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Forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux this fall is the long-awaited collection of poetry by Iman Mersal, translated by Robyn Creswell, titled The Threshold. The author of five books of poems, Mersal is a highly acclaimed Egyptian poet and writer, currently based in Canada, where she teaches Arabic language and literature at the University of Alberta. Her collaboration with Robyn Creswell began when he became poetry editor of The Paris Review in 2010, with an enthusiasm for publishing more Arab poets. In addition to The Paris Review, Creswell’s translations of Mersal’s poems have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Arkansas International, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. To accompany three featured poems by Iman Mersal this September, Four Way Review poetry editor Sara Elkamel spoke with translator Robyn Creswell about The Threshold.
SARA ELKAMEL: Congratulations on your forthcoming collection of Iman Mersal’s poetry in translation, The Threshold (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022)! It gathers poems from four of Iman’s collections: A dark alley suitable for dance lessons (1995), Walking as long as possible (1997), Alternative geography (2006), and Until I give up the idea of home (2013). Can you tell us a little bit about the process you went through, together with Iman, to get this collection together? How did you go about selecting the poems?
ROBYN CRESWELL: Iman is a poet of sensibility: she has an immediate, idiosyncratic presence on the page. Her voice—really a congeries of voices—is unforgettable once it gets in your ear. But it’s also a sensibility that develops in large part by looking back on prior performances: reading Iman’s work in chronological order, you have this feeling of astonishing self-sufficiency—her voice expands, matures, and addresses itself to different topics, but the transformations result from self-reflection.
When we chose the poems of The Threshold—and we discussed the table of contents endlessly, because it was fun to arrange and rearrange the poems—I think we wanted to make sure the distinctiveness of Iman’s voice came through, but also its dramatic evolution. So the poems are arranged roughly in the order they were first published, although we also made sure that short and long poems alternate, and the variety of voices is on full display.
SE: You’ve been working with Iman for several years now (I remember reading your gorgeous translation of “The Idea of Houses” in The Nation in 2015). Can you tell us how you first started translating her poetry, and how your evolving collaboration has in turn manifested in the translations?
RC: When I became poetry editor of The Paris Review in 2010, one of my aims was to publish a larger chorus of Arab poets in the magazine. At the time, I think the only poet writing in Arabic who had been published in the Review was Mahmoud Darwish. An Egyptian friend of mine, Waiel Ashry, suggested that I read Iman. At the time, I had what I now recognize as a schoolboyish appreciation of modern Arabic poetry: I mostly read the classics (Darwish, Adonis, Nizar Qabbani, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab), and was suitably awed. Reading Iman was like encountering a contemporary: here was someone who was, I felt, writing the present (to borrow a phrase of Elias Khoury).
I wrote to Iman asking if she might be willing to share some current work with me and among the poems she sent was “A Celebration.” I love that poem—the way it begins with a figure of speech, then literalizes it (“The thread of the story fell to the ground, so I went down on my hands and knees to hunt for it”). Then the juxtaposed scenes of an encounter on a train with an Afghan woman and a patriotic rally in Cairo. The relation between the two episodes, one intimate, the other collective, is never spelled out—it has something to do with the experience of speaking words in a “foreign” language—but the idea of putting them together is what makes the poem characteristic of Iman.
After that first poem we began working on others, until the idea of a book became more or less inescapable. Working with Iman—we’ve worked very closely—has been a pleasure and a privilege. She has a knack for seeing where my English versions aren’t quite right (I’m abashed now to look at some of my first drafts), but she never imposed her own solutions. I’ve learned more from her about Arabic poetry—how it works, its range of tones, its levels of diction—than any other teacher. I’ve been very lucky.
SE: You’ve previously referred to Iman Mersal’s voice as having a “sinuous, rough-edged music” that can be challenging to translate. I also find that irony and wry humor permeate Iman’s poems, which I imagine would be difficult to always carry across into English. Do you remember any particular challenges with translating any of the three poems featured in FWR?
RC: English can do wryness, but Arabic verse has musical possibilities that I don’t think contemporary poetry in English can really capture. Because written Arabic is a literary language—it isn’t spoken except in formal situations—it’s possible to be grandly symphonic or virtuosically lyrical in a way that’s hard to imagine in English. You’d have to be a Tennyson to match the musical effects in Darwish’s late poetry, for example. But of course trying to be Tennysonian would be fatal.
With Iman the difficulty for an English translator is different, and I would say more manageable. In a poem about her father, she wonders whether he might have disliked her “unmusical poems.” I don’t think they’re actually unmusical (I don’t think Iman does either), but their rhythms and cadences and sounds have a lot in common with the spoken language. She writes in fusha, sometimes called “standard” Arabic, but her style shares many features of the vernacular: she doesn’t use ten-dollar words, her syntax is typically straightforward, economy is a virtue. She also uses tonal effects—sarcasm, for example—that we tend to associate with speech.
We talked a lot about “A grave I’m about to dig.” I’m still not sure Iman likes my choice of “diagonal” for the Arabic ma’ilan, to describe the way a bird falling out of the sky might appear to an observer on the ground (but that’s how I think of Iman: she sees things at a slant). The last phrase of the poem, “were it not for the sneakers on my feet” is a typical moment of self-deprecation, a comedy of casualness. There are no feet in the Arabic original, however, which just says “were it not for my sneakers” (or, more literally, “my sports shoes”). I thought adding the phrase “on my feet” was needed, both for musical reasons and because it suggests a pun that isn’t available in Arabic, where verse meters aren’t called feet. For me, Iman’s (musical, metrical) feet really do wear sneakers: they’re quick and agile, casual but spiffy. They’re what we wear today.
SE: Iman’s poems typically take on different forms as well as registers–at times indulging in the lyric, and at times sacrificing it for the sake of a more restrained, almost academic language. She recently told me that she believes poems don’t have “forms” as much as “personalities.” Do you find you have to “get to know” a poem of hers before you approach a translation? If so, what does that process look like?
RC: I think translation is the process—or a process—of getting to know a poem. My first versions tend to be awkward, formal, overly reliant on obvious equivalents (something like the French faux amis). That isn’t so different from the way one talks with a new acquaintance: conventions can be useful. It’s only later, and gradually, that you begin to see what makes the poem—if it’s a good poem—worth spending time with.
SE: Finally, can you tell us a little bit about the choice of title for your forthcoming collection, The Threshold?
RC: “The threshold,” in Arabic al-‘ataba, is an important motif in several of Iman’s poems. It names a site of risk, guilt, transformation. It’s also the title of a long poem that comes at the midpoint of the collection. To my mind, this is Iman’s farewell to the era of her youth. It’s a valedictory poem about Cairo in the nineties, full of Europeanizing elites, posturing poets, and entitled State intellectuals. It’s a poem of the open road that also tells the story of a generation: Iman and her friends wend their way from the Opera House in Zamalek, Cairo’s poshest neighborhood, to the ministry buildings and bars of downtown, through the streets of Old Cairo, and out into the City of the Dead—a burial ground that’s also a point of departure.
Robyn Creswell teaches Comparative Literature at Yale University and is a consulting editor for poetry at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is the author of City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut, and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.
Iman Mersal is the author of five books of poems and a collection of essays, How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts. In English translation, her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, and elsewhere. Her most recent prose work, Traces of Enayat, received the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2021. She is a professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Alberta, Canada. Photo credit: Hamdy Reda
Robyn Creswell teaches Comparative Literature at Yale University and is a consulting editor for poetry at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is the author of City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut, and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. Photo credit: Annette Hornischer
Four years had passed since I returned to this building, the old city, and the old job. At work digitizing the poster of another Czech New Wave film—this one depicting algae sprouting from a woman’s head, dark eyes sparkling with silver pin lights that reminded me of plankton—my heart started racing so fast I handed over my shift and went home. I sensed another panic attack. What did it was the smell of jasmine that wafted through that image—impossible but as real as a bite.
The jasmine had been trailing me. At first it was like a furtive glance across the room. The scent of a blooming vine would slither into the apartment with a passing breeze from an open window or suddenly shut door. It even made its way in the stillest of air that had been chewed on for days, keeping out the gelid winter. I checked my clothes, my linen, perfume bottles, but that couldn’t be it. I didn’t wear perfume, the bottles were decorative, my grandmother’s mementos. In the summer and fall I’d dismissed the scent as a whiff of viburnum or linden. Jasmine just wasn’t something you would find in Prague. I knew that smell; I knew it well.
“Maybe you should go to the hospital,” my co-worker Marketa suggested one day, her eyes scanning me as she held up my coat.
“It’ll pass,” I said.
I measured my steps to the Staroměstská metro station, the snow sludgy and clinging to my hems, wishing I hadn’t worn high-heeled boots. I gripped the rubbery escalator handrail on that interminable descent from which I could hear the train’s distant hum in the earth’s bowels. That whistling, the pounding of wheels, turned into a chugging roar as vertigo washed over me.
Inside my studio, Grandma was listening to a Hana Hegerová record, sitting on the couch and knitting another bright-colored scarf, presumably for me. “You’re early,” she said, watching as I unzipped my boots and put on the slippers by the door.
“Yes,” I said. I was used to finding her in my apartment, especially since she lived upstairs and my studio was officially hers. Her plump, stockinged legs and muumuu-adorned presence were as ubiquitous as the heavy walnut furniture. “I need to lie down,” I said.
Her eyes searched mine as she put the yarn in her canvas bag, slung it over her shoulder, leaned forward and rose with great effort. Lying down on the couch that doubled as a bed, I could feel her warmth on the woolen cushions as I closed my eyes.
“Rest,” she said. “Come over later. I made goulash.”
“I’ll call you if I’m coming over.”
“No need to. Just come in. You need to eat,” she said. I could hear shuffling around the room, the clinking and rinsing of glass in the sink, the creak of the cabinet door as she opened and closed it. How did I end up here again? I saw myself at 5,17, then 29, 50, 72, my entire life spent between this studio and the larger one upstairs, which was my parents’ until they moved to their country cottage and I returned from Brazil.
“You’re lucky they took you back,” Grandma said often enough about my job at the National Film Archives, since I had returned with nothing aside from a suitcase and a few wrinkles. For her, my relationship with Samuel and all those years abroad, they didn’t really count. And for a while I, too, was almost convinced everything had been a long holiday, a mindscape in which life intensifies, attuned to another frequency.
In my early twenties, when I got into film school, I took up Romance languages in my spare time, learning some Italian and then Spanish, but it was Portuguese that intrigued me enough to go to Portugal and then, finally, to Brazil. I’d always been drawn by unknown places and people presented to me through photographs, films, and documentaries. At home, I felt part of the furniture.
After dozing for a couple hours, I put on my jacket and went upstairs. We ate Grandma’s goulash with the television on mute.
“Backgammon?” she asked after dinner.
“Not tonight,” I said, sniffing something. There it was again, the faint smell of jasmine. “Do you smell it?”
She turned on the TV and looked at me impassively. “You’re right. Too many caraway seeds.”
“Not that. The goulash is fine.” With legs propped on the coffee table, her swollen shins caught my attention. “How about a massage?” I asked.
Her eyes lit up, youthful with expectation. Sitting across from her, I picked up her leg and rubbed the pressure points on her feet. Closing her eyes, she basked in pleasure like her big red tabby. In moments like these, I could see the young woman she had been.
“You’re a jewel,” she said, her voice lilting. “Pavel’s a bachelor, you know. Still single, like you.” Worse than unattractive, Pavel had a bland handsome face, a smug grin, and a ready string of infantile jokes that appealed to my grandma.
Re-shifting my weight, I reminded her again: “I have been married.”
“Oh. A beach ceremony in the middle of nowhere doesn’t count,” she said. “Besides, no one knows about it.”
“I know about it,” I said, laying down the peeling, reddened foot.
Snapping her eyes open, she huffed. “That’s it? You’re a tease,” she said.
I got up to wash my hands. By the time I left the bathroom, she was already talking to her friend Helča on the phone. The two compared notes on talent shows—this one called Dazzling Incarnations—while watching. “That’s what passes for talent nowadays,” Grandma usually said, only this time the talent in question happened to pass her test. “She’s the spitting image of Edith Piaf,” she declared. Pressing the cellphone to her chest the way she would’ve done with an old receiver, she looked up at me. “Rest, Evička. Good night.”
As I lay in bed, I watched the snow against the windowpane. The wisps conjured memories. At this time of year, summer in the southern hemisphere would still be in full swing, the sea calm enough to swim at all hours, with tourists alternately reveling and devouring the village like insatiable hounds. Samuel’s three bakeries around town would be so bustling he’d employ additional people, making regular trips to Rio to restock any gourmet merchandise. Jaunty açaí stands would’ve sprouted for the season, and a mixture of techno, international and Brazilian pop, jazz, bossa nova, favela funk would all compete for attention, heard from stand to stand and house to house. Soon, those tourists would be gone, leaving the village, then the town, flushed out with the remains of a summer-long party.
During the summer, I’d see Samuel at short intervals during the day, spending my mornings alone while he slept off the late nights at Belezapura, his recently opened music venue and side project. At the time I was teaching English online to Japanese students, so I’d rise early with the golden wash that entered the bedroom through the windows, glance over at Samuel’s sleeping face, cross the room and open the house’s colonial windows one by one. The window at the end of the hall I saved for last. It opened into a mesh of lush passion fruit vines that laced the sunlight—an interplay of copper, lime green, and butterfly shadows. As the vines grew into an arbor outside, they drew stars on the floor and the chair by the window. If the wind blew just so, the scent of jasmine circled the three front pillars—straight and modernist, white-washed but blending with the sand and earth that trailed the house like a passing sigh.
Images dissolved as I fell asleep. When I woke up the next day, I realized I’d forgotten to set the alarm. I took a quick shower, made instant coffee, poured some milk in it, and layered on my scarf, hat, coat. I trudged to the subway station, grateful for the splash of sun breaking through the clouds. I sidestepped the first slush pile on the pavement but stepped into the second, my boots sinking right in. The frigid wetness seeped in—an icy gel of discomfort.
In the subway, I caught my reflection in the dirty glass. I looked sallow and puzzled. How could I return to something that no longer made sense?
I arrived at work barely on time, went to my desk, and examined the pile of posters. I removed my socks and boots discreetly, leaving them on the edge of the radiator. The socks would dry soon enough, I figured. Marketa shot me a sideways glance when she spotted them, but so what? We had plenty of space between desks, and my socks didn’t smell. This is the type of thing Samuel would’ve done without a second thought. Not that he was clueless. He simply lacked inhibition. At first it was shocking, then it freed up a space in me. The opinions of others were something one could live without. After shaking them off, they seemed like an extra appendage.
“Are you feeling better?” Marketa asked during lunch in the cafeteria. By then my socks had dried stiffly and crackled as I wiggled my toes.
“Better than what?”
She took my answer for sarcasm and smirked.
“It’s supposed to be nice this weekend. We’re going up to Honza’s cottage on Saturday. What are you doing?” she asked. A speck of plaster fell from the ceiling, landing on the wooden table. “Filthy!” she said. She looked around for someone to clean it up.
In Brazil, the so-called invisible people who did the cleaning had been all too visible, tasked with keeping everything orderly according to the tastes of their employers. Samuel liked to teach people, offering coffee, snacks and doing the work along with them until they knew just how he liked it done. For the younger ones, he’d put on a rock album, instilling a sense of freedom—and energized labor. “Post-colonial propaganda,” I’d said to him.
In the beginning I found it discomfiting to employ cleaners at home—and they were all women—not just in terms of subservience but also for the intrusiveness, the inherent lack of privacy in exposing your dirty laundry to a stranger. “Treat them with respect and it’s fine,” Samuel liked to say. The women didn’t talk to me, and Samuel said I needed to learn how to be a boss. “I don’t like being a boss or being bossed around,” I’d say. He’d smile, amused. We had a string of faxineiras until we finally met Selma—a shy middle-aged countrywoman who brought herbs from her garden. She responded more to my hands-off approach than Samuel’s marionetting.
There I was again, lost in thought, so that Marketa repeated, “Do you want to come? Honza’s bringing a friend from Brno. He’s funny, I hear.”
Since my return, people had been trying to set me up. From the little I had told Marketa about Samuel, she assumed that “funny” was my one criterion. I was tired of saying no, so I agreed to go out for a drink on Friday.
I met the three of them at Kavarna Lucerna. Marketa waved to me, and joined the trio sitting by a window overlooking the upside-down ass of Saint Wesceslas’s dead horse. “I know, I know. There was nowhere else to sit. I hate David Černý,” said my would-be suitor by way of introduction. He was wearing a tight-fitting pinstriped suit and a manic grin.
“David Černý’s brilliant,” I said, taking a seat.
“And what is so interesting about creeping babies, pissing fountains, suicidal businessmen hanging off a pole, and this”—he pointed to the sculpture across the glass—“travesty of our national hero?” Honza and Marketa exchanged glances.
“It’s not a businessman. The man hanging off the pole is Freud and he’s suspended, hanging on,” I said. “Ambivalently but still. As for the babies—”
Petr stared at me like I was speaking about barnacle formation in gibberish, so that Marketa interrupted. “We’ve been indoctrinated with surrealism, Petr,” she conceded for his benefit.
“Subversive poser. Enough horse shit,” he said. Honza laughed. I must have furrowed my brow, because Petr turned to me. “Let’s get you a drink. You could use one.
I ordered a bavorák, then another, fizzling out their presence. Now and then, I stared out the window at the horse’s dangling tail. At some point Petr got up to answer a call, and Marketa turned to me. “He’s just nervous. Petr takes care of his mother. You live with your grandmother. You two have something in common once you get past his taste in art,” she said. I thought of correcting her, as I lived below my grandmother, but what was the point? Her comparison soured my mood. I excused myself, went to the counter, and paid for my drinks. As I was leaving, Petr grabbed my forearm.
“You can’t go,” he said.
That weekend was surprisingly warm with the soft pastels of early spring. Along the river line even the willows showed signs of life, people were out, their faces tilted to the sun like flowers. Before I knew it, I was traipsing alone in the castle district of Hradčany. The Belvedere palace slid into view with its verdigris roof, the spruce’s branches framing the Renaissance building. Ever since I’d returned, I gravitated towards the building which was envisioned as a summer palace for the wife of Ferdinand I, who died before its completion. It’s a suspended playground meant to embrace the sun, the garden, and the city. The lightness of the arcade and many windows reminded me of Samuel’s modernist house in Brazil.
Samuel had taken me to see it shortly after we met. I was so struck by its scope and imagination, that he’d build something like it—at once classic and avant-garde—that I said nothing. It was constructed in incongruous sections, an open plan for the main part and another for the bedrooms, hallway, and foyer. The kitchen stood apart from the house altogether, in the back, with its own garden. Unlike the other houses on the street, it had a simple wooden gate, its plants grasping for the sea through the sand and earth. Someone who would build a house like that must have an original mind. And of all the qualities in someone, originality was what I sought, tired as I was of templates of being.
“So, you want to live here?” Samuel had asked.
“What do you mean? We’ve only just met.” He didn’t take his eyes off me, his gaze unwavering, almost like a child’s in frankness. I had looked at the burnt cement floor of the living room, which was painted a deep indigo, all sky and wonder, and I could not think of a good reason to say no. Samuel had first introduced himself to me at Belezapura, his music venue in town. I was there with an Argentinean acquaintance, a woman who worked at the local art-house movie theater. “Do you usually prefer the A or B side of an album?” he’d asked. An experimental version of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ classic “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5” was playing at the time, which sounded vaguely familiar.
“The D side when there’s one. What’s this, a sampling?”
He crossed his arms and shook his head so slowly it seemed mechanical. “Egberto Gismonti, baby,” he said. I couldn’t help but laugh. He was equally attractive and strange—tall, his skin a mahogany shade from the sun, a large aquiline nose, and an asymmetrical face, one eye much larger than the other. Altogether he had a calm assurance, the way he stood apart while taking everything in. It wasn’t so much that he owned the place but rather he owned his space.
A few days later, we went on a date that lasted a week. He’d said to bring a toothbrush, and I figured I would spend the night at his place. Instead, we got on the road.
Like a racecar driver, he changed lanes and passed cars, going too fast and then halting to a stop. At one point I’d closed my eyes. “Slow down,” I pleaded. He did, but I could sense the effort involved.
Soon we entered a mountainous region flecked with cottages and enveloped by blue mist, the bucolic landscape reminiscent of Slovakia, with its bungalows and enmeshing forests. Our cottage had a porch and was pushed back into a hill, where pine and eucalyptus surrounded us. A creek coursed through the property, the air crisp with a mineral scent.
Samuel had brought a bottle of whiskey, and we drank it slowly, sitting on the porch before retreating inside, where we made love for the rest of the week—on every conceivable surface as well as in the creek—and just when we thought we were exhausted, a feral glance would rouse us. We were trying each other out. There was a gleefulness to it all, a game of making up for lost time—of a future where we might not be together. If we were never to meet again, this time would have to suffice.
We swam naked in the nearby lakes and ate breakfast and lunch in the property’s common area. Everything was prepared by a beautiful, stout second-generation Polish woman with a gentle smile and a mischievous glint in her eyes. She was obviously familiar with Samuel’s preferences—he’d brought an ex there before, he said—and served us graciously, stopping to chat and feed the birds. When she learned I was Czech, she nodded slowly, as if calibrating a response. Finally, she said, “This is the land of forgetfulness.” She said she grew up without television, newspapers, internet, and news of the world, and did not learn Portuguese until she was sent to school at seven. Her parents, she said, had eventually forgotten where they were whereas she had forgotten much of what they told her about Poland. Her Polish now consisted of a few scattered words, recipes, and habits. I counted the number of wildflowers on the vase on the table, and surely enough, they were odd numbered, a superstition common to Slavs. It also struck me that the place her family had settled was a simulacrum of a village in Eastern Europe, as nebulous as that was.
At some point, Samuel chipped in, “There are many Ukrainians here as well. Jana, why don’t you get together?” Jana shook her head, chuckling. “Because then a Russian would come out,” she said. Apparently it was a joke in these parts, a joke Samuel was in on.
When we were ready to eat, I marveled at the colorful array of dishes spread on the linen cloth. “She killed a chicken for us today,” Samuel said.
“A sacrifice,” I responded.
We ate it reverentially, in keeping with the fantastical feel of our mountain alcove. During that entire time, we were the only guests around.
At night, we had access to the kitchen. In between swimming, sleeping, and exploring, we warmed up the pans in the industrial kitchen, our appetites as robust as the sex. In the morning, I would rise just as the first blue-grey light began to show and go onto the porch to be alone for a while. I wrote on napkins, just so I wouldn’t forget as Jana said. I feel cleansed. A tightly-shut room has cracked open, I wrote.
Next, I was looking through fronds at the apricot sky by the sea. In less than a month, I brought my few belongings to Samuel’s beach house. And he, day after day, would bring in new furnishings—a new rug, chaise, a dresser, wardrobe, a vanity—found in antique shops, on the side of the road, or from the many people he knew or ran across, all bargained in his favor. I wasn’t used to such extravagant gestures and distrusted them. I seemed to have no choice in the matter, as items would be summoned by a passing glance of approval. For a while I was almost reluctant to notice something that would soon be mine, as though by magic. “I grew up under communism, you know,” I told Samuel at one point. “We were taught to shun excess and impulses.”
He would give me one of his sardonic looks and slap his thighs. “You’ve come to the wrong place then. A wild colony. No place for amateur anthropologists.” These comments annoyed me enough to make me question my certainties.
We had a ceremony on the beach at sunset to mark our wedding. We played Dorival Caymmi. He got people from the village to build a pergola, and they stood at a distance looking on as the vow, which consisted of silently looking at each other for a while, exhausted itself and the justice—a friend of Samuel’s—said, “So be it!” We were supposed to formally register a civil wedding at the town hall, but never got around to it. I found that informality liberating. Used to a Kafkaesque bureaucracy where everything had to be notarized, stamped, and apostilled by countless hands, I relished its undoing. A piece of paper would’ve broken the spell.
Still, many people referred to me as Samuel’s wife, rarely by my name.
As I think of that beginning now, I recall the contours of a seashell—enigmatic but merely the surface of the roaring inside, its bony scent unfurling the connective tissue among people. Soon, Samuel’s female friends began to visit us at home. I had met them before at the music venue, in passing. They were the daughters of the elite—well-educated, fashionable, and used to all forms of privilege, even if some were conscious of social causes. They greeted me with polite interest at first but were skeptical of our relationship. I supposed I would’ve been, too, in their place. All of a sudden I was just there, an interloper as far as they were concerned. My reserve and Samuel’s expansiveness didn’t seem to fit. “So different from Bel,” I heard them say about the ex, whose traces could be found in the garden. Apparently, she was the one who chose that particular strain of Madagascar jasmine around the front pillars. These friends brought gifts—candied orange peels, jazz albums, a Persian rug once, like an offering to a prince. It became evident that many of these friends had once been lovers or wanted to be one, and the ongoing question was, why me?
Samuel and I tended to question each other’s questions from other angles.
“Freedom can be agonizing. Have you read any of the Existentialists?” I asked Samuel once.
He didn’t respond, pulling out books by George Gurdjeiff and Adries Shah from the shelves. His friends would come over at all hours; they showed up unexpectedly and sprawled. There were a couple of constant fixtures—Laura, for instance. She had a piercing gaze, both steady and provocative. She seemed to glide through space, effortlessly at ease. No sooner would she arrive, and she had a ready quip to match Samuel’s. Laura refused to speak Portuguese to me, saying it was easier to converse in English.
“You should teach Czech,” she said.
“There’s not much of a demand for that.”
Exchanging a glance with Samuel, she smirked. “Czech could be the new Esperanto.” She suggested I teach those who had an interest in learning something impractical just for kicks. Laura owned a boutique in town and when she appeared at the village, expected to stay the night. Sitting back on the chaise, she’d smoke a joint, alternatively choose and have records chosen for her benefit and bask in Samuel’s way of getting you to air out your thoughts. For a while jealousy had given way to a certain voyeurism. I didn’t want to interrupt something I wanted to watch unfold.
Once, after my one visit back to Prague during those six years in Brazil, I’d brought Samuel a book about the city with a pop-up map. He’d noticed the picture of the Belvedere and remarked on its arcades and verdigris roof. I tried to convince him to come here to Prague with me, but it was no use. “Wherever you go, you take yourself,” he said. “The trip is internal.”
He was fond of mystics, adventurers, and phrases like that, and when I rolled my eyes, he’d smile and tell me to get out of the cage I’d built around myself.
“I’m here, aren’t I? Isn’t this proof enough that I am open?”
“The cage may be open but you’re still inside.”
“I don’t want Laura to come around anymore.”
“Because I’ll bite her if she does.”
“I don’t recommend it. I don’t see why you can’t be friends.”
“That’s just a façade. You should know better. Lay out the candied oranges she brings.”
We began to argue about Laura constantly. “You’ve changed,” he said. “When did you become someone who looks at an orange and only sees the orange.”
A few days later Samuel went to São Paulo. I stayed in the village and got invited to the film festival in town, a yearly event run by a French producer who had retired there. The festival had become one of those chic little spots in the circuit that could only remain hidden for so long. I noticed Laura inside the hall of the festival. Neither of us greeted the other, acknowledging each other sideways while she talked to a group of men, and I spoke to my acquaintance who helped organize the festival.
After an Argentinian film—Wild Tales, it was called—the last screening of the day, people slowly petered out and the ones who stayed were invited to the mansion of one of the producers. Laura was there. I don’t remember much of the party aside from a flurry of people on a deck, strobe lights, and glasses of champagne and whisky. Eventually we gravitated towards each other and exchanged a few banal words.
“Where’s Samuel?” she asked.
“Not here,” I said.
We went to one of the back rooms and she mentioned Samuel again, made fun of his sideburns. Tanned and hazel-eyed, she was wearing a white pantsuit with a deep decolletage. I noticed a reddish spill on the fabric, near her shoulder blade. “Well, so you’re human, after all,” I said.
She huffed. “This oily pest spilled it on me while trying to impress me with his credentials.”
“You look like a swan in that pantsuit.”
“And you look like an owl. So serious all the time.”
I stared back at her. A light switched on in me. I now felt a strange lucidity, when something previously out of focus sharpens. I seduced her by merely looking at her long enough, seizing the power of watching her react. She was beautiful, more so as drops of sweat pooled on her upper lip. I leaned over and licked the salty sweat from her cupid’s bow. She stared back at me. Grinned.
I felt like Samuel. But I was nothing like Samuel, and she must have sensed that intermingled with sudden desire was a wish to stamp her out. At that moment sex was a substitute for a fight, a latent desire to take control, to change the plot and become the protagonist and the director. It didn’t take long for Laura’s expression to darken, as if she had just remembered who I was. Already dressed, she left without offering me a ride.
The public vans that had brought me to the party were no longer running. I had to walk all the way to the village. I don’t know how long it took exactly—it felt like hours, my sobering up every step of the way—but I was at home by seven in the morning, feeling strangely bereft at that house by myself after such an unusual turn of events. Nausea settled in. It reminded me of the time my grandmother had forgotten a roast in the oven and I ate it greedily. Then, as the staleness of the meat sunk in, I’d slumped into a corner of the room while my body raged, my tongue stale and leaden.
By the time Samuel returned, I had decided not to mention anything, assuming neither would she. It would be our pact, some kind of a ladies’ agreement. I didn’t think she would show up at the house again, not for some time anyway, but I was wrong. Not only did Laura meet him in town, but she also began to come by at least once a week, often unannounced and sometimes accompanied by Samuel himself, her laughter heard from the front gate. I couldn’t believe her nerve, the taunting. Then it occurred to me that she didn’t have anything to lose. I did.
At some point I told him about Laura and I. He just listened as he rolled a straw cigarette. “Well, you beat me to it,” he finally said, pausing before adding with a lopsided smile, “you’re telling me this to compensate for something else.”
“Who do you think you are? A guru?”
I was considering leaving him, and it bothered me that he sensed it.
“Only to myself,” he said.
Not long after that, I traveled to Rio alone. He didn’t question it or ask why, but something in his silence told me he was hurt. It was supposed to be a short trip, and it was cut even shorter. When I got the call, I was sitting in a bookstore café drinking hot milk, something Grandma often made for me. Laura, of all people, called to tell me Samuel had run into another driver on his way home at night. She said it was an instant death. In fiction, this was a deux ex machina, but real life is free to pull all sorts of tricks, drawing the curtain in the middle of a fight or a kiss.
So shocked I couldn’t bring myself to think, I must’ve made enough robotic requests to get from A to B. Everything from the moment I left Rio back to the village, the bus to town and then a van, blurred through numbness jagged with pain. Like a terrible toothache lodged not in my mouth but in my chest.
It was overcast when I arrived in the house, still damp from rain. When I opened the gate and trod the yard, my footprints matting the sand, I stopped to look at the vines of jasmine on the front pillars. Their buds were shut tightly like eyelids. I took it personally, as I couldn’t remember a time when they had been closed up like that. A new car was parked in the driveway, a stretch of land without shrubs or plants. Usually, it was where Samuel’s old Variant would be, its absence now conspicuous. I walked inside the house and saw the mirror on the foyer’s wall. It was covered with a sheet. The house seemed austere yet defiled, the floor streaked with dirt tracks from shoe soles.
Samuel’s two brothers were there. I had met them once before in the central bakery, and briefly at the house. They were urbanites with little taste for rustic beach houses or villages for that matter, preferring to stay in a hotel in town. They had been polite enough, though they clearly regarded me as just another girlfriend. As I watched one of them empty one of Samuel’s drawers, I tensed up. “Leave it,” I protested.
The older one turned around with a shrewd glance. “What do you want?” he asked. I wanted to assert some right in the matter, to sift through its contents—the letters, the photographs of Israel, the Kinder egg toys, the sunglasses, which I knew well enough—everything suddenly valuable to me. I balked at his gaze, however, like I was applying for another permission to be, to stay or to go.
I suppose a piece of paper would’ve helped then. Their mother, they said, was “too upset to come.” She had demanded Samuel be buried in São Paulo. After taking care of business matters, settling debts, closing the shops and Belezapura, the brothers left as silently and efficiently as they came, showing no interest in the house. I stayed put. The reckless driving then made sense as vestigial rebellion from his earlier years perhaps. I remembered one of his jokes, “My family, we’re commies. Everything is everyone’s and no one’s.” Like me, he sought some autonomy by coming here, by making a house so odd by regular standards. Unlike his lapidated brothers, he chipped away at veneers.
“Take care,” the brothers said on their way out. They looked like a blanched version of Samuel, lit within by artificial lights.
At some point Laura showed up. “The door was open,” she said. “Careful with that.”
“Here we are,” I said. “Come in.”
She sat next to me. We both stared at the mirrors—all of them covered with sheets. I cannot say we became friends, but a certain truce was reached, her very presence a form of consolation. After all, we had loved the same person. At some point we even held each other’s hands, like sisters and witnesses to one of life’s unanswerables.
She came around every day for a month, bringing quiches, bread, and soups.
When I finally left for Prague, she questioned the decision. “Why?” she asked. “It’s your house.”
“Yours, too,” I said.
“No. It’s not.”
The roaring of the sea turned a higher pitch, crashing and then fizzing with the foam. “This isn’t real life,” I said.
Real life. What a clipped bird it was turning out to be, wings trapped in caged reminiscences. And the jasmine trailing me was turning putrid. I left the Belvedere just as the air chilled and the sky turned violet. Now I often forgot where I was, lost in a time that seemed more real than my surroundings. Since my return, I had been living in this gelatinous reality, this maze of thoughts that all return to Samuel in that house. On the tram back to my studio, I heard Laura say, “You have to wait it out. Otherwise this sensation will follow you.”
We’d walked out of the house together, dragging my bulging suitcase across the yard, and she drove me to the airport. I took nothing of the house but its key.
Arriving at my studio, Grandma wasn’t there. Suddenly, I wanted to see her, to tell what I was about to do. I found her in front of the Dazzling Incarnations show upstairs, busy with my scarf. “I’m leaving,” I announced.
She didn’t even look up, knitting. “You already left.”
In 2021, Four Way Review partnered with several other journals and presses to establish the Bootleg Reading Series. It was a partnership we hoped would continue to grow beyond the reading series and lift up the projects of each partner. We’re excited to share this conversation with some of the poets of the new Queer Nature anthology, published by Bootleg partner Autumn House Press, in conversation with one another and the ideas of “queer nature”.
“Queer Nature is a groundbreaking anthology of more than 200 LGBTQIA+ poets writing about nature. Left out of the canon but with much to say, these writers peculiarize bodies into landscapes, lament the world we are destroying, and sing of darkness and love, especially along the beach. If nature is a monocrop, no single aesthetic, attitude or voice defines these poems from three centuries of American poetry.”
Michael Walsh, editor of Queer Nature, is a 2022 Lambda Gay Poetry Finalist. He received his BA in English from Knox College and his MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.
FWR: Which queer poets have inspired you? Which queer poems? If any are pastoral, do you notice anything new about them in the context of queer nature?
“You know, I have a lot of embarrassment about being pretty under informed about poetic movements or styles. I studied English and creative writing, but thought more about individual poems. This is just to say I’m not certain I understand what the pastoral is, but I do love a lot of poems that figure and transfigure the natural world. I think of poems like “Tiara” by Mark Doty, which puts drag queens next to lush water, next to death and sex.”
Eric Tran earned his MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is the author of Mouth, Sugar, and Smoke (2022), forthcoming from Diode Editions in the spring, and The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer (2020), from Autumn House Press. He is also an Associate Editor for Orison Books and a resident physician in psychiatry at the Mountain Area Health Education Center.
“I consider poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Audre Lorde to be major influences in my development as a poet. I was introduced to both poets in college and graduate school. My first attempts to write about my own queer experience were influenced by “The Shampoo” by Bishop, in which the simple act of washing her lover’s hair inspires an image of shooting stars, suggesting to my young mind that love between two women is such a revelation that it compels images of heaven. The movement toward metaphor in this poem was indicative of the deep nature of a sexual relationship between two women. I experienced the same sense of revelation in Lorde’s “Love Poem” where intimacy pushes the speaker toward seeing her lover’s body as a forest and her own entry into it as the wind, as she opens widely to “swing out over the earth over and over again.” As an imagistic writer, I struggled to write about sex in an overt way; however, the metaphor invites great possibilities for writing about intimacy between women.
“Neither of these poems is pastoral; however, you ask an interesting question in the context of environmental poetry. Much of the nature poetry being written today is a movement away from pastoral writing. There is too much that stands in the way of the effort to ‘touch’ God through one’s experience of nature—abuses of the land, water, and air, not to mention our current focus on the power of place where the land itself has connection to indigenous peoples and histories that far more important to acknowledge, at least in my mind.”
Amber Flora Thomas earned her MFA at Washington University in St. Louis and is the author of Red Channel in the Rupture (2018) from Red Hen Press, The Rabbits Could Sing (2012) from the University of Alaska Press, and the Eye of Water (2005) from the University of Pittsburgh Press, which won the 2004 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She is also the recipient of the Richard Peterson Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize from Rosebud magazine, and the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize.
“My poetry would not exist without the poems of [Constantine] Cavafy; his dreamy stagings of sex and history are always close to me; his frankness and the undramatic way his poems unfold have taught me so much about managing energy in short lyrics. James Merrill was the first poet I loved unreasonably. Henri Cole and Carl Phillips are two poets of my parents’ generation whose work has been indispensable to me from the beginning. They are both represented with brilliant poems in the Queer Nature anthology—both poems in some way about the way we look to the natural world to teach us about ourselves, our desires, and how the natural world always complies and refuses us at the same time.”
Richie Hofmann is the author of A Hundred Lovers (2022) from Alfred A. Knopf, and Second Empire (2015), from Alice James Books. He received his MFA at John Hopkins University and is a Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University.
“The queer poets and academics whose work has been foundational in critiquing Western constructions of Nature (and thus The Human) in my work are Sylvia Wynter, Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s Becoming Human, Gloria Anzaldua, Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem, Vievee Francis’ Forest Primeval, Jake Skeets’ Eyes Bottle-Dark and a Mounthful of Flowers, and Natalie Diaz’ Postcolonial Love Poem.
“These works reveal how the “Nature” of the Western imagination is an inherently colonial concept. “Nature” conceived as terra nullius, or empty “virgin” land, by using the very word, invents the land as an unpeopled, undisturbed habitat outside of time, removed from the urban, and evacuated of Blackness, indigeneity, and queerness. National parks—“America’s Best Idea”—are racialized spaces defined by the absence of race, and serve to dehistoricize the land from its indigenous history and frame conservation as a value rooted in rugged individualism and self-sufficiency. In the construct of “nature,” indigenous people are confined to prehistory—if nature is prehistoric, then what we do to it does not affect our future. In the Western imagination, “Nature” is separate from us, just as the body is separate from the mind, and becomes an object—a place to go, a thing to be experienced, a resource to extract from—rather than a living being surrounding us, full of beings with whom we share a destiny. The concept of “Nature” is primitive, and necessary to construct the (white, Western) Human who has evolved beyond it.”
Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, author of award-winning Beast Meridian (2017) from Noemi Press and essay collection CHUECA, forthcoming from Tiny Reparations Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in 2023. She is a recipient of a 2021 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship and PhD candidate at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
I think animals abound in queer poems as metaphors, false or correct, of fully living in a body.
FWR: Queer desire carries an inherent subversion of expectation, and with it, potentially, greater freedom of form and image. What are “the birds and the bees” of queer erotic poems? What metaphors are found in the biomes of queer poems, especially sexy ones?
AFT: I have been trying to find my own answer to this question. I have written about my experiences as a child of retreating to the woods as a place of safety. Often, I would find myself hiding in the woods where I could watch my family, seeing through the trees a world that could not embrace my queerness. I take my queerness to the woods where it is not moralistically judged by the trees or other flora. This question reminds me of Carl Phillips poetry and essay, especially his “Beautiful Dreamer” chapter in The Art of Daring, which describes stumbling on three men having sex against a tree in the woods. Perhaps the wilderness provides cover or separation from societal judgement, which is why we have so much to say about queerness and nature.
VAV: Nature was never accessible to me growing up—I was born on the US/Mexico border and grew up in Houston, Texas, an ever-sprawling, drowning city under construction where Nature is at least an hour drive away near the state prison, and where white flight takes its suburbs and fells trees to make room for endless strip malls and megachurches.
Still, nature asserted itself in surprising and subtle ways in the Black, Latine, and queer neighborhoods of Houston where I grew up. My childhood home is near Acres Homes—a historic Black homestead nestled between highways, famous for its barbecue and horse-mounted Black cowboys; I attended Pride at seventeen and got my first HIV test at the free clinic in Montrose, the (now fully-gentrified) historic gayborhood of Houston along Buffalo Bayou; I biked through the white-oak-lined side streets of Third Ward, Houston’s historic Black neighborhood, to attend the University of Houston. And as a child, the swampy young pines behind our house haunted my imagination and stayed with me long enough to inspire the inner nightlands of Beast Meridian.
Those pines were where I escaped the confines of gender and jumped my bike over ditches with boys, smoked cigarettes and listened to music with the bad kids, escaped angry parents to read The Bell Jar under honeysuckle, tagged anarchy symbols under bridges, explored flooded creeks and caught crawfish when the power was out after hurricanes, kissed and touched and undressed with every gender under the stars. After I got caught sneaking out at thirteen, my parents took my bedroom door off its hinges permanently, so throughout adolescence, the pines were the only place I had any privacy, the place where I became brave, the place that held my forbidden self, a sanctuary of desire that made safe my secrets, the moonlit clearing where young love blossomed in my body, a haven for a young girl in trouble to hide. My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me, tell me where did you sleep last night / In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine, I would shiver the whole night through. That vision of nature informs every poem in Beast Meridian, from “Malinche” to “Girlbody Gift” to the final sequence, “The Way Back”—the nightlands of forbidden desire, rebellion, trouble, alienation—where the speaker grieves her monstrosity until she can finally embrace her animal, and in so doing, sets herself free.
Queer nature is a catapult out of the limits of a single human body. It is a breaking out, a widening into the possibilities of a transformative understanding of boundaries of self.
RH: Being queer, I think, forces one deeply into one’s body—you become more aware than other people about the arbitrariness of gender and the randomness of having a body. I think animals abound in queer poems as metaphors, false or correct, of fully living in a body. Free from desire and emotional pain, social torment, strictures of marriage and morality. In my own poem, “Idyll,” the speaker desires to shed his skin; the act of speaking, of confessing to desire, is an act of undressing.
ET: I love this definition of queer. I think sometimes we think of queer as undoing or transforming, but often I think of queer as revealing what has always been. Rather than leaps, I think of sinking deeper into, of falling, of lying and pressing (as fingers into the soil)–all of which are unsurprisingly very sexy actions to take.
FWR: What does queer nature mean to you? If you experienced the HIV/AIDS pandemic, has experiencing the Covid-19 pandemic caused you to consider “nature” more than in the past?
RH: This is a hard question for me. I feel somewhat ambivalent about both “queerness” and “nature.” I don’t think of myself as a pastoral poet. I’d rather be in a museum than in a forest. But reading Queer Nature, I feel such a profound kinship with writers I’ve never met.
AFT: Queer nature is a catapult out of the limits of a single human body. It is a breaking out, a widening into the possibilities of a transformative understanding of boundaries of self.
I don’t have much to say about the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the Covid pandemic. It angers me that most people still think of HIV/AIDS as a ‘gay’ disease. Most people do not see the parallels. Most people can’t get to the point where they see how greed, environmental degradation, and ignorance lead to pandemics.
the act of creation is forever fused with subversion in nature
VAV: The nature of my youth was not the normative Nature of national parks or state reserves—it was a nameless, swampy half-acre of undeveloped land behind our house, where flooded ditches gouged the boundary between our neighborhood and the trailer park next door. That nature was where the “bad kids”—the troubled kids, rebels, outcasts, queer kids—found each other, not recognizing that our bond was not in our badness, but in shared trauma and alienation. The only way to get to our nature, queer nature, was to be disobedient, daring enough to break a rule, stay out after hours, trespass, know where to jump the fence. The forbidden places I went to skip school, smoke cigarettes, skinny dip, drop acid, give and get head, kiss both girls and boys, fuck in cars until police pulled up, were also where I went to read, write, and play guitar. And this has had a fundamental influence on my artistic practice—the act of creation is forever fused with subversion in nature. Nature and art are sites of disobedience, rebellion, and provocation—if I am not being subversive, vulnerable, provocative, brave, then I am not making the art I want to make.
Now in single motherhood, I live near Griffith Park and Southern California beaches, and nature is a haven from isolation and endless responsibility, an expansive companion that quiets my troubled heart, holds my grief in rosy light, and sends me guardians to guide my path—still deer, scrappy coyotes, vigilant owls, hovering hummingbirds, tumbling dolphins, fragrant artemisia—their presence urging me to go on when the world feels impossible and love never comes. Now, nature is where I go to slow down time and listen to the open, be with when there is no one, be with until there is.
ET: I think queer nature asks about access and owning and belonging. I think in both of these epidemics, we had to reckon with the truth that very little is owed to us and in fact, we are obligated to return our bodies to the natural world eventually. That sounds very bleak but what I mean is that my idea of queer nature is to be freed of invented obligation and restriction and to discover and experience what is opened.
FWR: To start, I was hoping you might speak about the pull of Greek mythology, both in its use as a framing device for some of the poems and a source of imagery in others.
RP: When I drafted my first poem about Medusa way back in 2007, it was about a different subject entirely. My mother had survived breast cancer and been in remission ever since her double mastectomy, but I’d come to realize that something significant had changed in both the way some men perceived and treated her (and women like her), as well as the way she perceived herself. Something about that recalled to my mind the mythic woman with snakes for hair, that body transformed into something so terrifying that it also physically petrified anyone who looked upon it.
But as I delved deeper into the myth — or the myriad variations of the myth — I moved away from that idea and toward what, to me, is the real crux of Medusa’s story: She is a woman who, in many versions of the myth, is raped by Poseidon on the altar of Athena; then, as if that wasn’t heinous enough, she is transformed into a monster. And this is the story of so many women (and others, not just women) to this day. That realization was too powerful and potent to ignore.
And there were a lot of directions I could’ve gone in telling any story of survivorship. I suppose I could’ve just stuck to a contemporary story or set of stories; I could’ve also written it in prose, but poetry specifically allowed me to bridge important gaps between fiction and nonfiction in a way that felt natural, seamless, and protective because poetry can be both and neither of those things — fiction and nonfiction — at the same time. But to me, there’s something very powerful about pointing back to something so old, because it effectively allows me to say, “Look! Look at how much time has passed, and look at how this still has not changed. That’s not OK.” Something as old as Greek myth allows you to do that. Another thing about the myth, specific to Medusa, is that the story of her becoming a monster in so many versions quite literally relies on that singular act of sexual violence at the hands of Poseidon. Before that, without that, she is portrayed as an average woman — beautiful, perhaps, but a physical form we’d recognize.
But because most mythology (Greek or otherwise) also comes with its own set of images — symbols — which seem to be more fantastical to us in today’s world because they are so far from our lived experience— it is a rich trove from which to draw imagery and metaphor. While you can reinterpret the meaning of that imagery, as I did often throughout the book, a lot of it was more or less handed to me as part of the original story, from the snakes to the ocean to the stone — all of which, it seemed to me, related very specifically to sexual assault survivorship. And with any luck, in Head of a Gorgon, I’ve built out those ways in which I saw the myth’s imagery and the subject of survivorship connecting.
FWR: I was intrigued by starting Head of a Gorgon with the Flash Forward section and “The Gorgon’s Parting Thoughts”, which, to me, created a structural ouroboros. How did you decide on the structure of the manuscript?
RP: I love that concept: a “structural ouroboros”! That’s an awesome way of describing it! I’m stealing that!
The reason we flash forward to an end at the beginning is twofold. One, I was taking a feminist theory course in grad school while working on my thesis, which was how the concept for Head of a Gorgon started, and one of the things we discussed is the experience of time as it relates to gendered experience and society. Some suggest women’s experience of time is more cyclical — think menstrual cycles and the like — whereas men’s might be considered more linear — and here I think we can infer what the reference would be to in that case. I wanted both, especially since, in some versions of the Medusa myth, she actually represents the circle of life (birth, death, and rebirth), but this writer exists in a patriarchy.
The other aspect relates to the title and what is actually going on overall in the book. That moment when Medusa “dies” right at the beginning is the opening up of her head, from which this entire story is able to pour. In some versions of the original myth, when Medusa is beheaded, Pegasus and Chrysaor fly out. It’s quite a stretch to consider the book itself Pegasus or Chrysaor, but the idea of something having to end, in order to begin again and/or get to the core of its meaning made sense to me in the framework of this version of the myth.
FWR: Building off the idea of the ouroboros, I thought the use of repetition was powerful, particularly in the return of the “Your Captain Speaking” poems. Upon my first read of the first instance of a poem titled this, I was struck by how the poem pointed to voice and power structures: “who cares what other stories have told you? /… Who retains the right to name?”. Repetition returns later, with both secrets kept and new relationships reminiscent of old. Could you talk about what drew you to repetition?
RP: There is so much related to survivorship that reinforces, that ruminates, that obsesses. It can be very cyclical in quite literal ways: Being sexually assaulted at a young age, for instance, puts victims at a higher risk for being victimized again in the future. The physical experience could have ended, but the survivor’s mind can replay it over and over (i.e., PTSD). It can, in many ways, become all-consuming. So repetition is essential, to me, in portraying some fundamental aspects of the experience of survivorship.
Specifically with respect to the three “Your Captain Speaking” poems, originally, those three poems had different titles when they were first published. But at some point, as the collection really started solidifying, it seemed to me that those three poems in particular, which were always similar in tone, were more or less coming from the same sort of persona, and it was someone I didn’t want to specifically name because I wanted to leave that open to the reader’s interpretation. But how could I still signal to the reader that these three poems are from the same persona just like poems from the perspective of “P” are all Poseidon and the capital-“S” Snake is also a singular persona?
I happen to be a huge Louise Glück fan — her poem “Mock Orange” was transformational for me as a writer — and she actually has three poems interspersed throughout her collection The Seven Ages that are all titled “Fable.” So I thought, “Well, maybe that device can work here, too.” In that sense, the title of those three poems in Head of a Gorgon is a bit of an homage as well.
FWR: Another form of repetition were the “Shedding Skin” poems, which are erasures of poems that appear earlier in the manuscript. Can you talk about the development of these poems?
RP: If repetition is symbolic of what traps a survivor, then strikethroughs/erasures/rewriting can be considered symbolic of freeing oneself of that cycle, or at the very least creating something new. But there was something early on for me with this collection that called to me to recognize that the change and escape needed to be physically represented on the page, and erasure — making something new and empowering from something that had once been used against the self — was a physical, visual, tangible way of accomplishing that.
FWR: One of the poems that first jumped out at me was “Sex Ed,” which I thought both played with the reveal of information, on a multitude of levels, and struck me as an exploration of innocence and loss, particularly the lines “naming things commands / nothing”.
I’ve been thinking about the Teju Cole essay “Death in a Browser Tab” recently and how artists can make sense of violence (in its many facets) without emphasizing the act, but rather the human experience of it. How did you balance the tension between naming the act of violence (and violation) and centering the person experiencing it?
RP: Did I balance the tension? I’m not sure I know, because that wasn’t something I specifically set out to do. And I think that’s because it’s my belief that there’s no amount of telling someone what a certain experience feels like that will make them actually experience the thing. Words themselves are symbols — like how maybe one way we can think of Rene Magritte’s “The treachery of images (This is not a pipe)” is that he is directly acknowledging that an image of a pipe is not the same as having an actual, 3D pipe in one’s hand.
So even in the Cole essay you referenced, for example, the viewing of another’s death doesn’t give the viewer the experience of personally dying, nor does it provide them with the experience of someone killing, nor does it even provide the experience of witnessing such events firsthand; it provides only the experience — still undoubtedly traumatic, still undoubtedly tragic — of witnessing those types of things at a distance, on a screen. But the viewer is feeling a set of feelings that may or may not be similar to any of the other three real-life experiences not actually experienced by the viewer.
I very much hesitate to say that artists “make sense” of violence or any other thing, for that matter — at least to anyone besides the artist themself. But having the belief that no amount of explaining or describing any act is going to make someone who hasn’t personally lived through it experience it firsthand or understand that experience as someone who has lived through it — and even two people experiencing, say, the same violent act will experience it differently, though there’s more common ground between the two — leaves a writer with the option instead to create some other type of experience that the writer (if the writer is like me) hopes draws toward something maybe approaching a universal truth, if there can even be such a thing, out of a real or imagined experience.
With respect to a poem like “Sex Ed” specifically, I simply set out to give voice to a woman, Medusa, who is sidelined and silenced in most tellings of her own story. And there are certainly other interpretations of this voice and story based on who’s doing the telling. We need common terms to refer to in this case — sexual abuse, assault, rape — so that people have some sense of general foundation of what’s being discussed. But from there, words are just a different experience than those actual physical, real-life experiences entirely. This is where words — and for me, any art form — will always fail. Still, I do believe in the power of words — some power in them — because look at the harm they can also cause. It’s not a physical violence, per se, but it is a violence nevertheless.
Is this all confusing, contradictory, paradoxical? I suppose. But it’s still all also true, at least to me.
FWR: I was also drawn to the poem “Cheer”, which spoke to ideas of power and heroism, as the speaker details “hoping the right / words paired with the right actions will someday / help me take some form of flight.” I read “Note From the Nadir” as a response to this childhood optimism, as the speaker wrestles with the fact that “no savior awaits”; now “I know the hero I sought will never reach me, doesn’t exist.” Instead, “my head still ingested what was fed. / What can you do when part of the problem is you?” Assuming I’m not off base (and I very well may be), can you speak to how you developed the conversations between the poems, and overall emotional arc of the book? Thinking of heroism and the head of the gorgon, how does the story of Medusa and Perseus fit?
RP: When you work on something for a decade-plus, you probably have too much time to think about it, but I tried in many ways to build as much meaning as I could — as many layers as possible — into this work. There are a lot of Easter eggs. What you’re referring to here — the conversations among the various poems — was very much considered and deliberate. This is easier to do when you have a narrative arc and are kind of building a shorter version of a novel in verse — perhaps a novella in verse. This is where my original background in fiction came into play. So I took the pieces I had, which were from Medusa’s adulthood and I thought of the parts, then, that were necessarily missing, like a childhood. And I started building some threads, images, terms that would be common among them and would evolve through the book.
Just like any person, there is change along the way; there is devolution, evolution, or both. The arc for my Medusa is devolution, to a kind of death, to a necessary evolution in order to survive — a mirroring of the birth/death/rebirth cycle that Medusa represents in some versions of the myth but that’s really all tied to the feminine in general (e.g., Mother Nature). Some of these concepts were drawn from the myth; others were drawn from survivorship. But all really echo the idea that each of us needs to become our own hero; Medusa, for me, is no exception to this rule. I tend to believe that it’s when we look outward for saviors that we are in the most danger. And I say this as a spiritual person, but one who acknowledges the truth of my personal experiences and understands that the universe requires action on one’s own behalf — like “The Drowning Man” story — in order to find one’s personal, true salvation.
FWR: What are other poems, or who are the poets, that you turned to as guide posts in the creation and construction of your poems?
RP: This book would not exist at all without Larissa Szporluk, who even beyond being my mentor and advisor is the brightest light I know in the poetry world with respect to understanding to the core that literally every story anyone ever tells is myth — and delivers that message to us constantly through her work and her teaching. Louise Glück, whom I mentioned earlier, is my top influence as far as voice is concerned; the authority of voice in her work was definitely something I strived toward in Head of a Gorgon. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red would be a close second with respect to this collection in particular, from the mythic aspects to the narrative arc to the play with form.
Jason Shinder’s work also influenced my collection. His work feels at times as if it were written in a vacuum; he seemed to know what he needed to express was important and created a world unto itself in which the way he spoke was the only way that would’ve made sense and was therefore the best way. I wanted to create this Medusa’s world in a vacuum. I wanted the bulk of Head of a Gorgon to feel isolating, inescapable, suffocating, because this is what I imagine Medusa’s experiences in the first few sections of the book feel like.
Others of note include Marie Howe; she does an impeccable job of what you were pointing to in your fifth question with respect to speaking on the experience of survivorship. She just calls a thing a thing with such directness and clarity, yet also such beauty. Sharon Olds’ writing on all things feminine and domestic helped me to ground my work in the everyday, ordinary things of contemporary life as I transported this ancient myth into modern times. The political in Adrienne Rich’s work, of course, is essential. Monique Wittig’s Les Guerilleres, whose nonlinearity is inspiring. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man for their explorations of gender. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton for their sharp words. And William Shakespeare for his deep dive into form but also making form feel more conversational, less form-y by the standards of his time — another thing I strived toward in my collection.
Raegen Pietrucha writes, edits, and consults creatively and professionally. Head of a Gorgon is her debut poetry collection. Her poetry chapbook, An Animal I Can’t Name, won the 2015 Two of Cups Press competition, and she has a memoir in progress. She received her MFA from Bowling Green State University, where she was an assistant editor for Mid-American Review. Her work has been published in Cimarron Review, Puerto del Sol, and other journals. Connect with her at raegenmp.wordpress.com and on Twitter @freeradicalrp.
Matthew Olzmann’s latest collection, Constellation Route, is out now from Alice James. He has published two previous collections, Contradictions in the Design and Mezzanines, and he has received fellowships from Kundiman, the Kresge Arts Foundation and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
FWR: Can you speak on the genesis and organization of Constellation Route?
MO: I’ve written poems that mimic a letter, or utilize an epistolary or apostrophe approach often before, and at some point I just thought that if I have fun doing that, what would happen if I did that non stop for a while? So that was the genesis; it didn’t necessarily start out as ‘I’m writing a book of these’ but instead wanting to see what direction the writing would go if I kept doing it over and over. How long would it stay interesting for me, this thing that is often a default mode for me? Would it remain interesting or would it evolve? Would I make new discoveries? I think sometimes in writing, there’s the impulse to reinvent the wheel each time you sit down and write, but if something seems interesting to you or something feels productive, you should try to do that again.
I thought [the organization of the book] would be easier than my previous two books because in those books, the subject matter is somewhat disparate, so that challenge was to see how I could get these things to fit together. With [Constellation Route], since they all have a similar approach or they’re about postal terminology, it felt as though there’s already a governing logic for why they belong in the same book.
But then I started having new challenges. For example, when so many poems have the same approach, how do you create variation, how do you change things up? That affected the writing process later, as I tried to write things in new directions. Then [this book] had all the challenges my other books have had. Even though there’s a formal approach that makes [these poems] similar, the subject matter and tone can vary widely. It ended up having all the old challenges and some new ones, just to make it interesting.
FWR: As I was reading through it, I loved the moment where poems came back to a subject or referenced a previous poem (for example, “Letter to the Oldest Living Longleaf Pine in North America” and “Letter to the Person Who Carved His Initials into the Oldest Living Longleaf Pine in North America”). The opening and closing poems to me seemed really set, so I had wondered if you had written “Day Zero” and “Conversion” with the intention of having them as those bookends.
MO: I didn’t write any of those intending for them to be in a specific position; “Day Zero” had a different place in the book, and Jessica Jacobs said I should start with that poem. As I was putting the book together, some of those things were things I was aware of. I wanted to spread them out so there was this echo.
FWR: To build on that idea, I’m struck by how writing the same structure of a poem, an epistolary or an apostrophe, is reminiscent of how an echo can lead to deviation. There’s the sameness, but also beauty in the deviation. It reminds me of how a postal route works– presumably, you’re going through the same route and making the same stops, but you’re seeing them in new lights or in new ways as you move through the seasons or through a place.
MO: The post office, despite my limited knowledge of some aspects of it, ended up having some influence on not only the poems but also the shape of the book and the language. Looking at the glossary of postal terms, wing case, day zero, everything seemed to be like an institution made by a poet.
FWR: In a conversation with Kaveh Akbar, hosted by A Mighty Blaze, you spoke about play in poetry as a spiritual or meditative practice, and how “irreverence requires acknowledgement of something grand”. To what extent do you feel you’re using humor as a bridge to the reader, or even to deflect someone’s guard being up?
MO: I think in our daily lives, we can use humor to attack or criticize, but also to charm and entertain, or to diffuse tension. We can use it to introduce an idea or to present something in an unexpected manner. I think in poems or stories, or perhaps any kind of writing, one of the things that’s useful about humor is that it disrupts the reader’s ability to anticipate to a degree. As a writer, I’m generally interested in humor because it creates a point of contrast. I like poems that have more than one emotion, especially placed next to each other. Sometimes it’s because an emotion next to the other sets off the second, whether that’s moving from certainty to doubt, or anger to something more meditative, from grief to wonder. I’m also just drawn to writing as a reader and as a writer that isn’t presenting human experience in a monotonous way. I feel both terror and wonder when looking out into the world, and I’m trying to find a space where both of those can exist in the writing process.
FWR: The poem “Letter to Matthew Olzmann, Sent Telepathically from a Flock of Pigeons While Surrounding Him on a Park Bench in Detroit, Michigan” comes to mind, and how it moves from the absurd to this greater, more empathetic commentary. As a teacher, I think that humor helps open poems up and make them accessible or an experience to be shared. And that transition, from the human to a more humane tapestry to find oneself in I think works really well in this collection.
MO: I see what you mean about humor being a point of connection. When I think about other artists who I’m drawn to, there’s something about humor that feels, in the audience, engaging or charming. It can feel like I’m being let into something– when you’re both laughing, you feel like you’re in on the joke. It’s hard to imagine who’s reading a poem when you’re writing it. I have some people in mind, sometimes, I’m always going to share what I write with my partner, Vievee, but after that, when the poem goes into the world, I have no idea who’s reading it. I like the idea of it being accessible to some people who aren’t necessarily poetry scholars or writers.
FWR: In the title poem, “Constellation Route”, you write:
…a messenger… gets wildly lost. It’s night.
Lonely. He glances to the sky–
inside that disorder,
he finds one light that makes sense, and that’s enough
to guide him to the next stop.
For me, that was the moment where a lot of the poems clicked, where I felt like I could name the theme that I couldn’t quite put my finger on previously: the idea of community. This fits what we’ve talked about with how humor forms connection, but also the letter form as a way of asserting a community (of friends, of writers). This seemed to come up again and again in your poems, whether “Fourteen Letters to a 52-Hertz Whale” (“Do you ever wonder that because your voice is impossible to hear, maybe no one will make the effort? That you can work really hard and try to be a good person… but then… the waves will just swallow you whole?”) or “Letter Written While Waiting in Line at Comic Con” (“…it’s not/ these costumes that amaze me; it’s always been/ the languages. The way they reach/ for something that can’t be said/ in our tongue.”).One of the things you seem to be reaching at is how we form and maintain community, and then, looking at the United States, how might this idea of community be under threat or at risk of change in ways that might not be particularly kind.
MO: I don’t know if I was thinking of community as one of the primary thematic drivers of when I was making the book, but I started to become aware of that later. One of the reasons I might not have been aware of it in the writing is that I tend to write poems one-at-a-time, without necessarily thinking of how they relate to one another. I write the poems and assemble books later.
But when I started putting Constellation Route together, one of the things I was thinking about was how to make things feel communal. This was part of the reason for including letters with other people in them (such as “Letter to Matthew Olzmann from Ross White, Re: The Tardigrade”) to give the sense that there were more people involved than one version of Matthew.
One of the questions I was asked recently is if the speaker in these poems, excluding those obviously persona, is me. Are the poems autobiographical? While I think it would be hard for all of them to be me, I’m sure all of them contain aspects of me or some aspect of my world view. Oliver de La Paz said something about his own poems about autobiography that really resonated with me, the idea that in an autobiographical poem, the speaker resembles you the way John Malkovich resembles John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich. I might be taking this quote out of context, but I think the speaker in any of my poems is a performance of the self. It might represent the self but it’s a performance or an aspect of the self, and there can be many of those.
You mention the conversation with A Mighty Blaze and Kaveh [Akbar], and before that, he and I were talking about how the book we haven’t written, the one that’s still in your head, is always perfect, or has the potential to be. Before you’ve made it into an object, it’s this thing that exists in the realm in perfect speculation. Most of the poems, once I tried to write them, it was a pretty messy process. Messy, but some of the fun is making discoveries. A lot of the poems, I might have a line or a vague idea, but I don’t necessarily sit down with a thoroughly mapped out route toward a destination in mind.
I like writing for the process of writing. I like the process of being there and working. There’s a point when I’m working on a poem that I’m imagining it as a point of connection. I imagine how someone might read it, and then it becomes a moment where I’m reaching for a point of contact. Rather than withdrawing from the world, it feels like working on a way to venture out and make contact with people.
FWR: Thinking of connection, or perhaps the perfect poem, are there poems that you love to teach, that do what you’re reaching towards?
MO: It’s constantly changing. It’s a list I’m constantly adding to. So many poems that I love to teach and some of the old standbys: “Iskandariya” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly; “It Is Maybe Time to Admit That Michael Jordan Definitely Pushed Off” by Hanif Abdurraqib; “Wishes for Sons”, by Lucille Clifton, or “Sorrows” or “note, passed to superman”– I remember the first time I read her series of notes to Clark Kent, I remember thinking, “you can do that? You can write notes to these people?”; Rilke’s “The Archaic Torso of Apollo”; “Brokeheart: just like that”, by Patrick Rosal or “Guitar”; “Ode to the Maggot” by Yusuf Komunyaaka; Campbell McGrath’s “My Music”; Cathy Linh Che’s “Poem for Ferguson”; most of Szymborska’s poems. I like talking about her poems “True Love” and “Pi”, “Notes From a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition”, “A Large Number”, “The End and the Beginning”– I could go on and on.
The river Ganga seethes with ashes. We shove our elbows into each other’s sides, muscle our way in to look. The bodies of our grandmothers and grandfathers burn on the cremation ghats. We watch them become less like bodies and more like a collection of burning fabric and bone marrow and veins turning into ash.
We collect the ashes into the kalash, and then we say a quick prayer and leave the kalash with the purohit. We wonder if the ashes carry the sickness inside them, or if the sickness has separated from their bodies, and in that moment, we imagine the sickness itself as a body, vulnerable and tender. After a few days, the purohit hurls the ashes in.
The ashes dissolve into the river, mixing, impossible to separate again. This makes it harder for us. We cannot point to a congealed lump of ashes and say, Here is Patti who cooked the best idlis in the world and here is Ushana who made all those beautiful paintings and here is Smruti who is a very fast runner and beat all of us in the one hundred meter dash and here is Pooja who hated us, maybe, and here is our uncle Jaya who, when we told him we were going to be famous singers one day, laughed so hard his fingernails fell off. We still keep the fingernails in tiny urns on our desks.
All these people and no way to tell them apart. We know their names, but the river doesn’t.
When we are sick, we come to the river Ganga begging it to heal us. The heat pares us down, reduces us to thirst and burning. Some of us bring wounded limbs or injuries, inherited through our bloodline or self-induced by our stupidity. Others bring the sickness, arms spangled with mosquito bites.
The smell of scorched hair hovers over Varanasi. The clang of bells. Merchants hawking remedies too expensive for us to buy. Orange embers from the ghats land in our hair and remind us how close we are to burning.
Our proximity to dead bodies makes us nervous. But despite this, the Ganga is a healing river, and there is nothing we need more than to be healed. We anoint our foreheads with ceremonial white ash and bathe in the river. The ashes seep from our hairlines and pool in our collarbones.
Nalini breaks off from us and runs to the river bend. She stoops to cup a section of the river in her hands and her great grandfather passes through her fingers.
There are so many memories we steal from Varanasi. The sweet dahi vada we gnaw between our teeth. People asking for money so their families can cremate them when they are dead. A woman crying as the sunlight strikes her face, sculpting her into something raw. Ashes fall into the river and the water reaches up to touch them.
In the years following the sickness, we learn who the river has chosen to save and who it has forsaken. Swati dies. None of us knew her very well, but we knew she mostly liked to eat food that was colored white. So, we burn white food along with her.
We are scared to scatter her ashes into the river. What if the ashes are still Swati? What if she is still lodged in them, unable to get out?
Kavya tells the rest of us we are wasting time, so we throw Swati into the river anyway. Her ashes mingle with everyone who came before us and everyone who will come after us. Swati’s white food mixing with Pooja’s maybe-hatred mixing with Patti’s love mixing with Smruti’s mile time mixing with Jaya’s laughter.
Nalini looks for animals in the Ganges. The softshell turtle, the river dolphin, the otter. But they will not come near the crush of visitors. We don’t tell Nalini this, so we can watch her try and fail to find them.
She mistakes a passing boat for the back of a dolphin and jumps into the river. We laugh at all of her pouring forward. Nalini struggles and screams, thrashing in the water.
There is a moment where no one knows what to do. Do we jump in and risk ourselves? The boat’s propeller could pull us under, add us to the tally of ghosts in this river. Or do we let her go?
Then Kavya jumps in, swimming towards Nalini, and it would look bad if we didn’t jump in, too. So we all swim to her and pull Nalini to the shore. The boat misses us by a few feet.
Exhilarated by the rush of almost dying, we make promises we can’t keep. We tell each other: we’ll do anything for you, we’ll die for you, we’ll bail you out of jail, we’ll donate our kidneys if you ever need one, just tell us what you need.
We know we’re being stupid, but it’s okay to be stupid. We think we have time.
But we grow up, finish school, get married. For some of us, our husbands die, and we break our bangles, don the white clothes of widows, and migrate to settlements.
For others, we are frustrated because either our husbands won’t die, or our future children won’t be born, and nothing seems to change.
We move away from Varanasi. The population of river dolphins dries up. Gharials are endangered. We read about bombings and shootings and stabbings in the paper, and pour tea for ourselves to drink in the afternoon.
It is only sometimes when the sunlight glints scarlet against the waves or our bodies flush with desire or we touch the fuzzy heads of our children that we think: we are lucky to be alive. Lucky to not be particles in the river right now. Who would ever want to leave?
Nalini is run over by a rickshaw two blocks away from where we live. When she calls out for help, only the rickshaw driver hears her, and he doesn’t stop. She bleeds to death in the street. Her kidneys are ruined.
Nalini’s family does not have enough money to do a full funeral ceremony, but they do everything else right: pray over the body, cremate her, scatter her remains at the sangam where the three rivers meet. Sacrifice a husked coconut, milk, some rice, a garland of flowers.
After her death, the body that used to be Nalini exists amongst the softshell turtles and river otters and endangered gharials.
In some years our bodies will be ashes, and our children will celebrate our lives. They will feast on banana leaves and set our pictures on our verandas and eventually they will cremate us and throw us into the river.
We hope they will cry for us, at least a little. We want our families to grieve for the hundreds of generations that will forget us after we are gone. We hope their tears mix with our ashes, all of it ending up in the river.
When diseases and motorcycle accidents and electrocution finally shove us out of our bodies, we roam the earth for forty days. We can’t believe it is over. We want to haunt the people who killed us or the people who loved us, to terrify them equally, to make them realize we are still here.
But our families scatter our ashes in the river so we cannot return to what is left of us. Some of us grow vengeful. Our families aren’t grieving enough. Others want to save our children from a forest fire or to console our husbands or simply to die again, but with more sophistication.
When the hunt for our ashes exhausts us, we recall the feeling of the cool river against our face, on that day we almost drowned with Nalini. We return to the river. Pollution has darkened the waters. We sift through the water, but we can’t find any trace of our old bodies. Everything that we were is gone, dissolved, so we sink to the riverbed and surrender to a glacial quiet.
We are born two weeks early, seven weeks late, in rickshaws, during stormy nights, in the sunlight, in a horse stable, on the terrace of an apartment building.
Our parents take us to the river Ganga to name us. Around us, the night eddies and aches with the sound of language we cannot yet untangle. We drink in everything with our newborn eyes and immediately forget all of it. The ice-cold water rushes towards our faces. Our eyes sting with the salty water. We scream and thrash to get away from it. But we cannot escape.
We want the water to leave our eyes, but our parents lift us and dunk us again in the river. We make underwater sounds but they come out as bubbles, so we watch our voices lift up and up until they break against the river’s surface.
Clifford Thompson is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award for nonfiction in 2013 for Love for Sale and Other Essays, published by Autumn House Press. He has also published a memoir (Twin of Blackness), a novel (Signifying Nothing) and a nonfiction book (What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues). Thompson’s graphic novel Big Man and the Little Men, which he wrote and illustrated, is due out from Other Press in Fall 2022.
FWR: Having read a lot of your fiction and nonfiction, I was excited to hear that you’re publishing a graphic novel, Big Man and the Little Men, due out next year from Other Press, which you’re writing and illustrating. What does this process look like? Do images come for you before writing, or vice versa? Many writers map out ideas through drawing. How does creating your own illustrations affect your writing process?
CT: I begin by writing. The script comes first. The images are in my head, if only hazily; I’ll write, for example, “Three-quarter view of men on right side of the table.” But I don’t put those images on paper until the real illustrating begins. The script is largely a series of IOUs to myself. That is, it’s easy to put in the script, as I did at one point, “Drawing of a baseball game.” The payment comes due, you might say, when it’s time to illustrate that panel, when I sit at my drafting table and think, “Oh. Right. Now I’ve got to draw a baseball game. How do I do that?” So as a writer I put myself in positions that I then have to draw my way out of. In that way, there’s a certain amount of improvisation involved. (I find it hard to resist allusions to jazz.) For example, when it comes time to draw those men on the right side of the table, I may decide as I’m drawing that one of the men is giving the other a sidelong glance.
FWR: The prose in a graphic novel has to be so crisp and focused on action. How do you work within these limitations? Do you overwrite, then whittle down, or do you have other methods?
CT: One challenging thing about a graphic novel is that there are practical considerations of the kind you don’t run into with a regular novel, or even with painting. One is that you can fit only so many words in a panel. So I may discover, as I’m doing the actual lettering for the dialogue I’ve written, that not all of it will fit, or at least not comfortably. Then it’s a matter of rephrasing the dialogue, retaining its flavor while making it as concise as possible. Sometimes I end up improving it, almost by accident.
Writing and painting are similar for me in that the idea is half the battle. Once I have an idea, the challenge is to find the best way to carry it out.
FWR: How does starting a written piece compare to drawing or painting? Has your graphic novel bridged these two approaches, or does it feel like a different approach entirely?
CT: Writing and painting are similar for me in that the idea is half the battle. Once I have an idea, the challenge is to find the best way to carry it out. When I’m writing, that often involves lists. I’m a big list-maker, especially when it comes to essays. I like to list aspects of the subject I want to write about, then study the items on the list to see what the connections exist among these seemingly disparate things or ideas; I’ll draw arrows from one thing to another. Sometimes I find a lot of arrows going to the same item, and that can be a sign that I’ve hit on something. For paintings, once I have an idea, I pull out my sketch pad and work out the composition, the proportions and relative positions of everything. I have the sketch-pad drawing next to me when I make pencil outlines on the canvas.
Again, the graphic novel begins for me with writing, but I would say that the graphic novel bridges writing and painting in that the written and visual aspects of the work spell each other. The graphic novel is a visual medium, but you need words. You just do. Even Kyle Baker’s terrific graphic novel Nat Turner, which is almost all pictures, uses some words. Still, some of my favorite moments of working on Big Man and the Little Men are when I can draw a panel or series of panels that speak for themselves. A motion, a facial expression, a character’s eyes looking in a certain direction, three people’s heads turning toward a fourth person who has just uttered a non-sequitur, a hug between two forty-year-olds who last saw each other in high school—panels like that can say it all. Not a single word needed. I find that satisfying.
I’ve been painting now for years, which has come in handy with the graphic novel because of all the time I’ve spent shading with colors in painting. To a certain extent I’ve transferred that process to the graphic novel: I shade with colored pencils, darkening some areas of a face, for example, while taking an eraser to other areas. That is one thing I didn’t do when I was drawing comics in high school, oh so long ago now.
A friend of mine, looking over the pages of Big Man that I’ve illustrated, observed that my unit of visual expression—he said something to that effect—is not so much the individual panel as the page. I think that’s accurate. The page comes together to form a kind of statement.
FWR: Your Four Way piece, “Quintessence,” ponders creativity—where inspiration comes from, how and why we write what we do. You’ve written a lot about music, film, and visual art over your career. Some of your artwork has a tone that resembles Augusta Savage or the stark lines of Elizabeth Catlett, another DC artist. How do other artists, writers, or their mediums inform your work?
CT: I appreciate the comparison to those women. I find that I like two things in visual art: color and simplicity. The work of the Fauves, and artists such as Catlett and Jacob Lawrence and William H. Johnson, greatly appeals to me for those reasons. In some graphic novels I read, I admire all the detail the artists put in as well as the artists’ technical ability; still, because the images are so lifelike, with so much going on, sometimes my eye doesn’t know where to go. So I try to put in a few details but focus largely on color, composition, and the central image.
When it comes to writing, I am never consciously aware of being influenced by others’ work, but sometimes people see things in your writing that you don’t see. In my book What It Is, I write about James Baldwin and Albert Murray, among others. The reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement wrote that I had blended, “consciously or not,” the “voices of [my] mentors Baldwin and Murray.”
FWR: In The Rumpus earlier this year, you explained: “It could almost be said that much of my work is an attempt to solve a puzzle.” In Big Man and the Little Men, a writer becomes enmeshed in a presidential campaign when an accusation is made against the nominee. What puzzle pieces are at work in this book, and how did you decide what form they would take?
CT: I think the puzzle at the bottom of Big Man is: how do you do the right thing when there seems to be no right thing to do? That’s the quandary that my main character, April Wells, faces. As for deciding on the form, I’m not even sure I did. The idea came to me fully formed.
FWR: I wonder if you can elaborate on this. How do you move between more planning-oriented techniques—like your lists, arrows and IOUs—to more intuitive ones? Or are you describing more of an organic gradual process of both, one feeding the other?
CT: Maybe a good analogy would be carrying out a military or spy mission (not that I have ever carried out either of those). That is to say, you can make lists and draw arrows and write IOUs, just as you get instructions for a mission; but doing the thing is where it happens—the fun and the risk, the difficulty and the discovery, the improvisation and toil and surprise.
FWR: You’ve written often about politics, including in What It Is, and most recently in a series of essays for Commonweal Magazine. Big Man too is interested in the political. Do you have any craft tips or observations in terms of how you approach political writing across forms?
CT: You know what’s funny? Until I read your question, it hadn’t occurred to me that I’ve written often about politics—maybe because the works you mention are all so different from one another. But you’re right, I guess I have. And I guess the reason is that presidential politics have fascinated me since the first election I remember, when I was nine, when McGovern ran against Nixon in 1972—still the gold standard for lopsided election results. (I’m proud to say I’m from Washington, DC, one of two places in the whole country that McGovern carried.)
I don’t know if I have any craft tips for writing about politics, but I do have one observation, which is that, fundamentally, nothing is new. That may be a good thing to keep in mind when writing about politics. So maybe that is some kind of tip, I don’t know. But here is an example of what I mean: The first five presidents of my lifetime were John F. Kennedy (who was killed when I was eight months old), Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Not one of those men served two full terms, and a couple of them didn’t even complete one term. So for my entire childhood, the American presidency seemed like an unstable thing. Then, for decades after that, with the single exception of George H. W. Bush, the presidents were two-termers: Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama. Then, of course, came Trump, demonstrating the cyclical nature of politics. For all the sheer, seemingly unprecedented god-awfulness of the Trump years, his shenanigans and defeat were almost like a return to my childhood. It was sort of like when people used to go into movie theaters in the middle of the movie and stay for the beginning: “I remember this—this is where I came in.” (That said, I pray that this round of chaos ended with Trump. I wish President Biden great good luck.)
FWR: Sometimes when I read your work, I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s concept of caves. Ideas, characters, or narratives which seem disconnected, eventually, as Woolf describes it, “connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment.” How does this process of braiding seemingly disparate elements into a single narrative work for you in making a graphic novel? Is this different than in your writing fiction or nonfiction?
CT: I am delighted by that characterization of my work, and I’ll take a comparison to Virginia Woolf any day of the week! I would say that the braiding happens more in my nonfiction, and yet, now that you mention it (you ask very good questions!), I see that there is braiding at work with Big Man. The story’s prologue has two scenarios involving different sets of characters, with no indication of what they have to do with each other. But later it becomes clear.
FWR: What’s next for you after Big Man and the Little Men?
CT: Time will tell. I have several manuscripts in various stages of readiness. One is a manuscript of poems. I said to my wife that I’m working toward publishing one of every kind of book—a joke, though not really.
Ghinwa Jawhari named her debut chapbook, selected by poet Aria Aber for publication by Radix Media, BINT, Arabic for girl. In Arab cultures, the word is also used to describe a virgin woman, of any age. In this series of poems, compact in form yet unbridled in lyricism, Jawhari explores the passage (particularly of those in Arab diaspora) from bint to woman: its wounds, its pleasures, and its inevitable reverberations on societal and self perception.
Jahwari is a Lebanese American writer (and practicing dentist), currently living in Brooklyn. Born to Druze parents in Cleveland, she grew up listening to poetry from her father, who often recited traditional poetry in Arabic, or Zajal, around the house. In middle school, she wrote little poems and saved them in spiral notebooks, before going on to study English, alongside chemistry, in undergrad. Over the past few years, her essays, fiction, and poetry have been featured in Catapult, Narrative, Mizna, The Adroit Journal, and other publications.
As an Arab woman myself, I found an incredible kinship with the speaker(s) in Jawhari’s poems. The opening poem, titled “condition”, piercingly captures the strain stepping into womanhood places on our relationship with our fathers; “when you had the sterile body of a child / you were loved by your father / now you’re grown”, she writes. For me, the erosion of the father’s unconditional love in tandem with the girl stepping into the body of a woman could not have been captured more poignantly, more resonantly.
And it’s not just the speaker’s voice that was familiar. Many of the poems in BINT have Arabic titles, and are decorated with objects that I myself grew up around—prayer beads and “blue eyes hung over the door”; the Mediterranean, which Egypt has in common with Lebanon—carrying the bodies of the girls in Jawhari’s poems. When we met (online) to talk about her stunning chapbook, Jawhari told me that it was her intention to write BINT for readers who would relate to it. “When you say to yourself: I’m going to write this to my sister or my cousin, suddenly it frees you to do whatever the hell you want to do,” she said.
In the interview below, Jawhari reflects on her insistence to avoid writing towards the white gaze, and shares the thought processes that led to her choice of form, language and imagery for BINT.
Sara Elkamel: I found an incredible tension between divulgence and restraint in BINT, in terms of both language and form. But I’d like to start by asking you specifically about form. Even though you’re tackling these expansive subjects that could probably fill notebooks—including queerness, intimacy, and what being a girl, or a woman, means to you—the poems materialize in these really slight, compressed shapes on the page. How did you arrive at these forms for BINT?
Ghinwa Jawhari: First, the chapbook was written for people who already know what a bint is. It’s not written for the white gaze. I didn’t want to spend time explaining the context. I was trying to figure out how to get across, in the smallest amount of words, facts central to our lived reality as girls—like in “counterfeit,” the poem about getting sewed up to ‘restore’ her virginity; becoming “regirled.”
And secondly, the form was informed and constrained by this project being a chapbook. I was at home during the COVID outbreak, and it was the first time I wasn’t working in a long time. I was excited to be sitting at my desk every day and focusing on a single theme. Because I knew it was going to be a chapbook, everything had to lend to brevity. It’s less than 30 pages—so in order for the pieces to work together, they all had to be concise. They’re in conversation with one another.
Sara Elkamel: I’m intrigued by this choice of not writing towards a western gaze—especially since Arabic words often appear in your poems, most notably in the title, BINT, which means girl, yes, but also signifies “virgin” in our culture. As poets, I think that sometimes when we use Arabic, we feel the need to explain or translate what we’re saying as we say it, which can very well get in the way of the poem. And I’ve definitely done that in my work before.
Ghinwa Jawhari: Yeah, I’ve done that too! So much of my work before BINT was me explaining. But when you begin to dismiss that, and when you say to yourself: I’m going to write this to my sister or my cousin, suddenly it frees you to do whatever the hell you want to do. You become far less concerned with “Does it make sense?” and more attentive to “Is this true?” It’s no longer: “Will somebody understand me?” but instead, “Will the people who already understand this context agree that this is what happens?” So it’s all a focus shift.
Sara Elkamel: I definitely related to the bint you gave us—at once susceptible to cultural forces and forceful in her own right. I was especially drawn to the verbs you associated with the body.
without consent my small body erred
into hair-tainted womanhood, polluted me
with breasts. i begged for men, any men,
to appear from the fog of my dreams.
In “instead a palace”, for instance, there is some kind of agency—the body itself erring—coupled with a vulnerability to external perception; “polluted me” gestures towards what womanhood does to the body in the eyes of the street. Then in “a girlhood summer passes”, you turn towards illustrating the intimidating power of a girl’s body with a line like: “our slim bodies assault / the surface of the water”. So I’m wondering about these minor choices you made in language, specifically your wiedling of verbs.
Ghinwa Jawhari: I love that you asked about that, because I paid so much attention to the verbs—changing nouns into verbs, being very careful and earnest with what kind of verbs I used. I was trying to capture the body as an embodiment of what the outside world wants it to be. In the earlier poems of the chapbook, I was thinking about how a girl’s body is essentially a socio-political construct; the body is cultural. We can’t escape it—it happens to us. It’s not something that I have agency over. Versus in the poem “condition”, which comes at the end of BINT, when finally there’s a turn. I wouldn’t say there’s redemption—I think that’s simplifying it a bit. But at the end, the women can kind of make light of the fact that they have arm hair, make fun of virginity, and choose to drink.
girlhood an illustrious specter, then.
we pass through & barely remember
its tightly wound calamities, its fears.
as women we lace our mirth with liquor.
virginity an elaborate antique, unfashionable
as arm hair. we rid ourselves of last names.
So the girl body is what’s constructed, and constricted—it’s the thing that has to be decorated, preserved, defended and instructed what to do—whereas the woman body has some agency, holds space to become different, something self-directed.
Sara Elkamel: I admire how you’re really digging into the different layers of what makes a girl a girl. The poem “counterfeit”, for instance, invokes the economy around girlhood.
my father pays the surgeon to return me a bint.
in an hour i am unruined, regirled.
I also love this poem because it feels very playful—even though it’s essentially very dark. I think readers who don’t share our culture would be horrified that these surgeries take place. But you’re like, yes, this is happening. Right now. In this poem. I also really enjoyed the invocation of role-play.
this time i know the value of a counterfeit
so i behave myself, role-play. all of it a trick:
honor restored as if it can ever be,
worthless masquerading worthwhile.
It feels like the speaker is hyper aware of performance and performativity; that “worthless” and “worthwhile” are both nothing but costumes that we put on. As you were tackling such brutal subject matter, did it feel manageable to still experiment and play?
Ghinwa Jawhari: The final draft of that poem came out playful by accident, in a way. When I started it, all I had was “worthless masquerading worthwhile.” Whenever I write a poem, it always starts with a single line, and then it grows out from there. So the initial concept revolved around this charade: A hymenoplasty restores a “false” virginity, intended to be perceived as true. So what is virginity if it’s this easy? I think the playfulness might stem from the bint’s nod to this as a cosmic joke we play on the body, sewing it up and asking others to pretend along with us. It states pointedly that these concepts are fake to begin with.
And it is pretend. It’s roleplay. You’re roleplaying a woman, you’re roleplaying a virgin. And Arab women, I think—or SWANA women in diaspora—understand that there are tricks we have to learn to play. We shed these selves all the time. If you’re going to your family’s house, and you’ve just been out drinking and partying, and you have makeup everywhere, the first thing you think is: I need to get clean and look like I wasn’t anywhere. Like I was studying. We’re all familiar with that. To roleplay the perfect daughter, we are not 100% honest about our identities with our families. Because if you’re doing anything that doesn’t subscribe to what they perceive that role to be, it’s wrong.
So that was always at the back of my mind—that a lot of being a girl, especially when you’re young, is lying. We can say pretending, too: pretending to like something, pretending to be feminine, or obedient, pretending to behave oneself, so to speak. I’m 30 now, but I wrote this when I was 29. So I was at the cusp of that old maid, unmarried title. Another role! I was just so fed up with it, because it’s nonstop. So one way to subvert these expectations is to add humor, or make the reality playful and ridiculous, because it is.
In order for us to survive, anyway, we have to undercut the seriousness of things. And that’s kind of the thread through the chapbook: despite what they’re telling us, it’s not that serious. That’s almost the saving grace. We have to tell ourselves: I’m fine. I’m going to be okay. Even if I don’t fit every single role the way they’re telling me I have to.
Sara Elkamel: I am also very interested in the way you play with bodily organs and animals in your poems. In “winter of the acned year”, your invocation of animal slaughter really struck me, particularly because it shares space with a trace of the speaker’s late night masturbation.
beneath the quilts piled on us, i silenced with my hands
the loud wet thing that would not let me sleep
pawed myself to dog-panting at the remembered eyes
of the man who had slaughtered a ram before me
I guess this poem made me think about the proximity of intimacy and violence in your poems; here, we’re given this very solitary fantasy, and the deceptive tenderness of the man’s eyes, before a sudden transition towards sacrificial slaughter. Your choice of couplets for form also brought the tenderness and the violence even closer together, which I found very moving.
Ghinwa Jawhari: I love this poem. It actually started out as one huge paragraph, and then I cut it into couplets. I think my reading of this poem—and it could be a wrong reading, even though I wrote it [laughs]—is that it’s a time when you’re kind of acned, not really mature, not fully into your sexual-ness yet. You’re beneath a heavy quilt, which is supposed to keep you warm, but is also restrictive, and you’re silencing yourself with your hands because you’re horny—you don’t know why. And it all has this closeness to the violence of sacrificial slaughter. But then the violence against the animal is halal, so the speaker must be thinking that sex should also be halal, in a sense. Like, how come the slaughter is halal but what I’m doing to myself, to give myself pleasure to go to sleep or whatever, is not halal, right?
i watched the butcher disassemble the animal from the car
over his head, halal insisted in red coils no wrongdoing
my mother, returning to the driver’s seat, appetited for its glistening liver
the organ in white paper followed us home, where she cubed it into meal
i recalled its size, its flab texture, the bleat
its oil swarmed my mouth like a vow
And then you have the mother in her very own couplet, interrupting it all. Interrupting the slaughter, the violence, interrupting the fantasy, the pleasure—suddenly, you’re completely removed from the fantasy. Your mom jumps in and asks ‘hey, do you want to get this liver?’ And the organ is wrapped in white paper, suggestive of something bridal.
But anyway, I don’t think violence and sexuality are separate. You can have very violent, not pleasant sex in spaces that are not comfortable or tender. That exists. Western perceptions of sex—the sex in movies or music videos—is tender, haughty, controlled. I think, especially if you’re in a conservative space where girls are marrying guys they don’t know well, or when it’s an arranged thing, sex and violence can very much be one and the same. It’s not like there’s intimacy, and then there’s violence. No; there’s intimacy plus violence, especially if you’re queer—you learn to anticipate aggression in regards to your sexuality or in regards to how you’re identifying or existing. So I guess this poem is not bridging sex and violence; it’s making a statement that they can be the same thing. And it’s unfortunate that we’re kind of trying to think of them as separate, because then when we do experience sexual violence or intimate violence. We are in shock, and we wonder how this can happen.
Sara Elkamel: I’m interested in the way you manage to talk about violence without talking about violence, you know? I think your use of devices such as play and figuration, along with loose narrative, all works to create a space that remains other-wordly in its tackling of the worldly. I’m particularly curious about your use of surrealism to talk about very real experiences.
Ghinwa Jawhari: Surrealism serves to depersonalize the body, in the sense that even the speaker can objectify her own body. Saying “I detach my hand” [in the poem “tazahar”] renders the body figurative and distant, so we can ask “What does the hand symbolize?” Here it is alluding to a hand in marriage, but there can be other meanings. I don’t know how much surrealism appears in my work in general, but there’s a sense, in this poem at least, that the bint is suspended, looking at everything around and within her as if for the first time.
what a doll i was those years after the towers
fell. i went blonde as one goes insane, womaned
with a new name, an easy olio for the tongues
that tsk’d me. gone were the guttural
consonants, the hairs connecting my brows.
i starved my hips. i wore english like a ring
until men begged my father for my hand.
i detached my hand & gave it to him, a fishing
lure. a prophet arrived to open the leaves of me.
A sort of war-born surrealism also features in the poem “a girlhood summer passes,” where these girls are hanging out as the war is just going on around them. It closes with them swimming during a ceasefire. But I was in Lebanon in 2006, and that was kind of a reality; whenever there’s a ceasefire, you just go hang out.
Ultimately—I think because I’m working on these longer projects—I am now exploring the magical more. You can use it to say more, without flat out saying: This is wrong. Even though it is [laughs]. But it’s difficult, because if you make it too magical, then it’s completely fictional. And nothing is completely fictional. It has to come from somewhere. I wish I could’ve done more with surrealism in this collection; but the deadline was coming up!
Sara Elkamel: I’m still so impressed that you wrote this entire chapbook in two months!
Ghinwa Jawhari: It’s my ADD. And now I won’t produce anything else for 10 years.
Sara Elkamel: We’ll wait!
Adrian, thanks for agreeing to talk about your latest book, Somebody Else Sold the World, with me. I’m really excited to talk about it, and the ways that it is contiguous with your larger poetic project, and how it also subverts or cuts new facets into it.
One of the things that has always exhilarated me about your poems is their music. The title is from the David Bowie song, “The Man Who Sold the World,” and many of the poems in the book itself refer to/are in direct conversation with a wide variety of songs and artists (Future, Radiohead, Thundercat, Funkadelic, Tycho). (Clearly your taste in music is as catholic (eclectic wouldn’t do justice here) as it is good). But the poems are as deft and musically double-jointed as ever. Assonance and alliteration, stutter-step rhythms and sudden spans into smoothness–sometimes it feels like what Dilla might have done with a typewriter instead of turntables. The relationship of music and poetry has changed a lot over time–no more lyres, for instance. How do you think of and work with the relationship between music and poetry in your own work?
Adrian Matejka: Conor, man, thank you for taking the time to read the book and for your kind words about the poems. It’s wild because almost every poet I know is a failed musician in one way or another. Either they weren’t especially gifted musicians (like me) or they decided to employ their musical talents in different ways, like Mari Evans and Terrance Hayes. Thomas Hardy supposedly got down on the accordion, too, but that could also be a myth.
The thing is poets are musicians, we just use assonance instead of adagios. One of the great things about our current poetry moment is the incredible musicality of the work. I’m thinking about [your full length] The Enemy of My Enemy is Me (congratulations!!!) and the poems in the book (like “Kintsugi”) that just swing. And Kendra DeColo’s I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers From the World and World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Hanif Abdurraqib’s sonics in both his lines and his sentences and Ross Gay’s astonishing Be Holding. So much bright music around us. Then there are books with quieter compositions that still astound, like Erin Belieu’s Come Hither Honeycomb, Alex Dimitrov’s Love and Other Poems, and Shara McCallum’s No Ruined Stone. I guess I just started a 2021 reading list instead of answering your question because there are so many new books that hum right now.
Maybe one of the reasons I lean into music so directly is that music has been a constant in my life. I played middle-school French horn terribly, was on the mic with a band in college, and DJed on the radio for a while. But when I was a kid, we lived next to a blind woman named Pearl who would listen to music at all hours—jazz, soul, and funk especially. I would wake up in our brokedown townhouse in the middle of most nights because every creak in that space sounded like someone breaking in. I got so much comfort from hearing Pearl’s music because it reminded me that I wasn’t alone.
That’s when I learned about the possible comforts in music. I’m not sure if there’s a direct connection, but I know for certain COVID made me hear lyrics, hear bridges and solos with a different kind of attenuation. I mean, I’ve always loved Portishead’s Dummy or Dexter Gordon’s One Flight Up but the sounds seem differently focused after isolation. Have you had that experience, too? Where something you understood one way has changed wildly after COVID?
CB: Oh absolutely–COVID definitely shifted some things in my life a couple degrees so they were like that woman’s arms in Prufrock–in the lamplight downed with light brown hair, i.e. different, a little more intimate and real. The largest was probably isolation. Before the pandemic hit, my wife and I moved to a small town in central Ohio that was right between our jobs (each about an hour away). We lived for a couple years without family, friends, any sort of social network, and it was tough. During the pandemic, it was still tough, but we’d been accustomed to not seeing anyone, so our social isolation looked different: not so much a condition, but a preparation. This didn’t change isolation to some magical wonderthing, though–it’s hard to rely on one or two people as your only relief from yourself.
Another thing the pandemic shifted for me, both slightly and enormously, was parenting (my daughter was five months old when lockdown started). I got to do a lot more of it than I would have otherwise! This was great, and also taxing, as you well know. Parenthood, along with the pandemic, is also one of the narrative/thematic threads in Somebody Else Sold the World. The Gymnopédies suite is sweet, pithy, and beautiful, shot through with a nostalgia that seems really right for an homage to [French composer] Erik Satie, and those poems, along with “Snakes Because We Say So,” help the speaker reflect on change–in the world, post-pandemic, as well as in himself. “Snakes,” in particular, is such an interesting and delicious poem——it has so much! The anaphora, the question about blame and its necessity, the interrogation of masculinity, the tone flicking its tail this way and that–but I’m especially curious about how you approach poems with your kid in them. I remember hearing Victoria Chang say something akin to (but kinder than) “my kids? I’m with them every day. Why do I want them in my poems?” Do you end up consciously writing about parent/fatherhood, or is this something that just kind of happens?
AM: What Victoria said cracks me up for so many reasons, but especially the exclusiveness of, or maybe the pervasiveness of being a poet. It’s so complicated and consuming. There are poems I’ve written that are only possible because of my daughter and then there are poems that never made it onto the page because I’m a father. Something is begetting something, but I’m not sure of the direction.
A while back I was working on a book of essays/poems about being a Black father during the Obama presidency and after. I gave up on the project for ethical reasons (including ones connected to the ownership of story) and also because there were some generational contextualities that I couldn’t unpack. I was raised in a generation still limiting itself with the one-drop paradigms of race. My daughter and her friends don’t go for those same constructions, so writing about Blackness and fatherhood in that context ended up being more historic than familial.
After I left the house, my relationship with my daughter fractured for all of the familiar reasons and I don’t feel like I understand [those threads] well enough to talk about it. But I think that breaking happens across our lives, all of the time. It’s impossible to change locations and be the same person. We move or a friend, family member or paramour moves, and our relationships change because of new topography. We have no choice but to change with the new atmospherics on all sides. Maybe you’re experiencing some of this in Ohio after so much time in Texas?
That’s a long way to go to say that the poems you mentioned are among the seven poems I wrote pre-pandemic while I was working on that earlier project. Everything else in the book was written between March and October 2020. The experience of isolation from the world and from my daughter made me reflect on what connections we still have. The Gymnopédies poems were part of that reckoning, if that makes sense. Thinking about the things we shared when she was six or seven, rather than the things we can’t communicate about now that she’s a teenager. There’s a different veneer to everything.
I’ve been thinking about how isolation has eroded our delicate nettings of socialization. I enjoy a good in-person poetry reading as much as the next poet, but it took me years to figure out how to separate my creative and public selves. I had to learn to change from my usual poetry lens to one that is more social so I wouldn’t sound like a T.S. Eliot parody at the party, affected British accent and all. I mean, there has to be separation, right? Nobody actually wants to sound like a poem during a conversation.
It feels like maybe a year of Zoom readings erased my etiquette on the page and off. I’m not sure I can still do small talk. Time in poems works differently now. Urgency in the world seems even more vital now.
I had a psychology professor in college who might have been British and was dosed with LSD without knowing. He became obsessed with time afterward and either lectured to his watch or to the clock on the wall, so he always knew what minute it was. It’s not that dramatic as that, but all of the past year’s mortality and stagnation has me thinking about what progression is when the world stops. I’m wondering about the different versions of mortality in The Enemy of My Enemy is Me, too, so I hope you’ll talk about that some.
CB: Oh, that’s so interesting about the Gymnopédies poems being kind of grafted onto/woven among poems that were written just last year. I remember seeing some of them years ago in POETRY (around the time The Big Smoke was out) and thinking ‘whoa these are so different–not coming over a sound system in a basement or from a podium but from someone leaning down to say something private and intimate.’ That they fit so seamlessly with the rest of the book, and its themes of time, distance, intimacy, and regret/guilt, speaks a lot to your revision and curatorial process.
That anecdote about the furtively-dosed prof–holy shit! LSD is, uh, quite a thing to weather when you consent to it; I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be hoodwinked into it. It seems like an apt metaphor/allegory for the pandemic, in a way: a mind-altering experience we had no idea we were participating in, could not escape, and are now greatly changed by. I love that you bring up time as one of the things that it’s changed for us, too, because I think another of Somebody Else Sold the World’s big fascinations for me is how it interrogates the themes I mentioned above in the context of different temporal cycles: the pandemic, the cycle of the year, the cycle of relationships (romantic and familial), and a human life cycle. How you toggle among these four, their different intimacies and terrors and exhilarations, and how they share so many of these between them, is really deft. It’s like watching the innards of a watch click and spin, all of these interlocking and meshing, driving the thing forward in a dazzling mess of glints and thoughtful friction.
I’m always so interested, too, in the way that time can work in a poem, and how it can both defy and encompass the way it does so in our world. I heard Noah Warren read a poem that leapt over like twenty years when he read the line “the years passed badly” — suddenly we’re in a future we didn’t know the poem was even capable of. I love how poems can do that. And how they can rewind time, too, like Ansel Elkins’s poem reversing a hate crime and restoring humanity to the victim of a lynching.
I want to ask you about time in your poems, too, but also want to answer your question about mortality. I mean, it’s more present for so many more than before, right? Between the stormier sky, the rising oceans, the hotter winds, and the cops, filmed or otherwise, brutalizing people of color, not to mention the virus and equitable medical care receding via cost and abortion restrictions, if it’s not already gone due to differential treatment of Black folks by science and practitioners–the urgency to address these has been there, but it definitely feels of a different order now.
As for my book, there’s a lot of violence in it. (Any book that takes the US as part of its subject will, or ought to, right?) There’s violence on the international level, the ecological level, the interpersonal, and the intrapersonal. The quote-unquote regular kinds of mortality, about the actual death of a person, come through with US neoimperial campaigns (the speaker is a paramour of Henry Kissinger, who helped engineer all sorts of coups and illegal bombing campaigns in the name of democracy) and mass shootings/gun fetishism; the other kind of mortality that the poems look at are what selves we are asked to sacrifice by society, specifically the kinds of selves it expects men (especially white men) to get rid of, and how restrictive, violent, and regressive this shedding of more thoughtful or conciliatory selves that do not want to participate in or overlook toxic instantiations of male personhood is.
I’m interested in complicity, how we can see cruelty, know that it’s perpetrated on our behalf, and allow it to go on. What kinds of deaths inside us does that engineer? What do we need to strangle inside ourselves so that we’ll stop a strangulation we are seeing?
This seems to me something you’re looking at, too, in Somebody Else Sold the World, albeit from a different vantage, different because of how race works in our poems and poetics, not to mention our lives, especially if/when we take race as a proxy for how the world does (or does not) impose itself on us. You also seem to be asking how did we get to this particular place of injustice, and what is that doing to us? Tiana Clark recently talked about each book having an unanswerable question as its engine. Does that hold true for you, or do you center the process differently when you are beginning a book?
I love to imagine that poetry is an antidote to all of this, but it’s not. It’s a signifier or an amplifier—more like a megaphone at a protest than a gun.
AM: Complicity is so knotty and multifaceted because it can be, as we’ve seen forever in the United States, something that people deny defensively, ignore selfishly, or sidestep quietly. I’m thinking about this wide lensed, in our public institutions, too, where cruelty is baked in and called “bureaucracy.” But it’s also been in the backdrop of my personal interactions since I was a kid. When I was younger, I rode shotgun with friends who enacted some of the toxicity so many of us (including some of those now-repentant friends) are trying to break apart now. That’s a familiar history for many men. So until each of us figures out how to be less selfish and avaricious, how to move through the world making space instead of taking it, we’ll continue to have these problems of disparity and disempowerment that’s been protected by our patriarchal systems.
Now I’m thinking about one of the poems that didn’t make it into SESTW that was inspired by a high school boy I knew when I was in middle school. He used to hip me up to the goings on in the neighborhood and in life generally, the way older kids sometimes would. Most of what he said was harmless and was probably repeating what he was told when he was younger. But his advice about women was essentially “make no mean yes.” He was passing on these ideas of sexual assault that were common then and now. I was 13 at the time and didn’t understand what he was saying until much later. I don’t think I was alone in being offered that kind of destructive advice from other men.
I love to imagine that poetry is an antidote to all of this, but it’s not. It’s a signifier or an amplifier—more like a megaphone at a protest than a gun. The poem I wrote about that guy wasn’t any good in part because of Tiana’s beautiful idea of unanswerable questions. There are no questions about his abhorrent advice beyond “Who taught him this?” so the momentum disappeared and what I had left was a didactic anecdote in line breaks.
But some of the major questions I kept asking myself in this book are about desire and want and also about consent and agency. I think the answers to these questions are constantly evolving, but I hope I started to answer them in SESTW.
At the same time, I don’t know if this book does the tough work of trying to dismantle the kind of cruelty we’re talking about at the top. I am fully aware of my position as a middle aged, heterosexual guy and American poetry from the 20th century on through is clogged with covetous, slobbery poems by men. I didn’t want to add to that self-serving canon. If anything, I hope that I was able to think about desire as part of the human condition, as familiar and as vital as breathing. Now I’m thinking about other poetry collections that deconstruct masculinity. Edgar Kuntz’s Tap Out does. Keith Kopka’s Count Four and Marcus Wicker’s Silencer do as well. Who else?
How do you write a love poem in the 21st century? How do you write a poem about sexuality and desire while also respecting the person who ignited it?
CB: Making space instead of taking it–so well said. It makes me think of that Mark Strand poem, “Keeping Things Whole,” in which the speaker says “In a field / I am the absence / of field.” That poem–like so many of Strand’s–works because it has a kind of moral revelation in the midst of an alternate dimension. You’re trying, in SESTW and just generally overall too, to do this moral work in the world we’re a part of. Not trying to diss Strand, but note an important qualitative difference, because one of the things that I think can be so hard is doing this so that the poem doesn’t just become a didactic anecdote in line breaks. How can the necessary distance between poet, speaker, and subject come into play so that the materials of the poem can be moved around until they click (or rattle right)? For me, I had to take the Strand route–go a little surreal with it, lean more into persona so that I wasn’t frozen by my closeness to it all.
But books like Edgar Kunz’s and Marcus Wicker’s (I haven’t read Count Four yet but have to), and Nathan McClain’s Scale, some of Shane McCrae’s less persona-driven work, even Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Fortune for your Disaster and Kevin Prufer’s strange narratives and Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture–they all live in the real world, and look openly at the cruelty that masculinity expects of individuals and systems, and posit tenderness and vulnerability as a response (in varying degrees of out-loudness). I like this idea of assembling an ad hoc canon of re-envisioning masculinity poetics. I’m sure I’m going to come up with five more poets and books once I finish this answer, too.
Because you’re right–we’ve all got those friends whom we rode shotgun with, who inherited and in their own way modified or continued to develop these regressive primitive codes of dude-ness, which, in one of your poems titled “Love Notes”, you note is to fail but “keep trying in the customs of dudes.” This idea of persistence, wearing away, eroding any barrier–it’s its own kind of colonial impulse. That my need is more important than your resistance, that it will outlast it. It’s so valuable that these are questions you’re working with–what is consent, not just interpersonally, but also in poems. Who gets to tell whose story and how? It makes me think of Edouard Glissant’s contention that people (especially colonized peoples) are allowed their obscurity and that some things–some works, some feelings, some thoughts–aren’t and shouldn’t be available for translation. Just because you want something doesn’t mean you should have it. Just because the mountain is there doesn’t mean you get to climb it. I’m thinking of the Indian government protecting the area around Nanda Devi (second highest mountain in the nation) for safety but also religious reasons. It seems to me that we could all stand to learn to take no for an answer more, on every level.
But one of the other things in your work that I think is really important in your work is how it demonstrates alternative methodologies of writing, especially regarding your collaborations. You’re a preternatural collaborator, with artists, the historical record, your own past, the music of others. It’s great in so many ways, but a lot because it’s you showing us, your readers, things you think are great. It’s a kindness and like, a community service, to enrich so many people’s understandings of what different creative expressions are out there, and how they intersect with each other and poetry and life and so on. How do you approach collaborations? Or, how do you figure out with your collaborators how to work together?
AM: Thank you for putting collaboration in such generous terms. I feel exceptional sometimes because I have exceptional friends. They all have such out-of-this-world perspectives and talents. I’m constantly learning from them. My most recent collaborations were with artists Dario Robleto, Kevin Neireiter, and Nicholas Galanin. Completely different makers with completely different political and aesthetic agendas, but they’re all part of my community of inspirations.
We talk about community in poetry a lot because it’s so important to surviving as humans and artists. Maybe even more now after being so physically isolated during the pandemic. But I’ve been thinking about how community—connections, support, social nets, whatever it means for the individual—is one of the first things that gets fractured by capitalism and its duplicitous institutions. What better way to keep everyone from building than to encourage competition for crusts? Scarcity can either enable or completely dismantle community if the community isn’t ready for what’s about to happen. And there is a genuine scarcity of resources for poets (and all artists, really), too, so we have to be mindful and we have to be generous. Not in the sense of being effusive with each other on social media, though that is welcome. But in a more three-dimensional sense—sharing tangible and nontangible resources without fear.
I’ve been the recipient of this kind of generosity throughout my career and I try as best as I can to give that back in whatever ways are available. When I was Poet Laureate of Indiana, I ran workshops at the Center for Black Literature and Culture called “Poetry for Indy.” I modeled them after June Jordan and Etheridge Knight’s Poetry for the People workshops. I tried to create a writing space in downtown Indianapolis for people who didn’t necessarily have access to a writing community. I thought it would just be neighborhood poets, but poets started showing up from Evansville and Muncie and Ft. Wayne because they needed a space that would honor their voices. I’d planned on continuing them after my time as IPL was over, but the pandemic paused those plans.
I know you were in Houston (where my friend Dario Robleto has a studio—shout out to Kerry Inman and the Inman Gallery who helped me get the art for both Map to the Stars and Somebody Else Sold the World!) with all of the beautiful writers and visual artists down there, so I wonder how it’s been for you, leaving a space of intense connectivity for a more isolated writing life? Has your idea of what community is or is for changed in your new space with your beautiful new role as a father?
That went pretty far away from collaboration, but in my mind, collaboration is community. Back when I was finishing Map to the Stars, I realized that I’d pretty much answered all of the questions I had poetically. The place I was in my personal and professional lives, the geographic and psychic space I was moving through were no longer spaces of inquiry. They were monochromatic and imperative. The only way I could find my way out was through linking with artists whose work inspired me. I imagined—and it turned out to be true—that if I could spend some time working in other artistic mediums it would force me to think of poetics differently.
The only way I could find my way out was through linking with artists whose work inspired me. I imagined—and it turned out to be true—that if I could spend some time working in other artistic mediums it would force me to think of poetics differently.
Working with Dario, Kevin, Nicholas, and also Youssef Daoudi (who is the artist I’m making a graphic novel with) allowed me to think in series of connecting visual images instead of series of sounds like I usually do in a poem. Music has always been the center of the poetry continuum for me. After collaborating with visual artists, I’m now imagining images as a corollary driver of the poems. Yusef Komunyakaa is probably my favorite poet generally but also for his ability to move a poem with both image and sound. “You and I Are Disappearing” and “Venus’s Flytraps” are immaculate in this way. Anything from Magic City or Dien Cai Dau really. The poems in SESTW are nowhere near as potent imagistically as Yusef’s, but I see myself toddling in his direction.
One more thing about collaboration: I was very lucky because I worked with artists who are my friends, in addition to inspirations. The collective agenda for each of the projects was simply to make the most incredible art we could. The ego was centered in the success of our shared art, rather than ourselves. That’s important because when we’re out here writing or making by ourselves ego is vital. It takes a particular kind of hubris to want to create art, given how much of it involves failure, so we have to believe this work matters. But that ego can also get in the way when other artists are involved. I can imagine another version of collaboration where there would be all kinds of drama because the artistic imperatives don’t line up.
CB: What you’re saying about ego, and how much we need it in the act of writing, reminds me of something I saw Nathalie Léger. She was talking about the hubris you’re talking about–the almost heroic effort it takes to reach a velocity strong enough to escape the gravity of those feelings. You know, the ones that say “this doesn’t matter” and “who cares,” those feelings of pettiness or that it feels petty. I think that’s really important to acknowledge, not to mention practice (and is a thing I have trouble getting past–this worry that my life as subject is too egocentric and self-aggrandizing/dramatizing to warrant anyone else’s attention). At the same time, though, what you’re saying about community and collaborative work, and how it shifts the location of ego in the process, so that it’s centered on the work itself and not the self, is such an important counterweight. To live in one extreme too long is to go full narcissist; in another, shapeless. For both of these, though, doing work that is one’s own, and doing work that is the collective’s, it feels to me that community is really essential.
I think this has become clearer to me as I’ve drifted further away from the community I had in Houston, which you rightfully note is vibrant, stimulating, and a little scruffy. I loved it there, and the people I got to spend time with in that city. Being away from it has given me perspective on just what I had, and how hard it is to get that. But with distance, and the recent thoughts and words of people like Matthew Salesses, Aditi Machado, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Éireann Lorsung, community is a thing that both sustains and differentiates you. And I think this sustenance and differentiation is really important for writing–as an individual, in community (people you chat about poems and life with over beers or ice cream) you get support and perspective that helps you feel like an interesting and intelligent person/creator as well as an individuated person. As a community, you’ve got people to work with, to help you consider and work with different perspectives, people who push you, in your own work but in your work together, too, to do more than you would otherwise. It’s kind of like the weird miracle of pressure and tension that allows a meniscus to form, the water gripping itself, the air resisting but also accommodating it.
Often I go to community for the same reason I go to poems: for perspective. To help me see the human side to a mass event, or to see the scope and history a small feeling can be traced up to. To challenge my understanding. Having poems (and essays and fiction) has helped me maintain that in the absence of direct human community, but you can’t replace the glee of a friend’s cackle or the opportunity to learn what you mean when you share an opinion on a line break. I can only imagine the opportunities for this kind of interchange that your workshops in Indy helped create–those sound so important, not to mention amazing! Here’s hoping the pandemic is under control soon and you can get them spread out among the Hoosiers.
At this point, I think I’ve just got one question left (though I wouldn’t mind if this convo just unspooled over the next couple months). We’ve talked about so much–music, parenthood, complicity, desire and consent in life and poems, community and collaboration. I’ve really appreciated the chance to see inside your process, your poetic values and aspirations, and what you hope Somebody Else Sold the World can tackle. I wonder if we could end by thinking not just about the poet, the work, the community, but poetry with a capital P, and what it can do. I really love what you say about it being “a megaphone at a protest and not a gun”–what amplifies but not what acts or does. What can, or what should, it do, and does that goal or purpose differ during times of crisis, as we’ve seen of late, or is it a question of intensity/degree?
AM: It’s been so great talking with you about all of this, Conor. I’m wishing you and your gorgeous book the most massive success possible and I’m excited we get to read together on the 15th!
It’s wild because I just got my author copies of Somebody Else Sold the World and I’ve been slowly inscribing them for my close friends and family. I have a nephew in the Air Force and I’m so proud of who he is and who he’s becoming. When he was younger, my sister would drag him to my poetry readings constantly. Somewhere along the way, he stopped fighting about it and wanting to be there on his own. He doesn’t write poetry. I don’t think he reads it much, either. But there is something about the atmosphere poetry creates that he enjoys.
I don’t know how he will react to this new book because as I told him in my note, the book is mostly full of uncle music. But I know he’ll respond in some way because he’s aware and open to possibilities. Poetry accesses some secret need in all of us and what it gives us might change depending on the world around us, but it all starts with poetic need. This pandemic has been awful in every conceivable way for our emotional and psychic wellbeing. For our art, too. I managed to write this book, mainly because I was clinging to poetry for survival.
Poetry accesses some secret need in all of us and what it gives us might change depending on the world around us, but it all starts with poetic need.
One good thing that came out of this time—and this speaks to what poetry can do—is a different idea for what poetry fellowship might look like. Those first couple of months were bleak and disconnected. Somewhere in there, people figured out how to use Zoom for readings and that changed everything. It gave people access to work they never had access to before because of geography, resources, availability, or time.
One of the most stunning and previously impossible events happened in June 2020 as part of Patricia Smith’s 65th birthday celebration: 65 poets each reading a poem in her honor, split over two nights. Patricia is one of my favorite poetry people, for her stunning poetry and for all of the work she does in the literary community, so it’s no surprise we all wanted to celebrate her. The event itself was a historic, literary occurrence that wouldn’t have been possible without Zoom. All of these dazzling, grateful poets “together” from all over the world reading poems to and for Patricia. I want to list names, but there were so many heroes that it would be disrespectful to choose who to name. But I think part of it is posted on YouTube (the second part, which you can find here).
Now I’m thinking about something that the novelist Ben Okri said about poetry. It’s cleaner than any definition I’ve come up with, so maybe I’ll just lean on his language. The quote looks long, but it’s only two sentences:
The poet needs to be up at night, when the world sleeps; needs to be up at dawn, before the world wakes; needs to dwell in odd corners where Tao is said to reside; needs to exist in dark places, where spiders forge their webs in silence; near the gutters, where the underside of our dreams fester. Poets need to live where others don’t care to look, and they need to do this because if they don’t they can’t sing to us of all the secret and public domains of our lives.
I love this job description. Okri’s talking about The Poet, but in truth the poet and poetry are symbiotic and make The Poet. They are both amplifier, enabler, conduit, stylist, wishing well, and a mouthless trumpet for each other. They each make possibility possible for the other.
Introduction by Rajiv Mohabir:
The poems that follow are from a forthcoming manuscript. These poems are a type of translation of a Caribbean chutney song called “Na Manu” by the Surnamese singer Bidjwanti Chaitoe Rekhan in the early 1960s.
The song “Na Manoo Na Manoo Re” from the 1961 Bollywood film Gunga Jamuna in which Lata Mangeshkar sings a song of similar lyrics may have been an inspiration to the Sarnami Hindustani song of Bidjwanti Chaitoe Rekhan.
Still, adding more layers and complications, is this song, remade by Babla and Kanchan– a duo from India who took Caribbean songs and remade them for worldwide distribution in the 1980s– that was very popular in my family and the community of Guyanese and Caribbean Indians that we interreacted with in Orlando, New York City, and Toronto, so my move to translate them is one that is intimate given my own linguistic history of erasure and reclamation. This is the version that I grew up dancing to, knowing it intimately in the twisting of my body in feral dance.
What is remarkable about each remake and each rebranding is the change in lyrics and instrumentation, translated each time to fit the contexts of the viewers/singers/dancers/audience. To start with the Surinamese version, the regularization in Rekhan’s lyrics allows for a predictable structure that is easily replicable, though it maintains the play and irony of the original. I keep the play and irony of the original in mind as I work through the various pieces in this section of the translation process I am presenting here.
The process that I use to translate this song I’m calling “deviant:” these are deviant translations. I want to destabilize language and the ideas around final realization and “arrival”, in order to resist stasis and provide space for all of the queer slippages of language and their worldviews in their very particular speech communities. When I was younger these songs in Hindustani would be translated into a Creole iteration with a different poetic orientation. The English interpretations were up to me. All of the poems are retranslations of retranslations of retranslations in and out of Guyanese Hindustani, Guyanese Creole, and English. In this way I envision each incarnation as a possible emanation from the text as even the idea of primacy and the original are dubious. I approach each iteration with a different idea of what I want to communicate: what affective dimension is available in the language that has similar resonances throughout while not always being literal. What are the affective hauntings of these lyrics, languages, and musics? This is the central question driving my experiment.
I’m also obsessed with Creole and Bhojpuri indeterminacies in English and the ways these languages use grief, humor, and joy in differing ways. Using Guyanese Bhojpuri, English, and Guyanese Creole, the deviant translation is nonbinary and ever migrating. (In live performances of these songs, performers sing as the spirit moves them with lexical fluidity an incarnation of their own creative magic). What results are translations that are not translations as such in that there is no resting place but rather motion with the deviant driving the multiple crossings.
From “Swaggerman, Fly-mouth” A Deviant Translation
what is true?
I take in the raven moon’s glow
so when you deny me
I’m still opalescent.
Why veil this shine
for a liar’s night, a mind
My churas are not shackles—
It’s morning and I’m gilded.
Things Not to Forget in the Morning (Liar Though You Be)
moonlight moonlit night full moon light
my veil with kinaras of gold
my silver bera
a song from laborer to recruiter is that why it is so sonorous and resonantly all these years later summoning the ghosts of tide and bond how even as the language receded from us like a tide coolies couldn’t release still can’t let fly this story or rather it possessed us in the dance halls as soca chutney a music salve for the pain of forgetting for getting into the boats and we are haunted by the memory of a promise of return but it wasn’t about the physical return but a return to wholeness-as-India that our masters and owners reneged on denying generations any passage not rum-doused and sun-scorched is this why we dance so fiercely in the moonlight is this
What part of me is memory?
The skin and muscle,
neuron and fat—?
Don’t believe in god.
It’s a mean lie to lay you down
to strip you of cloth and gem.
You are not headed any place
but into the ocean as cremains
and pearls of bones
not quite machine smashed.
Did you forget? Is it beautiful
this morning where you think you are?
चूड़ा बीढा काढ़ा
काँगन बाँगल जिंगल
चान्दी की चान्दनी जइसन
दुपट्टा चुनरी ओढ़नी
निक़ाब परदा रूमाल
बदन की बदनिया जइसन
Look. Wha’ me know me go tell yuh
De man come
an’ tief all me ting dem
‘E come cana me
an’ talk suh lie-lie talk
an’ me been haunted
fe lie dung
whe’ ‘e put de ordhni
But wha’ matti hable see a night?
‘e na remembah
me na me bangle,
how de moon a shine,
how de moon been a shine
Sugar floss melts in dew
forgets its thread’s any spun yarn
So what thing is moonlight
who deposits amnesia
for even a woven veil
to dissolve from your memory
despite my ornaments
exquisite and golden forged
all lost in the ephemeral jewels
globes of hundreds of tiny suns
bending grass leaves
into pranam which is both
greeting and leave taking