INTERVIEW WITH MÓNICA GOMERY
Mónica Gomery is a rabbi and a poet based in Philadelphia. Chosen for the 2021 Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize in Poetry, judged by Kwame Dawes, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Hilda Raz, her second collection, Might Kindred (University of Nebraska Press, 2022) skillfully interrogates God, queer storytelling, ancestral influences, and more.
FWR: Would you tell us about the book’s journey from the time it won the Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize to when it was published? In what ways did the manuscript change?
MG: The manuscript didn’t change too much from submission to publication, though it changed a lot as I worked on it in the years prior to submitting it. Kwame Dawes is a very caring editor, and he really gave the poems space to breathe. His edits largely came in the form of questions. They were more about testing to see if I had thought through all of my decisions, guiding me toward consistency. The copy editing at the end was surprisingly tough. I realized how sculptural poetry is for me, how obsessive I am about the shape of poems on the page, and the visual elements of punctuation and lineation. I spent hours making decisions about individual commas – putting them in, taking them out, putting them back in… This was where I felt the finality of the book as an object. I experience a poem almost as a geological phenomenon, a shifting ground that responds to tectonic movement beneath it, a live landscape that moves between liquid and solid. Finalizing the details of these poems meant freezing them into form, and it was hard to let go of their otherwise perpetual malleability.
The last poem to enter the book came really late. I wrote “Because It Is Elul” in the summer of 2021. Right at the last possible moment, I sent Kwame two or three new poems that I was excited about and asked if he thought I could add them. He told me to pick one new poem and add it to the book, and otherwise, to take it easy – that these new poems were for the next collection, and to believe that there would be a next collection. That was a moment of deeply skilled mentorship; his ability to transmit a trust and assurance that this wouldn’t be the end, that we’re always writing toward the next project, the next iteration of who we’re becoming as artists. It meant a lot to hear this from such an incredible and prolific writer. It settled me and helped me feel the book could be complete.
FWR: When did you first start submitting Might Kindred to publishers and contests? I would love to hear about your relationship with rejection and any strategies you may have for navigating it in your writing life.
MG: I started writing the poems in Might Kindred in 2017 and began submitting the manuscript as a whole in 2021. I’m a slow drafter, and it’ll take me years to complete a poem. So too for a manuscript – the process feels extremely messy while I’m in it, but I’ve learned that what’s needed is time, and the willingness to go back to the work and try again. With my first round of rejections, I wondered if I’d compost the entire manuscript and turn to something to new, or if I’d go back in and refine it again. The rejections rolled in, but along with them came just enough encouragement to keep me going – kind reflections from editors, being a finalist multiple times – and then Kwame Dawes called to tell me Might Kindred was accepted by Prairie Schooner for the Raz/Shumaker Prize.
On my better days, I think rejection is not just an inevitable part of the creative process, but a necessary one. Which isn’t to say that I always handle rejection with equanimity. But it has a way of pulling me back to the work with new precision. It generates a desire in me to keep listening to the poem, to learn more about the poem. In some ways, this is the only thing that makes me feel I can submit in the first place – the knowledge that if a poem isn’t quite ready, it’ll come through in the process. It’ll boomerang back for another round of revision. Rejection removes the pressure to be certain that a poem is done.
Jay Deshpande once told me that every morning, a poet wakes up and asks themselves: Am I real? Is what I’m doing real? And that no matter the poet’s accomplishments, the charge behind the question doesn’t change. So, we have to cultivate a relationship to our practice as writers that’s outside of external sources of permission or validation. Jay offered that the poet’s life is a slow, gradual commitment to building relationships with readers – which I understood as an invitation to pace myself and remember to see the long arc of a writing life, as opposed to any singular moment in time that defines one’s “success” as a writer. I try to remember this when I come up against my own urgency to be recognized, or my tenderness around rejection. I want to write for the long haul, so, I have to try and value each small bright moment along the way. Every time I find out that someone who I don’t already know has read one of my poems, my mind is completely blown. Those are the moments when poetry is doing its thing– building community between strangers, reaching across space and time to connect us. And I think that’s what makes us real as poets.
FWR: In “Immigrant Elegy for Avila,” you refer to mountain as a language. You return to the imagery in “God Queers The Mountain”. Would you talk a little about how the mountain came to be a part of your creative life?
MG: Some of it is memory work. As a child, my relationship to Venezuela, when I reach for it in my mind’s eye, had to do with feeling very small in the presence of things that were very large– driving through the valley of El Ávila to get to my grandparents’ houses, swimming in enormous oceans. Since this book reaches back toward those childhood memories, and wonders about being a person from multiple homelands, the mountain started showing up as a recurring presence. The mountain was a teacher, imparting certain truths to me by speaking to me “in a mountain language” that I received, but couldn’t fully translate. This is what it feels like, to me, to be a child of immigrants–– all this transmission of untranslatable material.
Some of it is also collective memory, or mythic memory work. The mountain in “God Queers the Mountain” is Sinai, where the Jewish people received Torah and our covenant with God. That poem seeks to reclaim Mt. Sinai as a site of queer divinity and queer revelation. Similarly, this feels like an experienced truth that’s not easily rendered into English.
On the cover of Might Kindred is a painting by Rithika Merchant, depicting a person’s silhouette with a natural scene inside of them. The scene crests on a hilltop and overlooks the peak of a mountain, painted right there at the heart of the mind. The mountain in the painting is against a thick night sky, full of constellations and a red harvest moon. I can’t tell you how true this painting feels to me. Going back to Mt Sinai for a moment, in Torah it’s the meeting point between earth and heaven, where the divine-human encounter happens. It’s a liminal, transitional space, where each realm can touch the other, and it’s where the people receive their relationship to the divine through language, mediated by text. I love the claim, made by Merchant’s painting, that this meeting point between earth and sky, human and heavenly, however we want to think about, lives within each of our bodies. The possibility of earth touching heaven, and heaven touching earth, these are longings that appear in the collection, played out through language, played out at the peak of the mountain.
FWR: I love that “Prologue” is the eighth poem in the collection. Some poets may have chosen to open the collection with this poem, grounding the reader’s experience with this imagery. What drove your choice of placement? How do you generally go about ordering your poems?
MG: You’re the first person to ask me this, Urvashi, and I always wondered if someone would! Ordering a collection both plagues and delights me. I’m doing it again now, trying to put new poems into an early phase of a manuscript. Lately I’m struggling because every poem feels like it should be the first poem, and the placement of a poem can itself be a volta, moving the book in a new direction. The first handful of poems, maybe the first section, are like a seed– all the charged potential of the book distilled and packed tightly within those opening pages, waiting to be watered and sunned, to bloom and unfold. There’s a lot of world-building that happens at the beginning of a poetry collection, and one of the rules in the world of Might Kindred is the non-linearity of time. By making “Prologue” the eighth poem, I was hoping to set some rules for how time works in the book, and to acknowledge the way a book, like a person, begins again and again.
At one point, I had Might Kindred very neatly divided by subject: a section on Venezuela, a section on Queerness, a section rooted in American cities, a section about my body, etc. I shared it with my friend Sasha Warner-Berry, whose brilliance always makes my books better. She told me, “The poems are good, but the ordering is terrible.” Bless her! I really needed that. Then she said, “You think you need to find subject-based throughlines between your poems, to justify the collection, but the throughline is you. Trust the reader to feel and understand that.” It was a mic drop. I went back to the drawing board, and ordering became an intuitive process: sound-based, sense-based, like composing a musical playlist.
I want to think about the space a reader inhabits at the end of each poem. I want to feel and listen into that silence, tension, or question, and then respond to it, expand upon it, or juxtapose it, with what comes next. I also used some concrete tools. I printed each poem out as a half-pager, so that it was tiny and easy to move around on a floor or wall. I marked and color-coded each poem with core motifs, images, and recurring themes. This helped me pull poems together that spoke to one another, and also to spread out and braid the themes. Similarly, I printed out a table of contents, and annotated it, to have that experience of categorizing poems from a birds-eye-view.
FWR: There are four poems, scattered throughout the book, titled “When My Sister Visits”. These short poems are some of the most elusive and haunting poems in the text. Would you tell us about the journey of writing these linked poems?
MG: These poems began after a visit I’d had with my friend and mentor, Aurora Levins-Morales. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, and I was living in Chicago, where I didn’t have a lot of close people around me. Aurora came to town, and we did what we always do– sit and talk. On this visit, she also showed me around her childhood neighborhood in Chicago, including the house she’d lived in as a teenager, and the streets she’d walked as a young feminist, activist, and poet. It was a very nourishing visit, and afterward when I sat down to write, the first words that came to me were, “When my sister visits…” This was interesting because Aurora isn’t my sister. She’s my elder, teacher, and friend, so I knew something about the word sister was working in a different way for me, almost as a verb. What does it mean to be sistered by someone or something? This question came up recently in a reading I did with Raena Shirali. Beforehand, we both noticed the recurring presence of sisters in one another’s books, and we deliciously confessed to each other over a pre-reading drink that neither one of us has a biological sister. The word sister has a charge to it, I think especially for women.
At first, I wrote one long poem, excavating the presence of a shadow sister in my life who appears to accompany me and reflect parts of myself back to me, especially parts of me that I think shouldn’t be seen or given voice to. This sister embodies my contradictions, she asks hard questions. I was drawn to writing about her, somehow through that visit with Aurora, in which I felt that I belonged with someone, but that the belonging was fraught, or pointed me back to my own fraughtness.
This poem was published in Ninth Letter in the winter of 2020, under the title “Visit,” and I thought it was finished! Later, I worked with Shira Erlichman on revising the poems that became Might Kindred. Shira invited me to return to seemingly completed poems and crack them open in new ways. Shira’s amazing at encouraging writers to stay surprised. It’s very humbling and generative to work with her. So, I chopped the original sister poem up into smaller poems and kept writing new ones… Shira advised me to write fifty! This gave me the freedom to approach them as vignettes, which feels truer to my experience of this sister in my life– she comes and goes, shows up when she wants to. She’s a border-crosser and a traverser of continents, she speaks in enigma and gets under my skin, into my clothes and hair. Bringing her into the book as a character felt more accurate when this poem became a series of smaller poems, each one almost a puzzle or a riddle.
FWR: Ancestors, especially grandmothers, have a powerful presence in these poems. What did you discover in the course of writing these poems? What made you return to these characters over and over?
MG: In Hebrew, the words av and em mean father and mother, and also originator, ancestor, author, teacher. The word for “relation” is a constellation of relationships, which expands the way we might think about our origins. This helps me find an inherent queerness at work in the language of family– how many different ways we may be ancestored by others. And at the core of their etymology, both words mean to embrace, to press, to join. I love this image of what an ancestor is: one who embraces us, envelopes or surrounds us, those whose presences are pressed up against us. We are composite selves, and I think I’m often reaching for the trace of those pressed up against me in my writing.
Might Kindred is driven by a longing for connection. Because the book is an exploration of belonging, and the complexity of belonging in my own life, ancestors play a vital role. There are ancestral relationships in the book that help the speaker anchor into who she is and who and what she belongs to, and there are ancestral relationships in the book that are sites of silence, uncertainty, and mystery, which unmoor and complicate the possibility to belong.
Also, belonging is a shifting terrain. I wrote Might Kindred while my grandmother was turning 98, 99, then 100, then 101. In those years, I was coming to accept that I would eventually have to grieve her. I think there was an anticipatory grieving I started to do through the poems in this book. My grandmother was the last of her generation in my family, she was the keeper of memories and languages, the bridge from continent to continent, the many homes we’ve migrated between. Writing the book was a way of saying goodbye to her and to the worlds she held open for me. There are many things I say in the pages of Might Kindred, addressed to my grandmother, that I couldn’t say to her in life. I wasn’t able to come out to her while she was alive, and in some ways the book is my love letter to her. The queerness, the devotion, the longing for integration, the scenes from her past, our shared past, the way it’s all woven together… maybe it’s a way of saying: I am of you, and the obstacles the world put between us don’t get the final word.
Lastly, I’ll just say, there are so many ways to write toward our ancestors. For me, there’s a tenderness, a reverence, and an intimacy that some of these poems take on, but there’s also tension and resistance. Some of the poems in the book are grappling with the legacies of assimilation to whiteness that have shaped my family across multiple journeys of immigration – from Eastern Europe to Latin America, from Latin America to the US. I harbor anger, shame, heartbreak, disappointment, confusion, and curiosity about these legacies, and poetry has been a place where I can make inquiries into that whole cocktail, where I can ask my ancestors questions, talk back to them, assert my hopes for a different future.
FWR: Three of your newer poems appear in Issue 25 of Four Way Review and I am intrigued by the ways in which there’s been this palpable evolution since Might Kindred. Is that how you see it too, that you’re writing from a slightly different place, in a slightly altered register?
MG: Yes, I do think there’s a shift in register, though I’d love to hear more about it from your perspective! I know something of what’s going on with my new writing, but I’m also too telescoped into it to really see what’s really happening.
I can definitely feel that the first poem, “Consider the Womb,” is in a different register. It’s less narrative, equally personal but differently positioned, it’s exploring the way a poem can make an argument, which has a more formal tone, and is newer terrain for me. It uses borrowed texts, research and quotations as a lens or screen through which to ask questions. I’m interested in weaving my influences onto the page more transparently as I write new poems. This poem is also more dreamlike, born from the surreal. It’s holding questions about the body, generativity, gender roles and tradition, blood, birth and death, the choice to parent or not. I think the poem is trying to balance vulnerability with distance, the deeply personal with the slightly detached. Something about that balance is allowing me to explore these topics right now.
The other two poems take on major life milestones: grieving a loss and getting married. I’m thinking of some notes I have from a workshop taught by Ilya Kaminsky – “the role of poetry is to name things as if for the first time.” Loss and marriage… people have been writing poems about them for thousands of years! But metabolizing these experiences through poetry gives me the chance to render them new, to push the language through my own strange, personal, subjective funnel. Kaminsky again: “The project of empire is the normative. The project of poetry is the non- normative.” There are so many normative ways to tell these stories. Ways to think about marriage and death that do nothing to push against empire. I think my intention with these two poems was not to take language for granted as I put them onto the page.
FWR: Is there a writing prompt or exercise that you find yourself returning to? What is a prompt you would offer to other poets?
MG: I once learned from listening to David Naimon’s podcast Between the Covers about a writing exercise Brandon Shimoda leads when teaching, and it’s stayed with me as a favorite prompt. He would have his class generate 30 to 50 questions they wanted to ask their ancestors, and go around sharing them aloud, one question at a time, “Until it felt like the table was spinning, buoyed by the energy of each question, and the accumulation of all the questions.”
As you pointed out, writing with, toward, and even through, my ancestors, is a theme of Might Kindred, and I think it’s one of the alchemical transformations of time and space that poetry makes possible. I love Shimoda’s process of listing questions to ancestors, which feels both like a writing exercise and a ritual. It draws out the writer’s individual voice, and also conjures the presence of other voices in the room.
I’ve used this exercise when teaching, credited to Shimoda, and have added a second round– which I don’t know if he’d endorse, so I want to be clear that it’s my addition to his process– which is to go around again, students generating a second list of questions, in response to, “What questions do your ancestors have for you?” I’m interested in both speaking to our ancestors and hearing them speak to us, especially mediated through questions, which can so beautifully account for those unfillable gaps we encounter when we try to communicate with the dead.
In Might Kindred, there’s a poem called “Letter to Myself from My Great Grandmother” that was born from this kind of process. It’s in my ancestor’s voice, and she’s asking questions to me, her descendent. My book shared a pub day with Franny Choi’s The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On, which I think is an astonishing collection. In it, she has a poem called “Dispatches from a Future Great-Great-Granddaughter.” In the poem she’s made herself the ancestor, and she’s receiving a letter, not from the past but from the future, questions addressed to her by her future descendent. I’m in awe of this poem. She models how ancestor writing can engage both the future and the past, and locate us in different positions– as descendent, ancestor, as source or recipient of questions. The poem contains so many powerful renderings and observations of the world we live in now– systems, patterns, failings, attempts. She could have articulated all of these in a poem speaking from the present moment, in her own present voice. But by positioning her writing voice in the future, she creates new possibilities, and as a reader, I’m able to reflect on the present moment differently. I feel new of kinds of clarity, compassion, and heartbreak, reading toward myself from the future.
These are the questions I return to, that I’d offer other writers: Think of an ancestor. What’s one question you have for them? What’s one question they have for you? Start listing, and keep going until you hit fifteen, thirty, or fifty. Once you have a list, circle one question, and let it be the starting point for a poem. Or, grab five, then fill in two lines of new text between each one. Just write with your questions in whatever way you feel called to.
FWR: Who are some of your artistic influences at the moment? In what ways are they shaping your creative thoughts and energy?
MG: Right now, I’m feeling nourished by writers who explore the porous borders between faith and poetry, and whose spiritual or religious traditions are woven through their writing in content and form. Edmond Jabés is a beacon, for the way he gave himself permission to play with ancient texts, to reconstruct them and drop new voices into old forms – his Book of Questions is one I return to again and again. I love how he almost sneaks his way back into the Jewish canon, as though his poems were pseudepigraphic, as though he’s claiming his 20th century imagined rabbis are actually excavated from somewhere around the second or third centuries of Jewish antiquity. I’ll never stop learning from his work.
Other writers along these lines who are inspiring me right now include Leila Chatti, Alicia Ostriker, Alicia Jo Rabins, Dujie Tahat, Eve Grubin, and Mohja Khaf. Kaveh Akbar, both for his own poems and for his editorial work on The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse. Joy Ladin, whose writing is a guidelight for me. Rilke, for his relentless attempts to seek the unlanguageable divine with the instrument of language. I’m trying to write on the continuum between ancient inherited texts and contemporary poetry. These writers seem to live and create along that continuum.
I’m also reading Leora Fridman’s new collection of essays, Static Palace, and Raena Shirali’s new book of poems, Summonings. Both books merge the lyrical with the rigor of research; both are books that return me to questions of precision, transparency, and a politicized interrogation of the self through writing. On a different note, I’m thinking a lot these days about how to open up “mothering,” as a verb, to the multitude of ways one might caretake, tend, create, and teach in the world. As I do that, I return to the poems of Ada Limón, Marie Howe, and Ama Codjoe. And lastly, I’m trading work-in-progress with my friends and writing siblings. On a good day, it’s their language echoing around in my head. Right now, this includes Rage Hezekiah, Sally Badawi, emet ezell, and Tessa Micaela, among others. This is the biggest gift – the language of my beloveds doing its work on me.
- Published in Featured Poetry, home, Interview, Monthly, Poetry
INTERVIEW WITH KARISMA PRICE
Karisma Price is a poet, screenwriter, and media artist. Her work has appeared in Oxford American, Poetry, Four Way Review, wildness, Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She is a Cave Canem Fellow, was a finalist for the 2019 Manchester Poetry Prize, and was awarded the 2020 J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation. She is from New Orleans, Louisiana, and holds an MFA in poetry from New York University. She is currently an assistant professor of poetry at Tulane University. Her debut poetry collection, I’m Always so Serious, is out now from Sarabande Books.
FWR: There’s so much that I found remarkable about I’m Always So Serious, but I think one of the very first things I was awed by was the interplay between the natural and the surreal, and perhaps more specifically, the way in which the idea of transformation is operating–like with the marigolds that overtake a New Orleans mansion in the very first “I’m Always So Serious” poem. Especially given that this first section deals so closely with the event and legacy of Hurricane Katrina, how do you see poetic metamorphoses functioning in these poems, or what particular sorts of revelations do they allow for?
Karisma Price: Let me start off by saying thank you for these wonderful questions and I’m glad to be speaking with you. “Poetic Metamorphoses” is such a great phrase. I think these poems allow me to do the type of meditating on the page that I can’t always do in real life. Throughout the collection–but especially in the “Serious” poems–I wanted some of them to have a dream-like quality, because that’s what my anxiety feels like. As a neurodivergent person, my anxiety and OCD are such big parts of my life and affect how I navigate through the world. With my anxiety and certain compulsions, there’s always that “what if” aspect that tends to be a negative thought, and I know those feelings are directly-linked to and complicated by experiencing a disaster at such a young age. The revelation I had came not necessarily after writing the poems, but from talking to people who read them. I remember talking to a colleague who read an ARC of the book and telling him how I think family and music are two of the big themes in the book (which they are), but it wasn’t until we talked about growing up in New Orleans that I realized how much “hurricane anxiety” is just as prevalent.
FWR: Who were some of your major influences on this book, literary or otherwise?
KP: Oh, there are so many! Maybe too many to name. This collection is a very revised version of my thesis that I completed as an MFA student at NYU, so much of the inspiration came from the creative work I was exposed to in my classes. But, if we’re being specific about influential poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Jericho Brown, Natasha Trethewey, and Terrance Hayes are the poets I tend to think of as the close relatives on my poetic family tree. Definitely my kin. I love the way they write about family, Blackness, and landscape (both physical and emotional landscape). The last three poets in the list are also Black southerners. As a southern writer, I’m glad that they meditate on what home and the south mean to them. There are so many stereotypes about the South, and it’s very disheartening when non-southerners have a flat view of us and our history. I learned about these three poets when I was still a high schooler in Louisiana, who had no idea that you could major in poetry or that MFA programs existed. My English teacher taught us their work because they were from the South, they were ours. Brown is from Shreveport, Louisiana, Trethewey spent her childhood in both Mississippi and Louisiana, and Hayes (who became my thesis advisor) is from South Carolina but lived and taught in New Orleans for some time.
As made apparent in the book, music is also a big influence on my writing–particularly R&B and the blues. As poets, we have to be good listeners, and rhythm and storytelling is ingrained in our profession. I grew up listening to old school music (my parents controlled the radio in the car), so music also gives me that nostalgia. My memories are connected to certain songs and because poetry is such a meditative thing to me, it is helpful to understand which life experiences have brought me to this point in my life. Also, if you follow old Motown and soul drama, those songs are confessions! You’ll learn which singers were doing things that they had no business doing. There’s a similar (albeit not as scandalous) confessional aspect of poetry that allows the reader to learn about the writer, no matter if what they’re saying is “autobiographical” or not.
Movies and television are also big influences on me. I write scripts and studied creative writing in college (I also took several cinema and screenwriting classes in the film department), so storytelling and writing with visuals in mind is very important to me. It’s probably why I write a lot of narrative poems. Since editing my poetry collection, I’ve been reading more fiction and learned that I really like sci-fi and dystopian media, and I’ve started writing speculative short stories. With speculative fiction, there is an escape from the confines of our reality, but at the heart of it, the characters, no matter how flawed or human or robotic they are, they’re doing what they think is necessary and often it’s a critique of our current society and the social norms we have in place.
And, as always, spending time with my family and being in New Orleans are major influences.
FWR: What was the process of putting this book together like for you? What informed the collection’s structure? In the back matter, you mention that it took six years to complete. How does I’m Always So Serious as it now exists differ from how your imagination first seeded the manuscript those years ago? Did some poems or sections flow from you more or less easily or than others?
KP: The ordering of the collection changed several times from when it was a thesis draft, but I also had other poems that I started writing while I was still in undergrad (only two of those have survived. That is a good thing. Trust me). In early drafts, the “family” poems were much more scattered throughout the collection and even the book had a different name. Ultimately, I split the book into three sections to move the reader from an individual to a collective Black history. Throughout the collection I meditate on kinship that isn’t limited to blood relation. The first section is really family heavy and aims to establish the speaker’s background and origin. The second section is very music heavy and uses figures in media and history to further analyze kinship, and gives the reader a broader view of Blackness, history, and pop culture. The third section, hopefully, feels like a mixture of sections 1 & 2 and reunites the reader with the speaker from section 1 but is not limited to one voice.
The collection now exists with more experimental forms and fewer persona poems. I’ve always been a big fan of persona and when I first began writing poems, those were the only ones that I felt comfortable sharing with my undergraduate classmates. It felt weird to have people know things about me, but I’ve since gotten over that. I think the persona poems that I left in the collection are the strongest. After I took classes on learning form (and how to break them), experimentation with the page became something I loved to do, because I think there’s an endless number of ways for a poem to “be.” I never want to stop being playful.
FWR: The title of the book is also the title of several poems within the book, generally beginning each section. What inspired you to have “I’m Always So Serious” as a refrain, and how do you see the meaning of those words informing, illuminating, and/or evolving throughout the collection?
KP: So that series started out as me writing only one poem with that title, because people always tell me that I have a serious resting face. I don’t like to think so, but apparently some people believe that, so I decided to be very playful and mock that idea. It’s funny, because a lot of my friends who I told that story to and who read my work think I’m a very calm and funny person (you know, outside of the anxiety). The original poem that started this series did not make it into the collection, because I think it was the weakest out of all of them, but I also think its purpose was to try to figure out how to write a “serious” poem. The first “Serious” poem in the collection was the second one I had ever written and I brought it to a graduate workshop class. That poem was also much shorter than what it is now. Terrance Hayes (my workshop teacher/thesis advisor) asked me during the workshop why I was cutting myself off in that poem. An earlier draft had much shorter sentences and he encouraged me to use very long run-on sentences (I love a good run-on sentence) and just say what I needed to say. He also asked why I felt the need to try to say everything in just one poem. That made me start writing multiple poems on why I’m Always So Serious (cue joke rimshot sound effect). I definitely had more to say, so I ended up writing a lot of them. Overall, I feel that the strongest and the more creative ones made it into the collection.
Because the poems have the same title, I see the repetition of the phrase “I’m Always so Serious” change from moments of well, seriousness, to whimsical, observant, self-reflective, and pointing a finger at the reader. Repetition forces someone to look at the same word again and again and give it new meaning. I hope it makes the reader think about all of the reasons why a person needs to make such a declaration, but also, I hope it makes them think about all the times that they’ve needed to say something they felt was urgent.
FWR: To refer to the book as a “love song” to New Orleans–and Black New Orleans, specifically–would oversimplify what is in fact a profoundly nuanced relationship with the city. In a book so tied to questions of chance, fate, and injustice, how does New Orleans behave as not just a locus, but as a soul all its own? Do you feel like the process of writing this book in any way changed your relationship to New Orleans?
KP: Love has its nuances, so it wouldn’t be an oversimplification to call it a “love song” to New Orleans. One of the things that was really important to me when writing this book was to make New Orleans a speaker as well, and not just a city or an object being projected on. I think writing this book made me so much more protective of my city. I was already before I wrote the book, but the process of revising the book and returning home made me think about how much it takes to survive here. I love New Orleans for what it is but also know that we deserve so much more. There’s a term called “Katrina Kids” that describes a lot of young children who experienced the hurricane in their formative years, and I definitely view life and my memories from a pre and post-Katrina lens. The culture has definitely changed. There is so much more gentrification, and it is getting very hard to live here. I want this book to show a reader–whether they’re from New Orleans or not–an honest and deeply rooted representation that is not clouded by only thinking of what the city can do for you in terms of pleasure and entertainment, but what it really means to live here and how you need to sow resources back in to the city as well. It definitely made me think much more about climate change and how a lot of cultural bearers and their livelihoods need to be protected.
FWR: And related to the soul of New Orleans, the way these poems hold and cherish Blackness, and the emotional intricacy of these poems more largely: how do you see the blues behaving as a sort of emulsifier across the book’s arc, as that which has always been uniquely capable of holding both the love that’s in sorrow and the sorrow that’s in love?
KP: I think you’ve said it right there. I feel like life is a blues song. As humans, we hold both love and sorrow in one body, and those feelings often sit with each other, holding hands. The blues is very reflective and meditative, just like poetry is for me, and I really love moments in songs when an artist does an extra run, or pronounces a certain word a certain way when singing, or when a trumpet or a saxophone gets a solo. You can elicit love and sorrow in the blues by the way a singer makes a sound, and not simply just the sound itself, if you know what I mean. I hope the presence of The Blues can be seen as a speaker guiding you through all of these lived experiences with their hand held firmly into yours telling you, this is going to be a ride. But it’ll be okay because I’m right here next to you.
FWR: On the note of the blues–let’s talk about that astonishing middle section and the poems about the legendary pianist James Booker. How did you first encounter Booker, and what called you to place his story at your book’s heart?
KP: James Booker is one of my favorite artists and a New Orleans legend. I learned about him after watching the documentary “The Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker” by Lily Keber and then listened to many of his songs. In undergrad, I took a class on writing “The Diva” and what that word means. That’s when I decided to start writing persona poems about him and his life. He was described by Dr. John as “the best Black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” He has his own lore surrounding him and how he lost his left eye. He was larger than life, wore capes and costumes on stage, and called himself “The Black Liberace.” James Booker, to me, represents a piece of New Orleans that has always been here: complex, mythological, talented, and Black; however, despite all his talent, he was failed by a lot of people. He was a gay Black man in the South, growing up in the 1950s-60s. He struggled with drug addiction and mental illness and after the deaths of his mother and sister, he never completely recovered emotionally. He adored them and he always said his sister was the better musician out of the two of them.
Even the circumstances surrounding his death are somewhat unknown. He was dropped off at Charity Hospital in New Orleans but no one knows who brought him there or what was the cause of that emergency. He unfortunately died in the waiting room. I’d honestly like to write many, many more poems that highlight the genius and complexity of his life. He seemed like such a talented, yet troubled human who left this world too soon. There was something divine about him and I truly think he was able to tap into that divineness when his fingers hit the keys. I wrote this in the notes section of my book as well, but in an interview, Booker said, ‘…music is actually a divine product. So, whatever song I sing—I don’t care what the message is—it’s a product of my imagination and my imagination is the result of divine imagination.”
FWR: I’m fascinated by the way form is functioning throughout this book–how the beginning tends toward primarily more traditional forms, but with time we’re brought into collapse, collision, disjunction, and even highly visual poems in the style of Douglas Kearney. What brought you to the forms we find here, and what unique liberties did you feel that some of these forms allowed or roused for you?
KP: Like I mentioned earlier, I wanted to experiment with a lot of different poetic forms, because I don’t think a poem should exist only as a piece that’s lineated to the left. I also don’t want to bore myself because I know that means I’m probably boring the reader too. Just like anything else, poetry evolves and changes, and I feel that there are so many styles that can’t be confined to a page and some that have yet to be played with/invented. Because poems have an emotional truth to them–meaning there is a separation of the speaker from the writer, and not everything written down is exactly how things happened in real life–the truth should have room to be free. I often don’t know what form a poem is going to take until after I’ve started drafting it. I start all my poems by hand in a notebook and then bring them to the computer after I start scratching things out and drawing arrows everywhere. I noticed that when I’m drafting poems, I tend to use couplets as a default form–no shade to couplets. I love them–but it’s only after I have a solid draft that the poem begins telling me how it should look.
FWR: What poem or poems from this book would you say you were initially the most terrified or resistant to write, and why? Which, if different one(s), did the finishing feel the most fulfilling or necessary?
KP: I will keep that a secret =). The readers can guess.
FWR: These poems are about many things, but grief is certainly high on that list. How do you see the act of creation in relation to that? Do you see writing, for example, as a mode of processing, an act of transformation, a balm, a record-keeping, or something else entirely? What do you feel like your poems are able to reveal about the possibilities of art for writer and reader alike?
KP: I definitely see it as an act of processing. I feel that I am much more articulate on the page than in person, and allowing myself to write or type something means that I am relying on the body, and the body relies on the muscles, and the muscles rely on the fingers and the brain and so on and so forth. I hold on to a lot of things–a little too much for a little too long–and I view poems as a place where I can sit those feelings down and allow myself to explore thoughts without fear of judgment from others. I’m not looking for another’s response or validation. I get to check in with myself.
FWR: Bonus question: What might be a question that I didn’t ask, but that you wish that I had–and what’s your answer to it?
KP: If poets got to guest star in an episode of one of their favorite shows, which show would it be and who would you play?
I’d guest star in an episode of Abbott Elementary and play a visiting teaching artist who hosts a schoolwide poetry contest. Janine would, in an effort to help, accidentally destroy all the submissions, and the two of us would go around having the students complete the largest exquisite corpse poem (it’s not as scary as it sounds, non-poets), and then declare them all winners.
- Published in Featured Poetry, home, Interview
INTERVIEW WITH Stella Lei
Stella Lei is a writer from Pennsylvania and an Editor–in–Chief for The Augment Review. Rhythmic and resonant, her debut prose chapbook, Inheritances of Hunger (River Glass Books, 2022), is a vivid, thrilling collection featuring five stories punctuated by cruelty and intimacy as she interrogates generational hurt through the rawness of hunger and girlhood.
Emily Judkins/Four Way Review: Inheritances of Hunger’s themes of family, specifically mother-daughter relationships, shine throughout this collection, but I particularly love how you embody these themes by exploring hunger’s origins, as well as its consequences. Where did the image of hunger come from while you were writing? Did you find your intention in targeting hunger in its various forms a sustained investigation?
Stella Lei: Thank you so much for asking. When I was writing this [chapbook], I actually came up with the idea of putting these stories together because I had written “Games” and “Changeling,” independently of each other, in a row. Maybe coincidentally. Maybe not. After writing those two stories that focus on hunger and on cruelty and on familial relationships back to back, I noticed a lot of commonalities between them thematically, tonally, and imagery wise. I wanted to dig deeper into why I was so preoccupied with these themes and images and how I might want to continue investigating them. So, after I drafted “Changeling” and started noticing those common threads, I wrote a few bullet points for myself about how I was using hunger in both stories and the role that hunger plays in both stories, both as a physical sensation and as a motif, and the different ways in which these characters interact with their hunger (actively and passively). In that development process, this hunger became a literalization of or an embodiment of hurt and cruelty, asking if these experiences and emotions are inheritable, including the yearning that comes with hunger. I was thinking about how to convey generational hurt and generational violence in an embodied way.
FWR: I definitely felt all those threads being interwoven together. I think the core of the chapbook is so strong that when you experimented within the stories, the main themes remained cohesive and tangible . Once you found this core, how did you then draw upon and tie together these traditions, experiences, previous writings, and other inspirations to fully flesh it out so it could go in so many different directions?
SL: Once I figured out that I wanted to use hunger as a central metaphor/motif throughout this chapbook, I wrote down a lot of different ideas for different directions in which this hunger could go. I tried to approach these ideas of abuse and of generational violence and of complicated families in slightly different ways. For example, in “Graftings,” the familial structures get complicated because we have this mother who is very neglectful and the sister, in turn, has to take the place of the mother, versus how in “On Building a Nest,” the mother has trapped the daughter in this flawed ideology as a way of keeping the daughter dependent on her. These different dynamics play out across similar themes. As for inspirations from other sources, “Changeling” was very much directly inspired by Ren Hong’s photography, and from there I started looking into more contemporary Chinese photography. There’s a certain atmosphere to those works that I really love and that became sort of central to how I developed the atmosphere of the chapbook, even if it might not be explicitly related.
FWR: Yeah, totally! The atmosphere throughout the chapbook is so stellar and well defined. I think part of that is thanks to how you have so many different details, as well as the intuition of knowing when to pull back on them. I’m thinking about the two characters in “Games” and how their relationship isn’t really defined — they don’t even have names — yet they feel incredibly real and I personally found them recontextualized while reading more of Inheritances. I had inferred that the characters were sisters based on the other strong sister relationships in the chapbook and how these relationships can be obscured due to trauma and familial situations, such as in “Graftings” where, as you were saying, Elaine takes on this maternal role for Charity due to neglect. Could you talk about how you know when to pull back on details and obscure certain characterizations to allow more possibilities?
SL: One thing I tried to do in writing and finding the balance between details and obscurity is letting these characters and their relationships speak for themselves, rather than putting down hard definitions for who these people are and how they have shaped each other. By letting their actions and subtext speak for itself through the selection of specific details, I tried to demonstrate how the cruelty or the hurt or the mutual yearning of these relationships play off of each other and let the reader derive a context from that, especially in “Games.” Like you said, these girls are not named and their relationships are not defined, but there is a very palpable intimacy in that story and intimacy within the violence of what they’re doing and in their own hurt. I think that [intimacy] gives you an on ramp into the other familial relationships in the chapbook and how these stories work together in a community: they provide context and support specific details, while letting the individual relationships speak for themselves, rather than defining them very strictly on the page.
FWR: I love the idea of these stories working within a community, because, since so much of the chapbook is about generational trauma and familial hurt, it’s almost as if these stories became a supportive community for each other.
Focusing on the details and tones throughout the chapbook, I love how you utilize the idiosyncrasies of the characters and settings to really make them come alive. Still talking about “Games,” the two girls are playing knife games as “crabgrass chokes [their] feet” in their backyard, which is a “minefield of wounds” — I immediately understood from what was happening and how it was described that this game is not just about play. In the second anecdote of this story, these individuals weigh themselves “against the heft of morning as it dragged itself above the hills.” We are immediately thrust into the world and logic of the narrator, underscored by self-destruction and disordered eating. Each word feels so deliberate as you construct and connect the internal and external elements of the environments of the story. Since you find such accurate actions and use subtext so effectively, what’s your process in developing and/or collecting these details, and how do you ensure they all fit together?
SL: One idea that I always come back to is this concept of having an “ecosystem of language.” I did not come up with this term, but an ecosystem of language is where all the language throughout the story has a consistency in it regarding tone, image — kind of like how an image system might work. When I pick the metaphors that I use, I draw upon this ecosystem of language or image system to make this language like a figurative minefield, or figuratively like choking. Choosing to describe them in this way provides a lot of additional subtext that further frames what is literally going on in the scene.
A similar idea that I come back to when writing figurative language is what Ocean Vuong has said about metaphors and about sensory connectors and logical connectors. It is not enough that the tenor of your metaphor is physically similar or similar in a way that you can notice in your senses to the vehicle of the metaphor. There also has to be a logical connector to the specific qualities of the vehicle that become imposed upon the tenor and that adds nuance. I’m asking the implications of and the impact of describing the crab grass as choking their feet, versus caressing their feet. Caressing their feet is a terrible, terrible phrase, but just asking what is impacted by choosing that phrase over the other, what added nuance does that add, and how does that help shape atmosphere and subtext, and so on.
FWR: I love the term “ecosystems of language”, especially in reference to this collection — your strong, cohesive language really does feel like entering an immersive environment. It also reminds me of this recurring image of the knife throughout the chapbook and how poignant that image is, given the sharpness of your language. Bringing up “Changeling” again, both the chopped fragments in your writing and the cuts between sections made each part bite sized and satisfying on its own, yet each section added a new dimension to the narrative. As we move through time and discover more about Jennifer, Jessica, and their mother, and what they are living/have lived through, certain elements linger longer than others, both in terms of literal variance of length, as well as metaphorical resonance. When you were working on this piece, and on other pieces where you use this narrative structure, how did you establish this? Did you intend this choppier style to coincide with themes of familial hurt and relationships and hunger, or is this just a style that you gravitate towards?
SL: I think this style definitely lends itself to these themes of strained familial relationships and this sharp feeling throughout the chapbook. I am a big fan of the form of a work fitting the function of it.
When I am writing a story, I’m very interested in the negative space both surrounding the story and punctuating the story’s scenes: what is not being said in between these scenes and around these scenes, and how what is not being said or that “negative space” shapes our understanding of the “positive space,” or what is being said in the story. I try to be very intentional in picking certain scenes to show and make sure that these scenes have an exigence and a clear purpose. I often ask myself, “Why am I showing this scene? Why am I showing it right now? How does this develop the characters or move the plot forward?” I try to render the most focal moments or most impactful moments on the page. This often leaves a lot to be inferred in the negative space or in what is not being said, especially in stories like “Graftings,” where I have to cover a long chronology in a relatively short space.
FWR: I was really impressed by how much, chronologically speaking, you were able to fit into “Graftings” and how you were using this double lens of an unreliable narrator with Elaine and Charity, as described in CRAFT. I felt like I was alongside Charity as she was trying to understand her life, both from her perspective and from Elaine’s stories, and account for things in her life.
SL: Regarding the previous question, I also think it’s just really cool how you can have so much happen in the subtext, even in the scenes that jump between years. There’s so much that happens in between those two scenes that the reader can infer, based on where the characters are from one scene to the next, such as how things have changed or stayed the same. In that way, the reading almost becomes a collaborative process between the writer and the reader where the reader also has to do that work to uncover subtext and infer context and so on and so forth.
FWR: I think that collaboration particularly shines in “Meals for the End of the World,” where you’re using this very cool list format, encouraging the reader to make connections and collaborate with the work to make these lyrical jumps. How do you approach something that is more list-like and poetic, which may require the audience to make more leaps in logic?
SL: In my head, when I was conceptualizing this chapbook, it is a chapbook of prose, with some flash fiction and microfiction. Then when I sent it out to readers, people told me, “I really like this hybrid collection where you have stories and a prose poem and a list poem,” and I was like “Oh! That’s really interesting! I didn’t think about it before, but yeah it does function like that.” So the line between prose and poetry can be blurry in that sense.
Talking about the writing process of “Meals for the End of the World” itself, when I was selecting items for this list, I wanted there to be momentum and urgency in between the lines or from one line to the next, even if it isn’t explicitly articulated, to push you through the list and continue reading. Rather than making it feel like it’s just setting a bunch of items side by side, I wanted there to be some kind of escalation. I also wanted to pick images that felt urgent in that way, which are very vivid and very visceral as one way to push that escalation. Another thing I tried to do for this specific list story/poem is I wanted each line or each item in the list to “inherit” a word from the previous item in the list and preferably use it in a different way to really underscore the idea of inheritance through form and language. I actually messed up a little bit, but that’s okay, I’m just going to embrace that mistake.
FWR: Definitely! I think ending this piece with “Now I can swallow for two” with the final list item specifically encapsulates this theme of inheritance and working through generational hurt. This last line doesn’t just receive language; it also captures the feelings and experiences from the different stories and characters,ultimately choosing to release the hunger and hurt with the end of the collection. I thought it was beautiful.
I would love to talk a little more about this hybridization. I’ve been reading some of your poetry, both published by Four Way Review and other magazines and presses, and one thing I love is how even when you are not working in specifically prose, there’s often this clear sense of character and narrative. Similarly, I love how this prose collection had such beautiful and visceral poetic language. As you mentioned, there’s this wonderful element that blurs your work to feel like poetry and prose at the same time. Do you have a way to decipher what pieces will become poems and what will become fiction? Do you have any influences or guides to help you return to see what a piece will become? Or do you just kind of let it come out as it is, and go from there?
SL: I would say it’s mostly a gut feeling determining whether or not something will be a poem, piece of flash fiction, short story or a novel. Usually I will get an idea and I will almost immediately know which form I think it should be. There have been cases where I thought a piece would be one thing and turned out to be another, but most of the time I know in the moment. I ask myself, “What is the scope of this idea? How broad are the themes that I want to explore here? How many characters are involved? How in-depth do I have to go into their relationships and into their background? Do I have to create a whole world for this story, or can I focus in on one specific moment, or a short series of moments?”
FWR: Beyond hunger, I’ve also noticed this thread of apocalypse in your work — within Inheritances of Hunger, I’m thinking about “Changeling,” as well as “Meals for the End of the World,” but also in your poem “Prospective Final Girl Sits at the Gas Station” from Honey Literary, and I was wondering if you could speak to the appeal of writing about the end of the world and/or why you continue to return to it.
SL: I’m so glad you noticed this; I am definitely very interested in the apocalypse and I have been writing more apocalypse poems lately. I actually have an apocalypse poem forthcoming in Frontier Poetry. It kind of feels like a natural extension from my previous focus on hunger in this chapbook. I think the appeal for me on writing about the apocalypse is partially because the world does kind of feel like it’s ending, but it is less that and more that I feel like trauma often feels like a personal apocalypse. Some of the things that I went through when I was younger and that still shape who I am today felt like a personal apocalypse in that my own world was kind of ending. In more recent writing, I’ve been focusing on what comes after the apocalypse and thinking about and acknowledging the grief or the hurt of the past and wondering what to do with myself moving forward. In the apocalypse poem that I have forthcoming in Frontier, I was thinking about the appeal of losing that past and starting anew, but then the speaker decides to accept their place in the apocalypse in making a turn for preservation. Even if only for themselves, it’s like saying, “It’s okay, and maybe it’s even good if no one else knows this origin story or nobody else knows this trauma (ie. like the apocalypse).” The speaker is forcing themselves to understand what made them this way, and making the active choice to accept this and move beyond this on a personal level.
FWR: Thank you for talking about that. I’m very excited to read the poem when it comes out! I’m really interested in that premise as well as trying to navigate trauma. I’m wondering, how do you negotiate writing about what you are carrying while protecting both yourself, both in terms of self-care and safety?
SL: I’m so glad you asked this question because this is a question I ask myself and for me, well in fiction writing, I can just take these themes and these ideas and impose them on the characters and now it’s a story, right? In poetry, the line becomes a little blurrier. I think a lot about the separation of the speaker from the self and how, for me, my speakers are often a facet of myself, oftentimes put into a hypothetical situation, or put into figurative situations that did not literally happen to me. They are still an aspect of myself, and asking myself how I would react to XYZ situation is part of how I craft my speakers.
In a lot of the poetry that I write that addresses these ideas that are personal to me and that I don’t want to disclose to other people who aren’t very close to me, I will abstract these ideas and discuss them in figurative ways, or in hypothetical situations. I try to be very careful in the metaphors that I pick, or in these figurations that I create, where I can still talk about these themes and these ideas and emotions without disclosing real lived events.
FWR: That’s a really well-thought out way of approaching subject matter like this. You’re almost building in defense mechanisms and safety precautions to go about this kind of work. As a young and up-and-coming writer, how do you balance writing and everything else going on in your life right now, such as with school, family, friends, jobs, etc.? Have you found any writing “rituals” or practices other than these negotiations to be helpful?
SL: That balance is definitely hard. I will be very honest in saying that I haven’t been writing nearly as much this year as I did last year, just because of family and school and jobs. I’ve been working a lot this summer. I tutor in creative writing, so I’m surrounded by writing craft all the time. When I want a break from that, that oftentimes means not writing, which is not usually what I want. One writing ritual that I am trying to adopt and is helpful when I do actually engage in it is to just write for half an hour every day. It doesn’t have to be really anything, but just forcing myself to write for that half an hour and seeing where it gets me is better than just not writing at all. It seems intuitive, but for some reason it’s just not something that I was doing for the past few months. It’s just setting that timer and writing for half an hour and seeing where that gets me.
FWR: 100%. I often find that when you haven’t been writing, this sense of guilt from not writing starts building, and I know I can find myself in loops of self-doubt. I think a big part of getting into a consistent writing practice is learning to treat yourself with a bit more compassion and forgive yourself for not having the time. The skills are all still there, and you will be able to tap into them soon, even if it’s ten or thirty minutes — you’re still moving forward, and I think that’s really important to remember.
SL: 100% exactly that.
FWR: I know that we were talking briefly before about some different project you have coming up, as well as this thread of apocalypse in your work. Can you tell us anything about those projects? Will you be returning to any of these themes from Inheritances of Hunger?
SL: The whole thing about the apocalypse is interesting because I have enough work about the apocalypse that it is a noticeable trend, so I am thinking about maybe putting that into some type of poetry chapbook or some small scale project like that. It’s not very clearly defined yet, but that is something that is on the table.
The two big projects that I am supposed to be working on are two novels. When Cicadas Sing for the Dead is a surrealist family saga across two generations. It’s about ghosts that are both metaphorical and literal, the American dream, the past recurring into the present, and how these ideas kind of unravel in this family and in the surrealist or fabulous things that happen to them. I see a lot of times that people will say that a writer’s first novel is always kind of autobiographical, which I think is probably true for me. Even though I am not living the exact life that I am describing in this novel, it does partially take place in Pennsylvania, which is the state that I’ve been living in for the past 18 years. The character’s family is from the same region of China as my family. Beyond those superficial similarities, it addresses a lot of themes and ideas that I have been ruminating on for the past few years, including in [Inheritances], so this novel almost feels like a natural extension of this chapbook.
After that, the second novel that I’m working on is less directly tied to my personal life. It’s a lot less fleshed out, but there’s a dead girl in a pool and there’s a lot of summertime imagery. I really want to make this novel experimental form-wise and I wanted to introduce things like fake newspaper clippings or diagrams and things like that. I’ve been thinking a lot about playing around with aspects of form and oral tradition and stories within stories. One of the major thematic focuses is on archive and the fragility of paper and cultural memory, and also how real people can become mythologized through a very specific process of remembering. Then, in turn, the people surrounding this myth can interact with it and reject their place in it or try to enter it from the periphery, and then cover more about it. That’s a lot of abstractions, but those are kind of the ideas that I’m thinking about for this project. I’m really excited to work more on it.
FWR: I’m really excited for both of these projects! I’m definitely going to be checking them out once they’re in their final form.
As we wrap up, what do you want your reader to take away from Inheritances of Hunger? Is there one major overarching question or idea that is crucial to leave with?
SL: I always have so much trouble answering this question because I’m not sure if there’s any singular thing. The thing I think that makes me the most satisfied and most like I’ve done a good job is in the response to the chapbook — when somebody messages me and says, “I had familial issues and I dealt with XYZ and I really connected to this chapbook,” those people are my ideal audience, right? The fact that my themes and ideas came through so clearly to them means that I have done what I needed to do and done what I intended to do with this chapbook, and connected with who I really wanted to connect with.
Stella Lei was interviewed by Emily Judkins for Four Way Review. Emily Judkins is a queer writer and artist studying English and Film and Media Studies at Smith College. Their writing has received the Ruth Forbes Eliot Prize and has appeared in Emulate, Voices and Visions, and the Worcester Art Museum. You can reach them on Instagram @ee.jay_
INTERVIEW WITH Robyn Creswell
Forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux this fall is the long-awaited collection of poetry by Iman Mersal, translated by Robyn Creswell, titled The Threshold. The author of five books of poems, Mersal is a highly acclaimed Egyptian poet and writer, currently based in Canada, where she teaches Arabic language and literature at the University of Alberta. Her collaboration with Robyn Creswell began when he became poetry editor of The Paris Review in 2010, with an enthusiasm for publishing more Arab poets. In addition to The Paris Review, Creswell’s translations of Mersal’s poems have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Arkansas International, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. To accompany three featured poems by Iman Mersal this September, Four Way Review poetry editor Sara Elkamel spoke with translator Robyn Creswell about The Threshold.
SARA ELKAMEL: Congratulations on your forthcoming collection of Iman Mersal’s poetry in translation, The Threshold (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022)! It gathers poems from four of Iman’s collections: A dark alley suitable for dance lessons (1995), Walking as long as possible (1997), Alternative geography (2006), and Until I give up the idea of home (2013). Can you tell us a little bit about the process you went through, together with Iman, to get this collection together? How did you go about selecting the poems?
ROBYN CRESWELL: Iman is a poet of sensibility: she has an immediate, idiosyncratic presence on the page. Her voice—really a congeries of voices—is unforgettable once it gets in your ear. But it’s also a sensibility that develops in large part by looking back on prior performances: reading Iman’s work in chronological order, you have this feeling of astonishing self-sufficiency—her voice expands, matures, and addresses itself to different topics, but the transformations result from self-reflection.
When we chose the poems of The Threshold—and we discussed the table of contents endlessly, because it was fun to arrange and rearrange the poems—I think we wanted to make sure the distinctiveness of Iman’s voice came through, but also its dramatic evolution. So the poems are arranged roughly in the order they were first published, although we also made sure that short and long poems alternate, and the variety of voices is on full display.
SE: You’ve been working with Iman for several years now (I remember reading your gorgeous translation of “The Idea of Houses” in The Nation in 2015). Can you tell us how you first started translating her poetry, and how your evolving collaboration has in turn manifested in the translations?
RC: When I became poetry editor of The Paris Review in 2010, one of my aims was to publish a larger chorus of Arab poets in the magazine. At the time, I think the only poet writing in Arabic who had been published in the Review was Mahmoud Darwish. An Egyptian friend of mine, Waiel Ashry, suggested that I read Iman. At the time, I had what I now recognize as a schoolboyish appreciation of modern Arabic poetry: I mostly read the classics (Darwish, Adonis, Nizar Qabbani, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab), and was suitably awed. Reading Iman was like encountering a contemporary: here was someone who was, I felt, writing the present (to borrow a phrase of Elias Khoury).
I wrote to Iman asking if she might be willing to share some current work with me and among the poems she sent was “A Celebration.” I love that poem—the way it begins with a figure of speech, then literalizes it (“The thread of the story fell to the ground, so I went down on my hands and knees to hunt for it”). Then the juxtaposed scenes of an encounter on a train with an Afghan woman and a patriotic rally in Cairo. The relation between the two episodes, one intimate, the other collective, is never spelled out—it has something to do with the experience of speaking words in a “foreign” language—but the idea of putting them together is what makes the poem characteristic of Iman.
After that first poem we began working on others, until the idea of a book became more or less inescapable. Working with Iman—we’ve worked very closely—has been a pleasure and a privilege. She has a knack for seeing where my English versions aren’t quite right (I’m abashed now to look at some of my first drafts), but she never imposed her own solutions. I’ve learned more from her about Arabic poetry—how it works, its range of tones, its levels of diction—than any other teacher. I’ve been very lucky.
SE: You’ve previously referred to Iman Mersal’s voice as having a “sinuous, rough-edged music” that can be challenging to translate. I also find that irony and wry humor permeate Iman’s poems, which I imagine would be difficult to always carry across into English. Do you remember any particular challenges with translating any of the three poems featured in FWR?
RC: English can do wryness, but Arabic verse has musical possibilities that I don’t think contemporary poetry in English can really capture. Because written Arabic is a literary language—it isn’t spoken except in formal situations—it’s possible to be grandly symphonic or virtuosically lyrical in a way that’s hard to imagine in English. You’d have to be a Tennyson to match the musical effects in Darwish’s late poetry, for example. But of course trying to be Tennysonian would be fatal.
With Iman the difficulty for an English translator is different, and I would say more manageable. In a poem about her father, she wonders whether he might have disliked her “unmusical poems.” I don’t think they’re actually unmusical (I don’t think Iman does either), but their rhythms and cadences and sounds have a lot in common with the spoken language. She writes in fusha, sometimes called “standard” Arabic, but her style shares many features of the vernacular: she doesn’t use ten-dollar words, her syntax is typically straightforward, economy is a virtue. She also uses tonal effects—sarcasm, for example—that we tend to associate with speech.
We talked a lot about “A grave I’m about to dig.” I’m still not sure Iman likes my choice of “diagonal” for the Arabic ma’ilan, to describe the way a bird falling out of the sky might appear to an observer on the ground (but that’s how I think of Iman: she sees things at a slant). The last phrase of the poem, “were it not for the sneakers on my feet” is a typical moment of self-deprecation, a comedy of casualness. There are no feet in the Arabic original, however, which just says “were it not for my sneakers” (or, more literally, “my sports shoes”). I thought adding the phrase “on my feet” was needed, both for musical reasons and because it suggests a pun that isn’t available in Arabic, where verse meters aren’t called feet. For me, Iman’s (musical, metrical) feet really do wear sneakers: they’re quick and agile, casual but spiffy. They’re what we wear today.
SE: Iman’s poems typically take on different forms as well as registers–at times indulging in the lyric, and at times sacrificing it for the sake of a more restrained, almost academic language. She recently told me that she believes poems don’t have “forms” as much as “personalities.” Do you find you have to “get to know” a poem of hers before you approach a translation? If so, what does that process look like?
RC: I think translation is the process—or a process—of getting to know a poem. My first versions tend to be awkward, formal, overly reliant on obvious equivalents (something like the French faux amis). That isn’t so different from the way one talks with a new acquaintance: conventions can be useful. It’s only later, and gradually, that you begin to see what makes the poem—if it’s a good poem—worth spending time with.
SE: Finally, can you tell us a little bit about the choice of title for your forthcoming collection, The Threshold?
RC: “The threshold,” in Arabic al-‘ataba, is an important motif in several of Iman’s poems. It names a site of risk, guilt, transformation. It’s also the title of a long poem that comes at the midpoint of the collection. To my mind, this is Iman’s farewell to the era of her youth. It’s a valedictory poem about Cairo in the nineties, full of Europeanizing elites, posturing poets, and entitled State intellectuals. It’s a poem of the open road that also tells the story of a generation: Iman and her friends wend their way from the Opera House in Zamalek, Cairo’s poshest neighborhood, to the ministry buildings and bars of downtown, through the streets of Old Cairo, and out into the City of the Dead—a burial ground that’s also a point of departure.
Robyn Creswell teaches Comparative Literature at Yale University and is a consulting editor for poetry at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is the author of City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut, and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.
QUEER NATURE ROUNDTABLE
In 2021, Four Way Review partnered with several other journals and presses to establish the Bootleg Reading Series. It was a partnership we hoped would continue to grow beyond the reading series and lift up the projects of each partner. We’re excited to share this conversation with some of the poets of the new Queer Nature anthology, published by Bootleg partner Autumn House Press, in conversation with one another and the ideas of “queer nature”.
“Queer Nature is a groundbreaking anthology of more than 200 LGBTQIA+ poets writing about nature. Left out of the canon but with much to say, these writers peculiarize bodies into landscapes, lament the world we are destroying, and sing of darkness and love, especially along the beach. If nature is a monocrop, no single aesthetic, attitude or voice defines these poems from three centuries of American poetry.”
Michael Walsh, editor of Queer Nature, is a 2022 Lambda Gay Poetry Finalist. He received his BA in English from Knox College and his MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.
FWR: Which queer poets have inspired you? Which queer poems? If any are pastoral, do you notice anything new about them in the context of queer nature?
“You know, I have a lot of embarrassment about being pretty under informed about poetic movements or styles. I studied English and creative writing, but thought more about individual poems. This is just to say I’m not certain I understand what the pastoral is, but I do love a lot of poems that figure and transfigure the natural world. I think of poems like “Tiara” by Mark Doty, which puts drag queens next to lush water, next to death and sex.”
Eric Tran earned his MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is the author of Mouth, Sugar, and Smoke (2022), forthcoming from Diode Editions in the spring, and The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer (2020), from Autumn House Press. He is also an Associate Editor for Orison Books and a resident physician in psychiatry at the Mountain Area Health Education Center.
“I consider poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Audre Lorde to be major influences in my development as a poet. I was introduced to both poets in college and graduate school. My first attempts to write about my own queer experience were influenced by “The Shampoo” by Bishop, in which the simple act of washing her lover’s hair inspires an image of shooting stars, suggesting to my young mind that love between two women is such a revelation that it compels images of heaven. The movement toward metaphor in this poem was indicative of the deep nature of a sexual relationship between two women. I experienced the same sense of revelation in Lorde’s “Love Poem” where intimacy pushes the speaker toward seeing her lover’s body as a forest and her own entry into it as the wind, as she opens widely to “swing out over the earth over and over again.” As an imagistic writer, I struggled to write about sex in an overt way; however, the metaphor invites great possibilities for writing about intimacy between women.
“Neither of these poems is pastoral; however, you ask an interesting question in the context of environmental poetry. Much of the nature poetry being written today is a movement away from pastoral writing. There is too much that stands in the way of the effort to ‘touch’ God through one’s experience of nature—abuses of the land, water, and air, not to mention our current focus on the power of place where the land itself has connection to indigenous peoples and histories that far more important to acknowledge, at least in my mind.”
Amber Flora Thomas earned her MFA at Washington University in St. Louis and is the author of Red Channel in the Rupture (2018) from Red Hen Press, The Rabbits Could Sing (2012) from the University of Alaska Press, and the Eye of Water (2005) from the University of Pittsburgh Press, which won the 2004 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She is also the recipient of the Richard Peterson Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize from Rosebud magazine, and the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize.
“My poetry would not exist without the poems of [Constantine] Cavafy; his dreamy stagings of sex and history are always close to me; his frankness and the undramatic way his poems unfold have taught me so much about managing energy in short lyrics. James Merrill was the first poet I loved unreasonably. Henri Cole and Carl Phillips are two poets of my parents’ generation whose work has been indispensable to me from the beginning. They are both represented with brilliant poems in the Queer Nature anthology—both poems in some way about the way we look to the natural world to teach us about ourselves, our desires, and how the natural world always complies and refuses us at the same time.”
Richie Hofmann is the author of A Hundred Lovers (2022) from Alfred A. Knopf, and Second Empire (2015), from Alice James Books. He received his MFA at John Hopkins University and is a Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University.
“The queer poets and academics whose work has been foundational in critiquing Western constructions of Nature (and thus The Human) in my work are Sylvia Wynter, Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s Becoming Human, Gloria Anzaldua, Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem, Vievee Francis’ Forest Primeval, Jake Skeets’ Eyes Bottle-Dark and a Mounthful of Flowers, and Natalie Diaz’ Postcolonial Love Poem.
“These works reveal how the “Nature” of the Western imagination is an inherently colonial concept. “Nature” conceived as terra nullius, or empty “virgin” land, by using the very word, invents the land as an unpeopled, undisturbed habitat outside of time, removed from the urban, and evacuated of Blackness, indigeneity, and queerness. National parks—“America’s Best Idea”—are racialized spaces defined by the absence of race, and serve to dehistoricize the land from its indigenous history and frame conservation as a value rooted in rugged individualism and self-sufficiency. In the construct of “nature,” indigenous people are confined to prehistory—if nature is prehistoric, then what we do to it does not affect our future. In the Western imagination, “Nature” is separate from us, just as the body is separate from the mind, and becomes an object—a place to go, a thing to be experienced, a resource to extract from—rather than a living being surrounding us, full of beings with whom we share a destiny. The concept of “Nature” is primitive, and necessary to construct the (white, Western) Human who has evolved beyond it.”
Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, author of award-winning Beast Meridian (2017) from Noemi Press and essay collection CHUECA, forthcoming from Tiny Reparations Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in 2023. She is a recipient of a 2021 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship and PhD candidate at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
I think animals abound in queer poems as metaphors, false or correct, of fully living in a body.
FWR: Queer desire carries an inherent subversion of expectation, and with it, potentially, greater freedom of form and image. What are “the birds and the bees” of queer erotic poems? What metaphors are found in the biomes of queer poems, especially sexy ones?
AFT: I have been trying to find my own answer to this question. I have written about my experiences as a child of retreating to the woods as a place of safety. Often, I would find myself hiding in the woods where I could watch my family, seeing through the trees a world that could not embrace my queerness. I take my queerness to the woods where it is not moralistically judged by the trees or other flora. This question reminds me of Carl Phillips poetry and essay, especially his “Beautiful Dreamer” chapter in The Art of Daring, which describes stumbling on three men having sex against a tree in the woods. Perhaps the wilderness provides cover or separation from societal judgement, which is why we have so much to say about queerness and nature.
VAV: Nature was never accessible to me growing up—I was born on the US/Mexico border and grew up in Houston, Texas, an ever-sprawling, drowning city under construction where Nature is at least an hour drive away near the state prison, and where white flight takes its suburbs and fells trees to make room for endless strip malls and megachurches.
Still, nature asserted itself in surprising and subtle ways in the Black, Latine, and queer neighborhoods of Houston where I grew up. My childhood home is near Acres Homes—a historic Black homestead nestled between highways, famous for its barbecue and horse-mounted Black cowboys; I attended Pride at seventeen and got my first HIV test at the free clinic in Montrose, the (now fully-gentrified) historic gayborhood of Houston along Buffalo Bayou; I biked through the white-oak-lined side streets of Third Ward, Houston’s historic Black neighborhood, to attend the University of Houston. And as a child, the swampy young pines behind our house haunted my imagination and stayed with me long enough to inspire the inner nightlands of Beast Meridian.
Those pines were where I escaped the confines of gender and jumped my bike over ditches with boys, smoked cigarettes and listened to music with the bad kids, escaped angry parents to read The Bell Jar under honeysuckle, tagged anarchy symbols under bridges, explored flooded creeks and caught crawfish when the power was out after hurricanes, kissed and touched and undressed with every gender under the stars. After I got caught sneaking out at thirteen, my parents took my bedroom door off its hinges permanently, so throughout adolescence, the pines were the only place I had any privacy, the place where I became brave, the place that held my forbidden self, a sanctuary of desire that made safe my secrets, the moonlit clearing where young love blossomed in my body, a haven for a young girl in trouble to hide. My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me, tell me where did you sleep last night / In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine, I would shiver the whole night through. That vision of nature informs every poem in Beast Meridian, from “Malinche” to “Girlbody Gift” to the final sequence, “The Way Back”—the nightlands of forbidden desire, rebellion, trouble, alienation—where the speaker grieves her monstrosity until she can finally embrace her animal, and in so doing, sets herself free.
Queer nature is a catapult out of the limits of a single human body. It is a breaking out, a widening into the possibilities of a transformative understanding of boundaries of self.
RH: Being queer, I think, forces one deeply into one’s body—you become more aware than other people about the arbitrariness of gender and the randomness of having a body. I think animals abound in queer poems as metaphors, false or correct, of fully living in a body. Free from desire and emotional pain, social torment, strictures of marriage and morality. In my own poem, “Idyll,” the speaker desires to shed his skin; the act of speaking, of confessing to desire, is an act of undressing.
ET: I love this definition of queer. I think sometimes we think of queer as undoing or transforming, but often I think of queer as revealing what has always been. Rather than leaps, I think of sinking deeper into, of falling, of lying and pressing (as fingers into the soil)–all of which are unsurprisingly very sexy actions to take.
FWR: What does queer nature mean to you? If you experienced the HIV/AIDS pandemic, has experiencing the Covid-19 pandemic caused you to consider “nature” more than in the past?
RH: This is a hard question for me. I feel somewhat ambivalent about both “queerness” and “nature.” I don’t think of myself as a pastoral poet. I’d rather be in a museum than in a forest. But reading Queer Nature, I feel such a profound kinship with writers I’ve never met.
AFT: Queer nature is a catapult out of the limits of a single human body. It is a breaking out, a widening into the possibilities of a transformative understanding of boundaries of self.
I don’t have much to say about the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the Covid pandemic. It angers me that most people still think of HIV/AIDS as a ‘gay’ disease. Most people do not see the parallels. Most people can’t get to the point where they see how greed, environmental degradation, and ignorance lead to pandemics.
the act of creation is forever fused with subversion in nature
VAV: The nature of my youth was not the normative Nature of national parks or state reserves—it was a nameless, swampy half-acre of undeveloped land behind our house, where flooded ditches gouged the boundary between our neighborhood and the trailer park next door. That nature was where the “bad kids”—the troubled kids, rebels, outcasts, queer kids—found each other, not recognizing that our bond was not in our badness, but in shared trauma and alienation. The only way to get to our nature, queer nature, was to be disobedient, daring enough to break a rule, stay out after hours, trespass, know where to jump the fence. The forbidden places I went to skip school, smoke cigarettes, skinny dip, drop acid, give and get head, kiss both girls and boys, fuck in cars until police pulled up, were also where I went to read, write, and play guitar. And this has had a fundamental influence on my artistic practice—the act of creation is forever fused with subversion in nature. Nature and art are sites of disobedience, rebellion, and provocation—if I am not being subversive, vulnerable, provocative, brave, then I am not making the art I want to make.
Now in single motherhood, I live near Griffith Park and Southern California beaches, and nature is a haven from isolation and endless responsibility, an expansive companion that quiets my troubled heart, holds my grief in rosy light, and sends me guardians to guide my path—still deer, scrappy coyotes, vigilant owls, hovering hummingbirds, tumbling dolphins, fragrant artemisia—their presence urging me to go on when the world feels impossible and love never comes. Now, nature is where I go to slow down time and listen to the open, be with when there is no one, be with until there is.
ET: I think queer nature asks about access and owning and belonging. I think in both of these epidemics, we had to reckon with the truth that very little is owed to us and in fact, we are obligated to return our bodies to the natural world eventually. That sounds very bleak but what I mean is that my idea of queer nature is to be freed of invented obligation and restriction and to discover and experience what is opened.
INTERVIEW WITH Raegen Pietrucha
FWR: To start, I was hoping you might speak about the pull of Greek mythology, both in its use as a framing device for some of the poems and a source of imagery in others.
RP: When I drafted my first poem about Medusa way back in 2007, it was about a different subject entirely. My mother had survived breast cancer and been in remission ever since her double mastectomy, but I’d come to realize that something significant had changed in both the way some men perceived and treated her (and women like her), as well as the way she perceived herself. Something about that recalled to my mind the mythic woman with snakes for hair, that body transformed into something so terrifying that it also physically petrified anyone who looked upon it.
But as I delved deeper into the myth — or the myriad variations of the myth — I moved away from that idea and toward what, to me, is the real crux of Medusa’s story: She is a woman who, in many versions of the myth, is raped by Poseidon on the altar of Athena; then, as if that wasn’t heinous enough, she is transformed into a monster. And this is the story of so many women (and others, not just women) to this day. That realization was too powerful and potent to ignore.
And there were a lot of directions I could’ve gone in telling any story of survivorship. I suppose I could’ve just stuck to a contemporary story or set of stories; I could’ve also written it in prose, but poetry specifically allowed me to bridge important gaps between fiction and nonfiction in a way that felt natural, seamless, and protective because poetry can be both and neither of those things — fiction and nonfiction — at the same time. But to me, there’s something very powerful about pointing back to something so old, because it effectively allows me to say, “Look! Look at how much time has passed, and look at how this still has not changed. That’s not OK.” Something as old as Greek myth allows you to do that. Another thing about the myth, specific to Medusa, is that the story of her becoming a monster in so many versions quite literally relies on that singular act of sexual violence at the hands of Poseidon. Before that, without that, she is portrayed as an average woman — beautiful, perhaps, but a physical form we’d recognize.
But because most mythology (Greek or otherwise) also comes with its own set of images — symbols — which seem to be more fantastical to us in today’s world because they are so far from our lived experience— it is a rich trove from which to draw imagery and metaphor. While you can reinterpret the meaning of that imagery, as I did often throughout the book, a lot of it was more or less handed to me as part of the original story, from the snakes to the ocean to the stone — all of which, it seemed to me, related very specifically to sexual assault survivorship. And with any luck, in Head of a Gorgon, I’ve built out those ways in which I saw the myth’s imagery and the subject of survivorship connecting.
FWR: I was intrigued by starting Head of a Gorgon with the Flash Forward section and “The Gorgon’s Parting Thoughts”, which, to me, created a structural ouroboros. How did you decide on the structure of the manuscript?
RP: I love that concept: a “structural ouroboros”! That’s an awesome way of describing it! I’m stealing that!
The reason we flash forward to an end at the beginning is twofold. One, I was taking a feminist theory course in grad school while working on my thesis, which was how the concept for Head of a Gorgon started, and one of the things we discussed is the experience of time as it relates to gendered experience and society. Some suggest women’s experience of time is more cyclical — think menstrual cycles and the like — whereas men’s might be considered more linear — and here I think we can infer what the reference would be to in that case. I wanted both, especially since, in some versions of the Medusa myth, she actually represents the circle of life (birth, death, and rebirth), but this writer exists in a patriarchy.
The other aspect relates to the title and what is actually going on overall in the book. That moment when Medusa “dies” right at the beginning is the opening up of her head, from which this entire story is able to pour. In some versions of the original myth, when Medusa is beheaded, Pegasus and Chrysaor fly out. It’s quite a stretch to consider the book itself Pegasus or Chrysaor, but the idea of something having to end, in order to begin again and/or get to the core of its meaning made sense to me in the framework of this version of the myth.
FWR: Building off the idea of the ouroboros, I thought the use of repetition was powerful, particularly in the return of the “Your Captain Speaking” poems. Upon my first read of the first instance of a poem titled this, I was struck by how the poem pointed to voice and power structures: “who cares what other stories have told you? /… Who retains the right to name?”. Repetition returns later, with both secrets kept and new relationships reminiscent of old. Could you talk about what drew you to repetition?
RP: There is so much related to survivorship that reinforces, that ruminates, that obsesses. It can be very cyclical in quite literal ways: Being sexually assaulted at a young age, for instance, puts victims at a higher risk for being victimized again in the future. The physical experience could have ended, but the survivor’s mind can replay it over and over (i.e., PTSD). It can, in many ways, become all-consuming. So repetition is essential, to me, in portraying some fundamental aspects of the experience of survivorship.
Specifically with respect to the three “Your Captain Speaking” poems, originally, those three poems had different titles when they were first published. But at some point, as the collection really started solidifying, it seemed to me that those three poems in particular, which were always similar in tone, were more or less coming from the same sort of persona, and it was someone I didn’t want to specifically name because I wanted to leave that open to the reader’s interpretation. But how could I still signal to the reader that these three poems are from the same persona just like poems from the perspective of “P” are all Poseidon and the capital-“S” Snake is also a singular persona?
I happen to be a huge Louise Glück fan — her poem “Mock Orange” was transformational for me as a writer — and she actually has three poems interspersed throughout her collection The Seven Ages that are all titled “Fable.” So I thought, “Well, maybe that device can work here, too.” In that sense, the title of those three poems in Head of a Gorgon is a bit of an homage as well.
FWR: Another form of repetition were the “Shedding Skin” poems, which are erasures of poems that appear earlier in the manuscript. Can you talk about the development of these poems?
RP: If repetition is symbolic of what traps a survivor, then strikethroughs/erasures/rewriting can be considered symbolic of freeing oneself of that cycle, or at the very least creating something new. But there was something early on for me with this collection that called to me to recognize that the change and escape needed to be physically represented on the page, and erasure — making something new and empowering from something that had once been used against the self — was a physical, visual, tangible way of accomplishing that.
FWR: One of the poems that first jumped out at me was “Sex Ed,” which I thought both played with the reveal of information, on a multitude of levels, and struck me as an exploration of innocence and loss, particularly the lines “naming things commands / nothing”.
I’ve been thinking about the Teju Cole essay “Death in a Browser Tab” recently and how artists can make sense of violence (in its many facets) without emphasizing the act, but rather the human experience of it. How did you balance the tension between naming the act of violence (and violation) and centering the person experiencing it?
RP: Did I balance the tension? I’m not sure I know, because that wasn’t something I specifically set out to do. And I think that’s because it’s my belief that there’s no amount of telling someone what a certain experience feels like that will make them actually experience the thing. Words themselves are symbols — like how maybe one way we can think of Rene Magritte’s “The treachery of images (This is not a pipe)” is that he is directly acknowledging that an image of a pipe is not the same as having an actual, 3D pipe in one’s hand.
So even in the Cole essay you referenced, for example, the viewing of another’s death doesn’t give the viewer the experience of personally dying, nor does it provide them with the experience of someone killing, nor does it even provide the experience of witnessing such events firsthand; it provides only the experience — still undoubtedly traumatic, still undoubtedly tragic — of witnessing those types of things at a distance, on a screen. But the viewer is feeling a set of feelings that may or may not be similar to any of the other three real-life experiences not actually experienced by the viewer.
I very much hesitate to say that artists “make sense” of violence or any other thing, for that matter — at least to anyone besides the artist themself. But having the belief that no amount of explaining or describing any act is going to make someone who hasn’t personally lived through it experience it firsthand or understand that experience as someone who has lived through it — and even two people experiencing, say, the same violent act will experience it differently, though there’s more common ground between the two — leaves a writer with the option instead to create some other type of experience that the writer (if the writer is like me) hopes draws toward something maybe approaching a universal truth, if there can even be such a thing, out of a real or imagined experience.
With respect to a poem like “Sex Ed” specifically, I simply set out to give voice to a woman, Medusa, who is sidelined and silenced in most tellings of her own story. And there are certainly other interpretations of this voice and story based on who’s doing the telling. We need common terms to refer to in this case — sexual abuse, assault, rape — so that people have some sense of general foundation of what’s being discussed. But from there, words are just a different experience than those actual physical, real-life experiences entirely. This is where words — and for me, any art form — will always fail. Still, I do believe in the power of words — some power in them — because look at the harm they can also cause. It’s not a physical violence, per se, but it is a violence nevertheless.
Is this all confusing, contradictory, paradoxical? I suppose. But it’s still all also true, at least to me.
FWR: I was also drawn to the poem “Cheer”, which spoke to ideas of power and heroism, as the speaker details “hoping the right / words paired with the right actions will someday / help me take some form of flight.” I read “Note From the Nadir” as a response to this childhood optimism, as the speaker wrestles with the fact that “no savior awaits”; now “I know the hero I sought will never reach me, doesn’t exist.” Instead, “my head still ingested what was fed. / What can you do when part of the problem is you?” Assuming I’m not off base (and I very well may be), can you speak to how you developed the conversations between the poems, and overall emotional arc of the book? Thinking of heroism and the head of the gorgon, how does the story of Medusa and Perseus fit?
RP: When you work on something for a decade-plus, you probably have too much time to think about it, but I tried in many ways to build as much meaning as I could — as many layers as possible — into this work. There are a lot of Easter eggs. What you’re referring to here — the conversations among the various poems — was very much considered and deliberate. This is easier to do when you have a narrative arc and are kind of building a shorter version of a novel in verse — perhaps a novella in verse. This is where my original background in fiction came into play. So I took the pieces I had, which were from Medusa’s adulthood and I thought of the parts, then, that were necessarily missing, like a childhood. And I started building some threads, images, terms that would be common among them and would evolve through the book.
Just like any person, there is change along the way; there is devolution, evolution, or both. The arc for my Medusa is devolution, to a kind of death, to a necessary evolution in order to survive — a mirroring of the birth/death/rebirth cycle that Medusa represents in some versions of the myth but that’s really all tied to the feminine in general (e.g., Mother Nature). Some of these concepts were drawn from the myth; others were drawn from survivorship. But all really echo the idea that each of us needs to become our own hero; Medusa, for me, is no exception to this rule. I tend to believe that it’s when we look outward for saviors that we are in the most danger. And I say this as a spiritual person, but one who acknowledges the truth of my personal experiences and understands that the universe requires action on one’s own behalf — like “The Drowning Man” story — in order to find one’s personal, true salvation.
FWR: What are other poems, or who are the poets, that you turned to as guide posts in the creation and construction of your poems?
RP: This book would not exist at all without Larissa Szporluk, who even beyond being my mentor and advisor is the brightest light I know in the poetry world with respect to understanding to the core that literally every story anyone ever tells is myth — and delivers that message to us constantly through her work and her teaching. Louise Glück, whom I mentioned earlier, is my top influence as far as voice is concerned; the authority of voice in her work was definitely something I strived toward in Head of a Gorgon. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red would be a close second with respect to this collection in particular, from the mythic aspects to the narrative arc to the play with form.
Jason Shinder’s work also influenced my collection. His work feels at times as if it were written in a vacuum; he seemed to know what he needed to express was important and created a world unto itself in which the way he spoke was the only way that would’ve made sense and was therefore the best way. I wanted to create this Medusa’s world in a vacuum. I wanted the bulk of Head of a Gorgon to feel isolating, inescapable, suffocating, because this is what I imagine Medusa’s experiences in the first few sections of the book feel like.
Others of note include Marie Howe; she does an impeccable job of what you were pointing to in your fifth question with respect to speaking on the experience of survivorship. She just calls a thing a thing with such directness and clarity, yet also such beauty. Sharon Olds’ writing on all things feminine and domestic helped me to ground my work in the everyday, ordinary things of contemporary life as I transported this ancient myth into modern times. The political in Adrienne Rich’s work, of course, is essential. Monique Wittig’s Les Guerilleres, whose nonlinearity is inspiring. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man for their explorations of gender. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton for their sharp words. And William Shakespeare for his deep dive into form but also making form feel more conversational, less form-y by the standards of his time — another thing I strived toward in my collection.
Raegen Pietrucha writes, edits, and consults creatively and professionally. Head of a Gorgon is her debut poetry collection. Her poetry chapbook, An Animal I Can’t Name, won the 2015 Two of Cups Press competition, and she has a memoir in progress. She received her MFA from Bowling Green State University, where she was an assistant editor for Mid-American Review. Her work has been published in Cimarron Review, Puerto del Sol, and other journals. Connect with her at raegenmp.wordpress.com and on Twitter @freeradicalrp.
INTERVIEW WITH Matthew Olzmann
Matthew Olzmann’s latest collection, Constellation Route, is out now from Alice James. He has published two previous collections, Contradictions in the Design and Mezzanines, and he has received fellowships from Kundiman, the Kresge Arts Foundation and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
FWR: Can you speak on the genesis and organization of Constellation Route?
MO: I’ve written poems that mimic a letter, or utilize an epistolary or apostrophe approach often before, and at some point I just thought that if I have fun doing that, what would happen if I did that non stop for a while? So that was the genesis; it didn’t necessarily start out as ‘I’m writing a book of these’ but instead wanting to see what direction the writing would go if I kept doing it over and over. How long would it stay interesting for me, this thing that is often a default mode for me? Would it remain interesting or would it evolve? Would I make new discoveries? I think sometimes in writing, there’s the impulse to reinvent the wheel each time you sit down and write, but if something seems interesting to you or something feels productive, you should try to do that again.
I thought [the organization of the book] would be easier than my previous two books because in those books, the subject matter is somewhat disparate, so that challenge was to see how I could get these things to fit together. With [Constellation Route], since they all have a similar approach or they’re about postal terminology, it felt as though there’s already a governing logic for why they belong in the same book.
But then I started having new challenges. For example, when so many poems have the same approach, how do you create variation, how do you change things up? That affected the writing process later, as I tried to write things in new directions. Then [this book] had all the challenges my other books have had. Even though there’s a formal approach that makes [these poems] similar, the subject matter and tone can vary widely. It ended up having all the old challenges and some new ones, just to make it interesting.
FWR: As I was reading through it, I loved the moment where poems came back to a subject or referenced a previous poem (for example, “Letter to the Oldest Living Longleaf Pine in North America” and “Letter to the Person Who Carved His Initials into the Oldest Living Longleaf Pine in North America”). The opening and closing poems to me seemed really set, so I had wondered if you had written “Day Zero” and “Conversion” with the intention of having them as those bookends.
MO: I didn’t write any of those intending for them to be in a specific position; “Day Zero” had a different place in the book, and Jessica Jacobs said I should start with that poem. As I was putting the book together, some of those things were things I was aware of. I wanted to spread them out so there was this echo.
FWR: To build on that idea, I’m struck by how writing the same structure of a poem, an epistolary or an apostrophe, is reminiscent of how an echo can lead to deviation. There’s the sameness, but also beauty in the deviation. It reminds me of how a postal route works– presumably, you’re going through the same route and making the same stops, but you’re seeing them in new lights or in new ways as you move through the seasons or through a place.
MO: The post office, despite my limited knowledge of some aspects of it, ended up having some influence on not only the poems but also the shape of the book and the language. Looking at the glossary of postal terms, wing case, day zero, everything seemed to be like an institution made by a poet.
FWR: In a conversation with Kaveh Akbar, hosted by A Mighty Blaze, you spoke about play in poetry as a spiritual or meditative practice, and how “irreverence requires acknowledgement of something grand”. To what extent do you feel you’re using humor as a bridge to the reader, or even to deflect someone’s guard being up?
MO: I think in our daily lives, we can use humor to attack or criticize, but also to charm and entertain, or to diffuse tension. We can use it to introduce an idea or to present something in an unexpected manner. I think in poems or stories, or perhaps any kind of writing, one of the things that’s useful about humor is that it disrupts the reader’s ability to anticipate to a degree. As a writer, I’m generally interested in humor because it creates a point of contrast. I like poems that have more than one emotion, especially placed next to each other. Sometimes it’s because an emotion next to the other sets off the second, whether that’s moving from certainty to doubt, or anger to something more meditative, from grief to wonder. I’m also just drawn to writing as a reader and as a writer that isn’t presenting human experience in a monotonous way. I feel both terror and wonder when looking out into the world, and I’m trying to find a space where both of those can exist in the writing process.
FWR: The poem “Letter to Matthew Olzmann, Sent Telepathically from a Flock of Pigeons While Surrounding Him on a Park Bench in Detroit, Michigan” comes to mind, and how it moves from the absurd to this greater, more empathetic commentary. As a teacher, I think that humor helps open poems up and make them accessible or an experience to be shared. And that transition, from the human to a more humane tapestry to find oneself in I think works really well in this collection.
MO: I see what you mean about humor being a point of connection. When I think about other artists who I’m drawn to, there’s something about humor that feels, in the audience, engaging or charming. It can feel like I’m being let into something– when you’re both laughing, you feel like you’re in on the joke. It’s hard to imagine who’s reading a poem when you’re writing it. I have some people in mind, sometimes, I’m always going to share what I write with my partner, Vievee, but after that, when the poem goes into the world, I have no idea who’s reading it. I like the idea of it being accessible to some people who aren’t necessarily poetry scholars or writers.
FWR: In the title poem, “Constellation Route”, you write:
…a messenger… gets wildly lost. It’s night.
Lonely. He glances to the sky–
inside that disorder,
he finds one light that makes sense, and that’s enough
to guide him to the next stop.
For me, that was the moment where a lot of the poems clicked, where I felt like I could name the theme that I couldn’t quite put my finger on previously: the idea of community. This fits what we’ve talked about with how humor forms connection, but also the letter form as a way of asserting a community (of friends, of writers). This seemed to come up again and again in your poems, whether “Fourteen Letters to a 52-Hertz Whale” (“Do you ever wonder that because your voice is impossible to hear, maybe no one will make the effort? That you can work really hard and try to be a good person… but then… the waves will just swallow you whole?”) or “Letter Written While Waiting in Line at Comic Con” (“…it’s not/ these costumes that amaze me; it’s always been/ the languages. The way they reach/ for something that can’t be said/ in our tongue.”).One of the things you seem to be reaching at is how we form and maintain community, and then, looking at the United States, how might this idea of community be under threat or at risk of change in ways that might not be particularly kind.
MO: I don’t know if I was thinking of community as one of the primary thematic drivers of when I was making the book, but I started to become aware of that later. One of the reasons I might not have been aware of it in the writing is that I tend to write poems one-at-a-time, without necessarily thinking of how they relate to one another. I write the poems and assemble books later.
But when I started putting Constellation Route together, one of the things I was thinking about was how to make things feel communal. This was part of the reason for including letters with other people in them (such as “Letter to Matthew Olzmann from Ross White, Re: The Tardigrade”) to give the sense that there were more people involved than one version of Matthew.
One of the questions I was asked recently is if the speaker in these poems, excluding those obviously persona, is me. Are the poems autobiographical? While I think it would be hard for all of them to be me, I’m sure all of them contain aspects of me or some aspect of my world view. Oliver de La Paz said something about his own poems about autobiography that really resonated with me, the idea that in an autobiographical poem, the speaker resembles you the way John Malkovich resembles John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich. I might be taking this quote out of context, but I think the speaker in any of my poems is a performance of the self. It might represent the self but it’s a performance or an aspect of the self, and there can be many of those.
You mention the conversation with A Mighty Blaze and Kaveh [Akbar], and before that, he and I were talking about how the book we haven’t written, the one that’s still in your head, is always perfect, or has the potential to be. Before you’ve made it into an object, it’s this thing that exists in the realm in perfect speculation. Most of the poems, once I tried to write them, it was a pretty messy process. Messy, but some of the fun is making discoveries. A lot of the poems, I might have a line or a vague idea, but I don’t necessarily sit down with a thoroughly mapped out route toward a destination in mind.
I like writing for the process of writing. I like the process of being there and working. There’s a point when I’m working on a poem that I’m imagining it as a point of connection. I imagine how someone might read it, and then it becomes a moment where I’m reaching for a point of contact. Rather than withdrawing from the world, it feels like working on a way to venture out and make contact with people.
FWR: Thinking of connection, or perhaps the perfect poem, are there poems that you love to teach, that do what you’re reaching towards?
MO: It’s constantly changing. It’s a list I’m constantly adding to. So many poems that I love to teach and some of the old standbys: “Iskandariya” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly; “It Is Maybe Time to Admit That Michael Jordan Definitely Pushed Off” by Hanif Abdurraqib; “Wishes for Sons”, by Lucille Clifton, or “Sorrows” or “note, passed to superman”– I remember the first time I read her series of notes to Clark Kent, I remember thinking, “you can do that? You can write notes to these people?”; Rilke’s “The Archaic Torso of Apollo”; “Brokeheart: just like that”, by Patrick Rosal or “Guitar”; “Ode to the Maggot” by Yusuf Komunyaaka; Campbell McGrath’s “My Music”; Cathy Linh Che’s “Poem for Ferguson”; most of Szymborska’s poems. I like talking about her poems “True Love” and “Pi”, “Notes From a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition”, “A Large Number”, “The End and the Beginning”– I could go on and on.
INTERVIEW WITH Clifford Thompson
Clifford Thompson is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award for nonfiction in 2013 for Love for Sale and Other Essays, published by Autumn House Press. He has also published a memoir (Twin of Blackness), a novel (Signifying Nothing) and a nonfiction book (What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues). Thompson’s graphic novel Big Man and the Little Men, which he wrote and illustrated, is due out from Other Press in Fall 2022.
FWR: Having read a lot of your fiction and nonfiction, I was excited to hear that you’re publishing a graphic novel, Big Man and the Little Men, due out next year from Other Press, which you’re writing and illustrating. What does this process look like? Do images come for you before writing, or vice versa? Many writers map out ideas through drawing. How does creating your own illustrations affect your writing process?
CT: I begin by writing. The script comes first. The images are in my head, if only hazily; I’ll write, for example, “Three-quarter view of men on right side of the table.” But I don’t put those images on paper until the real illustrating begins. The script is largely a series of IOUs to myself. That is, it’s easy to put in the script, as I did at one point, “Drawing of a baseball game.” The payment comes due, you might say, when it’s time to illustrate that panel, when I sit at my drafting table and think, “Oh. Right. Now I’ve got to draw a baseball game. How do I do that?” So as a writer I put myself in positions that I then have to draw my way out of. In that way, there’s a certain amount of improvisation involved. (I find it hard to resist allusions to jazz.) For example, when it comes time to draw those men on the right side of the table, I may decide as I’m drawing that one of the men is giving the other a sidelong glance.
FWR: The prose in a graphic novel has to be so crisp and focused on action. How do you work within these limitations? Do you overwrite, then whittle down, or do you have other methods?
CT: One challenging thing about a graphic novel is that there are practical considerations of the kind you don’t run into with a regular novel, or even with painting. One is that you can fit only so many words in a panel. So I may discover, as I’m doing the actual lettering for the dialogue I’ve written, that not all of it will fit, or at least not comfortably. Then it’s a matter of rephrasing the dialogue, retaining its flavor while making it as concise as possible. Sometimes I end up improving it, almost by accident.
Writing and painting are similar for me in that the idea is half the battle. Once I have an idea, the challenge is to find the best way to carry it out.
FWR: How does starting a written piece compare to drawing or painting? Has your graphic novel bridged these two approaches, or does it feel like a different approach entirely?
CT: Writing and painting are similar for me in that the idea is half the battle. Once I have an idea, the challenge is to find the best way to carry it out. When I’m writing, that often involves lists. I’m a big list-maker, especially when it comes to essays. I like to list aspects of the subject I want to write about, then study the items on the list to see what the connections exist among these seemingly disparate things or ideas; I’ll draw arrows from one thing to another. Sometimes I find a lot of arrows going to the same item, and that can be a sign that I’ve hit on something. For paintings, once I have an idea, I pull out my sketch pad and work out the composition, the proportions and relative positions of everything. I have the sketch-pad drawing next to me when I make pencil outlines on the canvas.
Again, the graphic novel begins for me with writing, but I would say that the graphic novel bridges writing and painting in that the written and visual aspects of the work spell each other. The graphic novel is a visual medium, but you need words. You just do. Even Kyle Baker’s terrific graphic novel Nat Turner, which is almost all pictures, uses some words. Still, some of my favorite moments of working on Big Man and the Little Men are when I can draw a panel or series of panels that speak for themselves. A motion, a facial expression, a character’s eyes looking in a certain direction, three people’s heads turning toward a fourth person who has just uttered a non-sequitur, a hug between two forty-year-olds who last saw each other in high school—panels like that can say it all. Not a single word needed. I find that satisfying.
I’ve been painting now for years, which has come in handy with the graphic novel because of all the time I’ve spent shading with colors in painting. To a certain extent I’ve transferred that process to the graphic novel: I shade with colored pencils, darkening some areas of a face, for example, while taking an eraser to other areas. That is one thing I didn’t do when I was drawing comics in high school, oh so long ago now.
A friend of mine, looking over the pages of Big Man that I’ve illustrated, observed that my unit of visual expression—he said something to that effect—is not so much the individual panel as the page. I think that’s accurate. The page comes together to form a kind of statement.
FWR: Your Four Way piece, “Quintessence,” ponders creativity—where inspiration comes from, how and why we write what we do. You’ve written a lot about music, film, and visual art over your career. Some of your artwork has a tone that resembles Augusta Savage or the stark lines of Elizabeth Catlett, another DC artist. How do other artists, writers, or their mediums inform your work?
CT: I appreciate the comparison to those women. I find that I like two things in visual art: color and simplicity. The work of the Fauves, and artists such as Catlett and Jacob Lawrence and William H. Johnson, greatly appeals to me for those reasons. In some graphic novels I read, I admire all the detail the artists put in as well as the artists’ technical ability; still, because the images are so lifelike, with so much going on, sometimes my eye doesn’t know where to go. So I try to put in a few details but focus largely on color, composition, and the central image.
When it comes to writing, I am never consciously aware of being influenced by others’ work, but sometimes people see things in your writing that you don’t see. In my book What It Is, I write about James Baldwin and Albert Murray, among others. The reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement wrote that I had blended, “consciously or not,” the “voices of [my] mentors Baldwin and Murray.”
FWR: In The Rumpus earlier this year, you explained: “It could almost be said that much of my work is an attempt to solve a puzzle.” In Big Man and the Little Men, a writer becomes enmeshed in a presidential campaign when an accusation is made against the nominee. What puzzle pieces are at work in this book, and how did you decide what form they would take?
CT: I think the puzzle at the bottom of Big Man is: how do you do the right thing when there seems to be no right thing to do? That’s the quandary that my main character, April Wells, faces. As for deciding on the form, I’m not even sure I did. The idea came to me fully formed.
FWR: I wonder if you can elaborate on this. How do you move between more planning-oriented techniques—like your lists, arrows and IOUs—to more intuitive ones? Or are you describing more of an organic gradual process of both, one feeding the other?
CT: Maybe a good analogy would be carrying out a military or spy mission (not that I have ever carried out either of those). That is to say, you can make lists and draw arrows and write IOUs, just as you get instructions for a mission; but doing the thing is where it happens—the fun and the risk, the difficulty and the discovery, the improvisation and toil and surprise.
FWR: You’ve written often about politics, including in What It Is, and most recently in a series of essays for Commonweal Magazine. Big Man too is interested in the political. Do you have any craft tips or observations in terms of how you approach political writing across forms?
CT: You know what’s funny? Until I read your question, it hadn’t occurred to me that I’ve written often about politics—maybe because the works you mention are all so different from one another. But you’re right, I guess I have. And I guess the reason is that presidential politics have fascinated me since the first election I remember, when I was nine, when McGovern ran against Nixon in 1972—still the gold standard for lopsided election results. (I’m proud to say I’m from Washington, DC, one of two places in the whole country that McGovern carried.)
I don’t know if I have any craft tips for writing about politics, but I do have one observation, which is that, fundamentally, nothing is new. That may be a good thing to keep in mind when writing about politics. So maybe that is some kind of tip, I don’t know. But here is an example of what I mean: The first five presidents of my lifetime were John F. Kennedy (who was killed when I was eight months old), Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Not one of those men served two full terms, and a couple of them didn’t even complete one term. So for my entire childhood, the American presidency seemed like an unstable thing. Then, for decades after that, with the single exception of George H. W. Bush, the presidents were two-termers: Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama. Then, of course, came Trump, demonstrating the cyclical nature of politics. For all the sheer, seemingly unprecedented god-awfulness of the Trump years, his shenanigans and defeat were almost like a return to my childhood. It was sort of like when people used to go into movie theaters in the middle of the movie and stay for the beginning: “I remember this—this is where I came in.” (That said, I pray that this round of chaos ended with Trump. I wish President Biden great good luck.)
FWR: Sometimes when I read your work, I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s concept of caves. Ideas, characters, or narratives which seem disconnected, eventually, as Woolf describes it, “connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment.” How does this process of braiding seemingly disparate elements into a single narrative work for you in making a graphic novel? Is this different than in your writing fiction or nonfiction?
CT: I am delighted by that characterization of my work, and I’ll take a comparison to Virginia Woolf any day of the week! I would say that the braiding happens more in my nonfiction, and yet, now that you mention it (you ask very good questions!), I see that there is braiding at work with Big Man. The story’s prologue has two scenarios involving different sets of characters, with no indication of what they have to do with each other. But later it becomes clear.
FWR: What’s next for you after Big Man and the Little Men?
CT: Time will tell. I have several manuscripts in various stages of readiness. One is a manuscript of poems. I said to my wife that I’m working toward publishing one of every kind of book—a joke, though not really.
Ghinwa Jawhari on her debut chapbook: BINT Interviewed by Sara Elkamel
Ghinwa Jawhari named her debut chapbook, selected by poet Aria Aber for publication by Radix Media, BINT, Arabic for girl. In Arab cultures, the word is also used to describe a virgin woman, of any age. In this series of poems, compact in form yet unbridled in lyricism, Jawhari explores the passage (particularly of those in Arab diaspora) from bint to woman: its wounds, its pleasures, and its inevitable reverberations on societal and self perception.
Jahwari is a Lebanese American writer (and practicing dentist), currently living in Brooklyn. Born to Druze parents in Cleveland, she grew up listening to poetry from her father, who often recited traditional poetry in Arabic, or Zajal, around the house. In middle school, she wrote little poems and saved them in spiral notebooks, before going on to study English, alongside chemistry, in undergrad. Over the past few years, her essays, fiction, and poetry have been featured in Catapult, Narrative, Mizna, The Adroit Journal, and other publications.
As an Arab woman myself, I found an incredible kinship with the speaker(s) in Jawhari’s poems. The opening poem, titled “condition”, piercingly captures the strain stepping into womanhood places on our relationship with our fathers; “when you had the sterile body of a child / you were loved by your father / now you’re grown”, she writes. For me, the erosion of the father’s unconditional love in tandem with the girl stepping into the body of a woman could not have been captured more poignantly, more resonantly.
And it’s not just the speaker’s voice that was familiar. Many of the poems in BINT have Arabic titles, and are decorated with objects that I myself grew up around—prayer beads and “blue eyes hung over the door”; the Mediterranean, which Egypt has in common with Lebanon—carrying the bodies of the girls in Jawhari’s poems. When we met (online) to talk about her stunning chapbook, Jawhari told me that it was her intention to write BINT for readers who would relate to it. “When you say to yourself: I’m going to write this to my sister or my cousin, suddenly it frees you to do whatever the hell you want to do,” she said.
In the interview below, Jawhari reflects on her insistence to avoid writing towards the white gaze, and shares the thought processes that led to her choice of form, language and imagery for BINT.
Sara Elkamel: I found an incredible tension between divulgence and restraint in BINT, in terms of both language and form. But I’d like to start by asking you specifically about form. Even though you’re tackling these expansive subjects that could probably fill notebooks—including queerness, intimacy, and what being a girl, or a woman, means to you—the poems materialize in these really slight, compressed shapes on the page. How did you arrive at these forms for BINT?
Ghinwa Jawhari: First, the chapbook was written for people who already know what a bint is. It’s not written for the white gaze. I didn’t want to spend time explaining the context. I was trying to figure out how to get across, in the smallest amount of words, facts central to our lived reality as girls—like in “counterfeit,” the poem about getting sewed up to ‘restore’ her virginity; becoming “regirled.”
And secondly, the form was informed and constrained by this project being a chapbook. I was at home during the COVID outbreak, and it was the first time I wasn’t working in a long time. I was excited to be sitting at my desk every day and focusing on a single theme. Because I knew it was going to be a chapbook, everything had to lend to brevity. It’s less than 30 pages—so in order for the pieces to work together, they all had to be concise. They’re in conversation with one another.
Sara Elkamel: I’m intrigued by this choice of not writing towards a western gaze—especially since Arabic words often appear in your poems, most notably in the title, BINT, which means girl, yes, but also signifies “virgin” in our culture. As poets, I think that sometimes when we use Arabic, we feel the need to explain or translate what we’re saying as we say it, which can very well get in the way of the poem. And I’ve definitely done that in my work before.
Ghinwa Jawhari: Yeah, I’ve done that too! So much of my work before BINT was me explaining. But when you begin to dismiss that, and when you say to yourself: I’m going to write this to my sister or my cousin, suddenly it frees you to do whatever the hell you want to do. You become far less concerned with “Does it make sense?” and more attentive to “Is this true?” It’s no longer: “Will somebody understand me?” but instead, “Will the people who already understand this context agree that this is what happens?” So it’s all a focus shift.
Sara Elkamel: I definitely related to the bint you gave us—at once susceptible to cultural forces and forceful in her own right. I was especially drawn to the verbs you associated with the body.
without consent my small body erred
into hair-tainted womanhood, polluted me
with breasts. i begged for men, any men,
to appear from the fog of my dreams.
In “instead a palace”, for instance, there is some kind of agency—the body itself erring—coupled with a vulnerability to external perception; “polluted me” gestures towards what womanhood does to the body in the eyes of the street. Then in “a girlhood summer passes”, you turn towards illustrating the intimidating power of a girl’s body with a line like: “our slim bodies assault / the surface of the water”. So I’m wondering about these minor choices you made in language, specifically your wiedling of verbs.
Ghinwa Jawhari: I love that you asked about that, because I paid so much attention to the verbs—changing nouns into verbs, being very careful and earnest with what kind of verbs I used. I was trying to capture the body as an embodiment of what the outside world wants it to be. In the earlier poems of the chapbook, I was thinking about how a girl’s body is essentially a socio-political construct; the body is cultural. We can’t escape it—it happens to us. It’s not something that I have agency over. Versus in the poem “condition”, which comes at the end of BINT, when finally there’s a turn. I wouldn’t say there’s redemption—I think that’s simplifying it a bit. But at the end, the women can kind of make light of the fact that they have arm hair, make fun of virginity, and choose to drink.
girlhood an illustrious specter, then.
we pass through & barely remember
its tightly wound calamities, its fears.
as women we lace our mirth with liquor.
virginity an elaborate antique, unfashionable
as arm hair. we rid ourselves of last names.
So the girl body is what’s constructed, and constricted—it’s the thing that has to be decorated, preserved, defended and instructed what to do—whereas the woman body has some agency, holds space to become different, something self-directed.
Sara Elkamel: I admire how you’re really digging into the different layers of what makes a girl a girl. The poem “counterfeit”, for instance, invokes the economy around girlhood.
my father pays the surgeon to return me a bint.
in an hour i am unruined, regirled.
I also love this poem because it feels very playful—even though it’s essentially very dark. I think readers who don’t share our culture would be horrified that these surgeries take place. But you’re like, yes, this is happening. Right now. In this poem. I also really enjoyed the invocation of role-play.
this time i know the value of a counterfeit
so i behave myself, role-play. all of it a trick:
honor restored as if it can ever be,
worthless masquerading worthwhile.
It feels like the speaker is hyper aware of performance and performativity; that “worthless” and “worthwhile” are both nothing but costumes that we put on. As you were tackling such brutal subject matter, did it feel manageable to still experiment and play?
Ghinwa Jawhari: The final draft of that poem came out playful by accident, in a way. When I started it, all I had was “worthless masquerading worthwhile.” Whenever I write a poem, it always starts with a single line, and then it grows out from there. So the initial concept revolved around this charade: A hymenoplasty restores a “false” virginity, intended to be perceived as true. So what is virginity if it’s this easy? I think the playfulness might stem from the bint’s nod to this as a cosmic joke we play on the body, sewing it up and asking others to pretend along with us. It states pointedly that these concepts are fake to begin with.
And it is pretend. It’s roleplay. You’re roleplaying a woman, you’re roleplaying a virgin. And Arab women, I think—or SWANA women in diaspora—understand that there are tricks we have to learn to play. We shed these selves all the time. If you’re going to your family’s house, and you’ve just been out drinking and partying, and you have makeup everywhere, the first thing you think is: I need to get clean and look like I wasn’t anywhere. Like I was studying. We’re all familiar with that. To roleplay the perfect daughter, we are not 100% honest about our identities with our families. Because if you’re doing anything that doesn’t subscribe to what they perceive that role to be, it’s wrong.
So that was always at the back of my mind—that a lot of being a girl, especially when you’re young, is lying. We can say pretending, too: pretending to like something, pretending to be feminine, or obedient, pretending to behave oneself, so to speak. I’m 30 now, but I wrote this when I was 29. So I was at the cusp of that old maid, unmarried title. Another role! I was just so fed up with it, because it’s nonstop. So one way to subvert these expectations is to add humor, or make the reality playful and ridiculous, because it is.
In order for us to survive, anyway, we have to undercut the seriousness of things. And that’s kind of the thread through the chapbook: despite what they’re telling us, it’s not that serious. That’s almost the saving grace. We have to tell ourselves: I’m fine. I’m going to be okay. Even if I don’t fit every single role the way they’re telling me I have to.
Sara Elkamel: I am also very interested in the way you play with bodily organs and animals in your poems. In “winter of the acned year”, your invocation of animal slaughter really struck me, particularly because it shares space with a trace of the speaker’s late night masturbation.
beneath the quilts piled on us, i silenced with my hands
the loud wet thing that would not let me sleep
pawed myself to dog-panting at the remembered eyes
of the man who had slaughtered a ram before me
I guess this poem made me think about the proximity of intimacy and violence in your poems; here, we’re given this very solitary fantasy, and the deceptive tenderness of the man’s eyes, before a sudden transition towards sacrificial slaughter. Your choice of couplets for form also brought the tenderness and the violence even closer together, which I found very moving.
Ghinwa Jawhari: I love this poem. It actually started out as one huge paragraph, and then I cut it into couplets. I think my reading of this poem—and it could be a wrong reading, even though I wrote it [laughs]—is that it’s a time when you’re kind of acned, not really mature, not fully into your sexual-ness yet. You’re beneath a heavy quilt, which is supposed to keep you warm, but is also restrictive, and you’re silencing yourself with your hands because you’re horny—you don’t know why. And it all has this closeness to the violence of sacrificial slaughter. But then the violence against the animal is halal, so the speaker must be thinking that sex should also be halal, in a sense. Like, how come the slaughter is halal but what I’m doing to myself, to give myself pleasure to go to sleep or whatever, is not halal, right?
i watched the butcher disassemble the animal from the car
over his head, halal insisted in red coils no wrongdoing
my mother, returning to the driver’s seat, appetited for its glistening liver
the organ in white paper followed us home, where she cubed it into meal
i recalled its size, its flab texture, the bleat
its oil swarmed my mouth like a vow
And then you have the mother in her very own couplet, interrupting it all. Interrupting the slaughter, the violence, interrupting the fantasy, the pleasure—suddenly, you’re completely removed from the fantasy. Your mom jumps in and asks ‘hey, do you want to get this liver?’ And the organ is wrapped in white paper, suggestive of something bridal.
But anyway, I don’t think violence and sexuality are separate. You can have very violent, not pleasant sex in spaces that are not comfortable or tender. That exists. Western perceptions of sex—the sex in movies or music videos—is tender, haughty, controlled. I think, especially if you’re in a conservative space where girls are marrying guys they don’t know well, or when it’s an arranged thing, sex and violence can very much be one and the same. It’s not like there’s intimacy, and then there’s violence. No; there’s intimacy plus violence, especially if you’re queer—you learn to anticipate aggression in regards to your sexuality or in regards to how you’re identifying or existing. So I guess this poem is not bridging sex and violence; it’s making a statement that they can be the same thing. And it’s unfortunate that we’re kind of trying to think of them as separate, because then when we do experience sexual violence or intimate violence. We are in shock, and we wonder how this can happen.
Sara Elkamel: I’m interested in the way you manage to talk about violence without talking about violence, you know? I think your use of devices such as play and figuration, along with loose narrative, all works to create a space that remains other-wordly in its tackling of the worldly. I’m particularly curious about your use of surrealism to talk about very real experiences.
Ghinwa Jawhari: Surrealism serves to depersonalize the body, in the sense that even the speaker can objectify her own body. Saying “I detach my hand” [in the poem “tazahar”] renders the body figurative and distant, so we can ask “What does the hand symbolize?” Here it is alluding to a hand in marriage, but there can be other meanings. I don’t know how much surrealism appears in my work in general, but there’s a sense, in this poem at least, that the bint is suspended, looking at everything around and within her as if for the first time.
what a doll i was those years after the towers
fell. i went blonde as one goes insane, womaned
with a new name, an easy olio for the tongues
that tsk’d me. gone were the guttural
consonants, the hairs connecting my brows.
i starved my hips. i wore english like a ring
until men begged my father for my hand.
i detached my hand & gave it to him, a fishing
lure. a prophet arrived to open the leaves of me.
A sort of war-born surrealism also features in the poem “a girlhood summer passes,” where these girls are hanging out as the war is just going on around them. It closes with them swimming during a ceasefire. But I was in Lebanon in 2006, and that was kind of a reality; whenever there’s a ceasefire, you just go hang out.
Ultimately—I think because I’m working on these longer projects—I am now exploring the magical more. You can use it to say more, without flat out saying: This is wrong. Even though it is [laughs]. But it’s difficult, because if you make it too magical, then it’s completely fictional. And nothing is completely fictional. It has to come from somewhere. I wish I could’ve done more with surrealism in this collection; but the deadline was coming up!
Sara Elkamel: I’m still so impressed that you wrote this entire chapbook in two months!
Ghinwa Jawhari: It’s my ADD. And now I won’t produce anything else for 10 years.
Sara Elkamel: We’ll wait!
CONVERSATION WITH Adrian Matejka and Conor Bracken
Adrian, thanks for agreeing to talk about your latest book, Somebody Else Sold the World, with me. I’m really excited to talk about it, and the ways that it is contiguous with your larger poetic project, and how it also subverts or cuts new facets into it.
One of the things that has always exhilarated me about your poems is their music. The title is from the David Bowie song, “The Man Who Sold the World,” and many of the poems in the book itself refer to/are in direct conversation with a wide variety of songs and artists (Future, Radiohead, Thundercat, Funkadelic, Tycho). (Clearly your taste in music is as catholic (eclectic wouldn’t do justice here) as it is good). But the poems are as deft and musically double-jointed as ever. Assonance and alliteration, stutter-step rhythms and sudden spans into smoothness–sometimes it feels like what Dilla might have done with a typewriter instead of turntables. The relationship of music and poetry has changed a lot over time–no more lyres, for instance. How do you think of and work with the relationship between music and poetry in your own work?
Adrian Matejka: Conor, man, thank you for taking the time to read the book and for your kind words about the poems. It’s wild because almost every poet I know is a failed musician in one way or another. Either they weren’t especially gifted musicians (like me) or they decided to employ their musical talents in different ways, like Mari Evans and Terrance Hayes. Thomas Hardy supposedly got down on the accordion, too, but that could also be a myth.
The thing is poets are musicians, we just use assonance instead of adagios. One of the great things about our current poetry moment is the incredible musicality of the work. I’m thinking about [your full length] The Enemy of My Enemy is Me (congratulations!!!) and the poems in the book (like “Kintsugi”) that just swing. And Kendra DeColo’s I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers From the World and World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Hanif Abdurraqib’s sonics in both his lines and his sentences and Ross Gay’s astonishing Be Holding. So much bright music around us. Then there are books with quieter compositions that still astound, like Erin Belieu’s Come Hither Honeycomb, Alex Dimitrov’s Love and Other Poems, and Shara McCallum’s No Ruined Stone. I guess I just started a 2021 reading list instead of answering your question because there are so many new books that hum right now.
Maybe one of the reasons I lean into music so directly is that music has been a constant in my life. I played middle-school French horn terribly, was on the mic with a band in college, and DJed on the radio for a while. But when I was a kid, we lived next to a blind woman named Pearl who would listen to music at all hours—jazz, soul, and funk especially. I would wake up in our brokedown townhouse in the middle of most nights because every creak in that space sounded like someone breaking in. I got so much comfort from hearing Pearl’s music because it reminded me that I wasn’t alone.
That’s when I learned about the possible comforts in music. I’m not sure if there’s a direct connection, but I know for certain COVID made me hear lyrics, hear bridges and solos with a different kind of attenuation. I mean, I’ve always loved Portishead’s Dummy or Dexter Gordon’s One Flight Up but the sounds seem differently focused after isolation. Have you had that experience, too? Where something you understood one way has changed wildly after COVID?
CB: Oh absolutely–COVID definitely shifted some things in my life a couple degrees so they were like that woman’s arms in Prufrock–in the lamplight downed with light brown hair, i.e. different, a little more intimate and real. The largest was probably isolation. Before the pandemic hit, my wife and I moved to a small town in central Ohio that was right between our jobs (each about an hour away). We lived for a couple years without family, friends, any sort of social network, and it was tough. During the pandemic, it was still tough, but we’d been accustomed to not seeing anyone, so our social isolation looked different: not so much a condition, but a preparation. This didn’t change isolation to some magical wonderthing, though–it’s hard to rely on one or two people as your only relief from yourself.
Another thing the pandemic shifted for me, both slightly and enormously, was parenting (my daughter was five months old when lockdown started). I got to do a lot more of it than I would have otherwise! This was great, and also taxing, as you well know. Parenthood, along with the pandemic, is also one of the narrative/thematic threads in Somebody Else Sold the World. The Gymnopédies suite is sweet, pithy, and beautiful, shot through with a nostalgia that seems really right for an homage to [French composer] Erik Satie, and those poems, along with “Snakes Because We Say So,” help the speaker reflect on change–in the world, post-pandemic, as well as in himself. “Snakes,” in particular, is such an interesting and delicious poem——it has so much! The anaphora, the question about blame and its necessity, the interrogation of masculinity, the tone flicking its tail this way and that–but I’m especially curious about how you approach poems with your kid in them. I remember hearing Victoria Chang say something akin to (but kinder than) “my kids? I’m with them every day. Why do I want them in my poems?” Do you end up consciously writing about parent/fatherhood, or is this something that just kind of happens?
AM: What Victoria said cracks me up for so many reasons, but especially the exclusiveness of, or maybe the pervasiveness of being a poet. It’s so complicated and consuming. There are poems I’ve written that are only possible because of my daughter and then there are poems that never made it onto the page because I’m a father. Something is begetting something, but I’m not sure of the direction.
A while back I was working on a book of essays/poems about being a Black father during the Obama presidency and after. I gave up on the project for ethical reasons (including ones connected to the ownership of story) and also because there were some generational contextualities that I couldn’t unpack. I was raised in a generation still limiting itself with the one-drop paradigms of race. My daughter and her friends don’t go for those same constructions, so writing about Blackness and fatherhood in that context ended up being more historic than familial.
After I left the house, my relationship with my daughter fractured for all of the familiar reasons and I don’t feel like I understand [those threads] well enough to talk about it. But I think that breaking happens across our lives, all of the time. It’s impossible to change locations and be the same person. We move or a friend, family member or paramour moves, and our relationships change because of new topography. We have no choice but to change with the new atmospherics on all sides. Maybe you’re experiencing some of this in Ohio after so much time in Texas?
That’s a long way to go to say that the poems you mentioned are among the seven poems I wrote pre-pandemic while I was working on that earlier project. Everything else in the book was written between March and October 2020. The experience of isolation from the world and from my daughter made me reflect on what connections we still have. The Gymnopédies poems were part of that reckoning, if that makes sense. Thinking about the things we shared when she was six or seven, rather than the things we can’t communicate about now that she’s a teenager. There’s a different veneer to everything.
I’ve been thinking about how isolation has eroded our delicate nettings of socialization. I enjoy a good in-person poetry reading as much as the next poet, but it took me years to figure out how to separate my creative and public selves. I had to learn to change from my usual poetry lens to one that is more social so I wouldn’t sound like a T.S. Eliot parody at the party, affected British accent and all. I mean, there has to be separation, right? Nobody actually wants to sound like a poem during a conversation.
It feels like maybe a year of Zoom readings erased my etiquette on the page and off. I’m not sure I can still do small talk. Time in poems works differently now. Urgency in the world seems even more vital now.
I had a psychology professor in college who might have been British and was dosed with LSD without knowing. He became obsessed with time afterward and either lectured to his watch or to the clock on the wall, so he always knew what minute it was. It’s not that dramatic as that, but all of the past year’s mortality and stagnation has me thinking about what progression is when the world stops. I’m wondering about the different versions of mortality in The Enemy of My Enemy is Me, too, so I hope you’ll talk about that some.
CB: Oh, that’s so interesting about the Gymnopédies poems being kind of grafted onto/woven among poems that were written just last year. I remember seeing some of them years ago in POETRY (around the time The Big Smoke was out) and thinking ‘whoa these are so different–not coming over a sound system in a basement or from a podium but from someone leaning down to say something private and intimate.’ That they fit so seamlessly with the rest of the book, and its themes of time, distance, intimacy, and regret/guilt, speaks a lot to your revision and curatorial process.
That anecdote about the furtively-dosed prof–holy shit! LSD is, uh, quite a thing to weather when you consent to it; I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be hoodwinked into it. It seems like an apt metaphor/allegory for the pandemic, in a way: a mind-altering experience we had no idea we were participating in, could not escape, and are now greatly changed by. I love that you bring up time as one of the things that it’s changed for us, too, because I think another of Somebody Else Sold the World’s big fascinations for me is how it interrogates the themes I mentioned above in the context of different temporal cycles: the pandemic, the cycle of the year, the cycle of relationships (romantic and familial), and a human life cycle. How you toggle among these four, their different intimacies and terrors and exhilarations, and how they share so many of these between them, is really deft. It’s like watching the innards of a watch click and spin, all of these interlocking and meshing, driving the thing forward in a dazzling mess of glints and thoughtful friction.
I’m always so interested, too, in the way that time can work in a poem, and how it can both defy and encompass the way it does so in our world. I heard Noah Warren read a poem that leapt over like twenty years when he read the line “the years passed badly” — suddenly we’re in a future we didn’t know the poem was even capable of. I love how poems can do that. And how they can rewind time, too, like Ansel Elkins’s poem reversing a hate crime and restoring humanity to the victim of a lynching.
I want to ask you about time in your poems, too, but also want to answer your question about mortality. I mean, it’s more present for so many more than before, right? Between the stormier sky, the rising oceans, the hotter winds, and the cops, filmed or otherwise, brutalizing people of color, not to mention the virus and equitable medical care receding via cost and abortion restrictions, if it’s not already gone due to differential treatment of Black folks by science and practitioners–the urgency to address these has been there, but it definitely feels of a different order now.
As for my book, there’s a lot of violence in it. (Any book that takes the US as part of its subject will, or ought to, right?) There’s violence on the international level, the ecological level, the interpersonal, and the intrapersonal. The quote-unquote regular kinds of mortality, about the actual death of a person, come through with US neoimperial campaigns (the speaker is a paramour of Henry Kissinger, who helped engineer all sorts of coups and illegal bombing campaigns in the name of democracy) and mass shootings/gun fetishism; the other kind of mortality that the poems look at are what selves we are asked to sacrifice by society, specifically the kinds of selves it expects men (especially white men) to get rid of, and how restrictive, violent, and regressive this shedding of more thoughtful or conciliatory selves that do not want to participate in or overlook toxic instantiations of male personhood is.
I’m interested in complicity, how we can see cruelty, know that it’s perpetrated on our behalf, and allow it to go on. What kinds of deaths inside us does that engineer? What do we need to strangle inside ourselves so that we’ll stop a strangulation we are seeing?
This seems to me something you’re looking at, too, in Somebody Else Sold the World, albeit from a different vantage, different because of how race works in our poems and poetics, not to mention our lives, especially if/when we take race as a proxy for how the world does (or does not) impose itself on us. You also seem to be asking how did we get to this particular place of injustice, and what is that doing to us? Tiana Clark recently talked about each book having an unanswerable question as its engine. Does that hold true for you, or do you center the process differently when you are beginning a book?
I love to imagine that poetry is an antidote to all of this, but it’s not. It’s a signifier or an amplifier—more like a megaphone at a protest than a gun.
AM: Complicity is so knotty and multifaceted because it can be, as we’ve seen forever in the United States, something that people deny defensively, ignore selfishly, or sidestep quietly. I’m thinking about this wide lensed, in our public institutions, too, where cruelty is baked in and called “bureaucracy.” But it’s also been in the backdrop of my personal interactions since I was a kid. When I was younger, I rode shotgun with friends who enacted some of the toxicity so many of us (including some of those now-repentant friends) are trying to break apart now. That’s a familiar history for many men. So until each of us figures out how to be less selfish and avaricious, how to move through the world making space instead of taking it, we’ll continue to have these problems of disparity and disempowerment that’s been protected by our patriarchal systems.
Now I’m thinking about one of the poems that didn’t make it into SESTW that was inspired by a high school boy I knew when I was in middle school. He used to hip me up to the goings on in the neighborhood and in life generally, the way older kids sometimes would. Most of what he said was harmless and was probably repeating what he was told when he was younger. But his advice about women was essentially “make no mean yes.” He was passing on these ideas of sexual assault that were common then and now. I was 13 at the time and didn’t understand what he was saying until much later. I don’t think I was alone in being offered that kind of destructive advice from other men.
I love to imagine that poetry is an antidote to all of this, but it’s not. It’s a signifier or an amplifier—more like a megaphone at a protest than a gun. The poem I wrote about that guy wasn’t any good in part because of Tiana’s beautiful idea of unanswerable questions. There are no questions about his abhorrent advice beyond “Who taught him this?” so the momentum disappeared and what I had left was a didactic anecdote in line breaks.
But some of the major questions I kept asking myself in this book are about desire and want and also about consent and agency. I think the answers to these questions are constantly evolving, but I hope I started to answer them in SESTW.
At the same time, I don’t know if this book does the tough work of trying to dismantle the kind of cruelty we’re talking about at the top. I am fully aware of my position as a middle aged, heterosexual guy and American poetry from the 20th century on through is clogged with covetous, slobbery poems by men. I didn’t want to add to that self-serving canon. If anything, I hope that I was able to think about desire as part of the human condition, as familiar and as vital as breathing. Now I’m thinking about other poetry collections that deconstruct masculinity. Edgar Kuntz’s Tap Out does. Keith Kopka’s Count Four and Marcus Wicker’s Silencer do as well. Who else?
How do you write a love poem in the 21st century? How do you write a poem about sexuality and desire while also respecting the person who ignited it?
CB: Making space instead of taking it–so well said. It makes me think of that Mark Strand poem, “Keeping Things Whole,” in which the speaker says “In a field / I am the absence / of field.” That poem–like so many of Strand’s–works because it has a kind of moral revelation in the midst of an alternate dimension. You’re trying, in SESTW and just generally overall too, to do this moral work in the world we’re a part of. Not trying to diss Strand, but note an important qualitative difference, because one of the things that I think can be so hard is doing this so that the poem doesn’t just become a didactic anecdote in line breaks. How can the necessary distance between poet, speaker, and subject come into play so that the materials of the poem can be moved around until they click (or rattle right)? For me, I had to take the Strand route–go a little surreal with it, lean more into persona so that I wasn’t frozen by my closeness to it all.
But books like Edgar Kunz’s and Marcus Wicker’s (I haven’t read Count Four yet but have to), and Nathan McClain’s Scale, some of Shane McCrae’s less persona-driven work, even Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Fortune for your Disaster and Kevin Prufer’s strange narratives and Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture–they all live in the real world, and look openly at the cruelty that masculinity expects of individuals and systems, and posit tenderness and vulnerability as a response (in varying degrees of out-loudness). I like this idea of assembling an ad hoc canon of re-envisioning masculinity poetics. I’m sure I’m going to come up with five more poets and books once I finish this answer, too.
Because you’re right–we’ve all got those friends whom we rode shotgun with, who inherited and in their own way modified or continued to develop these regressive primitive codes of dude-ness, which, in one of your poems titled “Love Notes”, you note is to fail but “keep trying in the customs of dudes.” This idea of persistence, wearing away, eroding any barrier–it’s its own kind of colonial impulse. That my need is more important than your resistance, that it will outlast it. It’s so valuable that these are questions you’re working with–what is consent, not just interpersonally, but also in poems. Who gets to tell whose story and how? It makes me think of Edouard Glissant’s contention that people (especially colonized peoples) are allowed their obscurity and that some things–some works, some feelings, some thoughts–aren’t and shouldn’t be available for translation. Just because you want something doesn’t mean you should have it. Just because the mountain is there doesn’t mean you get to climb it. I’m thinking of the Indian government protecting the area around Nanda Devi (second highest mountain in the nation) for safety but also religious reasons. It seems to me that we could all stand to learn to take no for an answer more, on every level.
But one of the other things in your work that I think is really important in your work is how it demonstrates alternative methodologies of writing, especially regarding your collaborations. You’re a preternatural collaborator, with artists, the historical record, your own past, the music of others. It’s great in so many ways, but a lot because it’s you showing us, your readers, things you think are great. It’s a kindness and like, a community service, to enrich so many people’s understandings of what different creative expressions are out there, and how they intersect with each other and poetry and life and so on. How do you approach collaborations? Or, how do you figure out with your collaborators how to work together?
AM: Thank you for putting collaboration in such generous terms. I feel exceptional sometimes because I have exceptional friends. They all have such out-of-this-world perspectives and talents. I’m constantly learning from them. My most recent collaborations were with artists Dario Robleto, Kevin Neireiter, and Nicholas Galanin. Completely different makers with completely different political and aesthetic agendas, but they’re all part of my community of inspirations.
We talk about community in poetry a lot because it’s so important to surviving as humans and artists. Maybe even more now after being so physically isolated during the pandemic. But I’ve been thinking about how community—connections, support, social nets, whatever it means for the individual—is one of the first things that gets fractured by capitalism and its duplicitous institutions. What better way to keep everyone from building than to encourage competition for crusts? Scarcity can either enable or completely dismantle community if the community isn’t ready for what’s about to happen. And there is a genuine scarcity of resources for poets (and all artists, really), too, so we have to be mindful and we have to be generous. Not in the sense of being effusive with each other on social media, though that is welcome. But in a more three-dimensional sense—sharing tangible and nontangible resources without fear.
I’ve been the recipient of this kind of generosity throughout my career and I try as best as I can to give that back in whatever ways are available. When I was Poet Laureate of Indiana, I ran workshops at the Center for Black Literature and Culture called “Poetry for Indy.” I modeled them after June Jordan and Etheridge Knight’s Poetry for the People workshops. I tried to create a writing space in downtown Indianapolis for people who didn’t necessarily have access to a writing community. I thought it would just be neighborhood poets, but poets started showing up from Evansville and Muncie and Ft. Wayne because they needed a space that would honor their voices. I’d planned on continuing them after my time as IPL was over, but the pandemic paused those plans.
I know you were in Houston (where my friend Dario Robleto has a studio—shout out to Kerry Inman and the Inman Gallery who helped me get the art for both Map to the Stars and Somebody Else Sold the World!) with all of the beautiful writers and visual artists down there, so I wonder how it’s been for you, leaving a space of intense connectivity for a more isolated writing life? Has your idea of what community is or is for changed in your new space with your beautiful new role as a father?
That went pretty far away from collaboration, but in my mind, collaboration is community. Back when I was finishing Map to the Stars, I realized that I’d pretty much answered all of the questions I had poetically. The place I was in my personal and professional lives, the geographic and psychic space I was moving through were no longer spaces of inquiry. They were monochromatic and imperative. The only way I could find my way out was through linking with artists whose work inspired me. I imagined—and it turned out to be true—that if I could spend some time working in other artistic mediums it would force me to think of poetics differently.
The only way I could find my way out was through linking with artists whose work inspired me. I imagined—and it turned out to be true—that if I could spend some time working in other artistic mediums it would force me to think of poetics differently.
Working with Dario, Kevin, Nicholas, and also Youssef Daoudi (who is the artist I’m making a graphic novel with) allowed me to think in series of connecting visual images instead of series of sounds like I usually do in a poem. Music has always been the center of the poetry continuum for me. After collaborating with visual artists, I’m now imagining images as a corollary driver of the poems. Yusef Komunyakaa is probably my favorite poet generally but also for his ability to move a poem with both image and sound. “You and I Are Disappearing” and “Venus’s Flytraps” are immaculate in this way. Anything from Magic City or Dien Cai Dau really. The poems in SESTW are nowhere near as potent imagistically as Yusef’s, but I see myself toddling in his direction.
One more thing about collaboration: I was very lucky because I worked with artists who are my friends, in addition to inspirations. The collective agenda for each of the projects was simply to make the most incredible art we could. The ego was centered in the success of our shared art, rather than ourselves. That’s important because when we’re out here writing or making by ourselves ego is vital. It takes a particular kind of hubris to want to create art, given how much of it involves failure, so we have to believe this work matters. But that ego can also get in the way when other artists are involved. I can imagine another version of collaboration where there would be all kinds of drama because the artistic imperatives don’t line up.
CB: What you’re saying about ego, and how much we need it in the act of writing, reminds me of something I saw Nathalie Léger. She was talking about the hubris you’re talking about–the almost heroic effort it takes to reach a velocity strong enough to escape the gravity of those feelings. You know, the ones that say “this doesn’t matter” and “who cares,” those feelings of pettiness or that it feels petty. I think that’s really important to acknowledge, not to mention practice (and is a thing I have trouble getting past–this worry that my life as subject is too egocentric and self-aggrandizing/dramatizing to warrant anyone else’s attention). At the same time, though, what you’re saying about community and collaborative work, and how it shifts the location of ego in the process, so that it’s centered on the work itself and not the self, is such an important counterweight. To live in one extreme too long is to go full narcissist; in another, shapeless. For both of these, though, doing work that is one’s own, and doing work that is the collective’s, it feels to me that community is really essential.
I think this has become clearer to me as I’ve drifted further away from the community I had in Houston, which you rightfully note is vibrant, stimulating, and a little scruffy. I loved it there, and the people I got to spend time with in that city. Being away from it has given me perspective on just what I had, and how hard it is to get that. But with distance, and the recent thoughts and words of people like Matthew Salesses, Aditi Machado, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Éireann Lorsung, community is a thing that both sustains and differentiates you. And I think this sustenance and differentiation is really important for writing–as an individual, in community (people you chat about poems and life with over beers or ice cream) you get support and perspective that helps you feel like an interesting and intelligent person/creator as well as an individuated person. As a community, you’ve got people to work with, to help you consider and work with different perspectives, people who push you, in your own work but in your work together, too, to do more than you would otherwise. It’s kind of like the weird miracle of pressure and tension that allows a meniscus to form, the water gripping itself, the air resisting but also accommodating it.
Often I go to community for the same reason I go to poems: for perspective. To help me see the human side to a mass event, or to see the scope and history a small feeling can be traced up to. To challenge my understanding. Having poems (and essays and fiction) has helped me maintain that in the absence of direct human community, but you can’t replace the glee of a friend’s cackle or the opportunity to learn what you mean when you share an opinion on a line break. I can only imagine the opportunities for this kind of interchange that your workshops in Indy helped create–those sound so important, not to mention amazing! Here’s hoping the pandemic is under control soon and you can get them spread out among the Hoosiers.
At this point, I think I’ve just got one question left (though I wouldn’t mind if this convo just unspooled over the next couple months). We’ve talked about so much–music, parenthood, complicity, desire and consent in life and poems, community and collaboration. I’ve really appreciated the chance to see inside your process, your poetic values and aspirations, and what you hope Somebody Else Sold the World can tackle. I wonder if we could end by thinking not just about the poet, the work, the community, but poetry with a capital P, and what it can do. I really love what you say about it being “a megaphone at a protest and not a gun”–what amplifies but not what acts or does. What can, or what should, it do, and does that goal or purpose differ during times of crisis, as we’ve seen of late, or is it a question of intensity/degree?
AM: It’s been so great talking with you about all of this, Conor. I’m wishing you and your gorgeous book the most massive success possible and I’m excited we get to read together on the 15th!
It’s wild because I just got my author copies of Somebody Else Sold the World and I’ve been slowly inscribing them for my close friends and family. I have a nephew in the Air Force and I’m so proud of who he is and who he’s becoming. When he was younger, my sister would drag him to my poetry readings constantly. Somewhere along the way, he stopped fighting about it and wanting to be there on his own. He doesn’t write poetry. I don’t think he reads it much, either. But there is something about the atmosphere poetry creates that he enjoys.
I don’t know how he will react to this new book because as I told him in my note, the book is mostly full of uncle music. But I know he’ll respond in some way because he’s aware and open to possibilities. Poetry accesses some secret need in all of us and what it gives us might change depending on the world around us, but it all starts with poetic need. This pandemic has been awful in every conceivable way for our emotional and psychic wellbeing. For our art, too. I managed to write this book, mainly because I was clinging to poetry for survival.
Poetry accesses some secret need in all of us and what it gives us might change depending on the world around us, but it all starts with poetic need.
One good thing that came out of this time—and this speaks to what poetry can do—is a different idea for what poetry fellowship might look like. Those first couple of months were bleak and disconnected. Somewhere in there, people figured out how to use Zoom for readings and that changed everything. It gave people access to work they never had access to before because of geography, resources, availability, or time.
One of the most stunning and previously impossible events happened in June 2020 as part of Patricia Smith’s 65th birthday celebration: 65 poets each reading a poem in her honor, split over two nights. Patricia is one of my favorite poetry people, for her stunning poetry and for all of the work she does in the literary community, so it’s no surprise we all wanted to celebrate her. The event itself was a historic, literary occurrence that wouldn’t have been possible without Zoom. All of these dazzling, grateful poets “together” from all over the world reading poems to and for Patricia. I want to list names, but there were so many heroes that it would be disrespectful to choose who to name. But I think part of it is posted on YouTube (the second part, which you can find here).
Now I’m thinking about something that the novelist Ben Okri said about poetry. It’s cleaner than any definition I’ve come up with, so maybe I’ll just lean on his language. The quote looks long, but it’s only two sentences:
The poet needs to be up at night, when the world sleeps; needs to be up at dawn, before the world wakes; needs to dwell in odd corners where Tao is said to reside; needs to exist in dark places, where spiders forge their webs in silence; near the gutters, where the underside of our dreams fester. Poets need to live where others don’t care to look, and they need to do this because if they don’t they can’t sing to us of all the secret and public domains of our lives.
I love this job description. Okri’s talking about The Poet, but in truth the poet and poetry are symbiotic and make The Poet. They are both amplifier, enabler, conduit, stylist, wishing well, and a mouthless trumpet for each other. They each make possibility possible for the other.
INTERVIEW WITH K-Ming Chang
I first read K-Ming Chang’s writing in 2018, back when I was Fiction Editor of Nashville Review. Her story, “Meals for Mourners/兄弟”, captured my attention with its embodied, elemental language and stirring portrait of family life. Since that time, Chang has written a novel, a chapbook, and a story collection, among other projects. Currently, she is a Kundiman fellow. Her story, “Excerpt from the History of Literacy”, was published by Four Way Review in November 2020. While Chang’s characters bite, use meat grinders as weapons, and store their toes in a tin, Chang herself is generous of spirit, prone to doling out affirmations. During an unseasonably warm day in early spring, we talked about the craft of writing, giant snails, and the magic of making things possible.
FWR: Today I thought we could talk about your writing through a craft lens. Craft means different things to different people. To start, writer Matthew Salesses says in his recent book, Craft in the Real World, that “Craft is a set of expectations. Expectations are not universal; they are standardized. But expectations are not a bad thing.” What expectations do you feel you must meet in your writing, and whose expectations are they?
(Chang holds up her own copy of the book excitedly)
KMC: Maybe this is more what expectations I don’t meet, but I never want to explain things [to the reader] I wouldn’t explain to myself. If I were the reader and I wouldn’t need an explanation, then [as the writer,] I’m not giving one, even when I know it could make the reading more difficult for someone else. I write for myself first and foremost. I always use myself as a compass. If I am surprised or delighted by something or laugh at something or understand something, I allow that to be the compass. If I think too much about how a stranger will read it, I lose all sense of how I want the work to be.
FWR: So you’re meeting your own expectations when you write?
KMC: Yes. My expectations for myself are harsh, and I can be self-deprecating toward my own work. So, what I try to do is distance myself from [my work] as much as possible. I try not to think about how this is something I’ve spent a lot of time on and hate. I try to give myself time, a couple months or longer, and come back to the page to experience it as a reader. I look for a sense of surprise, always. I want to think, “Wait, I don’t remember writing this! I didn’t expect it to end there!” If I am not surprised, I know it’s not ready yet.
If I am not surprised, I know it’s not ready yet
FWR: How do you shock yourself when you are the one creating the surprise?
KMC: It does happen! When it goes well, the work ends up really far from where I started. It’s like a game of telephone from the first sentence—it mutates so much. Sometimes the surprise is even just a metaphor, and that can be enough.
FWR: Right now, you edit The Offing’s Micro section, which the journal files under its Cross Genre vertical. When I think of your writing as a body, “cross genre” is kind of the perfect category-defying category for it. It’s like having a non-container. Yet, no matter what form your writing takes, I feel I would recognize a K-Ming Chang piece anywhere. Part of the reason for this is your use of language on a line level. How would you describe your style?
KMC: I love this idea of a non-container! I think my style is very language driven, the idea of letting language lead me rather than logic. This sometimes results in a lot of derailing in my work—like, wow that sounded really interesting, but what does it mean? I find that’s where I have to reign myself in. I am very interested in lineages and mythmaking, creation and destruction, the elemental things that are common in mythical worlds. My style is hard for me to describe because I feel I am always trying to break out of my own style. When I write poetry, I am always trying to break out of my own poetic voice, and when I write prose, I feel very resistant to prose forms and sentences. So, it’s a constant wrestling.
I think my style is very language driven, the idea of letting language lead me rather than logic
FWR: I am always amazed by your ability to work fluidly across genres and forms. You write poetry, short stories, novels, micro fiction, and beyond. You have a poetry chapbook coming out from Bull City Press called Bone House. You also have a forthcoming story collection from One World called Gods of Want. When you sit down to write, do you have the intention to create, say, a short story from the outset? Or do you first have an idea for what your narrative is about, and then select its formal (non-)container?
KMC: I used to think it was a profound process, but it’s really like having a loose thread on your sweater that you yank. Usually, I start with a first sentence or even a few words. And then I pull on it and pull on it and let it expand. Usually what ends up happening is that whatever I think I am writing ends up as a giant block of text. When I think about what kind of narrative it will become—if it is a narrative—that is part of the revision process. When I am in the process of writing and producing, I really have no concept of “is this fiction, is this autobiographical, is this an essay, is this a poem?” That’s a lens for later.
FWR: That shows in your work. It feels like the language almost comes first and then the story blooms in this really interesting, organic way. What was it like writing Bestiary using this process?
KMC: I always joke that I tricked myself into writing it. When I was writing it, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is a novel. This is a full manuscript or project.” I wasn’t thinking anything. I was allowing it to be fragmented, almost like a series of essays, where each section had its own completed arc (which I later unraveled). I wanted to play on the page and have the scope be a bit smaller while I was writing. If I thought, “What is the through-line? What is the plot?” it would have been mentally strenuous, stressful, and scary for me. It was a mind trick. Then later, I unstitched it all and rewrote it.
FWR: When I read Bestiary, I was struck by the density of figurative language and how you use proverbs to explain the world. For example, “the moon wasn’t whitened in a day” and “burial is a beginning: To grow anything you must first dig a grave for its seed.” For me, these aphorisms are a kind of hand off into the myth and magic in your stories. You explain the world through the earth, through the body, through transformation. Your characters do not only feel that they have sandstorms in their bellies when they are sick—they literally have sandstorms in their bellies. Can you talk about the connection between language and transformation in your stories?
KMC: Wow that is so beautiful and profound! I think transformation is the perfect word. In a lot of ways, it is like casting a spell with language. Through metaphor, you turn something into something else. In the language, that is the reality. I had a teacher named Rattawut Lapcharoensap who wrote a story collection called Sightseeing. He told me that writing makes something possible that wasn’t possible before. I love that definition of writing—to make something possible. It is also very literal. You take a blank page and put words on it that weren’t there before. If you think about it that way, it isn’t so profound, but there is something magical about it to me. Regarding proverb and myth, I love that language can be embodied. Language isn’t just a passive tool to render something. The poet Natalie Diaz once gave a talk at my school, and she said in the alphabet, the letter A came from the skull of an animal, and that’s the etymology of the letter A.
FWR: I feel like you wrote that! Speaking of real histories embodied in language, many of your stories are metafictional. In your short story “Excerpt from the History of Literacy,” your novel Bestiary, and your forthcoming chapbook Bone House, you use myths, wives’ tales, epistolary, oral storytelling, and Wuthering Heights to inform your narratives. In your mind, what is the role of the metafiction for the plot at hand? How do other stories inform what is happening in your own work?
KMC: I love that you asked about metafiction because I’ve actually been thinking about this. It’s interesting because when people think metafiction, they think postmodern. They think that it’s a very recent thing to have moments of meta in fiction. Chinese literature is extremely metafictional. The beginnings of chapters will say, “In this chapter, here’s what you’re going to learn.” And then at the end of the chapter they’ll say, “to find out the end of this conflict, read on to the next chapter.” In a lot of translated Chinese fiction that I know and love, there’s this sense of artifice. I am constructing something for you, so read on to the next chapter, the next scaffolding. It shows you the performance of the fiction, which I love so dearly. It’s ancient, not experimental or new or strange—maybe it is to Western audiences. Regarding plot, I think there’s something very playful about reminding the reader of the fiction. It kind of breaks the expectation of realism, which opens up the possibilities—this is all a construct anyway, so why can’t you give birth to a goose? Why can’t you fly?
Regarding plot, I think there’s something very playful about reminding the reader of the fiction. It kind of breaks the expectation of realism, which opens up the possibilities—this is all a construct anyway, so why can’t you give birth to a goose? Why can’t you fly?
FWR: Earlier, you mentioned you write to fulfill your own expectations. In her lecture titled “That Crafty Feeling”, Zadie Smith says that critics and academics tend to explain the craft of writing (or, expectations) only once a text has been written—that is, after the fact of making. She says that “craft” is almost retrospective. It doesn’t really tell a writer how to go about writing, say, a novel. Does this resonate with you?
KMC: I completely agree! There are so many times where I’ve only been able to articulate my intentions, or what tools I’ve used to articulate those intentions, long after I’ve written the thing. Most of the time I don’t even know my own motivations, much less my own expectations, for writing a particular piece. I think that’s part of the joy and mystery of the experience – if I clearly know my own expectations and how I’m going to fulfill them, it tends to fizzle out quickly. There’s something about being a perpetual beginner, or at least feeling like one, that makes writing possible for me.
FWR: Have there been times when you’ve been given craft advice you refused to heed? What writerly hills have you died on? You’ve been lovely to work with from an editorial standpoint, but I wonder if there are times you feel the need to put your foot down.
KMC: I love getting edits and feedback because I’m constantly lost in the woods. I’m always asking what to cut—I welcome it! But I think I struggle with conventions of storytelling that we get told as writers. We internalize things like, “Make sure the narrator is driving the story and have an active narrator.” I’m really curious about stories that have characters who are caught in the eye of a storm—who are not necessarily driving the story, but are in circumstances where the world is what is moving them, because of status and who they are! This idea of an “I” narrator who creates conflict and action is a very particular way of seeing yourself in relation to the world that I don’t think my narrators have the privilege to experience. I have also been told, “Every word is necessary”—to have an economy of language. There’s an interview with Jenny Zhang in the Asian American Writers Workshop where she says, “I don’t want to be economical. I want to be wasteful with language.” I loved it so much I wrote it down. I fight against this utilitarian idea. Write toward the delight of sounds and words. Why follow this capitalist directive in the way that we write? I think breaking out of that is really important.
I fight against this utilitarian idea. Write toward the delight of sounds and words. Why follow this capitalist directive in the way that we write? I think breaking out of that is really important.
FWR: I like the idea of being wasteful with language. I think you could also see it as being generous with language.
FWR: You talk about your characters not being as active. How do you go about developing your characters? I’m thinking about how Smaller Uncle in “Excerpt from the History of Literacy” is most vivid in relation to the details assigned to him—from the tendencies of his nose hairs to the way he fixes the “dumpster-dive TV.” Can you talk more about how you develop and discover your characters?
KMC: A specific phrase or voice will pop into my head and I’m like, “Who is this? Who are you? Why would you say this?” It’s always horror or shock at some terrible thought. It always comes from this place of curiosity. I want to know why this person is thinking this or doing this in a particular moment. The unravelling is discovering what happens. I sometimes stray completely from where I began, but character is really the driving force of my curiosity. I want to find out the circumstances under which characters do or say certain things. We often think that characters need to have individualistic, unique, instantly recognizable identities. But I’m really interested in collectives. People whose selfhood bleeds into their families and their communities, with lovers. I love the mutability of the self. I’m more interested in how selfhood doesn’t exist—the blurring of borders.
But I’m really interested in collectives. People whose selfhood bleeds into their families and their communities, with lovers. I love the mutability of the self. I’m more interested in how selfhood doesn’t exist—the blurring of borders.
FWR: Do you have any favorite literary characters?
KMC: In Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, there is a character called Moonie. The book begins as a revenge story, and I love revenge. I love this character and this book! I also have a huge weakness for Wuthering Heights. I am endlessly fascinated by any character from Wuthering Heights. I may not ever want to meet them or interact with them, but I have endless fascination. There are so many mythical characters I love from different mythologies. There is a snake goddess who is also a giant snail sometimes. I’m delighted that she’s a giant snail. Yes, I love that. Her myth is that she creates the world and creates people out of mud. We’re all just snails!
FWR: I’ve always felt that way. So, what are you reading right now?
KMC: I’m rereading a book that’s coming out in July from my publisher, One World, called Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung. I also just read a book called Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge. It’s coming out from Melville House and is one of my favorite books of all time. The myth, the uncanniness, the strange beasts—I feel like the title is self-explanatory. It broke me out in a cold sweat the whole time, but in the best way. I have this goal for myself that will probably never happen to read all four classic novels of China. One of them is Dream of the Red Chamber, which I have read, and Water Margin, which is about bandits. I love writing about pirates and I feel like bandits are of the same branch, so I want to start reading that.
FWR: Thanks for the recs! Before you go—any thoughts on the pandemic’s impact on your writing?
KMC: In terms of the actually sitting down and writing, not much has changed. For me, there is an increased sense of urgency in wanting to tell certain stories that are in a community. Before Covid, my stories were about interwoven webs of community. That’s very important to me, and this was heightened during the pandemic. Part of that is because I spent a lot of time with my family in the hustle and bustle of a very large household. I remembered what it was like to be surrounded by voices and storytellers all the time. Being home rerouted me in what I wanted to do. Being solitary helps me write, though. I try to create that solitude. When I was living at home, I had this habit of writing in ungodly hours of the night. At first, I thought it was because I am such a night owl, but really, it’s because I was alone. When everyone in the house was either out or sleeping, everything was muted. The windows were so black I couldn’t see out into the world. I felt so alone, and it almost created my mood. I needed to enter that space to be with myself. I needed the solitude of night pressing in.
- Published in Featured Fiction, home, Interview, Monthly
MONTHLY: Chapbook Conversation
The chapbook is a strange and protean form, flickering somewhere between long poem and short book, and though they get little love from reviewers, prize committees and large publishers, many of us write, publish and love them. So, in January, I sat down with three poets whose chapbooks I’ve really enjoyed, to talk with them about our experiences writing (and shilling for) these little fascicles, and how we did (or did not) weave them into full-length books. Conor Bracken
Conor Bracken is the author of Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour (Bull City Press, 2017), selected by Diane Seuss as winner of the fifth annual Frost Place Chapbook Competition, and The Enemy of My Enemy is Me (Diode Editions, June 2021), winner of the 2020 Diode Editions Book Prize. He is also the translator of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s Scorpionic Sun (CSU Poetry Center, 2019). His work has earned fellowships from Bread Loaf, the Community of Writers, the Frost Place, Inprint, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and has appeared in places like BOMB, jubilat, New England Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and Sixth Finch, among others. He lives with his wife, daughter, and dog in Ohio.
What the Chapbook Allows For
“[The chapbook was] a more dense approach. [The poems] are more focused… Because I am so blobular and sprawly…the chapbook helped me so much with the [full length] book… You know when cells sort of… create an internal circle and expel something? Endocytosis! This little nucleus started forming within the blob [of a bigger idea], and that became the chapbook. That helped me center around a specific object, and a specific line of thought, and it became a guiding principle. A concrete thing to work around. [The chapbook] helped me in eliminating all the things that did not belong to it.” Ananda Lima
Ananda Lima’s poetry collection Mother/land was the winner of the 2020 Hudson Prize and is forthcoming in 2021 (Black Lawrence Press). She is also the author of the poetry chapbooks Amblyopia (Bull City Press – Inch series, 2020) and Translation (Paper Nautilus, 2019, winner of the Vella Chapbook Prize), and the fiction chapbook Tropicália (Newfound, forthcoming in 2021, winner of the Newfound Prose Prize). Her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Poets.org, Kenyon Review Online, Gulf Coast, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. She has an MA in Linguistics from UCLA and an MFA in Creative Writing in Fiction from Rutgers University, Newark.
“For me, too, [the chapbook] was so much more fun…! The chapbook is just a really wonderful time. It’s really one of my favorite parts of my writing life so far.” Taneum Bambrick
Taneum Bambrick is the author of VANTAGE, which won the 2019 APR Honickman First Book Award. Her chapbook, Reservoir, was selected for the 2017 Yemassee Chapbook Prize. A graduate of the University of Arizona’s MFA program and a 2020 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in The Nation, The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Rumpus and elsewhere. She teaches at Central Washington University.
“There was something more fun about the chapbook process, because it almost felt like you didn’t know what the expectations were… Because the big book is like “This is the BIG BOOK… Oftentimes we’re so used to seeing our poems in our Microsoft Word frame-world, that it was such a huge thing to me when Ross sent me my first mockup of my book… Going through those small processes, having the object, giving your first reading with the book, and going through all those on a smaller level, to me was such an added boost in getting to the big book process.” Tiana Clark
Tiana Clark is the author of the poetry collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Clark is a winner for the 2020 Kate Tufts Discovery Award (Claremont Graduate University), a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow, a recipient of a 2019 Pushcart Prize, a winner of the 2017 Furious Flower’s Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. She was the 2017-2018 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing.
“I looked at each of the sections of my big book as actually three different chapbooks. And that helped me break down the aerial view into sizeable chunks to help me manage it mentally and emotionally.” TC
“I’m writing these poems and then I see that there’s a sort of theme emerging, and there’s a lot of poems that are talking to each other and are tending towards certain subject matter or a mood. At first I’m just thinking of the poem as a poem, and then I’m thinking of this blob… This is my book—the blob!
For me, the difference between the blob and the chapbook was just that there was a conversation crystallizing around this nucleus… Find and create bridge poems: Look for poems you might have thought about including in your chapbook, but decided not to because they veered away from the chapbook’s core. You can also do this with new work, work-in-progress, and even notes on poems-to-come. The goal is to find poems that speak to the work in the chapbook, but don’t neatly fit into it. Use that intersection to expand the work into new threads to be explored for the full length.” AL
“Think about your favorite book of poems. There’s probably only 5 or 6 poems that come to your head… If you have 5 or 6 fire poems, then you’re ready to go… Also…make sure everything looks beautiful and perfect. It starts from the table of contents. Those are like little chapter novels!” TC
“What do you feel is missing? I don’t mean “missing” in a negative way, but rather as gaps where more risk, information, and urgency might enter into the project. What did you carve out through the editing process? Do you still have those drafts? Who told you to throw them away? The process of editing a chapbook, at least for me, was so influenced by institutions: some of what I removed initially, or didn’t feel brave enough to pursue, were poems and essays that represented the most authentic parts of the experiences I was describing.” TB
“Thinking about the audience in the process of composition and even assemblage can be paralyzing. I love how chapbooks can unfetter us from our own expectations of ourselves so that we can write without an audience, that doesn’t even exist, breathing down our necks…and can also give us this kind of tailwind we need for the next stage.” CB
“I did a mini-chapbook tour…and I was reading at mostly bars in random places…and I was just writing down questions people had for me, so I would hear where the gaps were, [the] places where I was resisting something that felt risky or where I hadn’t written yet something that might be the most vulnerable.” TB
“I often don’t think about the audience, even in general. I saw Terrance Hayes in an interview talk about how in his first drafts the audience is never in the room, it’s just [him]and [his] shadows and [he’s]just exorcising everything out. Obviously, we think about the audience at some point, which for me is revision, or publication. I always tell my students there’s the poems you write and the poems you publish.” TC
“Using submissions as a thing in your writing process …is very true for me too. I find that the revisions I do before the deadline are so much better than the ones I’ve been doing for months. That’s when the audience comes in… It makes it easier to imagine other eyes reading that.” AL
“I was unable to publish the poems individually because my book is very much narrative-driven, so if you extract individual parts, they don’t really make sense. I was encouraged by my workshop leaders at the University of Arizona to pursue chapbook publication.” TB
“[The thought process was] I think I have 15-20 poems in conversation, let me submit to a chapbook competition. I make it sound so haphazard but that’s kind of how I was… I looked at submission deadlines at the time as a way for me to help with my revision process.” TC
“Having that editing process helped me understand what I had here [in this chapbook] that belonged to the other [bigger] book.” AL
“I got a handwritten rejection from Bull City. It was so cute! I remember carrying that handwritten note around. I had it on my wall in my room because it was so important to me. It was the first time anywhere that I considered to be a really big deal publishing place had ever spoken to me. It was this intense breakthrough that gave me the motivation to submit it… I look back on how dramatically that changed my idea of myself. From that note on, I went from writing by myself to writing in community.” TB
“If you got a personal rejection, whether that’s for an individual submission or for a chapbook or for a big book prize…the fact that someone took the time is a really big thing, and it’s also a sign you’re getting closer. I love that quote from Sylvia Plath: ‘I love my rejection letters, they’re signs that I tried.’” TC
How much of the chapbook became ‘the Big Book’?
“When it got to the Big Book for me, [the big book] definitely had a theme…after you do the mini-tour [for the chapbook] and get the little amuse-bouche of what’s happening, then it helps you for the Big Book. I was like, what conversations do I want to be having, what do I want to answer in Q&As and interviews, because I got a taste of that with the chapbook… [For the chapbook and the big book] I let those voices haunt me in a different way.” TC
“[I had] my fears about having too many of the same poems in the chap and the full-length, and worrying about the audience in that way and trying to figure out how to make [the poems] different. I ended up with almost all the poems from my chapbook in my full-length, so that felt like a really big risk… My chapbook had a quieter reception, so it didn’t really matter that much. But the biggest difference is that I was really interested in hybridity and including essays alongside poems… The difference between the chapbook and my book is pretty much the risk of hybridity and the risk of engaging in those traumatic, scarier, more personal details.” TB
“I was worried that everyone had read some of these poems. Because it felt like more of a book than a chapbook for me, I kind of let it go. “This is its own thing.” The full-length became a challenge of creating a newer object and I want them to have two separate worlds. I think I only have 2.5 poems…from the chapbook in the big book. What are poems that are absolutely in this other conversation? But I gave myself permission to let my chapbook be its own thing and just kind of put it on a boat and pushed it away.” TC
“What are some guiding principles? ‘Every good book—whether that be a novel, a linked short story collection, or a sequence of poems—starts with an unanswerable question.’ And the protagonist…struggles with that, trying to answer that question, and never does, but it’s that tension that creates the narrative arc.” Charles Baxter via TC
“Having good teachers is really important for [learning to embrace risk] and identify what [you’re] avoiding.” TB
“The workshop is a voice but not the voice. [It can] sanitize risk.” TC
“One thing my professor [Mark Jarman told me about impostor syndrome], this grand professor with all these books, he was like “oh, you’ll have that for the rest of your life.” He said it so matter-of-factly and there was something about that that was so comforting, so I was like oh, so this is not something to overcome and the fact that I’m feeling that is very much in line with being a writer. Once I realized it was insurmountable, I was like oh, I got this. So I alchemized that energy.” TC
“Find unexplored threads in your chapbook: Talk through your poems with a generous friend (or an imaginary friend, if you are good at pretending). Go through each of the poems in your chapbook and have fun geeking out on what you did (eg. “the line break here does X, isn’t that cool?”, “I used this word here because it can also mean X,” etc). Sometimes talking about poems in the way, you find themes that are under the surface, that you could explore them in more depth in a full collection. The friend can stay silent or they can ask questions (eg. “where do you think this word is going?”), as long as you both understand that this is not a workshop but a generative exercise looking for nascent threads in the chapbook.
[In terms of emotional management] Feel great about yourself and your accomplishment. You wrote a chapbook and that is awesome. Remind yourself when you didn’t have a chapbook at all and the time when you were anxious about a fledgling something in your hands, unsure of where it would go. Remember this and use it to keep yourself going through some similar anxieties when writing your full-length collection.” AL