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Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a multimedia artist, poet, and writer. Griffiths is the author of Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books 2010), The Requited Distance (The Sheep Meadow Press 2011), Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose 2011), which was selected for the 2012 Inaugural Poetry Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, and Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books 2015), which was a finalist for the 2015 Balcones Poetry Prize and the 2016 Phillis Wheatley Book Award in Poetry. Her most recent book, Seeing the Body, is a hybrid of poetry and photography (W.W. Norton and Company).
FWR: I’d like to start with the titular poem, “Seeing the Body”. In it, you write into grief and how that grief can bifurcate the life of the living. In your visualization of grief, you create imagery (such as “flowers/falling from her blood” and “bale of grief on my back, opening/ into something black I wear”) that seems resistant to more common depictions of grief. (I’m thinking of poems like Auden’s “Funeral Blues” or the gothic imagery of Edgar Allen Poe, which have become synonymous with writing about loss). Did you find yourself resisting cliche, or writing through images that you had read from others, when you first began these poems?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths: The engine of “Seeing the Body” relies on how breathing happens through a poem as much as it is also about how breath stops or is altered by grief. There is the involuntary tension of trying to sustain an image or to construct a narrative about a beloved’s life or one’s self, only to find all is ruptured.
Auden’s wonderful poem is after something very different than “Seeing the Body” insomuch as Auden’s poem calls for a moment of silence that feels quite public in its address of ordinary life. My own poem wants intimacy, to address the earth and the private echo of silence where there is the sense of falling through one’s body, one’s birth and death through the body of the mother. My mother. This poem hurt me the entire time I worked on it. Years. I’ve never been attracted to clichés, visually or otherwise, so I don’t think about resisting them. What has startled and provoked me is the immediate emotional connection I feel wherever I share these poems. I’m writing about a “common” experience yet it is anything but common for me.
I can never read this poem as it should be read. That was intentional. Each time I enter the earth of this poem I am further away from its original grief. I am somewhere else in my body and can’t get back to the woman who braced herself against the initial impact of loss. Whenever anyone experiences this poem I hope there is an intimacy of reading that does not exclude our bodies. Through language, I’m aware of forcing myself to stop in the middle of something that has neither beginning nor end.
Listen to “Seeing the Body” read by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
FWR: Seeing the Body includes a section (“daughter: lyric: landscape”) composed of your photography, which is alluded to in other poems (“For years I photographed myself/ in a white dress”, from “Husband”). You write in your Author’s Note that these photos serve “as a map of the self and of the greater world in which [you] are both visualized and invisible”. Had you planned on incorporating photography from the beginning, or how did that process develop?
Griffiths: In the beginning, I didn’t plan to use any images at all in the book except I began to think about the types of photographs I had created in Mississippi just before she died. I had to go back and consider what I was “making” when I was unmade by her death. Then I also remembered the deliberate focus I gave photography immediately after her death. I clung to the machine, my camera, like a life raft. I began to perceive my own body as an urgent conduit of my grief, which meant I couldn’t leave my body outside of any landscape on the page.
Perhaps the only way now that I can truly see my mother’s body again is through studying my own. This time was weird and messy because I couldn’t read books. I had a hard time using my camera. All these tools were nothing to me. When I began to write about my mother, it was very difficult because it felt like language was forcing me to accept elements of her death I couldn’t bear.
Perhaps the only way now that I can truly see my mother’s body again is through studying my own.
FWR: Did this impact your understanding of or play with syntax? (I’m thinking here of the poems “As” and “Good Questions”).
Griffiths: “As” and “Good Questions” are fragmentary or function as what I might call a “collage of the lyric” — the rhythm and imagery bleed together in an attempt to both isolate language and to hold the visible language intact as grief itself opens through the body of the page. Photographs offered me a way to be grounded in the world, to remember there had been a world I loved before her death and that I could and must return to it. Finally, it was transformative, after so many years of being diligent that these mediums lived in separation, to ask them to touch each other and hold me.
FWR: “Color Theory and Praxis (I)” is a poem concerned with the body, but also the body in art. Specifically, it considers the painting “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz, which depicts Emmett Till. The poem questions who has the right to the body, particularly a body of color, and after death. I wonder if this influenced your own writing, as some of your poems see you imagining the voice of your mother, as in “Comedy”: ‘Yeah don’t go and write about me like that/ she says. I already know you will.’
Griffiths: I’m ambivalent about my relationship to placing myself inside the voices and bodies of others. I’ve done it, whether by persona or in certain photographic series, and it can feel tense for me. Issues of permission and imagination fascinate me. I’m not interested in policing anyone but I do have the right to challenge, to question, and to critique certain things, especially when it comes to visual arts and representation. There is a lot at stake for me even when it feels like people want artists to shut up when their work is confrontational. I read an interview where Schutz said the painting was about a conversation with Till’s mother. I disagreed with her perspective and the “terms” of this unreal, fantastical conversation, which placed the mutilated body of a black mother’s son as its focal point, as its medium. There is a photograph of Mamie Till at her son’s casket. I don’t feel like Schutz’s painting could ever listen to, or tell Mamie Till’s truth. The artist has a right to do whatever she wants but I tried to understand what and where that right was located. I mean, there’s a painting of hers that features Michael Jackson’s body on an autopsy table. Again, do what you want but do it well. Also, I noticed she didn’t use Trayvon Martin’s image, or Sean Bell’s, Tamir Rice’s, or Eric Garner’s, or Jordan Davis’, or Philando Castile’s, or Mike Brown’s, or Ahmaud Arbery’s, or…or…
I’m tired. There isn’t enough canvas, enough pigment, enough bones in this country for black artists to address the violence and harm done to our bodies, our communities, by the imaginations or institutions that can’t bear for us to live. It isn’t our job or our art’s job to do that work either. Why is America afraid that we dare to imagine ourselves as anything but dead?
My mother and I would go back and forth about my writing. Sometimes she’d ask me when I was going to write her story. Other times she worried about my imagination. None of the poems in “Seeing the Body” ever enter my mother’s body and use her voice. I never wanted to do that. The dialogue in “Comedy” was exactly what she said.
It isn’t our job or our art’s job to do that work either. Why is America afraid that we dare to imagine ourselves as anything but dead?
FWR: In “Good Questions”, you write, “when did the final arrangements begin? / At her birth. Inside of wet rock. When my birth began.” Throughout the text, I was struck by your exploration of inheritance, whether of womanhood or illness, and how grief lives in the body (as in “Signs”). Would you speak to the development of this thread?
Griffiths: I’m in a more explicit stage of my life where I want to think of myself within a greater dimension, in conversation with beings that arrived before me, and those who are already arriving after me. I think about what I can share with the living and the dead. I’m constantly aware that the earth is different in her temperament since I was born. I’ve been astonished by how quickly some of our geographies have reverted and have healed during the pandemic without the presence of human abuse.
At this point, my work lends me an expansive way to think about how I might, as an artist, establish or assert my own lineage or claim inheritance in ways that don’t necessarily include children. I’m constantly thinking about how remarkable it is to begin to really take into consideration the manners, culture, trauma, resilience, joys, and ways-of-being that I have inherited. These things I hold have come from my family but they have come from a larger consciousness. They also come from within me.
I’m in a more explicit stage of my life where I want to think of myself within a greater dimension, in conversation with beings that arrived before me, and those who are already arriving after me. I think about what I can share with the living and the dead. I’m constantly aware that the earth is different in her temperament since I was born.
FWR: Seeing the Body explores the shifting ownership of the female body and how language can free, as well as constrain. In “Ars Poetica”, you write of imagining becoming a writer or a woman like your mother, before the neighbor and his friend interrupt your daydream: “his friend braked hard,/ barking like a dog… Hey, Bitch, he said”. In “My Rapes” your mother asks, “why/ I listened to white girl shit. How could alternative music/ hear a black cry like mine?” Can language free us from the body?
Griffiths: It depends on so many things – whose language, which bodies, whose freedom, whose history, or memory. “Ars Poetica” speaks about some of the ways that violence can interrupt one’s dreams or one’s work. The poem is also asking questions about how we, especially black women, can afford our dreams and our work. How the world consistently fails to appraise our contributions even while our bodies and cultures will be taken as commodities, as resources. The second poem you mentioned is about some of the ways your own family will refuse to allow you (and by extension, your body) to live in songs (and bodies) that they believe are dangerous. I listened to a lot of Tori Amos because of what had happened to me. I listened to Fiona Apple, Ani DiFranco. I listened to them because my mother wouldn’t hear my truth. She couldn’t bear the thought of violation because she loved me so much.
Listen to “Arch of Hysteria, Or, the Spider-Mother
Becomes A Woman” read by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
FWR: Building off of that question, you thread myth through your poems. For me, the inclusion of Athena, Arachne and Eurydice roots your experiences in grief and voicelessness within a larger historical and human story of being a woman. And the poem “Myth” speaks of “the literature/ of blood the black face gasps in air. No… / the black boy’s face merely insists/ it is a face to begin with”, which, to me, seems reminiscent of the commodification of bodies of color not only in commerce, but also in art. Can you talk a bit about the inclusion of these figures?
Griffiths: This question feels similar to the earlier question about Till. In some parts of the book, I found myself returning to stories about daughters who were powerful but seemed unable to overcome their roles in a larger “myth” or story. These stories would often place women inside of cruelty and violence – rapes, murders, or “transformations” that altered or punished their bodies, or drove them mad. The poem “Myth” is about my rage as well as my grief that murders of black men persist in a cycle that renders them faceless, whether that is through death or incarceration. And there is a spectrum of micro-massacres between those extremes. Their humanity is erased.
FWR: Were there poets or writers you turned to for guidance as you wrote through your grief? (Lucille Clifton’s “oh antic god” springs to mind). Or, are there poets or poems you love to teach or share?
Griffiths: Yes, I return often to Ai and Lucille Clifton! I’m thrilled at the forthcoming publication of a selected, How to Carry Water (BOA Editions Ltd.), edited by my dear sister, Aracelis Girmay. It will be a feast! When my mother died, Aracelis shared a poem with me by Joy Harjo, our current National Poet Laureate. It’s called “Remember” and I read it aloud often. If I were brave enough to get a tattoo it would feature lines from this poem.
FWR: To start, I want to give you an image of my reading of Boat Burned. I was getting a pedicure and reading. I think part of what had me so enraptured in your writing in that moment was that I was already in a place where I was thinking about my body, and the relationship it has with the world, as someone was very physically touching my body. It created a very visible power difference between us, as he sat and touched my feet, in addition to a racial difference, a class difference and a gender difference, and I feel that these are layers that you explore and speak to in Boat Burned.
I saw in an interview with Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, you had talked about your love of metaphor and the body as metaphor. I don’t want you to feel as if you have to repeat that conversation, but I did want to ask how you opened yourself up to writing about the body and the body in all of these different circumstances that threads through the book.
Kelly Grace Thomas: I think that at first it came from necessity. I can’t remember a time after the age of seven when I did not have a complicated, if not contentious, relationship with my body. I think that body image is the silent insecurity that no one really talks about, yet it’s a problem that we see in almost all women, as 25% of women have an eating disorder or experience disordered eating in some way. I think that growing up, I had this behavior that was modeled for me, and of course when you have a mother who has body image issues, you internalize that shame because her body gave you your body. I started to dig deep, in my poetry, and I realized most of the things that make me the woman I am– my body, how it looks, how it functions, all of these things– sprang from a source of shame. I decided I wanted to explore that.
I was in a Korean spa in Los Angeles. All the ladies were naked, and I felt so uncomfortable. I remember thinking, “I am so ashamed to be naked in front of these people”. It felt so vulnerable, and I thought, “you have to find a way to talk about this.” I sat down, and I thought, “if I’m not a human, what would I be?” And then I had the immediate thought, “I’d be a boat”. I wrote the poem, “The Boat of My Body” and once I had this metaphor, I felt like I had a mediator to have a conversation with my body that I hadn’t had before. It had been too close, and too painful, to touch, but once I had this metaphor that I could lean on to interpret these things or filter them, then I had a way to open up the conversation.
I feel like it’s a civil war sometimes, this idea that the mind and the body, or the soul and the body, became two separate things. I wanted to work on healing that in some aspect, and I think the metaphor helped. Once I started thinking about the body, then the layers came. I began thinking, “where did I learn this behavior? Why do I believe this? How does my body compare to other bodies? How does my body compare to others of different age, gender or background?”
FWR: Springing from the idea of that civil war and that experience of learning shame, reading Boat Burned, I was stopped again and again by your description of the inheritance of bodily dissatisfaction or trauma, which threads poems from “How the Body is Passed Down” (“My mother was still hungry. Royal/ with fridge glow. Learned/ that loneliness/ eats with its hands”) to “I Try on My First One Piece in the Dressing Room at Ross” (“My trunk is thick. / I don’t look/ expensive.”).
And as I started following this little bit of water, I realized, “there’s a river here. No wait, there’s an ocean here.”
KGT: I think growing up, I learned shame about my body, especially with regards to its relationship to men and being an object of desire. Once I began exploring this in my poetry, I found that this ran deeper than I ever realized. And as I started following this little bit of water, I realized, “there’s a river here. No wait, there’s an ocean here.”
FWR: I’m thinking of the line you have of the body as “monstered/ or womaned” (from “We Know Monsters By Their Teeth”), when you think of the body as a tool, it creates a separation so that you can’t judge it. I think what makes the metaphor of a boat so apt is that as a woman, your body is supposed to do all of these things. It’s supposed to mother, to carry, to nurture, and to charge ahead so that others can follow in the wake–
KGT: And still be tender, and still be sexy. It’s such a contradiction. As a poet, I think you’re an observer. For me, as a poet, you’re listening and watching all the time. I’m also an empath, so I’m feeling all the time. I can walk into a room and feel the sadness of the women. I was very much raised in a matriarchy, by these astonishing, powerful women who were on their own. I constantly saw themselves reaching outside themselves for power. I think so much of that goes back to someone telling them that, “your body is meant to do X, or supposed to do X”. I think that if gender is a performance, there is no bigger performance than a woman’s body, sadly, in terms of what the audience expects it to do.
For me, I became the audience and the performer. I was critical of myself, because I bought into this idea of what a woman’s body was meant to do to be tolerable for society. It’s so interesting that women are looked at for the function of their bodies, and men are looked at for the function of how they provide. The message is that our bodies are our skills, and if our bodies are not skilled in the ways that others want, they can be conceived as broken.
FWR: Exactly. And staying with the metaphor of woman as a boat, just a bit longer, is such a profound metaphor for you because it speaks to the different roles of a woman, but also ties in the personal significance that the ocean and boats have had for your family.
KGT: I grew up racing sailboats. My mom and dad grew up on sailboats. When I was ten, my dad went bankrupt and our family lost everything. The IRS took everything but his boat. My parents were already separated at the time, but we spent Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays with my dad. On Sundays, we would sail together as a family. So when my father said that he was going to move to Florida to start over, we took a trip on the sailboat, which was a month-long goodbye. As a kid, I found it extremely upsetting and confusing, and I could feel this heaviness that we were all not talking about.
FWR: What you’re describing, being a child and being aware of these things not being talked about but felt, this to me, speaks to how you thread the personal and political through your poetry. You’re aware of the bodily privileges you have, as an outwardly white woman, but also the bodily disadvantages you have, from being a woman. This creates a mixture of tension and privilege, for example in a poem like “Arson is a Family Name”, written in response to white women who voted for Trump, or the poems that deal with the relationship your husband has with the world, such as “I Suggest Omid Shave His Beard”.
KGT: Omid, my husband, is Persian. Both of his parents were born in Iran but he grew up in California. From this relationship, I’ve experienced stepping into how the political plays out in the everyday. My husband is a very gentle soul but he was also very clear when we got together that, because he is Middle Eastern, the world, especially the white world, thinks that he was going to treat me like shit. He was so conscious of the stereotype and aware that every choice he made was to defy that stereotype through kindness. When Trump first came to office, I remember that Omid’s father and mother told him to shave his beard because it is not safe in this country for him. I’ve thought about that a lot.
FWR: What you’ve said about his beard, that is a variation of the idea of the body as performance. By shaving his beard, it makes him more ‘accessible’ or sending the message that he’s not ‘like those other people’.
KGT: Totally. I’ve learned so much from him, in terms of how he won’t apologize or won’t perform. But as a woman, society has trained me to perform. I feel overly programmed and conditioned that there is something about me that needs to be fixed. I think that’s a gender thing, but I think it’s also a marketing and targeting thing.
FWR: This makes me think of the performance of sexuality and sensuality. I think you thread a fine needle between those two, as there are poems that are sexy and there are poems that are sensual, and yet they do not seem as if they’re meant to titillate. It made me reflect on male writers who will treat the woman’s body as something to be objectified, and thus demeaned. I was wondering if that was something you were conscious of as you were writing.
I think through that sensuality, I am opening a bridge to acceptance.
KGT: I don’t know that I always think about, or even do think about, about the line between sensuality and sexuality when writing. Whenever I have a dialogue about sexiness, there’s always the insecurity there. I can’t always separate those, though I’m getting better. From Omid, I’ve also learned about self love. It’s been a hard thing for me to feel like I’m beautiful. I think there is a sensuality in appreciation of the body, and tenderness and beauty. There’s an intimacy that comes from this, and I think that’s what’s coming across in the poems. I think through that sensuality, I am opening a bridge to acceptance. Intimacy, for me, is not pulling away. It’s agreeing to let someone look at you, and not feel the shame that you might feel. There is a trust in that, and there is a trust in someone teaching you to love the body.
I’m always working towards self love. There are many poets who have said that every poem is a love poem. While I think there are a lot of heavy themes in this book, I think it was a love poem to myself and to the women around me. I can think of the women who raised me, or the women I work with, who are amazing and strong, but they are not told that or that they’re beautiful. In fact, they’re often told the opposite. So I think this book is a love poem for them.
FWR: Does it feel like, with the book out in the world, that you’ve been pushed to the forefront of your own self love?
KGT: A year ago, I don’t think I was there. There’s a specific line in the poem “In an Attempt to Solve for X: Femininity as Word Problem”: “Tell the junior at UCLA/ you have the answer. Use words like better now / then walk her to her car. Do not tell her/ like you, she will always be hungry.” It sprang from a friend who I had told what I was writing about, and she asked what I had figured out. I felt like a fraud, saying that I didn’t know. I felt like I had to have all the answers. The book came in different stages, over years, as any book does. At the end, I had rewritten probably 30% within the last six months before it was finished. It changed and changed, as I thought it could be better.
I started in a place of shame and punishment, and then I asked myself what conversations could lift me out of that.
I believe that a poetry manuscript, like a piece of fiction, should have an arc and an ending. There’s growth and transformation in all art. I believed that not only was I taking myself on a journey, I wanted the reader to be on that journey too. So, the poems at the end of the book, I wrote with the intention of healing and with the intention of dialogue, and the intention of praise and honor. I started in a place of shame and punishment, and then I asked myself what conversations could lift me out of that. Now that it’s out, I do think that I love myself in a completely new way.
I was really intentional to have a dialogue with the self and with the body that represented women in their multifaceted complexities, that came from a place of deep introspection and love. It’s not that I have all the answers, but I have more answers than I used to. My definition of beauty has shifted, my definition of power has shifted. My fundamental beliefs have shifted in a really beautiful way.
Before the book came out, my mother and I drove to Las Vegas. She asked me to read through each poem, and after every poem, we stopped and talked about it. It was one of the most healing, beautiful things that I have ever experienced. I think part of this book was to come to terms with the fact that yes, there was a lot of sadness for me, but there was also a lot of sadness for my mom and my sister and the women around me. No one talked about it until years later. This book is an effort to do that, to hold one another.
FWR: It feels as if it’s also unfurling the layers of shame and body back, to say that once we’ve gone through all these depths, here we are as people and true to themselves. It reminds me of what you said earlier, about having this discomfort with your body after about the age of seven.
KGT: Exactly. I very much want to be a mother, however I come to be a mother, and I felt that I had this responsibility to deal with my shit before my children come along. It’s so important to me to celebrate my child for who they are, without my hang ups. I think shame is learned, and while some of that shame is necessary, there is so much additional shame for our natural body. It takes muscle to unlearn that shame.
FWR: This tradition of parents passing down shame, or their ideas of what’s natural, that brings to mind the poem “My Father Tells Me Pelicans Blind Themselves”. Though I know it comes much later in the text, to me it felt like the entrance into the whole of Boat Burned. It wraps in ideas of family who both love and wound each other (“[they] hatch/ hungry children. They peck/ at parents who strike/ back”), the body (“appetite: my deepest/ grave”) and the desire to turn both of those very human experiences into a lesson or, at least, a story that can give meaning to us (“they starve into myth”).
KGT: When I think about my family, I think there’s so much of us that exists in these corners of silence and that is silenced around the hunger we have for the things that we are not getting or giving each other. This leads us trying to fill that lack. I think of the line, “I have drunk all the body that this wine will allow”; you come to a point that the sadness or the silence is so deep that there’s no outrunning it. That poem ends with the lines “Father, rock me/ like a child./ Sing me the sea“; there’s a sweetness in that and a surrender. I don’t know if I will ever outrun this and at many points in my life, hunger, or the insatiability of it, has felt like a type of violence against the self or against others.
In “The Polite Bird of the Story”, I have the line, “Food is just another ghost story/ the starved like to tell.” I feel like that role of food being a ghost story, is the same function as love in the book. You’re so starved for love that you do these things, whether taking on shame or apologizing for yourself, because you’re so hungry. I’ve been on a diet since I was eight years old, so yes, I am hungry all the time. Either I feel like I’m hungry, or I feel like I’m fat because I’m eating what I want, but I am also hungry for so many other things.
FWR: This reminds me of the poem “No One Says Eating Disorder”, when you end with the lines, “The small gods/ we let control us. / We were so hungry/ for anything/ to love us back.” That desire to feel something, even if it’s not the feeling you wanted.
KGT: Yes, that feeling to feel wanted is such a human need, and it’s even more complicated for women. We are taught that we are put on this earth to be wanted, to be these things of beauty. All we want is to get some kind of love, and when you don’t get that love, it turns into a form of self harm. It becomes a never ending cycle.
FWR: Part of what I think you do so well in this book is that you talk about that cycle, and that inheritance of cycle.
KGT: I think speaking of that cycle is the first step to breaking a cycle. I work with youth poets, and I feel like I have a responsibility there to show both sides of the looking glass. As an adult, as a mentor, it’s important to do the work so that you can get to a place where you can help others.
I had to learn Algebra Two, but not how to love myself.
Out of all the poems from this book, the one that has gotten the biggest response is “No One Says Eating Disorder.” I’ve done poetry readings, and women will come up to me to say, ‘thank you. This is not something we talk about.’ I was so scared to write that poem, because I feel like it’s such a cliche to be a white girl talking about body issues. It feels like there’s a vanity there or that it’s not a real problem. But I think the lack of self love in this country is a real problem. I had to learn Algebra Two, but not how to love myself. And I have never used Algebra Two!
I think there’s so many wonderful things about being a woman, but I don’t think that that’s highlighted on a daily basis.
FWR: I wonder if I could ask you about “What the Neighbors Saw”. Reading this poem, I was struck by the structure of the poem and how it mirrors the fragmenting of thoughts and emotions after trauma, and how that fragmentation becomes the memories themselves. It ripples across the page, as words and images (the butter, the door) revisit the speaker and gain new resonance. The syntax shifts throughout the poem means that each line unsettles the next and previous. Could you talk about the development of this poem?
KGT: I was at the Kenyon Young Writers Program, and I was a fellow for them. I was instructing but also learning. We had read “Dead Doe” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. I was rocked by the language and the imagery and scenes, and I was rocked by the interruptions and how real those interruptions felt as emotional symmetry.
I’m really connected to the idea of motherhood and wanting to be a mother. I think some of the greatest pain someone can experience is losing a child, or not being able to have a child. So I was thinking a lot about children, and the other fellows and I were given this writing prompt where we each wrote images on index cards and passed them around.
That poem, I sat down and wrote in about 15 minutes. It came out whole, except for maybe two lines that I cut and some things I tweaked. That poem is a journey for me, inside life and stories and a complicated house. It’s not biographical, except for feeling emotionally true. It’s still rooted in the autobiographical experiences of the book and the same threads of shame, silence and punishment.
FWR: To hear your process, it matches the experience of reading it. The poem is so emotionally wrought; the fragmentation reminds me of a record scratch, where it continues to be stuck on an image or idea.
KGT: I’m at the point in my life where I think about motherhood, and I am struck by how fragile it all is. When you’re thinking about the role of the daughter, you’re also thinking about the role of your own daughter, or at least I am. There’s a line where the husband says they can start again, and the speaker had to assert that she is still hurting, and that it will be her body that will feel motherhood from the beginning. I think it speaks to the evolutionary pressure on a mother, that we were supposed to care for the children and make sure that they don’t die. That is another expectation for women and the role they must perform. This poem speaks to what happens when a child dies, and how the world responds to that and how a mother internalizes that.
FWR: Although I have a good sense from your acknowledgements, were there poets or writers you turned to for guidance as you began to explore these topics in your writing?
KGT: My biggest poetic influence of all time is, by far, hands down, Patricia Smith. I was introduced to the poem “Siblings”, which explores the different personalities of hurricanes. Because I grew up on sailboats and my dad lives in Florida, I have a close, personal relationship with hurricanes. They’re kind of like a family member that comes around every August. I was really affected by the way she personifies these hurricanes. When I first came to poetry, Patricia Smith and Rachel McKibbens, both, blew the lid off of language. When I read them, it’s electric. I can feel the way they play with language, or manipulate parts of speech, or throw out syntax, through my body. Those two poets unlocked a gate for me when it came to language. It’s like I found a whole new part of being.
I never got a degree in poetry, but when I started publishing, I decided I was going to go to some workshops with poets. The first one I ever went to was Tin House’s Winter Workshop with Patricia Smith. It was amazing, and I learned so much from her. She is one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever met. I’ve been lucky to study with Jericho Brown, with Danez Smith, with Paige Lewis. I remember that there was a poem that Jericho Brown asked me, “what is this? There’s such a distance here. You’ve either got to let us in or not write about it.” And that helped shape how I approach my writing.
Another person whose work I gravitate towards is sam sax. He does a lot of really interesting stuff with language and in terms of performance, I find him to be really captivating. The last person I want to mention is Shira Erlichman. I’ve studied under her but she also helped me in terms of editing and working with me one-on-one. I love the way she looks at language, what she calls “peanut butter and fireworks”: the things that normally don’t go together but can create tension and complication in language in fascinating ways.
FWR: I completely see those elements in your writing. Patricia Smith, I think, is so good at detail. Her language is gorgeous but she never loses sense of the physical. She roots her writing in the world, even as you follow along with these grand ideas. I think each of those writers, Jericho Brown, sam sax, it comes back to the body and the body in this world.
KGT: I agree, and I think they all talk about the complications of the body. The body is a responsibility that’s heavy, that we carry in so many different ways. I heard Nikki Finney say that one of the keys to writing is “never arriving, always becoming.” As poets and writers, we always have to be working to improve ourselves and to improve our language, and continuing to read and learn. I think about that all time. I think I have a little more of that, because I didn’t go the traditional route for writing. And I think I have a hunger to always be learning from those around me. It’s important to keep transforming.
Dilruba Ahmed is the writer of Bring Now the Angels (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020) and Dhaka Dust (Graywolf 2011), which won the Bakeless Prize. Ahmed is the recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Prize, and she holds degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers.
FWR: In an interview with the New England Review, you stated that, “I’m interested in the ways that—particularly during difficult times—a seemingly small act can contribute to a greater purpose. And how those acts, even when they occur in relative isolation, can bind people together toward a common goal. While you made this comment while reflecting on the term “resistance” with respect to your poem, “Underground,” I think it speaks to the other poems in Bring Now the Angels, as well. Illness frames much of the text, as you reflect on “SickDad” and how cancer impacted your family with an eye towards the minute detail.
In the poem “Local Newspaper, Floating Photographer, Father’s Day Edition”, you describe images of vitality: “Describe your father. / Midnight scrambled eggs each New Year’s Eve. The insistence: ‘say yes to cake’ … Describe your father / Why do children keep growing, in their small and ignorant bliss?” Each of these small moments construct a man and a life, and by sharing these moments of specificity with your reader, you have brought us into this man’s life more effectively than broad strokes. In this movement from the broad (father; illness) to the keyhole (“pizza purchased for men searching dumpsters in Columbus”), did you find it easier to write about small moments? How did you find the lens with which to view these grander, binding moments?
Dilruba Ahmed: My new book, Bring Now the Angels: Poems, is an extended meditation on loss, both personal and public. In the personal realm, the poems mourn the many losses associated with chronic disease and terminal illness in the Western world. During a 3-year battle with multiple myeloma, my father lost his health, his mobility, and his typical daily activities. Some changes were sudden and dramatic; other losses accrued slowly.
The ripples kept growing. We experienced a loss of confidence in Western medicine, which both saved my father and destroyed him, and for me, in faith. The disappearance of our bearings and touchstones transformed the world into a place suddenly strange and unfamiliar.
The situation was painfully personal, but everything happened within a larger context. We witnessed firsthand the cost of being ill in America: the associated expenses, maltreatment, discriminatory practices, and reckless over-use of painkillers. Not to mention access issues to dialysis centers and the related questions about quality of treatment and quality of life. In each health care facility, for every deeply caring and attentive health care professional, there were physicians who were out of touch with their patients and the mission to heal. My family members and I experienced the corruption and carelessness of our country’s healthcare system even as a few shining stars gave my father the best possible medical attention he could have requested.
While small moments often sparked poems like this one, in my revisions I’ve tried to consider their larger contexts so I’m not just “zooming in” but also “panning out.” I’m making an effort to examine the layers surrounding personal moments by asking, “What are the social, cultural, and historical contexts relevant to this poem? Who has been represented here, and who has been erased?” Claudia Rankine has called for white writers to examine how the racist history of our country has shaped mainstream thinking about both whites and people of color—and our representations of both. From the intersections of my identity, there’s still work to do as well.
These questions have led to deeper revisions, as with the title poem of my new book, “Bring Now the Angels,” which began as a measured acceptance of a terminal diagnosis and the adjustments accompanying physical and cognitive losses. In subsequent revisions, I situated personal loss in more universal ways, focusing less on the diagnosis and more on the indictment of a society that permits the vulnerable to suffer under dismal conditions, with poor medical treatment and exorbitant costs. I revised from a first-person narrator to an oracular, choral voice that bears witness to maltreatment, misuse of addictive painkillers, and debt.
FWR: In the poem ” With Affirmative Action and All’ , you write, “in any given American town, / there is a room inside a room inside a room/ where thought shapes word shapes action”. Several of your poems, such as this one, or “Self-Guided Tour”, wrestle with what it means to be in America, and what America means in a globalized world. Did you look to other poets for guidance in writing about the political in our current state?
RA: Yes! I have many inspirations informing my poems – sometimes overtly, sometimes playing it the background like a poetic playlist.
In some poems in Bring Now the Angels, I was experimenting with W.H. Auden’s notion of “indirect communication” with the reader. Auden believed art couldn’t move people to faith, for example, but that it held power to show them their despair. My explorations led to poems such as “Choke,” which recasts “Jack and the Beanstalk” in two voices: an unidentified interviewer and an Indian farmer. In the poem, I envision the effects of large-scale corruption on the individual, with hopes of eliciting awareness. In “The Process,” I try to channel the distanced tones of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” to critique our shared complacency, hoping readers will realize our collective agency. In “The Children,” a poem meant to locate our heartbreak and humanity as immigration policies shift dramatically, I attempt to capture intimacies between parents and children in stark contrast to brutal family separations at our border.
One of the more overt influences on my politicized work includes Roque Dalton, a Salvadorean poet whose poem “OAS” holds both dry wit and bitterness. His work inspired my poem, “Self-Guided Tour.” More generally, Adrienne Rich’s writings frame my engagement with politicized material: “No true political poetry can be written with propaganda as an aim, to persuade others “out there” of some atrocity or injustice… it can come only from the poet’s need to identify her relationship to atrocities and injustice, the sources of her pain, fear, and anger, the meaning of her resistance.”1 In my writing, my hope is to embody resistance on multiple levels. For example, “Underground,” attempts to situate the resurgence of American civic engagement, including my own. Striving for a global perspective, I tried to broaden my focus beyond conventional actions such as public marches and activist phone calls. I wondered how might I witness courage and agency that goes unseen—actions not necessarily recognized as resistance.
My musings resulted in a poem about private and public resistance by Afghani women under Taliban rule. I strove to represent the women’s resistance as not only fighting back, but also finding ways to thrive under threatening circumstances. By engaging with this material, I hoped to lend perspective to the present American challenge of political organizing among work and family obligations—actions that occur, for many of us, within an existence of relative privilege and freedom.
There are many, many poets who make up my playlist when it comes to politicized poetry, including Claudia Rankine, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Rick Barot, Ilya Kaminsky, Matthew Olzmann, and Elizabeth Bishop….
FWR: In this vein, the poem “Incident” has haunted me long after I first read it, with its juxtaposition of maternal love and parental violence. It also seems to read as an ars poetica, with the lines : “If I love my sons— / their sleep-ruffled curls… with even more ferocity/ and mindfulness, can I erase / the girl’s pain?” It also reflects back the love and pain that is so often built into relationships within families. Could you speak to this poem?
RA: One of the questions fueling Bring Now the Angels is related to witnessing the suffering of others, and the resulting sense of powerlessness to enact change. I think that, for those of us who may feel overly porous to the world’s violence and the distress of others, everyday living can quickly become very overwhelming.
With my father’s sudden decline and subsequent diagnosis of multiple myeloma and end stage kidney failure, in many cases there was very little I could do to alleviate his suffering. But through it all, I’d like to believe that the loving presence of family members provided a healing force. In my poem,“Incident,” I was grappling with both a sense of powerlessness over other’s actions, and the possibility that greater harm could result from any apparent response from me. Because this poem was based on an actual incident, the poem also speaks to the ethical dilemma of failing to act—by not attempting to intervene as a situation cascaded into violence, did I in effect participate in that violence? I, too, remained haunted by this incident and have been unable to reconcile it for myself, despite the risk of unintended consequences for the person I felt compelled to help.
And you are right: the poem could be read as ars poetica that both laments the seemingly ineffectual nature of poetry to create change in the world even while trying to recenter the speaker’s energies on mindfulness and deep love. In the end, the poem implicitly yields to the fact the speaker only has power to effect change in the realm that is most directly hers, acting from a deep love that could, perhaps, hold the potential to ripple out beyond the immediate moment. But ultimately, the poem consists of a series of questions for which there are no answers.
FWR: Much of this collection wrestles with grief. How did you approach this experience in your writing? Did the poems emerge organically, or did you sit down to write about loss? Were there poets you looked to?
RA: In an interview with Terry Gross, poet Marie Howe says poetry is “a cup of language to hold what can’t be said,” explaining that “[e]very poem holds the unspeakable inside…The unsayable…that you can’t really say because it’s too complicated…too complex… Every poem has that silence deep in the center…”2 Writing about grief was very much a process of finding ways to access those deep silences.
To convey my emotional truths about chronic illness and loss, I tried different approaches—lyric, narrative, and prose poems, with tones ranging from deeply intimate to the distanced language of form letters, medical records, and Google’s autocompleted phrases. Restlessness regarding form and content’s relationship led me to write ghazals, as well as poems with less conventional structures–including one governed by a childhood toy, the Viewmaster.
Many of the poems emerged in a flood of writing about one year after my father’s death. As daughter and as a parent, I’d struggled with my understanding of mortality without finding ways to authentically engage with it in my writing. When an old story about my uncle’s childhood snakebite assumed mythic proportions, I found that the use of parable finally helped me to unlock some related emotional truths. The result was “Snake Oil, Snake Bite,” one of the first pieces I wrote about my father’s battle with cancer. I knew then that I’d made my way to the poems that would form the new book.
Literary heroes in this endeavor include Marie Howe, Agha Shahid Ali, Carl Phillips, Elizabeth Bishop, W. H. Auden, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Donald Justice…
FWR: I was struck by the shape of your poems. I am hoping you might speak to your process in a poem like “Vanishing Point” or perhaps your use of the ghazal form?
RA: “Vanishing Point” took on many shapes during my revision. In the end, I aimed for a shape to convey the slipperiness of memory and the general sense of unease. I will forever be a student of the ghazal form; this book represents my most recent efforts.
FWR: I always love to ask: what the poems or who are the poets you love to teach or share?
RA: There are many – Donald Justice, Elizabeth Bishop, Agha Shahid Ali, Ilya Kaminsky, Natasha Tretheway, Mathew Olzmann, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Rick Barot, Ann Carson, Craig Santos Perez, Jenny Johnson, Adam Zagajewski…
1. “Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman.” Introduction to The Work of a Common Woman: The Collected Poetry of Judy Grahn. Oakland, California: Diana Press, 1978; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. Reprinted in On Lies, Secrets and Silence, pp. 247-58
2. Poet Marie Howe On ‘What The Living Do’ After Loss https://news.wbfo.org/post/poet-marie-howe-what-living-do-after-loss Originally published on October 21, 2011 10:23 am
This summer, all the kids call themselves Zion. They come one by one and hang on the fence behind the backboard, then drift in until they’re standing under the basket, waiting for the rebound off my shot. Teams form by nods and dissolve at eleven or twenty-one, each of us breaking off into the veins of city streets and subway tunnels. The summer I emigrated, every kid on the courts wanted to be like Mike, and I was thrilled because that was my name, Mikhail. The last time my sister and I got chased home in Minsk, my parents decided: Israel or America, whichever we could reach first. Chubby, with harsh Russian dribbling down my chin, my second language became one of cuts and jumps, of lay-ups punctuated with a single English word. Dude! I cried, when my shot fell through the hoop, when I got fouled, when I slapped my sweaty hand against a tall teenager’s after a play. Dude, they always replied, their faces lit with sweat and admiration.
My sons are too young to join the pick-ups downtown, and I doubt they’ll want to anyway. My youngest is so loving he won’t throw the basketball at me. He hugs it and runs across the blacktop of the playground near Central Park. “Here, Daddy,” he says, and places it gently in my hands. My older one likes grass fields to fall on. He prefers to stick a foot between his opponent’s legs, then tumble to the ground before standing to defend his innocence. “I was going for the ball,” he shouts and throws his hands in the air. “Come on, he was going for the ball,” I yell at the soccer ref from the sidelines, though I know he wasn’t.
In our bright breakfast nook, a huge calendar hangs on the wall, the days divided into neat colored sections, the boys’ hours nestled safely inside the weeks that will carry them to adulthood. It resembles my own electronic one, blocked with meetings and calls, each hour traded for more money than my family had when we landed at JFK. On warm afternoons, I close my office door, shut down all three monitors and lie in the middle of the Isfahan rug. I recall a deep boredom, my sweating body splayed face-up before an English-squawking television, the laugh tracks breaking like waves while my parents were out searching for work. I remember the echo of the ball in the parking lot six stories below, and how I slammed it against the brown bricks of our apartment building, shooting into an invisible hoop again and again, beating away some unnamed thing while a wild hope climbed in me.
You’re just so darn cute
She tugged up the cheeks of my swimsuit
shown two small pears, fleshy & bright
bookending the neon green fabric—this was the 90s
my first two-piece & I thought I was a big girl
despite every comment about my size: petite, skinny,
thread-and-thimble thin, string bean. Strangers
would say so & that I was pleasingly blond
curly, a little Shirley with a temple, a future
temptation. She wanted me to claim what had been taken
from her body too young—she wanted me to claim it
by showing it off, flaunt it if you got it even if you’re six.
I loved her then, abandoning myself. I loved her
the way a dog pulls meat from a bone
the eyes like twin flames. Just another
animal. She said I love you
to anyone, my mother.
I hold on, I hold everything I can, to capacity
hold like the handle I wore paint from
bought for 50 on sale at Home
Depot & I liked it, slipping hands around it
liked it best in the moonlight throwing
silver on the snow, all the quiet hibernations
across from me a dark field of sage specked
by track lines. Not elk, surely too late
in the season for this altitude. The goats then
who else could wander silently as a group of houses
billowed chimneys behind them. Beyond the field
a team of mountains sleeping in a heap.
All that silent night, if I screamed into it, nothing
but echoes. I want to scream into it
because a room has never been big enough for me.
& I want the echo—I want the curse
the flame. When I wrap my fingers around
that solid handle which come to think of it I bought
at Farm & Fleet for 43 because same thing better deal
(the guy at the counter told me I’d have to swing it hard
if I didn’t keep it sharp) I start by measuring the log
in two with the edge of the blade, then wind up
I can’t claim to understand the violence but the tree
was dead before I found it—bringing down the head
the splinter & crack. I loved when it worked in one swoop
when it took 20 whacks to work around the knots
& branches which came out like arms, her pulling
my hair as she whispered rat’s nest,
bring it down into the big stump, to stoop
& gather shreds, pulling her from it as I leave
leaning her against the wall just inside the door
dropping the load xylophonic to the floor.
As we approach the end of the year, we want to thank our writers for entrusting their work with us and our readers for helping us celebrate and recognize so many wonderful voices. In addition, 2019 has brought new changes to Four Way Review. David Lerner Schwartz will be serving as the new Fiction Editor for Four Way Review. Currently the writer-in-residence at St. Albans, his work has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, New York magazine, and produced by Red Bull Theater. He holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. We would like to thank Hananah Zaheer and K. K. Fox for the many years they have given our community and their work in celebrating fiction. Read our new fiction standards here and submit!
Oliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently The Boy in the Labyrinth (U. of Akron Press, 2019). The Boy in the Labyrinth works in poems that utilize autism screening questionnaires, prose passages, and allegory via the Greek myth of the labyrinth and the minotaur to explore de la Paz’s experience in raising two neurodivergent children who fall under the Autism Spectrum. de la Paz is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (U. of Akron Press, 2012). He co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry, and teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.
FWR: The Boy in the Labyrinth functions as a type of katabasis, a descent into the underworld. This gives the manuscript structure, and, to me, a feeling of reading a novel. You write in “Twenty-Eight Tiny Failures and One Labyrinth” : “I realized that I had been writing about my sons for several years in the form of this allegory”. When structuring the manuscript, did you treat it as writing a complete whole (like a novel)? Or did you find that emerging organically, after you had begun constructing the poems?
de la Paz: When I started writing the “Labyrinth” poems I had no intention other than to explore atmosphere and tone. The process of writing those specific sequences only started shifting right around my third year of generating more of them—I was probably thirty to forty poems into what wound up being almost one-hundred poems. As I became more conscious of my process, I became more intentional in implementing narrative elements. Threads of sequences have similar settings and characters, for example the boy in the sky became a character for a handful of poems. Additionally the opera house became a locus in a few of the poems. All of these disparate entry points into the world of The Boy in the Labyrinth created organizational issues. It wasn’t written as a linear narrative and yet I needed to convey to the reader a sense of forward movement. My restructuring of the collection began four years ago when I began to write the “Autism Questionnaire” poems. I saw the “Autism Questionnaire” poems as mile markers in the progression of the work. So I began structuring around them as though the book as a whole were a three-act play. I then layered the “Labyrinth” poems around them to suggest momentum/movement. And I also added the Greek Chorus elements to the work as a nod to the structure of the Greek Tragedy.
FWR: On this note, The Boy in the Labyrinth veers into different inventive forms and poetic structures, such as the “complete the sentences” poems or the use of the Autism Screening Questionnaire. Were there other forms you attempted to unlock these poems? How did you decide to utilize these structures?
de la Paz: The forms came to me organically. I was thinking about all things “diagnostic”, like SAT or GRE questions [and] how they’re expected to create an understanding of the test-taker based on an algorithm. The “Autism Screening Questionnaire” poems were something that I approached with a great deal of intention after having completed a series of intake forms for my middle child. And by intention, I mean critique. I wanted to quarrel with the form. There’s the expectation of the binary “yes/no” response to the form, but they’re a flawed tool, so I wanted to respond to the questionnaires from an emotional position rather than a diagnostic one. Once I started writing poems in that diagnostic structure, I felt the need to explore other structures. So you see a number of standardized test-like forms throughout the book with the “Story Problem” poems that close out all three sections. I imagined the “Story Problem” prose poems to serve multiple duties—to invoke diagnostic forms but to also highlight the challenge of my perspective as a neurotypical parent writing about my neurodiverse children.
FWR: Staying on the questionnaire poems, it seems to me that they suggest the imagery that you utilize in the episode poems, which take place in the labyrinth sections (self harm, unusual tastes, kinetic movement and soothing). I experienced that tension as a means of making sense of a neuro-divergent experience as a neuro-typical reader. We, as a reader, are experiencing the distortions of the boy in the labyrinth, whose “voice tries to pierce through the gloom… the sound of him spills its waves into a disfigured future.” Can you speak on this?
de la Paz: Yes, the “Labyrinth” episodes do highlight the moments in the questionnaire that are viewed as “deficits” to the neurotypical population. I wrote most of them as I was still learning and growing as a parent. It’s interesting, but much of the work in the episodes trace my development as a parent, so it’s a chronicle of my misunderstandings and in many ways, failure and flaw. The writing is asynchronous with who I am and who my children are now, so I must first acknowledge that. And what I’m very clear about now is that much of the work as I was writing explores this “disfigured future” but that future, as I had conceived of it, was the future of my imagination and not my child’s. As I was writing the “Labyrinth” poems, I was really writing about and for myself. It was a way of measuring time and comprehension and I look back on it now as an artifact. Certainly, I’m proud of the work that I had done but I am also aware of how it may be perceived by the neurodivergent populace. And so that voice that is trying to pierce the gloom is my voice trying to start a dialogue, both with my children and with other parents who may be as lost or fearful as I had been.
FWR: Reflections and refractions feature prominently in the work: geodes, light splashing off water, the appearance of the minotaur and his masks, the shadow boy. Are we, the presumed neuro-typical reader, the minotaur? Or is this an example of “the labyrinth turn[ing] in circles and [multiplying] its falsity”? An attempt, to quote another poem, “because a reference needs a frame: we are mother and father/ and child with a world of time to be understood”?
de la Paz: You know, the minotaur was always a character that troubled me. I always imagined myself to be the minotaur—the devourer of Athenian young. I imagined the monstrosity to be the task of taking on the story. The beast is as lost as the boy in my tale. I was always fearful that the monster would be misconstrued, so I took steps to move the monster and boy towards a reconciliation. I think, as well, that the “Story Problem” poems that mark the three sections are my way of saying that writing from my neurotypical perspective about neurodiversity is fraught.
FWR: We normally close by asking writers to share other writers or pieces that they love to teach or share. I wonder if, in addition, you might point to writers who influenced this work.
de la Paz: Sure, there were multiple. I started writing the “Labyrinth” poems after hearing the poet David Welch read from a new selection of work back in 2008. I believe those poems became the book Everyone Who is Dead.
Alison Benis White’s Self-Portrait with Crayon was a tremendous influence, namely the obsessive quality and interlocking nature of the prose poems.
Meteoric Flowers by Elizabeth Willis was something that I would refer to if I wanted to bounce around some syntactic shapes. I really enjoy that book and the shapes of its sentences.
I read a lot of Jennifer Chang’s book The History of Anonymity, again for the shapes of her sentences.
I also want to put in a plug for an extraordinary book of rhetoric by Melanie Yergeau. It’s a rhetorical analysis book written by an autistic author who is using queer theory as an analytical lens for disability writing. I also want to plug the work by Chris Martin and Mary Austin Speaker over at Unrestricted Interest. They make extraordinary chapbooks.
Our staff is located around the world and we pride ourselves on publishing writers representing a variety of voices and hometowns. However, as of September, three of our staff members now live in Tennessee.
TWO POEMS by Kendra DeColo
BLINDKEY POINT by Norris Eppes
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach is the author of The Many Names for Mother, selected by Ellen Bass as the winner of the 2018 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry prize and published by Kent State University Press. Her second collection, Don’t Touch the Bones won the 2019 Idaho Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from Lost Horse Press in March 2020. Look out for her newest collection, 40 WEEKS, forthcoming from YesYes Books in the fall of 2021.
Four Way Review: Throughout The Many Names for Mother, there is a recognition and fracturing of identities (mother, child, immigrant, woman)– where does poet fit? On this note, how do you guard your time for writing?
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach: I’m going to start with the second half of your question, as I sit at my favorite writing café, having just nursed Remy for the umpteenth time, now rocking the stroller with one foot as I type the answer to this question and watch her drift in and out of sleep mid-cry. So, guard? I’m certainly not there yet with the 2-month-old (as I’m now down to typing this with one hand, holding her with the other). Truer to my experience is that I make my writing a part of my mothering and mothering a part of my writing.
Since becoming a mother, I think I’ve become a keener observer of the world around me, learning from the way my son takes it in. Everything he sees is new and marvelous. Everything is a kind of epiphany. Everything I thought I knew all too well is transformed to a revelation. And this is what poetry strives for also, to make our shared human experience feel at once familiar and novel.
This is also the case for language. Watching my son learn how to make sound and then meaning has shown me that children are born poets. Metaphor comes as naturally to them as speech. It’s the way they make sense of the world, through magical comparison. I first noticed this when my son became fascinated with the moon. He would find it in the sky at first, and then, he began seeing it everywhere. Each circle or light became “Yuuuuooona,” his way of saying the Russian word “Luna,” meaning moon. And this is metaphor. Seeing the likeness in two unlike things, comparing the celestial body of glowing rock to the dark ring of my belly button to the puddle outside to the wet outline his tiny mouth leaves on my shirt. This is an image chain. This is my child making poetry, and me stealing it from him for many poems in the book, but especially the poem, “In Everything, He Finds the Moon.”
In Everything, He Finds the Moon
Yuuuuooona, he calls, pointing up and drawing
out the ooo, the Russian “L,” still
too hard to form “Luna.”
We understand, make meaning
out of what its left us: Yuuuuooona,
on the shoulder of my shirt
where his sleeping mouth’s wet outline
left imperfect waning, Yuuuuooona,
in the fabric covering my belly, where
his finger found a hole through which
skin shone like moonlight, Yuuuuooona,
on the wings of every moth or butterfly,
Yuuuuooona, more Yuuuuooona, our cats’ eyes
twinkling in darkness, spinning spheres
he is still too slow to catch, My Yuuuuooona,
in the daylight’s glare, he names the sun
as his, asks it to come closer, and opens wide
to hug, to swallow, to hold
its unfathomable glow, and in the water too,
in any water, Yuuuuooona, Yuuuuooona,
bath, puddle, lake, sea, ocean, rain,
our faces and the light, a river, and
in the window, any window, especially
a stranger’s, Yuuuuooona, this December,
morning, through smoking sky
and a cobweb of trees, he finds it there,
even as it fades, and in my pocket,
I find it too, Yuuuuooona, an envelope
of his first-trimmed crescent hairs,
so many fallen moons.
Originally appeared in 32 Poems
I thought that having children would turn my gaze away from the ancestral past I’d been obsessed with throughout my poetry career, and towards a future unburdened by it. On the contrary, having my son has made me think all the more about the lineage he comes from, the traumas of the Holocaust, WWII, and immigration into which his own story is unwillingly written. In fact, I’d been trying to publish a poetry collection about immigration and ancestry for four years, but it wasn’t until being pregnant with my son and writing, “Against Naming,” the opening poem of this collection, that this book and the real story I had been trying to tell, finally took shape.
Becoming a mother has not only changed my relationship to poetry, but more critically, to the past, which is now inexorably tied to the fleeting present. Motherhood feels like a uniquely lyric experience, relishing in an instant as it swells to include temporalities that came before and the potential of all the ones to follow. It’s also an intergenerational experience, connecting me to all the mothers I come from, while helping me find a home in my own body as it exists in the present moment.
FWR: While reflecting on your grandmother and her memory of her past, along with your relatives’ memories of your grandmother, you write that “memory’s a wild and fragile thing” in “Learning Yiddish”. Many of the poems in The Many Names for Mother carry the weight of generational memory that either you have been given or that you seek to pass down to your son. I’m struck by your clarity and boldness, entwined with your respect for the experiences of your ancestors. To me, this speaks of a desire to recognize the past but not to be cowed by it. Could you speak on the poet’s relationship to a shared past? What is her duty, if any, to move beyond memory?
JKD: In Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, Michael Rothberg writes that “memory’s anachronistic quality…is actually the source of its powerful creativity, its ability to build new worlds out of the material of old ones.” I think this is a really apt description for what I try to do with the stories and fragments of the past that have been passed down through my grandparents, to see them not as static and set-in-stone, but as dynamic and wild, as the building blocks for poetry. I’m not trying to retell a linear story, because this is near impossible when it comes to the past, and especially a traumatic one. Rather, I think the poet’s “duty” then, is to stay true to the emotion of the experience and not necessarily be bound by its narrative—staying true to the music, the affect, the lyric impulse I mentioned in response to your first question.
When it comes to the particularities of the atrocity in the Soviet Union, moving beyond memory and record is essential because so much was forbidden, withheld, or destroyed. I am constantly working to recover or uncover pieces of my family’s past, like the circumstances surrounding my great-grandfather’s death, which remain unknown. Because so much of this is irrecoverable and not a part of anyone’s memory, poetry is left to fill the gaps, to reconciling the known and unknown, remembered and forgotten, past generations past and present ones, as well as the shared and individual past.
FWR: Your poem “The Moon is Showing” is a force, carding together threads on cleanliness, the body and poetry, breaking apart the idea that “poetry / is clean & shining & not/ about the body.” How do we open poetry to a bit more filth? Are there poets doing this who we can turn to as guides?
JKD: What a great question! Motherhood is the catalyst for my fascination with filth, what Julie Kristeva refers to as the “abject.” Not to get too theoretical, but Kristeva traces that humans have socially dealt with excrement—bodily fluids like blood, piss, puke, spit, shit, saliva, puss, etc. —as a way of separating ourselves from the animal, the primitive, a way of repressing that carnal side of us, what she calls “primal repression.” The abject is also the moment of separation between the child and the mother, between the self and the world around. I’ve gotten too Lacanian and psychosexual and theoretical, the plight of a poet getting a Ph.D. in comparative literature.
But back to my experience, pregnancy, birth, and then caring for a constantly excrement- producing little person surrounded me in filth, in the grotesque beauty and love of it. It reminded me how animal the human truly is. In “Genesis,” the poem where the book gets its title, I write, “How animal / to fit inside / another / and human / to tear our way /back out.” I think facing our animalistic, dirty qualities, can conversely make us more empathetic because we realize just how gorgeously flawed, sexual, and abject we all are. How we all share the beastly experience of being born into this world and navigating through its/our filth together. Even in tracing the etymology of the world “Mother” in one of my “Other women don’t tell you” poems, I discovered that it comes from Middle Dutch modder “filth and dregs,” Polish mul “slime,” the Sanskrit mutra– “urine,” and more abject relations. So, I guess what I’m saying is that the experience of motherhood at its core is one of filth and that filth is beautiful and full of love and that filth is what unites us all. And there is no shame in it, or there shouldn’t be. A child’s joy at going to the bathroom or playing in a disgusting puddle or being covered in remnants of sticky foods or even their own vomit, reminds us that filth is a natural part of our bodies in which we should take pride and even find joy.
Other women don’t tell you
mother is born from “a thick substance
concreting in liquors,” like the whiskey
they tell you to rub on new gums or the red wine
my mother told me would help his forming heart
grow stronger, Look how resilient you turned out, she says,
not knowing she too comes from “lees” or “scum” or “waste
of skin,” probably from Middle Dutch modder
“filth and dregs,” what’s left of us after
we’ve been named, but also see mud, found in many
words denoting “wet” or “dirty” or “damp” or “moist”
and other women tell you how they hate
the sound of it, without explaining why, that word
between the thighs, how they would rather come
from Old Irish muad for “cloud,” would rather look up
in wonder, counting cows or crows or clowns, imagining
their bodies too can change back just as easily, can shift
from solid into air then back to water, without coming
from the Polish mul “slime,” the Sanskrit mutra– “urine”
other women don’t tell you is okay to talk about and be and let
release without becoming “excrement,” without relief being
related to the German Schmutz “dirt,” but your son’s hands
are full of it, the scum and dregs and filth, the earth he shovels
in his mouth, devouring the world both of you come from,
moving from mud to mouth to you so easily, you realize
that being named for the “lowest or worst of anything,”
in his hands, is as close as you can get to flying.
Originally appeared in American Poetry Review
There are many poets currently writing on this topic, but I’ll just point you to a few poems. Chen Chen’s “Winter” is all about the love found in embracing another’s excrement, a love we could all learn from. Maxine Kumin’s “The Excrement Poem” reminds me of the adult version of the wonderful kids’ book, Everybody Poops. I love sam sax’s ode, “Butthole Butthole Butthole Butthole.” Bridgit Pegeen Kelly has a way of finding reverence the filth of death, particularly in “Dead Doe,” one of my favorites of hers. I’ve also learned a lot from incredible women who for decades, haven’t shied away from filth, from looking at the parts of the body that we’ve been wrongly taught to hide; these voices include Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Muriel Rukeyser, Anne Sexton, Kim Addonizio, and Ellen Bass, among many others.
FWR: Fear threads through these poems, whether a fear of the past, as in “Afraid Ancestral” ( “Mom is afraid/ the sky will fall / because it’s fallen / before” ), or the fear for one’s child, as in “While everything falls apart, imagine how you’ll teach your son about guns.” There is also a resistance to fear, in search of joy or faith or connection. Can you speak to this investigation and resistance in poetry?
JKD: In a way, part of poetry’s job to be unafraid. To admit that which is most terrifying—to say the name of a monster to make him disappear. To work through fear by expressing it in language and come out on the other side. Or, to share the fear with others, and in turn, find a community that makes us feel we are not alone in our worry. I guess poetry, in a Freudian way, is about working through fear, a “talking cure” for an emotion that cannot be wholly remedied.
On a more generational note, I feel like I am constantly writing away from the fears of my mother and her mother. Fears, that while justifiably grounded in their traumatic experience of the past, beg to be overcome—though in today’s threatening America, these fears become more real by the minute. So, while I am writing away from fear of the past, I am also inadvertently writing towards what is terrifying in our present and future, worrying for the prejudices and violence my children have been born into. Still, in my poems, I am always trying to find a way out of this fear, even when it feels impossible. The will to keep writing, to keep resisting being overcome by terror, is how poetry, for me, stands unafraid.
FWR: Is there a poem (or poet) (and feel free to respond in the plural!) you love to teach or share?
JKD: There are so, so, so many. This is always one of the toughest questions to answer because there are centuries of incredible writing that came before us and so much goodness being written now. When it comes to teaching, given the Anglo-centric nature of the workshop and the field of poetry in the US more generally, I particularly love exposing students to foreign voices, especially ones of the Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam. Since I am able to read aloud in Russian—my mother tongue—students can hear how lyric makes music in another language, something I think we need much more of. Other favorite global poets to teach in translation include Czesław Miłosz, Miklós Radnóti, and Paul Celan—because I am glutton for elegy and deeply invested in poetry about the Holocaust. Studying with Garrett Hongo at the University of Oregon instilled in me a commitment to teaching poetry entrenched in history. Rather than provide a long list poems or poets, I’ll say that whether earlier voices or those of my contemporaries, I try to teach poetry that sings its way into making the past ghostly present.
Rigoberto González has written books spanning poetry, young adult literature, children’s literature and memoir. His most recent book of poetry, The Book of Ruin, was published by Four Way Books in 2018. He has been awarded fellowships by a variety of organizations, including the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA, and recognized with the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets, the Lambda Literary Award for Poetry, and the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, among others. He is a professor of English and the director of the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark.
Four Way Review: As I read The Book of Ruin, I kept thinking of the word “revelation.” It has both apocalyptic connotations, as in the Book of Revelation, and also positive, as enlightenment can give us guidance. This play between pain and knowledge threads through your poems. Does knowledge always necessitate pain?
Rigoberto González: I believe that pain can be physical or emotional, as in the revelations or epiphanies that come to us after we make mistakes or make the wrong choices. Also I’m gesturing to that common phrase, “The truth hurts.” To achieve clarity something has to be surrendered or compromised, and most of the time it’s our caprices, comforts, or stubborn ways. This may sound like a terrible process, but in fact it’s a way out of a terrible place that we don’t recognize or refuse to recognize as toxic. We become accustomed to unhealthy situations. We make a habit of negative feelings and conditions. We grieve what we lose, no matter the benefits of gaining knowledge. It’s a beautiful flaw that makes us human.
FWR: In one of your recent Los Angeles Times columns, you write: “It’s the immigrant condition to always explain one’s distance from home as a way to make peace with the separation.” To me, this gets at the idea of liminal space and how immigrants (and poets!) must, at times, exist there, in places of transition.
These transitions exist throughout The Book of Ruin; in some poems, this enables you to speak for the unheard (nature, for example, warning humanity that change is coming) or the silenced (a poem from the point of view of the father of one of the Iguala students forcibly disappeared in 2014). In “43”, a poem that threads both one’s relationship to the land with the vanishing of a murdered child, you write: “You’ve become/ the man on the crest of the land of the dead– / earth force-fed the evidence of man’s insidious/ acts that rots its viscera away.” This poem falls within a suite of poems (A Brief History of Fathers Searching for Their Sons) that see both fathers and nature in positions of mourning and perpetration. But in “43”, there is a transference from the destruction we wreak on the earth to the pain we cause one another. Can you speak to the development of those poems? Did you initially begin that suite planning to write on the Iguala students?
RG: For me, the book came together in 2014. That was the year of the Iguala travesty, that was also the year of the Ferguson protests sparked by the murder of Michael Brown, it was also the centennial commemoration of the Ludlow Massacre, in which mostly women and children perished in fires set by the National Guard as a tactic to quell a labor strike at the copper mining town. All three events appeared to mirror or reflect the rage and frustration we were experiencing with intense natural catastrophes brought on by climate change. The natural world and the human world were colliding constantly and we sat at the crossroads doing so little about it that we might as well do nothing. I didn’t write about Ferguson because I felt it was not appropriate for me to do so when so many African American poets were writing heartbreaking poems about that and the current assaults on black bodies. But I did write about Ludlow and Iguala because Mexican people were involved. I chose the father-son relationship after I saw the father of one of our students at the Rutgers-Newark MFA Program attend a tribute to his son, who had been killed in a car accident. I saw him sitting at the train station with the saddest expression I had ever encountered. That took me to other instances in which fathers lose their sons—migration, war, political conflict, natural disasters. The larger statement here is that we are ushering in our premature deaths because we are destroying the planet and ruining our community’s health with our desperation, belligerence and aggression.
FWR: This poem brings me to the suite of poems “The Incredible Story of Las Poquianchis of Guanajuato”. These poems revolve around the Gonzalez sisters, who ran a prostitution ring resulting in 91 murders through the 1950s and 1960s. You write, in “Las Ánimas I”, “That you remember us/ says more about your deeds than ours.” While this might speak to humanity’s tendency to focus on the most violent or cruel moments of history, you go on to write in “The Fourth Sister’s Daughter”, “she too is part of the story, no matter how/ much it pains me to admit it to you”. Thus, the fourth sister [Carmen Gonzalez] must be remembered. What is the poet’s responsibility to the past? How can poetry instruct without giving undue power to those responsible for terrible acts?
RG: I’ve always believed that the poet has a responsibility to communicate the complexity of a life or issue or event, no matter who or what it is. I think people bristle at some of our subject matter because they’d rather it go away, be silenced, disappear from public knowledge as an act of self-preservation. (When I teach Sexton or Plath, for example, a few students usually express their distaste for the work.) And I understand that. But as the poet, I also know that we poets spend much of our energy unearthing, examining, and exploring even those things we find in the dark. Some call it bravery or courage, others call it foolishness, but I’ve yet to encounter a good poem that doesn’t want to show me something as opposed to want to hide something. Over the years I’ve accepted that criticism for my own work, even from close friends who tell me I only gravitate toward the sad stories and human tragedy. My response is that I write about what I feel is urgent and needs to remembered and said again. Silence is the precipice to forgetting.
FWR: Staying with those poems and the idea of silence, the cast of speakers here remind me of a Greek chorus, as they reflect on the lives of those lost and those responsible for their deaths. The suite ends with “Las Ánimas II”, in which the murdered women speak: “Being found was worse/ than getting lost. / We no more belong/ to this world dead than we did/ alive”. Myths thread through The Book of Ruin, and here, the mythologizing of the dead seems to reflect more on society’s tendency to rue rather than prevent. What brought you to the stories here?
RG: I had exactly the Greek chorus in mind when I wrote this poem. When I saw photographs of these sisters, all of them in black, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s witches or the mythological Three Fates. I came to Las Poquianchis right after the series of mass graves was being discovered throughout Mexico because I kept hearing that nothing like this had ever happened before. A familiar expression I’ve heard in the U.S. about the level of racism and white nationalism. It floors me because this only betrays a person’s lack of historical knowledge. I go back to another adage, “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” Well, here we are. That’s also what took me to the Mexican Revolution poem, where another travesty was committed against the Chinese community of northern Mexico. But I wanted to do something more with both poems. Therefore I decided to bring forth the lives of Las Poquianchis and complicate their motivations, because it was also not right to reduce them to evil—that makes them aberrations and a one-time story, when in fact Mexico’s poverty and lack of opportunity pushes many people into lives of crime. This doesn’t excuse or forgive criminal acts—that’s not the point of the poems. My purpose is to revisit these events in order to fuel a conversation about what shapes a criminal and what can be done to stop the cycle.
FWR: You’ve spoken about how your parents’ involvement with unions has influenced your work as a poet, in that your writing is part of a larger conversation to invoke change. In “Ghosts of Ludlow, 1914-2014”, you write “a century of silence in violence”. The story of the Ludlow Massacre, which I think has been forgotten or silenced for many Americans, is in conversation with contemporary events. Can you speak about this poem and how it fits within the larger conversation concerning class, race and power?
RG: I came to this poem through Woody Guthrie, my favorite protest singer. His song “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” is what inspired my previous book, Unpeopled Eden. So when I came across his song “Ludlow Massacre”, I immediately connected to it because of my family’s lengthy relationship with unions. Since this took place in Colorado, I actually traveled there. Ludlow is now a ghost town with a run-down memorial. I even stepped into one of the pits that had been dug to shield the miner families from the cold—they had been evicted from their shacks because of the strike. It was in such a pit that people died. It was the Ludlow Massacre that turned the tide in favor of unions. And 100 years later, there’s now a political party that’s aiming to dissolve them. Again I ask: Have we not learned anything? Oh, we learned. And then we forgot what we learned. So now we have to have another devastation reminder. That just makes me angry and sad. When I first started considering I was going to write a book with environmental concerns, it was when the monarch butterflies were diminishing in record numbers due to deforestation and climate change. I grew up in Michoacán, land of the monarchs. Killing them was killing my homeland, my memories, and one of my greatest joys. I turned my anger into language, hence “Apocalipsixtlán,” the epic poem at the end of the book.
FWR: You begin the second part of the book with an epigraph from “Ozymandias” by Shelley. What follows are poems set in a post-apocalyptic landscape after environmental calamity (“promised land turned purgatory”). The speakers, the Bigger Ones, revile the Muddies and chase the Smaller Ones, who have journeyed North. This too is an immigrant narrative, albeit one seemingly more in line with Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower than what we may think of as migration today. Did you look to other writers for guidance as you constructed these poems that seem both speculative and prescient?
RG: Again, you found my exact reference. Octavia Butler is one of my literary gods. When I came across Wild Seed and Kindred in college, I knew I was reading incredible narratives set in the past but really speaking about the present. And when I read those narratives set in the future, like Parable of the Sower and Fledgling, she was also speaking about the present. But I also reread Eliot’s The Waste Land, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Fifth Extinction, and Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I read these books in order to keep my language grounded and fueled by critical thought and not distracted by my own emotions. I also wanted to try the long poem, so I read as many as I could in order to learn how to sustain its strength and energy. A few standouts were Carolyn Forché’s The Angel of History and, of course, Allen Ginsburg’s Howl.
FWR: Switching gears, what are the poems or poets you love to teach or share?
RG: That’s easy: Aracelis Girmay, Ada Limón, Harryette Mullen, Gary Soto, Dianne Seuss, Tyehimba Jess, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Mary Ruefle, and Li-Young Lee, to name a few.
A poet and multimedia artist, Diana Khoi Nguyen’s debut collection, Ghost Of (Omnidawn, 2018), was selected by Terrance Hayes for the Omnidawn Open Contest. In addition to winning the 92Y “Discovery” / Boston Review Poetry Contest, 2019 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and Colorado Book Award, she was also a finalist for the National Book Award and L.A. Times Book Prize. A Kundiman fellow, she is currently a writer-in-residence at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and teaches in the Randolph College MFA and Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
FWR: Ghost Of plays with ideas of erasure, whether through the transformed photographs included, or the way you manipulate text. Erasure also seems to speak to the way each of us forms identity — which parts of our parents, our culture, and our homes we carry forward or move beyond. Our identities can also be transformed forcibly by removal — through the death of a loved one or the loss of a homeland. The lines “If one has no brother, then one used to have a brother. / There is, you see, no shortage of gain or loss” (from “Ghost Of”) seem to speak to this. Would you mind speaking about what draws you towards erasure or this play with text?
DKN: I would say that prior to my brother’s death, I wasn’t really thinking too much about erasure — at least not actively. Two years before he committed suicide, in the middle of the night, he cut himself out of the family pictures. That’s an act of self-removal, which is unfortunately common in those who have suicidal ideation… But [it also] activated all of the silences that occur within our family. When that happened, my parents didn’t notice right away that the pictures were all missing a person. Everything kind of looked normal and then came the realization that everything is marred…
And then nothing happened. My family didn’t take the pictures down. Nobody talked to him. We just kind of continued on. And then two years later, he killed himself. And then the pictures still stayed up. Those pictures had a terrible weight to them. They kind of represented our failure to really communicate with him about his state — his emotional state, his physical state — and also our failure to really talk to each other about it. There was so much avoidance and I think buried in all of that is also my parents’ kind of willful silence about their own past and how they came to the States.
…I remember in the fifth grade we were supposed to learn the story of how our relatives or our ancestors came to this country. But my parents’ response was that there’s nothing to talk about; the war ended and we’re here. It was very evident to me that my parents had no interest in sharing with me their past and their story. I only learned about what the Vietnam War was like, and what it might have been like for my parents to try to escape after the war ended, through documentaries and through Hollywood films.
But this is all a way of saying those images of my brother really kind of activated thinking about erasure. And I feel like with my parents, it’s a silence, which is, I think, a real fear of not wanting to go back [into the past]. I can’t begin to speculate, but I can say that they are very forward thinking… Part of my dissertation project right now is interested in verb tenses within the Vietnamese language. The Vietnamese language has present, past, and future tenses, but what it doesn’t have is the subjunctive mood– the “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” tense. So that’s interesting to me. It’s like within a nation, or at least within the mind, there’s not a possibility of entertaining alternate paths. It’s just like there’s the past, and then there’s the present, and then there’s the future. And my family, at least, is very focused on the future and they don’t, at least verbally, engage with each other about other possibilities.
This is all a way of saying that I’m drawn to countering that erasure– my brother’s, my family’s — because I think that what happened in my family isn’t unique to [us]. I think it happens in a lot of different families, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese. I think there’s a lot of taboo around mental health and mental illness and wanting to move past traumas. But I think that if there’s so much silence around trauma, it also acts as a kind of ghost within a family that haunts.
When I started to write the book, I didn’t even think about the book as a book. It was the second anniversary of my brother’s death and I thought, I need to do something about these pictures. They still hang up on the walls. We don’t talk about them. They foreshadowed his death, and they represent our failure as a family and our lack of communication… So I had my sister scan them and send them to me. I wanted not to appropriate my brother’s voice or his experience, but to rather use his absence, or that void, as a kind of portal to reach him, I wanted to do something to fill in that space, a kind of reaching towards the dead or reaching towards the past, whether it’s his past or our shared past or my parents’ past, to bring it back into a conversation. I think the only way to end silence is to initiate a dialogue with whatever is being silenced. The artifact, the cut out pictures, enabled me to do that. If there had been no pictures, I don’t know if I would have engaged with it in the same way. I don’t think it would have been so urgent for me. So those pictures were crucial to thinking about erasure.
And then there’s that question about playing with the text. Once I had filled in the void, I felt as if I had unlocked something, a process that was really fruitful for my grief and enabled me to examine my family as an outsider… I thought, “well, the people in those pictures aren’t the same as now. What if I allow for the text to be the support system around that white space?” Thinking about all of us who survived the son, the brother, who is no longer there, what happened to us?
FWR: As you talk about your process, I’m reminded that I read that you write in compressed, marathon sessions. Could you speak a bit more about this?
DKN: Primarily I am an educator during the academic school year and when I’m teaching, I can’t write. I can’t split my brain — I’m kind of obsessive — I can only think about my students and my class. So I only write twice a year, in 15 day intervals, in the summer and the winter break that I have for myself. And that’s the time that I write. I dedicate my time to writing and making, because I’m doing more than just writing in those periods. That’s a process I’ve been doing now for almost eight years and it’s been fruitful. Ghost Of, for example, was really written in thirty days — August and December in 2016.
In the months leading up to, but then also during, those intervals I’m immersing myself intensely with various kinds of material. I structure it similarly to comp lists, like within a PhD in English… you might choose a time period, a major figure and a genre and you generate these long comprehensive reading lists around those topics. It’s so intense but you get to choose. You get to nerd out. I loved that process. I don’t want to repeat it but I’d love the idea of compiling comprehensive reading lists.
Each time I have this marathon, I compile an intense list around some kind of theme. For example, one year it was everything related to sand. And I don’t read much poetry during that time because I’m worried about other poetry forms and styles becoming embedded in my mind. I read a lot of non-fiction. I watch a lot of movies. It’s a way to expose myself to different kinds of styles, different texts, that I wouldn’t normally read. During one writing session, I was watching animal documentaries and I watched one about eels. I became really obsessed with eels and what we know and we don’t know. For example, scientists, at least up until 2016, don’t know how eels procreate. They have never been able to witness it. They know that eels spawn in the ocean deep and then they travel to freshwater. What’s really fascinating to me is when the eels are usually within their adolescent stages when they’re making this treacherous journey, because of the rise in dams and all the stuff that man has done to many rivers and freshwater spaces. When there’s a dam, some of the eels have adapted to travel on land, for a time. Some of them are even able to climb vertical walls because of this biologic imperative for them to overcome these obstacles.
The eels in the adolescent stages remind me of my brother. Adolescence was when everything turned from [him being] a really bright, kind of precocious, gifted child to this sullen, depressed teen. We all thought it was a phase, except he never got out of it. It persisted into his twenties and then he committed suicide. And so I think a lot about his loneliness and his struggle to overcome his depression, and something about the eels’ journey allowed for a sense of correlation, a metaphor to help me understand him.
This leads me to the gyotaku. It’s an old technique, predating photography, in which there’s an application of ink applied to one side of the creature or fish and then pressed onto muslin or paper. It only captures the essence of the thing, because it can’t capture the 3D nature of the thing… but it remains for posterity of that moment. Thinking about that process and thinking about impressions, this is all I have left of my brother at this point. I can’t conjure up new memories and I only have diminishing memories of him. I began to play around with the idea of the body/text, concrete poems, with the idea of gyotaku, and manipulating [the images and poetry, questioning]… what would this mean if the text was a stamp.
…Moving the text in so many different ways brought things alive for me. It’s an acknowledgement of decay in [the process of creating gyotaku], in that the ink isn’t the same strength when you use it a second or a fourth time, but there’s something new that’s generated out of the repetition of the image, no matter how diminishing or decaying. It creates a visual echo. And there are a lot of repetitions within the book. Ultimately, there was a lot of play visually within the book. It wasn’t enough to just write the pieces. There’s a vitality in working and moving with that body. There’s a movement inherent within visuals and that movement signifies vitality. I don’t think I could have done this within a traditional layout.
It also made sense to explore the gyotaku as a form of preservation. Simultaneously, while working on this text, I also began working with my family’s home video archives. That’s the only place now where my brother exists wholly. I’ve been doing a lot of video work in terms of examining the past and discovering that what’s on the video is very different from what I remember. There’s a reconciliation with memory with record, as curated by father and a camcorder.
FWR: Were there texts you turned to as possible models or possible influences? I thought of Gregory Orr or Matt Rasmussen, but I’d be interested to know if you looked elsewhere or if you decided that you wanted to consider this experience within your own context or the context of your family?
DKN: It was absolutely the latter. I’d read a lot of different poetry about grief and elegy, prior to this happening with my family, but during these intense sessions, I was not only not reading elegiac works but I wasn’t reading poetry. I have to say that I’m heavily influenced by Susan Howe’s work. But I would say that I was reading her more intensely after writing my own work.
I wanted to originate out of something else, not because I was trying to be inventive but because I wanted to find something organic within this personal instance. For example, I was given the prompt in one of my classes to do some kind of radical eulogy. It gave me a different way to construct around thinking about my brother… which I hadn’t been doing much with at that moment, creatively. I think I was afraid of mining my family trauma for the sake of art-making.
This idea of a radical eulogy, which was low stakes, made me think of the most traumatic moment within the process, which was his cremation ceremony when we pushed him from a cardboard box into the crematorium… I had also been thinking a lot about radical empathy, meaning, can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes but also, why do that? Is it helpful to imagine the kind of trauma that someone else has been through? Does someone need to put on the suit of someone else’s trauma in order to relate to what they have gone through? And what does radical empathy look like with a corpse? … So I built a cardboard coffin in my house and I would lie in it every day. It was scary but then when you’re in there, you can only look up. It becomes a meditative space and it allowed me to think in a different way. I ended up doing a video project to document it.
…I don’t know what was going on in his life, I only know these clues in terms of the moments leading up to his afterlife. But doing this ritual around his death and to retrace [his death] was a way to be with him. So this became my radical eulogy. I also printed out facsimiles of the cut out pictures and carried them around with me that spring. Everything was starting to bloom, and I would put the pictures out in the world. I wanted to fill in with the natural world this death and provide a larger context. On a grand scale, our death doesn’t really mean anything, we live, we die, and the ecosystem continues. But the emotional burden of grief remains.
FWR: This ties back into the way the natural imagery in Ghost Of normalizes death, which is a natural process, but the way the human body responds to death and process grief and mourning is different from other creatures. On one hand, this enables our empathetic connections but on the other, it forces us to experience pain that not everything else is feeling. What you’re describing, with taking these images out into the natural world, seems like an attempt to gain that guidance from the natural world, even as it’s an acknowledgment that this guidance is limited. I think of the lines from ‘A Bird in Chile, and Elsewhere’:
There is no ecologically safe way to mourn.
Some plants have nectaries
that keep secreting pollen even after the petals have gone.
You are being compelled by a loss, and that loss has changed you.
DKN: So much solace came for me in thinking about what flora and fauna do. Which is, [they go] on. It’s so much easier to say than do — how do I just go on? — and there’s the contradiction of not wanting to die, but wanting to be with my brother. So what to do with this grief so that I can still live a life? And what does it mean to bring my practice of grief into a daily living practice?
…What I’ve taken to doing now is to push through the moment of discomfort, to normalize it. I try to bring him into those moments because I think it’s nice to include him, as if he was here, rather than erasing him. He’s gone physically, but we knew him, he was part of the family. Let’s keep him in the conversation. How can we honor and remember someone without eulogizing him? Let’s keep him alive in the conversation. It’s a resistance against the silence that can enable trauma to occur.
Thinking about nature, things decompose and they’re recycled into the earth and atmosphere. We’re composed of dead things. It’s part of a larger framework of how life exists. And that helps me move on.
To tie this back to reading, I love to read about animal behavior but also what ancient cultures have done. I love reading about ethnography, anthropology, sociology — I find it helpful to learn patterns of behavior that make us human. One person whose work was really influential was Eliot Weinberger. A lot of his work blends myth with rumor and gossip with fact. He’s famous for this one piece, “The Dream of India”, which has all of these contradictory and physically impossible statements but you realize that he’s collaging all of the documents that he read. It’s a different take on nonfiction, in that it’s not necessarily true but it’s a collaging of historical documents and experiences. This influenced the poem “Grief Logic”.
FWR: Speaking of “Grief Logic”, the repetition there seems to speak to the nature of grief and how it transforms and distorts. And repetition appears in other ways throughout the text, whether the poet burning his life work in “The Exodus”, reminding the reader of your brother cutting himself out of family photos (“Family Ties”), or the revisiting of images in the gyotaku poems. I wonder if you might talk about what draws you towards repetition, and what you might resist?
DKN: Having some kind of logic or algorithm helps one to do the work of living after a trauma. Repetition can be a kind of engine to help you continue. Then, in doing the living, there’s ultimately a deviation from the repetition, which makes me human as I figure out ways to go on after my brother. Grief is immobilizing, and repetition can help. But to repeat only, and not address what happened, is dangerous. Repetition can afford us a kind of safety.
FWR: I think this goes along with the idea of a familial lineage, to say, “you have so-and-so’s laugh or their sense of humor”, or other non-physical characteristics that we associate with the past, because there is a comfort in the repetition. There is a sense of being able to identify where something came from, even if it’s a distortion of the original. I think, not to be morbid, that happens within death as well, because we all will have a variation on the same experience but we put a sense of individuality on the experience.
This made me think of you leaning into the uncomfortable experience of keeping your brother in the conversation, because that is a disruption of the repetition, or cycle, of silence. While he may not physically be with us, if we distort our tendencies slightly, then a presence of him can be maintained. I think it’s a universal experience to have to recreate ourselves or recreate our loved ones as our understanding of who they are, or were, changes. To go back to your project with the home videos, it’s the realization that your memory isn’t perhaps entirely correct — or the only memory of that event that might exist.
DKN: Absolutely. It’s funny, because in doing this work, it wasn’t initially intended to be shared with anyone. It was a way for me to reconcile my specific family’s past. But to think that this work has been able to reach so many people, it reiterates that we are all unified in that we all live and all die, and we wrestle with those states for ourselves and for others. It’s been really moving for me to experience. I’m so grateful. Never before in my life have I ever talked about death so much with so many strangers!
…I’ve been doing a lot of work that all originates with this terrible thing that happened to my family. While this does have utility in processing my own grief, I also want to engage the larger community in thinking about these kinds of issues. Suicide affects so many more individuals and families than we talk about on a day-to-day basis. It’s hard for me to talk about the book, but if I feel like it serves a larger service, then I think it’s okay.
FWR: Is there a poem or poet (or several!) that you love to teach or share?
DKN: One of my topics for my comp was Asian-American literature and exile. I’m interested in displacement and feeling outside of a community. So I’ve read a lot of work by people who left their homeland or people who grew up in America but felt unincluded or marginalized. Most of the institutions that I studied at, especially at a higher level, didn’t offer any classes that would teach me any Asian-American work. It’s important for me, as an Asian-American writer, to understand my context that I’m operating in. So I chose that comps list to educate myself, because nobody had ever shared work of Asian-Americans in my classes.
When I teach, I bring in a lot of different texts of these alternative experiences, which don’t always align with my aesthetic. But I’m not interested in propagating my aesthetic. I want my students to figure out what inspires and excites them. I’ve been writing plays and thus I’ve been reading a lot of plays and befriended female playwrights. They’ve given me reading lists of other female playwrights who were operating at the same time as their male luminaries but they didn’t get that kind of attention. I’ve been reading them and it’s been blowing my mind… I want a more holistic view of the voices that have been operating in genres and time periods.
So, works that have been formative for me include Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee and the work of Myung Mi Kim. For Myung Mi Kim, I feel like a lot of her work isn’t being taught because it’s thought to be too experimental or too avant-garde. I think some [writing] takes a lot of work to read, but there are a lot of people out there who don’t want to do the work to read it. I think that does it a disservice. What I want to do in the classroom is tackle hard-to-read stuff. How do we process it? It’s all in English, so let’s do that work. I want to train writers to be able to read difficult work, which is another way of asking, how do we read inclusively?
There isn’t enough cross-pollination. If we can venture into conversation with other disciplines, I think it’s fruitful. This is why I love hybrid work; I’ve been able to have conversations with documentary filmmakers, sculptors, playwrights — I learn so much and I can see similarities across them. It’s how ideas arise: why keep them isolated? This is my not-so-secret-goal: I want us all to be engaged with everybody because we’re humans. We make stuff. We should be able to talk in a way that we can communicate what we’re doing and appreciate what we’re seeing, even if we don’t always understand what we’re seeing.
Oceanic is the fourth collection of poetry by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Copper Canyon Press, 2018). Concerned the fragility of the natural world and the humans who live within it, Oceanic moves in and out of ecopoetry. She explores various forms, creatures and voices to create a vivid portrait of a world at once beautiful and at risk of irrevocable change.
Nezhukumatathil was the 2016-2017 Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi, where she is a professor of English in the MFA program. She has received, among other awards, a Pushcart Prize, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and fellowships to the MacDowell Colony. She is also the author of three previous poetry collections: LUCKY FISH (2011), AT THE DRIVE-IN VOLCANO (2007), and MIRACLE FRUIT (2003)––all from Tupelo Press. Her most recent chapbook is LACE & PYRITE, a collaboration of nature poems with the poet Ross Gay.
FWR: What spurred the writing of Oceanic?
AN: I never set out to write a book—even after 4 books, I still find that prospect daunting. Instead, I focus on the individual poems, getting those done week after week. And sometimes some quiet times in between too. Lots of ‘not-writing.’ And after some time, I take inventory of my poems and see if anything is gelling together or having arguments with one another.
FWR: I was struck by the appearance of the haibun in your collection. What brought you to this form?
AN:I started experimenting with haibun more seriously after having my first child. I was head over heels in love with this new creature and while I loved articulating this newness in poems, I also wanted to be private about this special new time for my family. Traditionally speaking, the haibun’s focus is on landscape or travel—more outward than inner observations, though of course how you describe the outdoors can evoke an inward glance. During those sleep-deprived months, I could just about think in haibun and then write haibun more than any other form. Something about that concentrated sensory experience with a sort of ‘rose clipping’ (the haiku) at the end was very conducive to my state of being those heady first years of being a new mom.
FWR: While thinking more broadly of form, you range through different forms, utilizing prose poems and ghazals, and dipping into poems that seem their own form (“Daughter” and “Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth”). Could you talk a bit about your relationship to form?
AN: I love using form as a way to corral and round up the ecstasy of writing a line that wants to unfurl messily down the page. I’m all for mess, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes a large initial image needs a little belt-tightening, a little trimming—so it becomes a puzzle in the best sense of how to lock and align your poem to a form.
FWR: I’d love to look specifically at “The Falling: Four Who Have Intentionally Plunged Over Niagara Falls with the Hope of Surviving.” These poems seem to speak to a love of destruction inherent in us (whether causing pain to another or the planet). Yet, there’s such joy in the destruction rendered in these poems, even as Annie Edison Taylor says, “Don’t hate me because I sent the cat first” or “Look / at your life: it can count” from the “Steven Trotter” section. Could you expand on what drew you to these poems?
AN: My (not-so) naughty little secret is that I read way more natural history/ science/ history/ biographies than I do actual poetry. I remember reading a newspaper article that celebrated the anniversary of Annie Edson Taylor’s first plunge over the falls, and I just became intrigued/ horrified/ delighted about the history of the number of people who intentionally went over Niagara Falls. Many of these people died in relative obscurity and I was hungry to hear their voices, their rationales, their fears, and their desires through a contemporary lens with persona poetry.
FWR: I’m interested in how you play with images of the body and motherhood, and juxtapose those against images from nature. In doing so, there’s a freshness that appears (I’m thinking of a poem like “In Praise of My Manicure” or “The Body”), which might seem pat in another’s hands. Did you find yourself resisting any of these poems or images?
AN: Thank you so much! But no—98% of the time, I start a poem with an image and I’ve had to learn to trust my digging towards (and away) from that image to see why it had lingered with me in the first place.
FWR: I saw that you are working on a book of illustrated nature essays (World of Wonder, 2020, Milkweed)— how is the process of writing essays different from (or similar to!) the writing of poetry? What lead you to that project?
AN: It came from a very real and deep love and wonderment about the animals and plants of the world that don’t always get heralded or adored. I feel lucky that though my parents did not directly encourage my writing; they very much unintentionally encouraged it by making sure my younger sister and I had family road trips to outdoor landmarks all over this planet from such a young age, and they taught me the names of animals and plants that weren’t usually found in zoos or nurseries. Most of all, they showed me by example what it means to be curious about this planet: it means you’ll never be bored or lonesome. How could you, knowing there are such wondrous creatures that live below hundreds of feet of ice, or deep in the backwaters of south India? But in all my reading as a young girl—I never saw brown women authoring these books. Of course, there must have been marginalized voices writing and publishing about the outdoors back then, but I certainly never had teachers who taught these authors. And I tried and tried to find them in the library myself to no avail. One would think brown women did not even go outside if you looked at the average library shelves in the 70s and 80s. This absence of Asian American voices praising the outdoors, naming the precariousness some of these animals, and frankly showing how extraordinary this planet’s strange and beautiful inhabitants are before they disappear is something I’m hoping to remedy.
FWR: Is there a poem (or poems!) that you love to teach or share?
AN: I love to teach Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Mint Snowball.” It’s quite literally the first poem I ever fell in love with from a living writer, and I love to see the smiles and delights on my students’ faces when we discuss it together now too.