changed over time? Do you have any suggestions for readers struggling with finding time and space to write?

WE: My most honest answer to that is that I don't sleep a whole lot. But in all seriousness, I'm incredible at (read: in the terrible habit of) multi-tasking. I find a lot of ways to find overlap in a lot of my writing, but more than anything, you have to commit. Committing doesn't necessarily mean that you should be writing for two hours every night no matter what (though some do, and if you can, you should). But really it means you have a focus when you move into those spaces of being productive. If I say, Well, I'll go work on the site for two hours, I'm going to end up reading gaming articles for 90 minutes and about 3 minutes playing on my phone. So being task-oriented helps me more than anything. Have a goal, move into that space, work towards that goal. I do this for writing poems as well. I usually have 10-12 poem ideas bouncing around in my head at a time. Some of them are dormant, some are pounding at the walls to be formed. So I know that when I carve out that time to write, I'm making progress on one of those. The second part of that matters, progress. Producing one poem out of the dozen ideas I might have had sounds like failure on the surface, but it might be zero if I didn't make time for it. So it all counts, every time.

SB: Thank you so much for your generous responses!

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Shannon Brady has written about dance for The Village Voice, book reviews for The New York Times Book Review, reporting for Vanity Fair and various other freelance writing projects and poetry publications. Shannon once joined a dance troupe in order to write a profile about the choreographer. She has taught high school and college writing in New York and California.

Conversations with Contributors: Franny Choi (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Five.

By Nina Coomes, Guest Interviewer.

  Franny Choi , featured in  Issue Twenty .

Franny Choi, featured in Issue Twenty.

Franny Choi is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014) and the forthcoming Soft Science (Alice James Books, 2019), as well as a chapbook, Death by Sex Machine (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). She has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, and the Helen Zell Writers Program. Her poems have appeared in PoetryAmerican Poetry Review, the New England Review, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She is a Kundiman fellow, Senior News Editor at Hyphen Magazine, co-host of the podcast VS, and member of the Dark Noise Collective. 

 

Interviewer's Note: In 1910, Japan began a long history of imperialism in Korea that persists today in ways both explicit and subtle. As a Japanese writer interviewing Franny about Death By Sex Machine, this interview is necessarily contextualized by the role of Japan as colonizer and eraser of violent history, specifically towards Korea.

Nina Coomes: Congratulations on the publication of Death by Sex Machine! Thank you so, so very much for writing this book. I know I’ll be thinking about it for a really long time, and I know I’ll be listening to the Spotify playlist that accompanies it even longer.

First, can you tell me a little bit about how you chose to title the chapbook? One of my favorite experiences while reading your book on the Boston bus lines was watching the person across the aisle from me spelling out the cover text—Dea-th-By-Sex-Mac-hine—and then watching how their faces would shift, changing into curiosity or horror or barely-suppressed laughter. It’s an arresting title and an equally arresting image (illustrated by Gel Jamlang) taken from a line in your poem "Kyoko_Inquires." Why this line? What did you want to convey to your reader?

Franny Choi: I think the reaction you describe (some combination of curiosity, horror, and giggles) is pretty much the ideal for how I hoped a reader would respond to the title—and I love the idea that the surprise comes out of the need to look a little closer. I really cherish that (hopefully brief!) moment of not understanding that makes someone say, “Wait, what? What is this?” and then want to keep investigating.

As for the title Death by Sex Machine, I think it’s a little capsule of some of the things going on in the project: the strange consequences of gender and sexuality that come out of our relationships with machines, humanity’s fear of its own inventions (including race and gender), the violence of being made into a tool for pleasure, the pleasures possible in language. And I hoped the double resonance of “death by chocolate” (capitalism making women eat things) and “sex machine” (James Brown making liberatory joy through art) would translate into something that feels lively and complicated and also fun to say. It’s a funny thing, though, to have a book with the word “sex” in the title. It puts some distance between me and younger students, my mom, the generally squeamish, etc.

 

The Turing Test is a test constructed by Alan Turing in 1950 that asked the question, “Can machines think?” But the test constructed that question in such a way that, basically, a human and a machine are in conversation—if the human can’t reliably distinguish that it is talking to a machine, the machine passes the test. You use the Turing Test frequently in this book, playing it against concepts such as love and weight. What do you think it means for machines to pass the Turing test? Are your poems the communications of machines that pass or fail?

FC: I think in many ways, people of color, immigrants, women, queer/trans people (and so on) are always trying to pass the Turing Test—to fool people into thinking we’re human, or at least indistinguishable from humans. I grew up thinking it was one of my greatest strengths to not have a Korean accent; I even remember studying the speech patterns of other Korean-American kids so I wouldn’t sound like them. I have a tendency now, too, to slightly adopt the accent of whatever region of the U.S. I’m in, as a subtle way of communicating, “I’m from here, I’m like you” (read: “I’m not like them”). Recently, I watched a video I’d taken of an incident of police brutality at a protest and felt this huge wave of shame because I heard myself pronounce “th” like “d” as I was shouting at the cop—at the latent bit of foreignness my voice betrayed in that moment of crisis, when my guard was down.

Of course, the project of passing as human is much vaster and deeper than accents. People who have historically been denied humanity are constantly taking tests to prove they experience the full range of human experience, not to mention all of the formal tests that allow or deny them access to resources, status, mobility, etc. Poems are technologies of consciousness; and so yes, maybe these poems are machines I use to—without the presence of my physical body—try to convince someone that there’s a person here.

 

Why did you choose to use Chi from Chobits and Kyoko from Ex Machina as the sister voices or sister experiences in your text? Sisterhood, daughterhood and motherhood—relationships centered on womanhood (or perhaps non-manhood) feature prominently. Why do you think these relationships emerged in your poetry, especially in the context of machines, which some might say have no family or familial relationship? Why are they important?

FC: Donna Haraway, in “A Cyborg Manifesto,” talks about cyborg relationships as occurring along lines of affinity rather than biological kinship. There’s plenty to say about how this plays against Haraway as a white woman writing, in much of the essay, about women of color consciousness—how saying “never mind my identity, it’s my politics that matter”—is nothing new when it comes to white women waltzing into rooms that women of color built.  But. Yes, calling someone “sister” is naming a line of solidarity, and of course it’s maybe the queerest thing to make family outside of traditional kin relationships. 

I think, also, that calling Kyoko “sister” is a way to name that moment of excitement and anxiety I feel when seeing an API woman on a Western screen. The stakes of representation are high; there are so many ways to fuck up. But I can’t help but love the API femmes I see on screen, no matter how troubling they are—there are too few of us not to. Maybe something that’s not super obvious to some readers is that the two figures I’ve called into conversation are both Japanese women, and as someone with roots in a country that was colonized by Japan for 35 years, there are stakes to identifying with Chi and Kyoko. So the relationship between the book’s speaker and these figures isn’t uncomplicated—but of course, sisterhood never is.

 

“Chi_Conjugations” employs an experimentation that reminded me of Pussy Monster in that I think you beautifully use experimental forms to give readers a hidden or larger truth. “@FannyChoir” is another such poem, where you process tweets sent to you through multiple languages in Google Translate. What was the experience of writing “@FannyChoir”? Did it feel triumphant—to rearrange the words of others that seemed like they had origins in hate? In the multi-translation and mistranslation, did you find anything that surprised you?

FC: I’m not sure if it felt triumphant, though that was maybe the hope. What it felt like was this: over a period of a few days, a wave of trolls tweeted terrible things at me. (This happened when something I said about whiteness showed up on a white supremacist website and, it turned out later, in a slideshow for a lecture by Richard Spencer. Weird times.) And I was surprised at how put-out I was, considering I pretty much spend all day reading and writing and thinking about how racist, sexist violence operates. You know, you learn to survive in very Ravenclaw ways, reading articles, writing triumphant poems, etc., and then you spend a day trying not to look at your phone while strangers call you a gook and threaten to rape you for hours. Initially, I was totally fascinated by all the violent tweets; I was obsessed and really wanted to play with that language. But after a while, I found I couldn’t do it without feeling really, really awful. Feeding those tweets into Google Translate was an attempt to break the language, to make it uncanny and funny, to make a way to engage with it without being wrecked in the process. Honestly, I’m not sure if it worked. These days, I can read that poem aloud without being dropped back into the panic of that day; and I hope, moreover, that the language is so garbled that I can read it aloud without triggering anyone else.But it doesn’t always feel great, and it doesn’t escape me that a part of my book is still a preserved space for those voices to live.

 

“Turing Test_Weight” is a poem that physically made me feel like someone knocked the breath out of me. The way you set up the poem, the way the interrogator’s question lands (“what is….your country of origin”)—it brought the semi-sci-fi hypotheticals of the entire chapbook sharply into focus. In particular, I’m thinking about the Turing Test and learning English (or any other normative language) as a second language, and the different signals we give to try to pass societal interrogations meant to determine worthiness. In a parallel fashion, I think your poem “Choi Jeong Min” and its questions about naming are also related. How do you see immigranthood intersecting with the themes of your book?

FC: I think foreignness is one of the many things that can place a person in the uncanny valley—that horror/humor of perceived emulation of humanity. I know that in some ways, no matter how perfect my English is, no matter how I sound on the phone, no matter how annoyingly good my grammar is, I’ll always be seen as someone doing, at best, an extraordinarily good job at emulating a native speaker. But I think it’s a beautiful gift to have grown up with the understanding that all English is broken; all English is breakable. I have no respect for the sanctity of English. Neither do Chi and Kyoko, and I think knowing that allowed me to write their voices with a kind of wildness that I might not have otherwise. I remember someone describing Gertrude Stein as writing poetry “as if she had never read any.” That’s the kind of brand-new-ness that I wanted their voices to have—the wild disrespect of someone who’s always been an outsider to the rules of a thing. The project is, of course, about the pain of being relegated to the outside, but for me, it’s just as much about the wisdom and the pleasure that come with it.

 

And I’ll leave you with this last question: throughout the book, there were many words that appeared more often than not—mouth, fish, ghost, stink, slug, please. Please in particular stood out to me, because, while your chapbook’s primary cyborg speaker is constantly having things taken from her, she is also exhibiting a hunger that in some instances is depicted as uncontrollable and monstrous, and in others tender-hearted and sorrowful (“sometimes / when the sidewalk opens my knee / i think / please / please let me remember this”). Please, then, takes on many tones. In that same vein, what do you think the cyborg ultimately wants? What do you want for this book? What do you want for your writing more broadly—for yourself as both artist and human, now, and in the future?

FC: There’s a poem in the full-length book called “What a Cyborg Wants,” and the first line is “What a cyborg wants is to work perfectly.” Which of course isn’t all the way right, but maybe that’s part of it, at least: to be a thing that happens the way it’s supposed to. Oof, what a dream.

As for the rest of your questions: oh, I don’t know. But I think about that line by Hannah Sanghee Park: “the layers / comprising me are, reductively, soft / hard, soft.” About what it might look like to live and write with that knowledge. Today, I asked a question at a Q&A with the poet Robin Coste Lewis—a roundtable with only about twenty people in the room—and something in her answer opened up a little part of me, and to my total horror, I started weeping. Just staring back at her, wearing probably my butchest flannel, and fully weeping, not able to stop. And though it was totally embarrassing, maybe that’s all I’m trying to make, really—a little aperture of softness. A room where the hard rules and histories that made us are on equal footing with the things only tenderness can teach.

 

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Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer, performer, producer and artist. She was born in Nagoya, raised in Chicago, and currently resides in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, The CollapsarEATER,  and The Margins, among other places. She is a 2018 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow.

 

Conversations with Contributors: Hala Alyan by Peter LaBerge

BY JOHN STINTZI

 Hala Alyan.  SALT HOUSES  (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017),  The Twenty-Ninth Year  (Mariner Books, 2019).

Hala Alyan. SALT HOUSES (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), The Twenty-Ninth Year (Mariner Books, 2019).

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Guernica, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. Her poetry collections have won the Arab American Book Award and the Crab Orchard Series. Her debut novel, SALT HOUSES, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017, and is currently longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize.

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John Stintzi: While reading your debut novel, Salt Houses, there are definite moments in the prose where the language does something—usually something figurative that breaks out of the narrative mode into a purely evocative moment—that reminds me that you’re also a poet. Your fiction reads quite differently than your poetry, though. How do you find yourself working in either form? Do you go through phases of writing either poetry or fiction, or does it vary day-to-day?

Hala Alyan: I’ve always worked in both forms simultaneously, usually tackling a few different projects at once. I find that to be the most refreshing way to approach writing in general, because if I find myself burnt out with one project, I can busy myself with another. It can sometimes be a little distracting, but more than makes up for it in terms of feeling engaged with the work. Each process feeds a different part of myself: I can be more reckless with poetry, asking less of myself and more willing to leave it up to feeling inspired. I can leave poetry alone for months at a time, then write feverishly for weeks. But fiction demands more precision and discipline for me; it’s required me to build more of a muscle and dedicated practice. I’ll usually write poetry when I feel like it and write thirty minutes a day of prose no matter what.

JS: Do you find that there is a difference in what you end up expressing with either form? Do you find either form better suited for certain kinds of work?

HA: I definitely think so. For me, if what I’m trying to say feels incomplete in poetic form, it means it’s time to try prose. Salt Houses is a good example of that; I wanted to tell a multigenerational story that spanned time and space. Poetry didn’t seem like the best fit for that sort of narrative. I think I also tend to rely on poetry to process more intrapsychic emotions and experiences, while fiction is a place I can imagine those of others.

JS: Salt Houses is set in the middle-east and is a family epic about the Yacoub family, a Palestinian family who—at the beginning of the book—are displaced by the Six-Day War. Did you find that, knowing a majority of your western audience was likely unfamiliar with the particulars of that region of the world (and particularly that conflict), that you had to act as a sort of ‘translator’? Did knowing your audience might not be familiar have any effect on how you decided to tell this story?

HA: I have to say, I wasn’t thinking much about audience at all, which is probably the best way to get through writing a first novel. Otherwise, I would’ve been crippled by it. Whenever I did envision a reader, it was usually my brother or another family member. I think that freed me up to just tell the story of the Yacoub family, paying attention to whatever details regarding the political realities I wanted to. Of course, once the book was in the editing process with the publishing house, I had to clarify certain details. I never did put a glossary of Arabic terms in the back, though, because we live in an age where these things are fairly easy to research. It might require a little more of the reader, but I feel okay asking for it and grateful when it’s done.

JS: Do you find that living in New York, at a remove from cities in the novel, like Kuwait City or Beirut, makes it a harder job to place your work there? Did you find yourself needing to revisit some of these cities when writing the book?

HA: Not so much harder as more nostalgic. I found myself yearning for a lot of those cities, and spent a lot of time looking at photographs and listening to music. I even found some ambient street noise! It helped that I was able to visit nearly every city I reference in the book in the years I spent writing it. I wasn’t always writing about the particular city I happened to be visiting, but even just sitting in a café or wandering around the streets at night helped recharge my emotional and cultural memory.

JS: As well as a writer, you’re also a clinical psychologist. In another interview you talked about how this helps you develop your characters, but I’m interested in how emotionally taxing that job must be and how that aspect might affect the work. Is it ever a challenge to put your patients’ troubles aside when you sit down to write?

HA: That’s a great question, and not one I’ve thought a lot about. I suppose there’s a lot of emotional labor put into learning to separate clinical work from personal life, and I actually think that the bulk of that work happened during my training years. I definitely found myself inundated by clinical material, particularly traumatic stories of displacement and asylum seeking, and had some brilliant supervisors and peers along the way who helped guide me to a place where I can be present for my clients but also recognize the need to keep my private life separate. Of course, some days I’m more successful than others!

JS: In Salt Houses, I find a lot of the characters have these moments where their emotions swell up and they either are washed over with them, or—more often—the characters tamp the feelings back down. It feels like there’s a lot of denial of reality, which is not surprising for characters dealing with the grief and displacement many of your characters are. These moments in the book feel very real, and seem like things you’d either hear about or see a lot as a psychologist. Do the ways your characters in Salt Houses exist with their emotions come partly from your work as a psychologist?

HA: Of course I can’t take the actual experiences of clients and then fictionalize them, but I suppose there is a certain “lifting” that happens when thinking about what trauma does to memory and emotional processing. In both my clinical work and in “regular” life, I see and experience the ways in which displacement, loss, and intergenerational trauma impact the way emotional regulation takes place (or doesn’t) and how emotions-as-currency are dealt with in general.

JS: I found the choice of writing Salt Houses chronologically an interesting one because it pulled us through the lives of characters who are increasingly further from the family’s displacement from Palestine, a conflict that ripples throughout. Was that structure there from the start? How did you find it?

HA: The story began as a short story about Mustafa, as I was interested in his experience living between 1948 and ‘67, experiencing young adulthood issues alongside occupation and displacement. From there, I decided the narrative should be told chronologically, which, yes, pulls the characters further from the original displacement, but also shows the ways its impact plays out intergenerationally. The truth is, I found most of the structure accidentally. I’m a messy writer and rely a ton on editing. So for the most part, I just stumbled along in the dark. I wrote sections based on which character I was most interested in hearing from at that time.

JS: What can you tell us about your forthcoming poetry collection, The Twenty-Ninth Year?

HA: The new collection is a meditation on the transforming landscapes of womanhood, wifedom, loss and exile. It’s a way of looking to the past to determine my future: making sense of my American existence and my Arab one, exile and the rebuilding of life in its aftermath. It was the most difficult collection to write, and the most gratifying so far; I feel very thankful for where these poems took me.

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John Stintzi is a non-binary writer who was raised on a cattle farm in northwestern Ontario. A selection of their poetry and fiction can be found in Los Angeles Review of Books, Humber Literary Review, PRISM international, Black Warrior Review, and the chapbook The Machete Tourist (knife | fork | book, 2018). John currently lives with their partner in Kansas City, MO, where they are at work on their first novel and their first collection of poetry.

Conversations with Contributors: Chelsea Dingman by Peter LaBerge

BY KWAME OPOKU-DUKU

 Chelsea Dingman,  Thaw  (University of Georgia Press, 2017).

Chelsea Dingman, Thaw (University of Georgia Press, 2017).

Chelsea Dingman is a Visiting Instructor at the University of South Florida. Her first book, Thaw, was chosen by Allison Joseph to win the National Poetry Series (University of Georgia Press, 2017). Her chapbook, What Bodies Have I Moved, is forthcoming from Madhouse Press (2018). In 2016-17, she also won The Southeast Review’s Gearhart Poetry Prize, The Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, Water-stone Review’s Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize, and The South Atlantic Modern Language Association’s Creative Writing Award for Poetry. Her work can be found in Ninth Letter, The Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Cincinnati Review, and Gulf Coast, among others. Visit her website: chelseadingman.com.

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It is said of some writers that their work cuts to the bone, that it strips you, leaves you bare and vulnerable, that it marks you. Chelsea Dingman’s work starts at the bone, and by the end of her first collection of poems, Thaw, piles of them have accumulated over the pages. Dingman’s work exists in the places that scare us the most: loss, grief, alienation, the suffering of the body. She writes with images that swirl in the mind for days and lines that imprint themselves upon you immediately. She is a poet whose work has become essential, and I jumped at the chance to have a conversation with her.

Kwame Opoku-Duku: Chelsea, I was reading one of your poems to my lover, and as I was reading it, my hands started shaking. That’s an amazing thing to be able to do to someone, and the word I kept coming back to when describing your work was “fearless.” You take risks that so many writers don’t, and the result is something that is beautiful—even while unsettling the reader, even while filling the reader with a sense of ache. Could you talk a little about what it was like to create a work like this? Was there a point when you had written a few of these poems and realized you have something special on your hands?

Chelsea Dingman: In terms of risk and trying to be fearless and trying to be in service of those poems, I was told my first year of grad school that basically women have a harder time getting published if they write anything that is “women-centric,” you know, that has something to do with women’s issues, so there was a point when I had started writing some of the poems that are in my book before grad school, and I had just decided that I was going to write in service of the poem, no matter if anyone was ever going to read it. Like, you have to be fearless enough to go where the poem needs to go, without worrying about audience, or purpose, or anything else. So, in terms of fearlessness, I’m always striving to where the poem needs to go.

KO: Yes! So, have you always written like this, or is this a style that you’ve worked toward, in terms of the risks you take? Because for me, this is always something I’m trying to cultivate, and it’s scary, because risk is so difficult for people. We use things like irony, or the fantastic to avoid staring at that thing that scares us, as artists and as humans. Especially , considering that people told you—I guess, I don’t really understand what “women-centric” means, but—

CD: Well, you know, anything related to the female body, and things like that, because I was writing about—and the speaker is a woman in the poems—things like child birth and things that are specific to women. And one of my mentors said, “This will be really difficult,” and had me read essays by Rachel Zucker and other people who were talking about this. I think part of that, part of what you’re talking about is risking that—and I hate to use this word—but “sentimentality,” in a way. Risking going to the places where it’s scary to go is risking a level of sentimentality that isn’t always what people want in a poem. I feel like that was the line I had to learn to draw. Like, when you’re younger, and it seems like every undergrad’s poems are super angsty, or whatever. I feel like that’s where I learned the difference between craft and angst and tried to fit it all in a poem. I’ve always kind of written like that, but it was finding the craft elements that were going to be the best vehicle for them.

KO: I think it was Allison Joseph who said that your poems “almost make you want to look away,” and I thought that would be such a great compliment, because it’s work that really leaves a mark on you. In that poem “Testimony of Hinges” you write, “I broke my wrists to give you my hands, // sawed clean through the bone. I dreamt / new hands, pink-tipped fingers / to drag over the knobs of your spine.”

That’s such a beautiful line, and I think that this is more a statement than a question, but one of the things I loved about your work is the way you focus on the body and the way you formed concepts of masculinity and femininity through your imagery. One example is the way men are imagined as trees being felled. I was curious if that’s something you find intuitive, or if it’s something that took time to craft?

CD: I think a lot of what I did in this book was intuitive. I wrote some of the poems in Thaw before grad school, and then the rest in my first year, so it really felt like I was just learning myself while I was writing this book, so a lot of the gestures, and even the images, were intuitive—much more so than the stuff I’m doing now. I think, in terms of the feminine and the masculine, the people who surround the speaker—I needed some other way to describe them other than as human, and I needed some other way to look at the body, kind of to take that one step away, rather than to have them show up as human in my poems. So it kind of gave me a little bit of distance, but I also love, love writing imagery. Images are my thing. I just love them!

KO: The images are beautiful! I’m also curious as to how you approach form. Is that something that’s also intuitive with you? There are so many meaningful line breaks, there are so many points where there’s a little space given, or a little air added into the poem, and it did a lot for me. I was curious how you approach that. Is that something you consider as you write, or is it something you find more in editing?

CD: I think lineation is actually my very favorite thing about poetry, and that is always purposeful. That’s always something I’m working on. I can play with two lines for hours and hours. So all the line breaks, and where I use white space, were very purposeful, in terms of what I thought was in service of the poem, and what I wanted each line to deliver, and how, and the pacing. In terms of form—there’s no formal poetry—but I do that upon revision. I look at the content of the poem, and I try and figure out what box it wants to be in. I think, How am I going to deliver this content? How best can I deliver this content? Even before I decide on stanzas and everything else. But all that is purposeful and upon revision. I tend to just write and write and write in notebooks, and then I decide all that when I’m revising.

KO: So what’s your writing process like? A lot of people say they write every day. Some people just try to write a few times a week. I know you’re super busy, so how does it usually go for you?

CD: In grad school, I did try to write every day. I felt like I had more time. I’m teaching four plus sections right now, so it’s really busy, and I have two kids, and so—I’m really busy. And so I’m trying to write on my off days, when I’m not on campus. But I’m happy if I just write a few poems a week right now because it’s such a busy time. And also, I’m trying to slow myself down. I would like to put in a little more time into different craft things that I haven’t done before: working on form, or other things I haven’t done, instead of just writing just to write.

KO: There are some people who would just love to write! Like, I am amazed at the ways people like you, especially other poets, can manage entire careers, home lives, be on Twitter posting amazing poems for people to read, doing readings, all while the rest of us are struggling just to write a poem every once in a while.

CD: I think for me, there was a long time when I first had my kids when I stopped writing entirely, and I just didn’t have the energy, and it wasn’t until my youngest son was almost going into kindergarten that I was like, How did I miss that? And now I feel this sense of urgency, as though I lost all this time. I think that’s why I’m constantly pushing myself forward, and that’s why I’ve generated so much work in the last few years, because I was like, Oh my God, I missed so much time I have to catch up on. But I also feel like I banked all of the things that I was thinking about for a few years there, and they all just spilled out. I think the reason why I do write every week is because I fear not being able to write again, like I was in that period. And so even if I write a really crappy poem, I’m happy.

KO: Right, and you never know. That poem might end up becoming a good poem in the next month or something like that.

CD: And I read a lot, because it really does help me generate. So, half the time, if I’m on Twitter, it’s because I’m working out and multi-tasking [laughs], or I’m stuck in traffic or something. I’m always doing five things at the same time.

KO: What are the big things you tell your students about writing?

CD: That you need to read a lot to be able to write. Like, you have to read a lot. That is the whole key to the whole thing, I really think, to know what else is out there, whether it was 100 years ago or whether it’s now. But the best thing for my students, I think—the thing that gets them hooked on reading—is giving them contemporary writers to read. To see what’s out there right now. I try and to show them younger people who are writing, too, like Ocean Vuong, who is so young, and they’re really like, Wow, someone my age did that? Let’s go! It’s super inspiring for them. So, just read and read, and get your butt in the chair, because sometimes time management can be a thing that really gets away from them. But otherwise, I’m working with some grad students, and they’re so amazing, and for them, I think the biggest thing right now is just to discover who they are as writers. I mean, that’s what you use grad school for. To figure out what kind of poet you’re going to be. I don’t think we ever really know that, but where do you want your work to go? What are you doing in your work? Sometimes, getting them to articulate what their work is doing is difficult. And that’s the kind of thing we’re working on right now.

KO: That’s great! I also wanted to ask you about migration, because it’s such a big theme of the book. Your [grand]father’s migration to Canada. Your migration to the South. I think of “Autumn Wars,” where you write, “Once, we armed ourselves and drove / over tundra in a twining womb / of white fields and sky / to get out. I saw then that some things can never be / made beautiful.”

Was that a theme you considered before you started writing, or more something that found its way into your work?

 CD: I think that was kind of one of the obsessions of the book, if you want to put it that way, and I think that’s one of the obsessions I write about—even the chapbook I’m putting out this spring—I have the same obsessions. It was about my grandfather’s migration to Western Canada. I think that obsession came out of feeling a little bit cut off from home, where I’m living right now, and how you can raise kids so far from where you began, and where your ancestors began, and how they can kind of lose track of their lineage that way. When I was writing Thaw, I had a lot of that. My kids were small, and I felt like they would never know my Ukrainian background, how I grew up, how my parents grew up. Like, it’s just all so foreign to them, they don’t even know my parents that well. That was a real obsession of the poems, I guess. Writing in response to that feeling.

KO: So, do you go back to Canada a lot? I notice in some of your bios, they’ll start with “Chelsea Dingman is a Canadian citizen,” which I always thought was kind of fun. [Laughs]

CD: I know! I feel like I need to fly the Canadian flag or something. Yes, we go home, but I’m from Western Canada, so where I am in Florida, it’s a lot of travel, so we don’t get there as much as I would like. It used to be once a year, and then it became every two or three years. So yeah, I don’t get home enough. I think that’s part of why it became an obsession to write about it. People ask me, Were you writing the snow and everything from memory? And I was, because you just start missing all of the things you’re trying to explain to people.

KO: You mentioned you have the chapbook coming out. Is there anything else on the horizon?

CD: No, so I wrote three manuscripts in grad school. One every year.

KO: Wow, that’s great! You’re going to have work coming out forever!

CD: [Laughs] That’s kind of why I have so much work everywhere right now. Thaw was my first year;, and then my second year, I wrote the work coming out in the chapbook. It was my thesis, and it’s the second section of that manuscript. It’s loosely based on the speaker’s immigration from Ukraine in 1924 and the second wave of immigrants to Western Canada. And then the third manuscript is about infertility and stillbirth, which I wrote last year. Now I’m working on wherever I go after that. New work.

KO: Well, you’ve definitely got some time, since your work will be coming out for the next three years. [Laughs] My last question is kind of a serious one. You have two sons. [Beat] Do they know that their mom is a rock star?

CD: [Laughs] No, I don’t think so. You know how people don’t really understand poetry? I don’t know if you have that, too. But even my mom, trying to explain it to her…

KO: Oh gosh, yeah. I don’t even really try. It’s just nice that people sort of know that you’re a poet, and that you’ve published work somewhere, you won some award, or whatever. People can just take that with them.

CD: Yes! I know. And my mom, she doesn’t understand everything, but she’s super proud. My kids are, too. They like to come to work with me. They think it’s fun to sit in my office and play on my computer. You know what I mean? Like, I want them to value going to college and all that. If they don’t understand poetry, I’m okay with that.

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Kwame Opoku-Duku is a poet and fiction writer. His work is featured or forthcoming in the Massachusetts Review, BOMB, Gigantic Sequins, Booth, and Chicago Review of Books' Arcturus, among other publications. Kwame lives in New York City and, along with Karisma Price, is a founding member of the Unbnd Collective. Find him online at kwamethethird.com or tweeting @kwamethethird.

Conversations with Contributors: CHRISTOPHER KEMPF by Peter LaBerge

BY MIA KANG

  Christopher Kempf , featured in  Issue Twenty-Two .

Christopher Kempf, featured in Issue Twenty-Two.

Christopher Kempf is the author of Late in the Empire of Men, which won the 2015 Levis Prize in Poetry from Four Way Books. Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, his work has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, The New Republic, and PEN America, among other places. A recent Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College, he is a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Chicago.

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Mia Kang: Chris, thanks for taking the time to be interviewed. Late in the Empire of Men is a stunning collection, and I’m excited to learn more about its making. As a first question, I’m curious to know about your process—how did these poems begin to form, and at what point did you start to see them as a book? Can you describe a moment when this project broke open for you?

Christopher Kempf: Mia, thanks so much for speaking with me, and thanks, too, to The Adroit Journal for giving us this opportunity. I think highly of your own work—the razor-sharp syntax, the historical consciousness—so it’s such a pleasure to think about these questions.

I wrote the oldest poems in LITEOM—“Predictive Text: The Corn Monster” and “In the ’90s”—as part of my MFA thesis in 2009, but the current form of the book was a relatively late development. Though I’d been aware, as I worked on the collection, that the poems were circling a set of common interests, it wasn’t until I had a title for the book that I began to see it as a structurally unified project, one, specifically, that laid a coming-of-age narrative across the westward trajectory of American history. 

I like your description of the project “breaking open”—for me that happened after I wrote “Clearing the History,” what I saw immediately was a kind of keystone poem for the book, since it’s there that the speaker moves from Ohio to California, from childhood to adulthood; as soon as that poem fell into place, the book, as far as I was concerned, was finished.

MK: What’s something you’ve had to work toward or against in terms of your skills as a writer? In what ways did these poems challenge you, whether to explore new ways of writing or to go deeper into certain aspects of your practice?

CK: One of the things I struggle with, still, is fighting against—or “breaking”—the rhythm of the poem in order to convey the specific idea I want to get across at that moment. I almost always hear the rhythm of the poem before the words themselves, and while, ideally, music and meaning should work together, sometimes the prose-sense doesn’t want to fit into the poetic container, or overruns the musical staff, or whatever other metaphor one wants to use.

I’ve always loved the way Frost talks about it. The metaphor he uses—which, I now realize, is better than my own—is hearing the rise and fall of voices behind a closed door. For Frost, it’s the music, the tone of a sentence that lets it accrue such a rich affective complexity, and I’m trying more, in my own work, to loosen the rhythm in order to achieve a more varied intellectual and emotional range.

MK: The book deals in part with mythical themes and characters, as well as with the resonances of the Roman Empire. What’s your relationship to classical literature and history? What has hooked or repelled you about the classics?

CK: I was raised Catholic, and still consider myself Catholic to a certain extent, but what interests me in the religion is less the doctrinal or theological niceties than the underlying system of myth, which is—if one goes back far enough—pagan. That myth, the dying and rising god, is all around us, it seems to me—in the changing of the seasons, in the names we give to our children, in secular rites like Homecoming. For the ancients, the world was alive with divine energy, and I’m trying, in LITEOM, to re-enchant things like the Indianapolis 500 and high-school graduation parties and even video games, to show both their mythic importance to American culture as well as their more deleterious effects. I think your own writing about Rome, if I understand it correctly, sharply critiques these more negative aspects of myth, even while feeling compelled by them.

I’ve been inspired too, I have to admit, by the grand, civilizational histories that used to be written by people like Oswald Spengler and Edward Gibbon, another form of mythology in their own right. There’s a lot these histories get wrong, but they bespeak a desire for synthesis, for unity, that we seem, in our age of specialization and distraction, to have given up on; that desire, I think, is fundamentally religious in nature. 

MK: The poems in Late in the Empire of Men take a wide range of forms on the page. Did your use of classical references inspire any particular formal strategies in the book? Would you say you had a formal project you wanted to engage in the book as a whole?

 CK: I hadn’t thought of the form of the book as relating, much, to the classical references, but I do think of the formal movement of the book—oscillating between single-stanza, columnar poems and more fractured or jagged poems—as embodying a shuttling between wholeness and brokenness, unity and fragmentation. To the extent that the book has a formal project, it’s about thinking through, in form, the problem of how an empire holds together and how it falls apart. One could think of the book, then, as an excavation, trying to gather these mythological fragments and make them, in the present, into a kind of whole. This is, I guess, an Eliotic project, only with poems about OkCupid and food courts.

MK: I found your book often calls upon elegy or nostalgia, but it always pushes those to become more present in the present rather than enacting a simple looking back, if that makes sense—the poems tend to collapse time in a way that creates a kind of endlessness. And the time-space of the book feels distinctly contemporary. Can you talk about what you had to work through to constellate past and future in this way, whether in individual poems or perhaps in terms of sequencing?

 CK: That’s such a keen take on the book—thank you.

Sequencing LITEOM, as a coherent narrative, was far easier than handling the temporal shifts in individual poems, since the book begins in childhood and moves through the pangs of adolescence—the speaker coming into his capacity for violence and sexuality—toward a more stable, if still unsettling, adulthood.

For me, time is always a function of place, which is why I love your punning term “time-space.” By that, I mean that place, as I experience it, is a kind of historical palimpsest, layered over with the various groups—both familial and civilizational—that ever occupied a given house or town or nation. Sometimes we’re made acutely aware of the presentness—“presence” would be the religious term—of the past, such as when we’re staring at the ruins of the Sutro Baths, or walking through a redwood forest, or lying in one of those massive, 19th century parks with monuments and greenhouses and skating ponds we’d never build anymore. The poems in LITEOM are infused, I think, with that historical consciousness, with the conviction that we are hardly the first to see what we see, even to feel what we feel. Against the foundational tenet of lyric poetry—that the individual is a world until him or herself—LITEOM asks whether we’re really that exceptional; I’d say probably not.

MK: Masculinity—especially the way young American men are raised into it—is at issue throughout the book. I sense you worked hard to undo any strictly declarative or narrative register of language into something more indeterminate in these poems. Can you discuss how gender figures into your approach to language and form?

CK: It’s interesting that you think of the poems as “indeterminate,” whereas I tend to think of their form, precisely, as “narrative” and “declarative.” I’m grateful, though, to be seen as indeterminate, since the opposite, I guess, might be something like “self-assured” or “didactic.”

Perhaps what’s actually taking place in the poems is a formal undoing of discursive or semantic assertion; in other words, something like lineation, for instance, complicates what seems to be a straightforward statement, as in “What/ this century left us is just/ this one way to be men…” Yes, the passage suggests, it’s terrible how American imperialism inducts young men into patterns of violence, but this also makes sense on a logical level—this is how empires work.

I wanted these poems—and want all my poetry—to resist the kind of easy moralizing that mars far too much of the poetry being celebrated these days. I want my writing, rather, to examine self-consciously its own implication in injustice, the very material ways in which it—and me, and the entire poetry community—profits from those systems of violence we most vehemently object to. Brooks and Warren talk about a poem being “massive” and “multidimensional”—I want that. Poetry certainly has a role in opposing injustice, but it needn’t do so, I don’t think, at the expense of complicated, responsible thinking.

MK: Late in the Empire of Men is your first collection of poetry, and congratulations again on such an impressive debut. What did this book teach you? What are you working on now?

CK: Thank you, Mia. And thank you again, really, for such thoughtful, challenging questions; I had to think deeply about these, for which I’m grateful.

Writing LITEOM, and watching it make its way in the world, has taught me a lot about writing poetry, but it’s also taught me to be a kinder, more generous citizen of the poetry community. The book has benefited tremendously from the kindness of others, whether friends and teachers who read early drafts, or the incredible staff at Four Way who midwifed it, or complete strangers who took the time to think with it or review it. At the same time, I’ve learned to value the work in itself independent of whatever praise or criticism it garners in the outside world; I’ve learned satisfaction can’t come from outside—one always wants one more fellowship, one more award, one more acceptance letter.

As for what’s next, I’m finishing up a second poetry collection about a year I spent living in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and trying to make a significant push on a doctoral dissertation about the rhetoric of labor in early creative writing programs. That—and reading as much poetry as possible.

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Mia Kang is an Oregon-born, Texas-raised writer, named the 2017 winner of Boston Review’s Annual Poetry Contest by Mónica de la Torre. A Brooklyn Poets Fellow and runner-up for the 2017 "Discovery"/Boston Review Poetry Contest, her work as appeared of is forthcoming including Rattle Poets Respond, Narrative Magazine, Poetry Northwest, and the PEN Poetry Series. Mia is currently a PhD student in the history of art at Yale University, where she studies contemporary art, constitutive outsides, and impasse.