In 2021, Four Way Review partnered with several other journals and presses to establish the Bootleg Reading Series. It was a partnership we hoped would continue to grow beyond the reading series and lift up the projects of each partner. We’re excited to share this conversation with some of the poets of the new Queer Nature anthology, published by Bootleg partner Autumn House Press, in conversation with one another and the ideas of “queer nature”.
“Queer Nature is a groundbreaking anthology of more than 200 LGBTQIA+ poets writing about nature. Left out of the canon but with much to say, these writers peculiarize bodies into landscapes, lament the world we are destroying, and sing of darkness and love, especially along the beach. If nature is a monocrop, no single aesthetic, attitude or voice defines these poems from three centuries of American poetry.”
Michael Walsh, editor of Queer Nature, is a 2022 Lambda Gay Poetry Finalist. He received his BA in English from Knox College and his MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.
FWR: Which queer poets have inspired you? Which queer poems? If any are pastoral, do you notice anything new about them in the context of queer nature?
“You know, I have a lot of embarrassment about being pretty under informed about poetic movements or styles. I studied English and creative writing, but thought more about individual poems. This is just to say I’m not certain I understand what the pastoral is, but I do love a lot of poems that figure and transfigure the natural world. I think of poems like “Tiara” by Mark Doty, which puts drag queens next to lush water, next to death and sex.”
Eric Tran earned his MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is the author of Mouth, Sugar, and Smoke (2022), forthcoming from Diode Editions in the spring, and The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer (2020), from Autumn House Press. He is also an Associate Editor for Orison Books and a resident physician in psychiatry at the Mountain Area Health Education Center.
“I consider poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Audre Lorde to be major influences in my development as a poet. I was introduced to both poets in college and graduate school. My first attempts to write about my own queer experience were influenced by “The Shampoo” by Bishop, in which the simple act of washing her lover’s hair inspires an image of shooting stars, suggesting to my young mind that love between two women is such a revelation that it compels images of heaven. The movement toward metaphor in this poem was indicative of the deep nature of a sexual relationship between two women. I experienced the same sense of revelation in Lorde’s “Love Poem” where intimacy pushes the speaker toward seeing her lover’s body as a forest and her own entry into it as the wind, as she opens widely to “swing out over the earth over and over again.” As an imagistic writer, I struggled to write about sex in an overt way; however, the metaphor invites great possibilities for writing about intimacy between women.
“Neither of these poems is pastoral; however, you ask an interesting question in the context of environmental poetry. Much of the nature poetry being written today is a movement away from pastoral writing. There is too much that stands in the way of the effort to ‘touch’ God through one’s experience of nature—abuses of the land, water, and air, not to mention our current focus on the power of place where the land itself has connection to indigenous peoples and histories that far more important to acknowledge, at least in my mind.”
Amber Flora Thomas earned her MFA at Washington University in St. Louis and is the author of Red Channel in the Rupture (2018) from Red Hen Press, The Rabbits Could Sing (2012) from the University of Alaska Press, and the Eye of Water (2005) from the University of Pittsburgh Press, which won the 2004 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She is also the recipient of the Richard Peterson Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize from Rosebud magazine, and the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize.
“My poetry would not exist without the poems of [Constantine] Cavafy; his dreamy stagings of sex and history are always close to me; his frankness and the undramatic way his poems unfold have taught me so much about managing energy in short lyrics. James Merrill was the first poet I loved unreasonably. Henri Cole and Carl Phillips are two poets of my parents’ generation whose work has been indispensable to me from the beginning. They are both represented with brilliant poems in the Queer Nature anthology—both poems in some way about the way we look to the natural world to teach us about ourselves, our desires, and how the natural world always complies and refuses us at the same time.”
Richie Hofmann is the author of A Hundred Lovers (2022) from Alfred A. Knopf, and Second Empire (2015), from Alice James Books. He received his MFA at John Hopkins University and is a Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University.
“The queer poets and academics whose work has been foundational in critiquing Western constructions of Nature (and thus The Human) in my work are Sylvia Wynter, Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s Becoming Human, Gloria Anzaldua, Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem, Vievee Francis’ Forest Primeval, Jake Skeets’ Eyes Bottle-Dark and a Mounthful of Flowers, and Natalie Diaz’ Postcolonial Love Poem.
“These works reveal how the “Nature” of the Western imagination is an inherently colonial concept. “Nature” conceived as terra nullius, or empty “virgin” land, by using the very word, invents the land as an unpeopled, undisturbed habitat outside of time, removed from the urban, and evacuated of Blackness, indigeneity, and queerness. National parks—“America’s Best Idea”—are racialized spaces defined by the absence of race, and serve to dehistoricize the land from its indigenous history and frame conservation as a value rooted in rugged individualism and self-sufficiency. In the construct of “nature,” indigenous people are confined to prehistory—if nature is prehistoric, then what we do to it does not affect our future. In the Western imagination, “Nature” is separate from us, just as the body is separate from the mind, and becomes an object—a place to go, a thing to be experienced, a resource to extract from—rather than a living being surrounding us, full of beings with whom we share a destiny. The concept of “Nature” is primitive, and necessary to construct the (white, Western) Human who has evolved beyond it.”
Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, author of award-winning Beast Meridian (2017) from Noemi Press and essay collection CHUECA, forthcoming from Tiny Reparations Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in 2023. She is a recipient of a 2021 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship and PhD candidate at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
I think animals abound in queer poems as metaphors, false or correct, of fully living in a body.
FWR: Queer desire carries an inherent subversion of expectation, and with it, potentially, greater freedom of form and image. What are “the birds and the bees” of queer erotic poems? What metaphors are found in the biomes of queer poems, especially sexy ones?
AFT: I have been trying to find my own answer to this question. I have written about my experiences as a child of retreating to the woods as a place of safety. Often, I would find myself hiding in the woods where I could watch my family, seeing through the trees a world that could not embrace my queerness. I take my queerness to the woods where it is not moralistically judged by the trees or other flora. This question reminds me of Carl Phillips poetry and essay, especially his “Beautiful Dreamer” chapter in The Art of Daring, which describes stumbling on three men having sex against a tree in the woods. Perhaps the wilderness provides cover or separation from societal judgement, which is why we have so much to say about queerness and nature.
VAV: Nature was never accessible to me growing up—I was born on the US/Mexico border and grew up in Houston, Texas, an ever-sprawling, drowning city under construction where Nature is at least an hour drive away near the state prison, and where white flight takes its suburbs and fells trees to make room for endless strip malls and megachurches.
Still, nature asserted itself in surprising and subtle ways in the Black, Latine, and queer neighborhoods of Houston where I grew up. My childhood home is near Acres Homes—a historic Black homestead nestled between highways, famous for its barbecue and horse-mounted Black cowboys; I attended Pride at seventeen and got my first HIV test at the free clinic in Montrose, the (now fully-gentrified) historic gayborhood of Houston along Buffalo Bayou; I biked through the white-oak-lined side streets of Third Ward, Houston’s historic Black neighborhood, to attend the University of Houston. And as a child, the swampy young pines behind our house haunted my imagination and stayed with me long enough to inspire the inner nightlands of Beast Meridian.
Those pines were where I escaped the confines of gender and jumped my bike over ditches with boys, smoked cigarettes and listened to music with the bad kids, escaped angry parents to read The Bell Jar under honeysuckle, tagged anarchy symbols under bridges, explored flooded creeks and caught crawfish when the power was out after hurricanes, kissed and touched and undressed with every gender under the stars. After I got caught sneaking out at thirteen, my parents took my bedroom door off its hinges permanently, so throughout adolescence, the pines were the only place I had any privacy, the place where I became brave, the place that held my forbidden self, a sanctuary of desire that made safe my secrets, the moonlit clearing where young love blossomed in my body, a haven for a young girl in trouble to hide. My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me, tell me where did you sleep last night / In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine, I would shiver the whole night through. That vision of nature informs every poem in Beast Meridian, from “Malinche” to “Girlbody Gift” to the final sequence, “The Way Back”—the nightlands of forbidden desire, rebellion, trouble, alienation—where the speaker grieves her monstrosity until she can finally embrace her animal, and in so doing, sets herself free.
Queer nature is a catapult out of the limits of a single human body. It is a breaking out, a widening into the possibilities of a transformative understanding of boundaries of self.
RH: Being queer, I think, forces one deeply into one’s body—you become more aware than other people about the arbitrariness of gender and the randomness of having a body. I think animals abound in queer poems as metaphors, false or correct, of fully living in a body. Free from desire and emotional pain, social torment, strictures of marriage and morality. In my own poem, “Idyll,” the speaker desires to shed his skin; the act of speaking, of confessing to desire, is an act of undressing.
ET: I love this definition of queer. I think sometimes we think of queer as undoing or transforming, but often I think of queer as revealing what has always been. Rather than leaps, I think of sinking deeper into, of falling, of lying and pressing (as fingers into the soil)–all of which are unsurprisingly very sexy actions to take.
FWR: What does queer nature mean to you? If you experienced the HIV/AIDS pandemic, has experiencing the Covid-19 pandemic caused you to consider “nature” more than in the past?
RH: This is a hard question for me. I feel somewhat ambivalent about both “queerness” and “nature.” I don’t think of myself as a pastoral poet. I’d rather be in a museum than in a forest. But reading Queer Nature, I feel such a profound kinship with writers I’ve never met.
AFT: Queer nature is a catapult out of the limits of a single human body. It is a breaking out, a widening into the possibilities of a transformative understanding of boundaries of self.
I don’t have much to say about the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the Covid pandemic. It angers me that most people still think of HIV/AIDS as a ‘gay’ disease. Most people do not see the parallels. Most people can’t get to the point where they see how greed, environmental degradation, and ignorance lead to pandemics.
the act of creation is forever fused with subversion in nature
VAV: The nature of my youth was not the normative Nature of national parks or state reserves—it was a nameless, swampy half-acre of undeveloped land behind our house, where flooded ditches gouged the boundary between our neighborhood and the trailer park next door. That nature was where the “bad kids”—the troubled kids, rebels, outcasts, queer kids—found each other, not recognizing that our bond was not in our badness, but in shared trauma and alienation. The only way to get to our nature, queer nature, was to be disobedient, daring enough to break a rule, stay out after hours, trespass, know where to jump the fence. The forbidden places I went to skip school, smoke cigarettes, skinny dip, drop acid, give and get head, kiss both girls and boys, fuck in cars until police pulled up, were also where I went to read, write, and play guitar. And this has had a fundamental influence on my artistic practice—the act of creation is forever fused with subversion in nature. Nature and art are sites of disobedience, rebellion, and provocation—if I am not being subversive, vulnerable, provocative, brave, then I am not making the art I want to make.
Now in single motherhood, I live near Griffith Park and Southern California beaches, and nature is a haven from isolation and endless responsibility, an expansive companion that quiets my troubled heart, holds my grief in rosy light, and sends me guardians to guide my path—still deer, scrappy coyotes, vigilant owls, hovering hummingbirds, tumbling dolphins, fragrant artemisia—their presence urging me to go on when the world feels impossible and love never comes. Now, nature is where I go to slow down time and listen to the open, be with when there is no one, be with until there is.
ET: I think queer nature asks about access and owning and belonging. I think in both of these epidemics, we had to reckon with the truth that very little is owed to us and in fact, we are obligated to return our bodies to the natural world eventually. That sounds very bleak but what I mean is that my idea of queer nature is to be freed of invented obligation and restriction and to discover and experience what is opened.
FWR: To start, I was hoping you might speak about the pull of Greek mythology, both in its use as a framing device for some of the poems and a source of imagery in others.
RP: When I drafted my first poem about Medusa way back in 2007, it was about a different subject entirely. My mother had survived breast cancer and been in remission ever since her double mastectomy, but I’d come to realize that something significant had changed in both the way some men perceived and treated her (and women like her), as well as the way she perceived herself. Something about that recalled to my mind the mythic woman with snakes for hair, that body transformed into something so terrifying that it also physically petrified anyone who looked upon it.
But as I delved deeper into the myth — or the myriad variations of the myth — I moved away from that idea and toward what, to me, is the real crux of Medusa’s story: She is a woman who, in many versions of the myth, is raped by Poseidon on the altar of Athena; then, as if that wasn’t heinous enough, she is transformed into a monster. And this is the story of so many women (and others, not just women) to this day. That realization was too powerful and potent to ignore.
And there were a lot of directions I could’ve gone in telling any story of survivorship. I suppose I could’ve just stuck to a contemporary story or set of stories; I could’ve also written it in prose, but poetry specifically allowed me to bridge important gaps between fiction and nonfiction in a way that felt natural, seamless, and protective because poetry can be both and neither of those things — fiction and nonfiction — at the same time. But to me, there’s something very powerful about pointing back to something so old, because it effectively allows me to say, “Look! Look at how much time has passed, and look at how this still has not changed. That’s not OK.” Something as old as Greek myth allows you to do that. Another thing about the myth, specific to Medusa, is that the story of her becoming a monster in so many versions quite literally relies on that singular act of sexual violence at the hands of Poseidon. Before that, without that, she is portrayed as an average woman — beautiful, perhaps, but a physical form we’d recognize.
But because most mythology (Greek or otherwise) also comes with its own set of images — symbols — which seem to be more fantastical to us in today’s world because they are so far from our lived experience— it is a rich trove from which to draw imagery and metaphor. While you can reinterpret the meaning of that imagery, as I did often throughout the book, a lot of it was more or less handed to me as part of the original story, from the snakes to the ocean to the stone — all of which, it seemed to me, related very specifically to sexual assault survivorship. And with any luck, in Head of a Gorgon, I’ve built out those ways in which I saw the myth’s imagery and the subject of survivorship connecting.
FWR: I was intrigued by starting Head of a Gorgon with the Flash Forward section and “The Gorgon’s Parting Thoughts”, which, to me, created a structural ouroboros. How did you decide on the structure of the manuscript?
RP: I love that concept: a “structural ouroboros”! That’s an awesome way of describing it! I’m stealing that!
The reason we flash forward to an end at the beginning is twofold. One, I was taking a feminist theory course in grad school while working on my thesis, which was how the concept for Head of a Gorgon started, and one of the things we discussed is the experience of time as it relates to gendered experience and society. Some suggest women’s experience of time is more cyclical — think menstrual cycles and the like — whereas men’s might be considered more linear — and here I think we can infer what the reference would be to in that case. I wanted both, especially since, in some versions of the Medusa myth, she actually represents the circle of life (birth, death, and rebirth), but this writer exists in a patriarchy.
The other aspect relates to the title and what is actually going on overall in the book. That moment when Medusa “dies” right at the beginning is the opening up of her head, from which this entire story is able to pour. In some versions of the original myth, when Medusa is beheaded, Pegasus and Chrysaor fly out. It’s quite a stretch to consider the book itself Pegasus or Chrysaor, but the idea of something having to end, in order to begin again and/or get to the core of its meaning made sense to me in the framework of this version of the myth.
FWR: Building off the idea of the ouroboros, I thought the use of repetition was powerful, particularly in the return of the “Your Captain Speaking” poems. Upon my first read of the first instance of a poem titled this, I was struck by how the poem pointed to voice and power structures: “who cares what other stories have told you? /… Who retains the right to name?”. Repetition returns later, with both secrets kept and new relationships reminiscent of old. Could you talk about what drew you to repetition?
RP: There is so much related to survivorship that reinforces, that ruminates, that obsesses. It can be very cyclical in quite literal ways: Being sexually assaulted at a young age, for instance, puts victims at a higher risk for being victimized again in the future. The physical experience could have ended, but the survivor’s mind can replay it over and over (i.e., PTSD). It can, in many ways, become all-consuming. So repetition is essential, to me, in portraying some fundamental aspects of the experience of survivorship.
Specifically with respect to the three “Your Captain Speaking” poems, originally, those three poems had different titles when they were first published. But at some point, as the collection really started solidifying, it seemed to me that those three poems in particular, which were always similar in tone, were more or less coming from the same sort of persona, and it was someone I didn’t want to specifically name because I wanted to leave that open to the reader’s interpretation. But how could I still signal to the reader that these three poems are from the same persona just like poems from the perspective of “P” are all Poseidon and the capital-“S” Snake is also a singular persona?
I happen to be a huge Louise Glück fan — her poem “Mock Orange” was transformational for me as a writer — and she actually has three poems interspersed throughout her collection The Seven Ages that are all titled “Fable.” So I thought, “Well, maybe that device can work here, too.” In that sense, the title of those three poems in Head of a Gorgon is a bit of an homage as well.
FWR: Another form of repetition were the “Shedding Skin” poems, which are erasures of poems that appear earlier in the manuscript. Can you talk about the development of these poems?
RP: If repetition is symbolic of what traps a survivor, then strikethroughs/erasures/rewriting can be considered symbolic of freeing oneself of that cycle, or at the very least creating something new. But there was something early on for me with this collection that called to me to recognize that the change and escape needed to be physically represented on the page, and erasure — making something new and empowering from something that had once been used against the self — was a physical, visual, tangible way of accomplishing that.
FWR: One of the poems that first jumped out at me was “Sex Ed,” which I thought both played with the reveal of information, on a multitude of levels, and struck me as an exploration of innocence and loss, particularly the lines “naming things commands / nothing”.
I’ve been thinking about the Teju Cole essay “Death in a Browser Tab” recently and how artists can make sense of violence (in its many facets) without emphasizing the act, but rather the human experience of it. How did you balance the tension between naming the act of violence (and violation) and centering the person experiencing it?
RP: Did I balance the tension? I’m not sure I know, because that wasn’t something I specifically set out to do. And I think that’s because it’s my belief that there’s no amount of telling someone what a certain experience feels like that will make them actually experience the thing. Words themselves are symbols — like how maybe one way we can think of Rene Magritte’s “The treachery of images (This is not a pipe)” is that he is directly acknowledging that an image of a pipe is not the same as having an actual, 3D pipe in one’s hand.
So even in the Cole essay you referenced, for example, the viewing of another’s death doesn’t give the viewer the experience of personally dying, nor does it provide them with the experience of someone killing, nor does it even provide the experience of witnessing such events firsthand; it provides only the experience — still undoubtedly traumatic, still undoubtedly tragic — of witnessing those types of things at a distance, on a screen. But the viewer is feeling a set of feelings that may or may not be similar to any of the other three real-life experiences not actually experienced by the viewer.
I very much hesitate to say that artists “make sense” of violence or any other thing, for that matter — at least to anyone besides the artist themself. But having the belief that no amount of explaining or describing any act is going to make someone who hasn’t personally lived through it experience it firsthand or understand that experience as someone who has lived through it — and even two people experiencing, say, the same violent act will experience it differently, though there’s more common ground between the two — leaves a writer with the option instead to create some other type of experience that the writer (if the writer is like me) hopes draws toward something maybe approaching a universal truth, if there can even be such a thing, out of a real or imagined experience.
With respect to a poem like “Sex Ed” specifically, I simply set out to give voice to a woman, Medusa, who is sidelined and silenced in most tellings of her own story. And there are certainly other interpretations of this voice and story based on who’s doing the telling. We need common terms to refer to in this case — sexual abuse, assault, rape — so that people have some sense of general foundation of what’s being discussed. But from there, words are just a different experience than those actual physical, real-life experiences entirely. This is where words — and for me, any art form — will always fail. Still, I do believe in the power of words — some power in them — because look at the harm they can also cause. It’s not a physical violence, per se, but it is a violence nevertheless.
Is this all confusing, contradictory, paradoxical? I suppose. But it’s still all also true, at least to me.
FWR: I was also drawn to the poem “Cheer”, which spoke to ideas of power and heroism, as the speaker details “hoping the right / words paired with the right actions will someday / help me take some form of flight.” I read “Note From the Nadir” as a response to this childhood optimism, as the speaker wrestles with the fact that “no savior awaits”; now “I know the hero I sought will never reach me, doesn’t exist.” Instead, “my head still ingested what was fed. / What can you do when part of the problem is you?” Assuming I’m not off base (and I very well may be), can you speak to how you developed the conversations between the poems, and overall emotional arc of the book? Thinking of heroism and the head of the gorgon, how does the story of Medusa and Perseus fit?
RP: When you work on something for a decade-plus, you probably have too much time to think about it, but I tried in many ways to build as much meaning as I could — as many layers as possible — into this work. There are a lot of Easter eggs. What you’re referring to here — the conversations among the various poems — was very much considered and deliberate. This is easier to do when you have a narrative arc and are kind of building a shorter version of a novel in verse — perhaps a novella in verse. This is where my original background in fiction came into play. So I took the pieces I had, which were from Medusa’s adulthood and I thought of the parts, then, that were necessarily missing, like a childhood. And I started building some threads, images, terms that would be common among them and would evolve through the book.
Just like any person, there is change along the way; there is devolution, evolution, or both. The arc for my Medusa is devolution, to a kind of death, to a necessary evolution in order to survive — a mirroring of the birth/death/rebirth cycle that Medusa represents in some versions of the myth but that’s really all tied to the feminine in general (e.g., Mother Nature). Some of these concepts were drawn from the myth; others were drawn from survivorship. But all really echo the idea that each of us needs to become our own hero; Medusa, for me, is no exception to this rule. I tend to believe that it’s when we look outward for saviors that we are in the most danger. And I say this as a spiritual person, but one who acknowledges the truth of my personal experiences and understands that the universe requires action on one’s own behalf — like “The Drowning Man” story — in order to find one’s personal, true salvation.
FWR: What are other poems, or who are the poets, that you turned to as guide posts in the creation and construction of your poems?
RP: This book would not exist at all without Larissa Szporluk, who even beyond being my mentor and advisor is the brightest light I know in the poetry world with respect to understanding to the core that literally every story anyone ever tells is myth — and delivers that message to us constantly through her work and her teaching. Louise Glück, whom I mentioned earlier, is my top influence as far as voice is concerned; the authority of voice in her work was definitely something I strived toward in Head of a Gorgon. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red would be a close second with respect to this collection in particular, from the mythic aspects to the narrative arc to the play with form.
Jason Shinder’s work also influenced my collection. His work feels at times as if it were written in a vacuum; he seemed to know what he needed to express was important and created a world unto itself in which the way he spoke was the only way that would’ve made sense and was therefore the best way. I wanted to create this Medusa’s world in a vacuum. I wanted the bulk of Head of a Gorgon to feel isolating, inescapable, suffocating, because this is what I imagine Medusa’s experiences in the first few sections of the book feel like.
Others of note include Marie Howe; she does an impeccable job of what you were pointing to in your fifth question with respect to speaking on the experience of survivorship. She just calls a thing a thing with such directness and clarity, yet also such beauty. Sharon Olds’ writing on all things feminine and domestic helped me to ground my work in the everyday, ordinary things of contemporary life as I transported this ancient myth into modern times. The political in Adrienne Rich’s work, of course, is essential. Monique Wittig’s Les Guerilleres, whose nonlinearity is inspiring. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man for their explorations of gender. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton for their sharp words. And William Shakespeare for his deep dive into form but also making form feel more conversational, less form-y by the standards of his time — another thing I strived toward in my collection.
Raegen Pietrucha writes, edits, and consults creatively and professionally. Head of a Gorgon is her debut poetry collection. Her poetry chapbook, An Animal I Can’t Name, won the 2015 Two of Cups Press competition, and she has a memoir in progress. She received her MFA from Bowling Green State University, where she was an assistant editor for Mid-American Review. Her work has been published in Cimarron Review, Puerto del Sol, and other journals. Connect with her at raegenmp.wordpress.com and on Twitter @freeradicalrp.
Matthew Olzmann’s latest collection, Constellation Route, is out now from Alice James. He has published two previous collections, Contradictions in the Design and Mezzanines, and he has received fellowships from Kundiman, the Kresge Arts Foundation and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
FWR: Can you speak on the genesis and organization of Constellation Route?
MO: I’ve written poems that mimic a letter, or utilize an epistolary or apostrophe approach often before, and at some point I just thought that if I have fun doing that, what would happen if I did that non stop for a while? So that was the genesis; it didn’t necessarily start out as ‘I’m writing a book of these’ but instead wanting to see what direction the writing would go if I kept doing it over and over. How long would it stay interesting for me, this thing that is often a default mode for me? Would it remain interesting or would it evolve? Would I make new discoveries? I think sometimes in writing, there’s the impulse to reinvent the wheel each time you sit down and write, but if something seems interesting to you or something feels productive, you should try to do that again.
I thought [the organization of the book] would be easier than my previous two books because in those books, the subject matter is somewhat disparate, so that challenge was to see how I could get these things to fit together. With [Constellation Route], since they all have a similar approach or they’re about postal terminology, it felt as though there’s already a governing logic for why they belong in the same book.
But then I started having new challenges. For example, when so many poems have the same approach, how do you create variation, how do you change things up? That affected the writing process later, as I tried to write things in new directions. Then [this book] had all the challenges my other books have had. Even though there’s a formal approach that makes [these poems] similar, the subject matter and tone can vary widely. It ended up having all the old challenges and some new ones, just to make it interesting.
FWR: As I was reading through it, I loved the moment where poems came back to a subject or referenced a previous poem (for example, “Letter to the Oldest Living Longleaf Pine in North America” and “Letter to the Person Who Carved His Initials into the Oldest Living Longleaf Pine in North America”). The opening and closing poems to me seemed really set, so I had wondered if you had written “Day Zero” and “Conversion” with the intention of having them as those bookends.
MO: I didn’t write any of those intending for them to be in a specific position; “Day Zero” had a different place in the book, and Jessica Jacobs said I should start with that poem. As I was putting the book together, some of those things were things I was aware of. I wanted to spread them out so there was this echo.
FWR: To build on that idea, I’m struck by how writing the same structure of a poem, an epistolary or an apostrophe, is reminiscent of how an echo can lead to deviation. There’s the sameness, but also beauty in the deviation. It reminds me of how a postal route works– presumably, you’re going through the same route and making the same stops, but you’re seeing them in new lights or in new ways as you move through the seasons or through a place.
MO: The post office, despite my limited knowledge of some aspects of it, ended up having some influence on not only the poems but also the shape of the book and the language. Looking at the glossary of postal terms, wing case, day zero, everything seemed to be like an institution made by a poet.
FWR: In a conversation with Kaveh Akbar, hosted by A Mighty Blaze, you spoke about play in poetry as a spiritual or meditative practice, and how “irreverence requires acknowledgement of something grand”. To what extent do you feel you’re using humor as a bridge to the reader, or even to deflect someone’s guard being up?
MO: I think in our daily lives, we can use humor to attack or criticize, but also to charm and entertain, or to diffuse tension. We can use it to introduce an idea or to present something in an unexpected manner. I think in poems or stories, or perhaps any kind of writing, one of the things that’s useful about humor is that it disrupts the reader’s ability to anticipate to a degree. As a writer, I’m generally interested in humor because it creates a point of contrast. I like poems that have more than one emotion, especially placed next to each other. Sometimes it’s because an emotion next to the other sets off the second, whether that’s moving from certainty to doubt, or anger to something more meditative, from grief to wonder. I’m also just drawn to writing as a reader and as a writer that isn’t presenting human experience in a monotonous way. I feel both terror and wonder when looking out into the world, and I’m trying to find a space where both of those can exist in the writing process.
FWR: The poem “Letter to Matthew Olzmann, Sent Telepathically from a Flock of Pigeons While Surrounding Him on a Park Bench in Detroit, Michigan” comes to mind, and how it moves from the absurd to this greater, more empathetic commentary. As a teacher, I think that humor helps open poems up and make them accessible or an experience to be shared. And that transition, from the human to a more humane tapestry to find oneself in I think works really well in this collection.
MO: I see what you mean about humor being a point of connection. When I think about other artists who I’m drawn to, there’s something about humor that feels, in the audience, engaging or charming. It can feel like I’m being let into something– when you’re both laughing, you feel like you’re in on the joke. It’s hard to imagine who’s reading a poem when you’re writing it. I have some people in mind, sometimes, I’m always going to share what I write with my partner, Vievee, but after that, when the poem goes into the world, I have no idea who’s reading it. I like the idea of it being accessible to some people who aren’t necessarily poetry scholars or writers.
FWR: In the title poem, “Constellation Route”, you write:
…a messenger… gets wildly lost. It’s night.
Lonely. He glances to the sky–
inside that disorder,
he finds one light that makes sense, and that’s enough
to guide him to the next stop.
For me, that was the moment where a lot of the poems clicked, where I felt like I could name the theme that I couldn’t quite put my finger on previously: the idea of community. This fits what we’ve talked about with how humor forms connection, but also the letter form as a way of asserting a community (of friends, of writers). This seemed to come up again and again in your poems, whether “Fourteen Letters to a 52-Hertz Whale” (“Do you ever wonder that because your voice is impossible to hear, maybe no one will make the effort? That you can work really hard and try to be a good person… but then… the waves will just swallow you whole?”) or “Letter Written While Waiting in Line at Comic Con” (“…it’s not/ these costumes that amaze me; it’s always been/ the languages. The way they reach/ for something that can’t be said/ in our tongue.”).One of the things you seem to be reaching at is how we form and maintain community, and then, looking at the United States, how might this idea of community be under threat or at risk of change in ways that might not be particularly kind.
MO: I don’t know if I was thinking of community as one of the primary thematic drivers of when I was making the book, but I started to become aware of that later. One of the reasons I might not have been aware of it in the writing is that I tend to write poems one-at-a-time, without necessarily thinking of how they relate to one another. I write the poems and assemble books later.
But when I started putting Constellation Route together, one of the things I was thinking about was how to make things feel communal. This was part of the reason for including letters with other people in them (such as “Letter to Matthew Olzmann from Ross White, Re: The Tardigrade”) to give the sense that there were more people involved than one version of Matthew.
One of the questions I was asked recently is if the speaker in these poems, excluding those obviously persona, is me. Are the poems autobiographical? While I think it would be hard for all of them to be me, I’m sure all of them contain aspects of me or some aspect of my world view. Oliver de La Paz said something about his own poems about autobiography that really resonated with me, the idea that in an autobiographical poem, the speaker resembles you the way John Malkovich resembles John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich. I might be taking this quote out of context, but I think the speaker in any of my poems is a performance of the self. It might represent the self but it’s a performance or an aspect of the self, and there can be many of those.
You mention the conversation with A Mighty Blaze and Kaveh [Akbar], and before that, he and I were talking about how the book we haven’t written, the one that’s still in your head, is always perfect, or has the potential to be. Before you’ve made it into an object, it’s this thing that exists in the realm in perfect speculation. Most of the poems, once I tried to write them, it was a pretty messy process. Messy, but some of the fun is making discoveries. A lot of the poems, I might have a line or a vague idea, but I don’t necessarily sit down with a thoroughly mapped out route toward a destination in mind.
I like writing for the process of writing. I like the process of being there and working. There’s a point when I’m working on a poem that I’m imagining it as a point of connection. I imagine how someone might read it, and then it becomes a moment where I’m reaching for a point of contact. Rather than withdrawing from the world, it feels like working on a way to venture out and make contact with people.
FWR: Thinking of connection, or perhaps the perfect poem, are there poems that you love to teach, that do what you’re reaching towards?
MO: It’s constantly changing. It’s a list I’m constantly adding to. So many poems that I love to teach and some of the old standbys: “Iskandariya” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly; “It Is Maybe Time to Admit That Michael Jordan Definitely Pushed Off” by Hanif Abdurraqib; “Wishes for Sons”, by Lucille Clifton, or “Sorrows” or “note, passed to superman”– I remember the first time I read her series of notes to Clark Kent, I remember thinking, “you can do that? You can write notes to these people?”; Rilke’s “The Archaic Torso of Apollo”; “Brokeheart: just like that”, by Patrick Rosal or “Guitar”; “Ode to the Maggot” by Yusuf Komunyaaka; Campbell McGrath’s “My Music”; Cathy Linh Che’s “Poem for Ferguson”; most of Szymborska’s poems. I like talking about her poems “True Love” and “Pi”, “Notes From a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition”, “A Large Number”, “The End and the Beginning”– I could go on and on.
Clifford Thompson is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award for nonfiction in 2013 for Love for Sale and Other Essays, published by Autumn House Press. He has also published a memoir (Twin of Blackness), a novel (Signifying Nothing) and a nonfiction book (What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues). Thompson’s graphic novel Big Man and the Little Men, which he wrote and illustrated, is due out from Other Press in Fall 2022.
FWR: Having read a lot of your fiction and nonfiction, I was excited to hear that you’re publishing a graphic novel, Big Man and the Little Men, due out next year from Other Press, which you’re writing and illustrating. What does this process look like? Do images come for you before writing, or vice versa? Many writers map out ideas through drawing. How does creating your own illustrations affect your writing process?
CT: I begin by writing. The script comes first. The images are in my head, if only hazily; I’ll write, for example, “Three-quarter view of men on right side of the table.” But I don’t put those images on paper until the real illustrating begins. The script is largely a series of IOUs to myself. That is, it’s easy to put in the script, as I did at one point, “Drawing of a baseball game.” The payment comes due, you might say, when it’s time to illustrate that panel, when I sit at my drafting table and think, “Oh. Right. Now I’ve got to draw a baseball game. How do I do that?” So as a writer I put myself in positions that I then have to draw my way out of. In that way, there’s a certain amount of improvisation involved. (I find it hard to resist allusions to jazz.) For example, when it comes time to draw those men on the right side of the table, I may decide as I’m drawing that one of the men is giving the other a sidelong glance.
FWR: The prose in a graphic novel has to be so crisp and focused on action. How do you work within these limitations? Do you overwrite, then whittle down, or do you have other methods?
CT: One challenging thing about a graphic novel is that there are practical considerations of the kind you don’t run into with a regular novel, or even with painting. One is that you can fit only so many words in a panel. So I may discover, as I’m doing the actual lettering for the dialogue I’ve written, that not all of it will fit, or at least not comfortably. Then it’s a matter of rephrasing the dialogue, retaining its flavor while making it as concise as possible. Sometimes I end up improving it, almost by accident.
Writing and painting are similar for me in that the idea is half the battle. Once I have an idea, the challenge is to find the best way to carry it out.
FWR: How does starting a written piece compare to drawing or painting? Has your graphic novel bridged these two approaches, or does it feel like a different approach entirely?
CT: Writing and painting are similar for me in that the idea is half the battle. Once I have an idea, the challenge is to find the best way to carry it out. When I’m writing, that often involves lists. I’m a big list-maker, especially when it comes to essays. I like to list aspects of the subject I want to write about, then study the items on the list to see what the connections exist among these seemingly disparate things or ideas; I’ll draw arrows from one thing to another. Sometimes I find a lot of arrows going to the same item, and that can be a sign that I’ve hit on something. For paintings, once I have an idea, I pull out my sketch pad and work out the composition, the proportions and relative positions of everything. I have the sketch-pad drawing next to me when I make pencil outlines on the canvas.
Again, the graphic novel begins for me with writing, but I would say that the graphic novel bridges writing and painting in that the written and visual aspects of the work spell each other. The graphic novel is a visual medium, but you need words. You just do. Even Kyle Baker’s terrific graphic novel Nat Turner, which is almost all pictures, uses some words. Still, some of my favorite moments of working on Big Man and the Little Men are when I can draw a panel or series of panels that speak for themselves. A motion, a facial expression, a character’s eyes looking in a certain direction, three people’s heads turning toward a fourth person who has just uttered a non-sequitur, a hug between two forty-year-olds who last saw each other in high school—panels like that can say it all. Not a single word needed. I find that satisfying.
I’ve been painting now for years, which has come in handy with the graphic novel because of all the time I’ve spent shading with colors in painting. To a certain extent I’ve transferred that process to the graphic novel: I shade with colored pencils, darkening some areas of a face, for example, while taking an eraser to other areas. That is one thing I didn’t do when I was drawing comics in high school, oh so long ago now.
A friend of mine, looking over the pages of Big Man that I’ve illustrated, observed that my unit of visual expression—he said something to that effect—is not so much the individual panel as the page. I think that’s accurate. The page comes together to form a kind of statement.
FWR: Your Four Way piece, “Quintessence,” ponders creativity—where inspiration comes from, how and why we write what we do. You’ve written a lot about music, film, and visual art over your career. Some of your artwork has a tone that resembles Augusta Savage or the stark lines of Elizabeth Catlett, another DC artist. How do other artists, writers, or their mediums inform your work?
CT: I appreciate the comparison to those women. I find that I like two things in visual art: color and simplicity. The work of the Fauves, and artists such as Catlett and Jacob Lawrence and William H. Johnson, greatly appeals to me for those reasons. In some graphic novels I read, I admire all the detail the artists put in as well as the artists’ technical ability; still, because the images are so lifelike, with so much going on, sometimes my eye doesn’t know where to go. So I try to put in a few details but focus largely on color, composition, and the central image.
When it comes to writing, I am never consciously aware of being influenced by others’ work, but sometimes people see things in your writing that you don’t see. In my book What It Is, I write about James Baldwin and Albert Murray, among others. The reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement wrote that I had blended, “consciously or not,” the “voices of [my] mentors Baldwin and Murray.”
FWR: In The Rumpus earlier this year, you explained: “It could almost be said that much of my work is an attempt to solve a puzzle.” In Big Man and the Little Men, a writer becomes enmeshed in a presidential campaign when an accusation is made against the nominee. What puzzle pieces are at work in this book, and how did you decide what form they would take?
CT: I think the puzzle at the bottom of Big Man is: how do you do the right thing when there seems to be no right thing to do? That’s the quandary that my main character, April Wells, faces. As for deciding on the form, I’m not even sure I did. The idea came to me fully formed.
FWR: I wonder if you can elaborate on this. How do you move between more planning-oriented techniques—like your lists, arrows and IOUs—to more intuitive ones? Or are you describing more of an organic gradual process of both, one feeding the other?
CT: Maybe a good analogy would be carrying out a military or spy mission (not that I have ever carried out either of those). That is to say, you can make lists and draw arrows and write IOUs, just as you get instructions for a mission; but doing the thing is where it happens—the fun and the risk, the difficulty and the discovery, the improvisation and toil and surprise.
FWR: You’ve written often about politics, including in What It Is, and most recently in a series of essays for Commonweal Magazine. Big Man too is interested in the political. Do you have any craft tips or observations in terms of how you approach political writing across forms?
CT: You know what’s funny? Until I read your question, it hadn’t occurred to me that I’ve written often about politics—maybe because the works you mention are all so different from one another. But you’re right, I guess I have. And I guess the reason is that presidential politics have fascinated me since the first election I remember, when I was nine, when McGovern ran against Nixon in 1972—still the gold standard for lopsided election results. (I’m proud to say I’m from Washington, DC, one of two places in the whole country that McGovern carried.)
I don’t know if I have any craft tips for writing about politics, but I do have one observation, which is that, fundamentally, nothing is new. That may be a good thing to keep in mind when writing about politics. So maybe that is some kind of tip, I don’t know. But here is an example of what I mean: The first five presidents of my lifetime were John F. Kennedy (who was killed when I was eight months old), Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Not one of those men served two full terms, and a couple of them didn’t even complete one term. So for my entire childhood, the American presidency seemed like an unstable thing. Then, for decades after that, with the single exception of George H. W. Bush, the presidents were two-termers: Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama. Then, of course, came Trump, demonstrating the cyclical nature of politics. For all the sheer, seemingly unprecedented god-awfulness of the Trump years, his shenanigans and defeat were almost like a return to my childhood. It was sort of like when people used to go into movie theaters in the middle of the movie and stay for the beginning: “I remember this—this is where I came in.” (That said, I pray that this round of chaos ended with Trump. I wish President Biden great good luck.)
FWR: Sometimes when I read your work, I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s concept of caves. Ideas, characters, or narratives which seem disconnected, eventually, as Woolf describes it, “connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment.” How does this process of braiding seemingly disparate elements into a single narrative work for you in making a graphic novel? Is this different than in your writing fiction or nonfiction?
CT: I am delighted by that characterization of my work, and I’ll take a comparison to Virginia Woolf any day of the week! I would say that the braiding happens more in my nonfiction, and yet, now that you mention it (you ask very good questions!), I see that there is braiding at work with Big Man. The story’s prologue has two scenarios involving different sets of characters, with no indication of what they have to do with each other. But later it becomes clear.
FWR: What’s next for you after Big Man and the Little Men?
CT: Time will tell. I have several manuscripts in various stages of readiness. One is a manuscript of poems. I said to my wife that I’m working toward publishing one of every kind of book—a joke, though not really.
Ghinwa Jawhari named her debut chapbook, selected by poet Aria Aber for publication by Radix Media, BINT, Arabic for girl. In Arab cultures, the word is also used to describe a virgin woman, of any age. In this series of poems, compact in form yet unbridled in lyricism, Jawhari explores the passage (particularly of those in Arab diaspora) from bint to woman: its wounds, its pleasures, and its inevitable reverberations on societal and self perception.
Jahwari is a Lebanese American writer (and practicing dentist), currently living in Brooklyn. Born to Druze parents in Cleveland, she grew up listening to poetry from her father, who often recited traditional poetry in Arabic, or Zajal, around the house. In middle school, she wrote little poems and saved them in spiral notebooks, before going on to study English, alongside chemistry, in undergrad. Over the past few years, her essays, fiction, and poetry have been featured in Catapult, Narrative, Mizna, The Adroit Journal, and other publications.
As an Arab woman myself, I found an incredible kinship with the speaker(s) in Jawhari’s poems. The opening poem, titled “condition”, piercingly captures the strain stepping into womanhood places on our relationship with our fathers; “when you had the sterile body of a child / you were loved by your father / now you’re grown”, she writes. For me, the erosion of the father’s unconditional love in tandem with the girl stepping into the body of a woman could not have been captured more poignantly, more resonantly.
And it’s not just the speaker’s voice that was familiar. Many of the poems in BINT have Arabic titles, and are decorated with objects that I myself grew up around—prayer beads and “blue eyes hung over the door”; the Mediterranean, which Egypt has in common with Lebanon—carrying the bodies of the girls in Jawhari’s poems. When we met (online) to talk about her stunning chapbook, Jawhari told me that it was her intention to write BINT for readers who would relate to it. “When you say to yourself: I’m going to write this to my sister or my cousin, suddenly it frees you to do whatever the hell you want to do,” she said.
In the interview below, Jawhari reflects on her insistence to avoid writing towards the white gaze, and shares the thought processes that led to her choice of form, language and imagery for BINT.
Sara Elkamel: I found an incredible tension between divulgence and restraint in BINT, in terms of both language and form. But I’d like to start by asking you specifically about form. Even though you’re tackling these expansive subjects that could probably fill notebooks—including queerness, intimacy, and what being a girl, or a woman, means to you—the poems materialize in these really slight, compressed shapes on the page. How did you arrive at these forms for BINT?
Ghinwa Jawhari: First, the chapbook was written for people who already know what a bint is. It’s not written for the white gaze. I didn’t want to spend time explaining the context. I was trying to figure out how to get across, in the smallest amount of words, facts central to our lived reality as girls—like in “counterfeit,” the poem about getting sewed up to ‘restore’ her virginity; becoming “regirled.”
And secondly, the form was informed and constrained by this project being a chapbook. I was at home during the COVID outbreak, and it was the first time I wasn’t working in a long time. I was excited to be sitting at my desk every day and focusing on a single theme. Because I knew it was going to be a chapbook, everything had to lend to brevity. It’s less than 30 pages—so in order for the pieces to work together, they all had to be concise. They’re in conversation with one another.
Sara Elkamel: I’m intrigued by this choice of not writing towards a western gaze—especially since Arabic words often appear in your poems, most notably in the title, BINT, which means girl, yes, but also signifies “virgin” in our culture. As poets, I think that sometimes when we use Arabic, we feel the need to explain or translate what we’re saying as we say it, which can very well get in the way of the poem. And I’ve definitely done that in my work before.
Ghinwa Jawhari: Yeah, I’ve done that too! So much of my work before BINT was me explaining. But when you begin to dismiss that, and when you say to yourself: I’m going to write this to my sister or my cousin, suddenly it frees you to do whatever the hell you want to do. You become far less concerned with “Does it make sense?” and more attentive to “Is this true?” It’s no longer: “Will somebody understand me?” but instead, “Will the people who already understand this context agree that this is what happens?” So it’s all a focus shift.
Sara Elkamel: I definitely related to the bint you gave us—at once susceptible to cultural forces and forceful in her own right. I was especially drawn to the verbs you associated with the body.
without consent my small body erred
into hair-tainted womanhood, polluted me
with breasts. i begged for men, any men,
to appear from the fog of my dreams.
In “instead a palace”, for instance, there is some kind of agency—the body itself erring—coupled with a vulnerability to external perception; “polluted me” gestures towards what womanhood does to the body in the eyes of the street. Then in “a girlhood summer passes”, you turn towards illustrating the intimidating power of a girl’s body with a line like: “our slim bodies assault / the surface of the water”. So I’m wondering about these minor choices you made in language, specifically your wiedling of verbs.
Ghinwa Jawhari: I love that you asked about that, because I paid so much attention to the verbs—changing nouns into verbs, being very careful and earnest with what kind of verbs I used. I was trying to capture the body as an embodiment of what the outside world wants it to be. In the earlier poems of the chapbook, I was thinking about how a girl’s body is essentially a socio-political construct; the body is cultural. We can’t escape it—it happens to us. It’s not something that I have agency over. Versus in the poem “condition”, which comes at the end of BINT, when finally there’s a turn. I wouldn’t say there’s redemption—I think that’s simplifying it a bit. But at the end, the women can kind of make light of the fact that they have arm hair, make fun of virginity, and choose to drink.
girlhood an illustrious specter, then.
we pass through & barely remember
its tightly wound calamities, its fears.
as women we lace our mirth with liquor.
virginity an elaborate antique, unfashionable
as arm hair. we rid ourselves of last names.
So the girl body is what’s constructed, and constricted—it’s the thing that has to be decorated, preserved, defended and instructed what to do—whereas the woman body has some agency, holds space to become different, something self-directed.
Sara Elkamel: I admire how you’re really digging into the different layers of what makes a girl a girl. The poem “counterfeit”, for instance, invokes the economy around girlhood.
my father pays the surgeon to return me a bint.
in an hour i am unruined, regirled.
I also love this poem because it feels very playful—even though it’s essentially very dark. I think readers who don’t share our culture would be horrified that these surgeries take place. But you’re like, yes, this is happening. Right now. In this poem. I also really enjoyed the invocation of role-play.
this time i know the value of a counterfeit
so i behave myself, role-play. all of it a trick:
honor restored as if it can ever be,
worthless masquerading worthwhile.
It feels like the speaker is hyper aware of performance and performativity; that “worthless” and “worthwhile” are both nothing but costumes that we put on. As you were tackling such brutal subject matter, did it feel manageable to still experiment and play?
Ghinwa Jawhari: The final draft of that poem came out playful by accident, in a way. When I started it, all I had was “worthless masquerading worthwhile.” Whenever I write a poem, it always starts with a single line, and then it grows out from there. So the initial concept revolved around this charade: A hymenoplasty restores a “false” virginity, intended to be perceived as true. So what is virginity if it’s this easy? I think the playfulness might stem from the bint’s nod to this as a cosmic joke we play on the body, sewing it up and asking others to pretend along with us. It states pointedly that these concepts are fake to begin with.
And it is pretend. It’s roleplay. You’re roleplaying a woman, you’re roleplaying a virgin. And Arab women, I think—or SWANA women in diaspora—understand that there are tricks we have to learn to play. We shed these selves all the time. If you’re going to your family’s house, and you’ve just been out drinking and partying, and you have makeup everywhere, the first thing you think is: I need to get clean and look like I wasn’t anywhere. Like I was studying. We’re all familiar with that. To roleplay the perfect daughter, we are not 100% honest about our identities with our families. Because if you’re doing anything that doesn’t subscribe to what they perceive that role to be, it’s wrong.
So that was always at the back of my mind—that a lot of being a girl, especially when you’re young, is lying. We can say pretending, too: pretending to like something, pretending to be feminine, or obedient, pretending to behave oneself, so to speak. I’m 30 now, but I wrote this when I was 29. So I was at the cusp of that old maid, unmarried title. Another role! I was just so fed up with it, because it’s nonstop. So one way to subvert these expectations is to add humor, or make the reality playful and ridiculous, because it is.
In order for us to survive, anyway, we have to undercut the seriousness of things. And that’s kind of the thread through the chapbook: despite what they’re telling us, it’s not that serious. That’s almost the saving grace. We have to tell ourselves: I’m fine. I’m going to be okay. Even if I don’t fit every single role the way they’re telling me I have to.
Sara Elkamel: I am also very interested in the way you play with bodily organs and animals in your poems. In “winter of the acned year”, your invocation of animal slaughter really struck me, particularly because it shares space with a trace of the speaker’s late night masturbation.
beneath the quilts piled on us, i silenced with my hands
the loud wet thing that would not let me sleep
pawed myself to dog-panting at the remembered eyes
of the man who had slaughtered a ram before me
I guess this poem made me think about the proximity of intimacy and violence in your poems; here, we’re given this very solitary fantasy, and the deceptive tenderness of the man’s eyes, before a sudden transition towards sacrificial slaughter. Your choice of couplets for form also brought the tenderness and the violence even closer together, which I found very moving.
Ghinwa Jawhari: I love this poem. It actually started out as one huge paragraph, and then I cut it into couplets. I think my reading of this poem—and it could be a wrong reading, even though I wrote it [laughs]—is that it’s a time when you’re kind of acned, not really mature, not fully into your sexual-ness yet. You’re beneath a heavy quilt, which is supposed to keep you warm, but is also restrictive, and you’re silencing yourself with your hands because you’re horny—you don’t know why. And it all has this closeness to the violence of sacrificial slaughter. But then the violence against the animal is halal, so the speaker must be thinking that sex should also be halal, in a sense. Like, how come the slaughter is halal but what I’m doing to myself, to give myself pleasure to go to sleep or whatever, is not halal, right?
i watched the butcher disassemble the animal from the car
over his head, halal insisted in red coils no wrongdoing
my mother, returning to the driver’s seat, appetited for its glistening liver
the organ in white paper followed us home, where she cubed it into meal
i recalled its size, its flab texture, the bleat
its oil swarmed my mouth like a vow
And then you have the mother in her very own couplet, interrupting it all. Interrupting the slaughter, the violence, interrupting the fantasy, the pleasure—suddenly, you’re completely removed from the fantasy. Your mom jumps in and asks ‘hey, do you want to get this liver?’ And the organ is wrapped in white paper, suggestive of something bridal.
But anyway, I don’t think violence and sexuality are separate. You can have very violent, not pleasant sex in spaces that are not comfortable or tender. That exists. Western perceptions of sex—the sex in movies or music videos—is tender, haughty, controlled. I think, especially if you’re in a conservative space where girls are marrying guys they don’t know well, or when it’s an arranged thing, sex and violence can very much be one and the same. It’s not like there’s intimacy, and then there’s violence. No; there’s intimacy plus violence, especially if you’re queer—you learn to anticipate aggression in regards to your sexuality or in regards to how you’re identifying or existing. So I guess this poem is not bridging sex and violence; it’s making a statement that they can be the same thing. And it’s unfortunate that we’re kind of trying to think of them as separate, because then when we do experience sexual violence or intimate violence. We are in shock, and we wonder how this can happen.
Sara Elkamel: I’m interested in the way you manage to talk about violence without talking about violence, you know? I think your use of devices such as play and figuration, along with loose narrative, all works to create a space that remains other-wordly in its tackling of the worldly. I’m particularly curious about your use of surrealism to talk about very real experiences.
Ghinwa Jawhari: Surrealism serves to depersonalize the body, in the sense that even the speaker can objectify her own body. Saying “I detach my hand” [in the poem “tazahar”] renders the body figurative and distant, so we can ask “What does the hand symbolize?” Here it is alluding to a hand in marriage, but there can be other meanings. I don’t know how much surrealism appears in my work in general, but there’s a sense, in this poem at least, that the bint is suspended, looking at everything around and within her as if for the first time.
what a doll i was those years after the towers
fell. i went blonde as one goes insane, womaned
with a new name, an easy olio for the tongues
that tsk’d me. gone were the guttural
consonants, the hairs connecting my brows.
i starved my hips. i wore english like a ring
until men begged my father for my hand.
i detached my hand & gave it to him, a fishing
lure. a prophet arrived to open the leaves of me.
A sort of war-born surrealism also features in the poem “a girlhood summer passes,” where these girls are hanging out as the war is just going on around them. It closes with them swimming during a ceasefire. But I was in Lebanon in 2006, and that was kind of a reality; whenever there’s a ceasefire, you just go hang out.
Ultimately—I think because I’m working on these longer projects—I am now exploring the magical more. You can use it to say more, without flat out saying: This is wrong. Even though it is [laughs]. But it’s difficult, because if you make it too magical, then it’s completely fictional. And nothing is completely fictional. It has to come from somewhere. I wish I could’ve done more with surrealism in this collection; but the deadline was coming up!
Sara Elkamel: I’m still so impressed that you wrote this entire chapbook in two months!
Ghinwa Jawhari: It’s my ADD. And now I won’t produce anything else for 10 years.
Sara Elkamel: We’ll wait!
Adrian, thanks for agreeing to talk about your latest book, Somebody Else Sold the World, with me. I’m really excited to talk about it, and the ways that it is contiguous with your larger poetic project, and how it also subverts or cuts new facets into it.
One of the things that has always exhilarated me about your poems is their music. The title is from the David Bowie song, “The Man Who Sold the World,” and many of the poems in the book itself refer to/are in direct conversation with a wide variety of songs and artists (Future, Radiohead, Thundercat, Funkadelic, Tycho). (Clearly your taste in music is as catholic (eclectic wouldn’t do justice here) as it is good). But the poems are as deft and musically double-jointed as ever. Assonance and alliteration, stutter-step rhythms and sudden spans into smoothness–sometimes it feels like what Dilla might have done with a typewriter instead of turntables. The relationship of music and poetry has changed a lot over time–no more lyres, for instance. How do you think of and work with the relationship between music and poetry in your own work?
Adrian Matejka: Conor, man, thank you for taking the time to read the book and for your kind words about the poems. It’s wild because almost every poet I know is a failed musician in one way or another. Either they weren’t especially gifted musicians (like me) or they decided to employ their musical talents in different ways, like Mari Evans and Terrance Hayes. Thomas Hardy supposedly got down on the accordion, too, but that could also be a myth.
The thing is poets are musicians, we just use assonance instead of adagios. One of the great things about our current poetry moment is the incredible musicality of the work. I’m thinking about [your full length] The Enemy of My Enemy is Me (congratulations!!!) and the poems in the book (like “Kintsugi”) that just swing. And Kendra DeColo’s I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers From the World and World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Hanif Abdurraqib’s sonics in both his lines and his sentences and Ross Gay’s astonishing Be Holding. So much bright music around us. Then there are books with quieter compositions that still astound, like Erin Belieu’s Come Hither Honeycomb, Alex Dimitrov’s Love and Other Poems, and Shara McCallum’s No Ruined Stone. I guess I just started a 2021 reading list instead of answering your question because there are so many new books that hum right now.
Maybe one of the reasons I lean into music so directly is that music has been a constant in my life. I played middle-school French horn terribly, was on the mic with a band in college, and DJed on the radio for a while. But when I was a kid, we lived next to a blind woman named Pearl who would listen to music at all hours—jazz, soul, and funk especially. I would wake up in our brokedown townhouse in the middle of most nights because every creak in that space sounded like someone breaking in. I got so much comfort from hearing Pearl’s music because it reminded me that I wasn’t alone.
That’s when I learned about the possible comforts in music. I’m not sure if there’s a direct connection, but I know for certain COVID made me hear lyrics, hear bridges and solos with a different kind of attenuation. I mean, I’ve always loved Portishead’s Dummy or Dexter Gordon’s One Flight Up but the sounds seem differently focused after isolation. Have you had that experience, too? Where something you understood one way has changed wildly after COVID?
CB: Oh absolutely–COVID definitely shifted some things in my life a couple degrees so they were like that woman’s arms in Prufrock–in the lamplight downed with light brown hair, i.e. different, a little more intimate and real. The largest was probably isolation. Before the pandemic hit, my wife and I moved to a small town in central Ohio that was right between our jobs (each about an hour away). We lived for a couple years without family, friends, any sort of social network, and it was tough. During the pandemic, it was still tough, but we’d been accustomed to not seeing anyone, so our social isolation looked different: not so much a condition, but a preparation. This didn’t change isolation to some magical wonderthing, though–it’s hard to rely on one or two people as your only relief from yourself.
Another thing the pandemic shifted for me, both slightly and enormously, was parenting (my daughter was five months old when lockdown started). I got to do a lot more of it than I would have otherwise! This was great, and also taxing, as you well know. Parenthood, along with the pandemic, is also one of the narrative/thematic threads in Somebody Else Sold the World. The Gymnopédies suite is sweet, pithy, and beautiful, shot through with a nostalgia that seems really right for an homage to [French composer] Erik Satie, and those poems, along with “Snakes Because We Say So,” help the speaker reflect on change–in the world, post-pandemic, as well as in himself. “Snakes,” in particular, is such an interesting and delicious poem——it has so much! The anaphora, the question about blame and its necessity, the interrogation of masculinity, the tone flicking its tail this way and that–but I’m especially curious about how you approach poems with your kid in them. I remember hearing Victoria Chang say something akin to (but kinder than) “my kids? I’m with them every day. Why do I want them in my poems?” Do you end up consciously writing about parent/fatherhood, or is this something that just kind of happens?
AM: What Victoria said cracks me up for so many reasons, but especially the exclusiveness of, or maybe the pervasiveness of being a poet. It’s so complicated and consuming. There are poems I’ve written that are only possible because of my daughter and then there are poems that never made it onto the page because I’m a father. Something is begetting something, but I’m not sure of the direction.
A while back I was working on a book of essays/poems about being a Black father during the Obama presidency and after. I gave up on the project for ethical reasons (including ones connected to the ownership of story) and also because there were some generational contextualities that I couldn’t unpack. I was raised in a generation still limiting itself with the one-drop paradigms of race. My daughter and her friends don’t go for those same constructions, so writing about Blackness and fatherhood in that context ended up being more historic than familial.
After I left the house, my relationship with my daughter fractured for all of the familiar reasons and I don’t feel like I understand [those threads] well enough to talk about it. But I think that breaking happens across our lives, all of the time. It’s impossible to change locations and be the same person. We move or a friend, family member or paramour moves, and our relationships change because of new topography. We have no choice but to change with the new atmospherics on all sides. Maybe you’re experiencing some of this in Ohio after so much time in Texas?
That’s a long way to go to say that the poems you mentioned are among the seven poems I wrote pre-pandemic while I was working on that earlier project. Everything else in the book was written between March and October 2020. The experience of isolation from the world and from my daughter made me reflect on what connections we still have. The Gymnopédies poems were part of that reckoning, if that makes sense. Thinking about the things we shared when she was six or seven, rather than the things we can’t communicate about now that she’s a teenager. There’s a different veneer to everything.
I’ve been thinking about how isolation has eroded our delicate nettings of socialization. I enjoy a good in-person poetry reading as much as the next poet, but it took me years to figure out how to separate my creative and public selves. I had to learn to change from my usual poetry lens to one that is more social so I wouldn’t sound like a T.S. Eliot parody at the party, affected British accent and all. I mean, there has to be separation, right? Nobody actually wants to sound like a poem during a conversation.
It feels like maybe a year of Zoom readings erased my etiquette on the page and off. I’m not sure I can still do small talk. Time in poems works differently now. Urgency in the world seems even more vital now.
I had a psychology professor in college who might have been British and was dosed with LSD without knowing. He became obsessed with time afterward and either lectured to his watch or to the clock on the wall, so he always knew what minute it was. It’s not that dramatic as that, but all of the past year’s mortality and stagnation has me thinking about what progression is when the world stops. I’m wondering about the different versions of mortality in The Enemy of My Enemy is Me, too, so I hope you’ll talk about that some.
CB: Oh, that’s so interesting about the Gymnopédies poems being kind of grafted onto/woven among poems that were written just last year. I remember seeing some of them years ago in POETRY (around the time The Big Smoke was out) and thinking ‘whoa these are so different–not coming over a sound system in a basement or from a podium but from someone leaning down to say something private and intimate.’ That they fit so seamlessly with the rest of the book, and its themes of time, distance, intimacy, and regret/guilt, speaks a lot to your revision and curatorial process.
That anecdote about the furtively-dosed prof–holy shit! LSD is, uh, quite a thing to weather when you consent to it; I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be hoodwinked into it. It seems like an apt metaphor/allegory for the pandemic, in a way: a mind-altering experience we had no idea we were participating in, could not escape, and are now greatly changed by. I love that you bring up time as one of the things that it’s changed for us, too, because I think another of Somebody Else Sold the World’s big fascinations for me is how it interrogates the themes I mentioned above in the context of different temporal cycles: the pandemic, the cycle of the year, the cycle of relationships (romantic and familial), and a human life cycle. How you toggle among these four, their different intimacies and terrors and exhilarations, and how they share so many of these between them, is really deft. It’s like watching the innards of a watch click and spin, all of these interlocking and meshing, driving the thing forward in a dazzling mess of glints and thoughtful friction.
I’m always so interested, too, in the way that time can work in a poem, and how it can both defy and encompass the way it does so in our world. I heard Noah Warren read a poem that leapt over like twenty years when he read the line “the years passed badly” — suddenly we’re in a future we didn’t know the poem was even capable of. I love how poems can do that. And how they can rewind time, too, like Ansel Elkins’s poem reversing a hate crime and restoring humanity to the victim of a lynching.
I want to ask you about time in your poems, too, but also want to answer your question about mortality. I mean, it’s more present for so many more than before, right? Between the stormier sky, the rising oceans, the hotter winds, and the cops, filmed or otherwise, brutalizing people of color, not to mention the virus and equitable medical care receding via cost and abortion restrictions, if it’s not already gone due to differential treatment of Black folks by science and practitioners–the urgency to address these has been there, but it definitely feels of a different order now.
As for my book, there’s a lot of violence in it. (Any book that takes the US as part of its subject will, or ought to, right?) There’s violence on the international level, the ecological level, the interpersonal, and the intrapersonal. The quote-unquote regular kinds of mortality, about the actual death of a person, come through with US neoimperial campaigns (the speaker is a paramour of Henry Kissinger, who helped engineer all sorts of coups and illegal bombing campaigns in the name of democracy) and mass shootings/gun fetishism; the other kind of mortality that the poems look at are what selves we are asked to sacrifice by society, specifically the kinds of selves it expects men (especially white men) to get rid of, and how restrictive, violent, and regressive this shedding of more thoughtful or conciliatory selves that do not want to participate in or overlook toxic instantiations of male personhood is.
I’m interested in complicity, how we can see cruelty, know that it’s perpetrated on our behalf, and allow it to go on. What kinds of deaths inside us does that engineer? What do we need to strangle inside ourselves so that we’ll stop a strangulation we are seeing?
This seems to me something you’re looking at, too, in Somebody Else Sold the World, albeit from a different vantage, different because of how race works in our poems and poetics, not to mention our lives, especially if/when we take race as a proxy for how the world does (or does not) impose itself on us. You also seem to be asking how did we get to this particular place of injustice, and what is that doing to us? Tiana Clark recently talked about each book having an unanswerable question as its engine. Does that hold true for you, or do you center the process differently when you are beginning a book?
I love to imagine that poetry is an antidote to all of this, but it’s not. It’s a signifier or an amplifier—more like a megaphone at a protest than a gun.
AM: Complicity is so knotty and multifaceted because it can be, as we’ve seen forever in the United States, something that people deny defensively, ignore selfishly, or sidestep quietly. I’m thinking about this wide lensed, in our public institutions, too, where cruelty is baked in and called “bureaucracy.” But it’s also been in the backdrop of my personal interactions since I was a kid. When I was younger, I rode shotgun with friends who enacted some of the toxicity so many of us (including some of those now-repentant friends) are trying to break apart now. That’s a familiar history for many men. So until each of us figures out how to be less selfish and avaricious, how to move through the world making space instead of taking it, we’ll continue to have these problems of disparity and disempowerment that’s been protected by our patriarchal systems.
Now I’m thinking about one of the poems that didn’t make it into SESTW that was inspired by a high school boy I knew when I was in middle school. He used to hip me up to the goings on in the neighborhood and in life generally, the way older kids sometimes would. Most of what he said was harmless and was probably repeating what he was told when he was younger. But his advice about women was essentially “make no mean yes.” He was passing on these ideas of sexual assault that were common then and now. I was 13 at the time and didn’t understand what he was saying until much later. I don’t think I was alone in being offered that kind of destructive advice from other men.
I love to imagine that poetry is an antidote to all of this, but it’s not. It’s a signifier or an amplifier—more like a megaphone at a protest than a gun. The poem I wrote about that guy wasn’t any good in part because of Tiana’s beautiful idea of unanswerable questions. There are no questions about his abhorrent advice beyond “Who taught him this?” so the momentum disappeared and what I had left was a didactic anecdote in line breaks.
But some of the major questions I kept asking myself in this book are about desire and want and also about consent and agency. I think the answers to these questions are constantly evolving, but I hope I started to answer them in SESTW.
At the same time, I don’t know if this book does the tough work of trying to dismantle the kind of cruelty we’re talking about at the top. I am fully aware of my position as a middle aged, heterosexual guy and American poetry from the 20th century on through is clogged with covetous, slobbery poems by men. I didn’t want to add to that self-serving canon. If anything, I hope that I was able to think about desire as part of the human condition, as familiar and as vital as breathing. Now I’m thinking about other poetry collections that deconstruct masculinity. Edgar Kuntz’s Tap Out does. Keith Kopka’s Count Four and Marcus Wicker’s Silencer do as well. Who else?
How do you write a love poem in the 21st century? How do you write a poem about sexuality and desire while also respecting the person who ignited it?
CB: Making space instead of taking it–so well said. It makes me think of that Mark Strand poem, “Keeping Things Whole,” in which the speaker says “In a field / I am the absence / of field.” That poem–like so many of Strand’s–works because it has a kind of moral revelation in the midst of an alternate dimension. You’re trying, in SESTW and just generally overall too, to do this moral work in the world we’re a part of. Not trying to diss Strand, but note an important qualitative difference, because one of the things that I think can be so hard is doing this so that the poem doesn’t just become a didactic anecdote in line breaks. How can the necessary distance between poet, speaker, and subject come into play so that the materials of the poem can be moved around until they click (or rattle right)? For me, I had to take the Strand route–go a little surreal with it, lean more into persona so that I wasn’t frozen by my closeness to it all.
But books like Edgar Kunz’s and Marcus Wicker’s (I haven’t read Count Four yet but have to), and Nathan McClain’s Scale, some of Shane McCrae’s less persona-driven work, even Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Fortune for your Disaster and Kevin Prufer’s strange narratives and Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture–they all live in the real world, and look openly at the cruelty that masculinity expects of individuals and systems, and posit tenderness and vulnerability as a response (in varying degrees of out-loudness). I like this idea of assembling an ad hoc canon of re-envisioning masculinity poetics. I’m sure I’m going to come up with five more poets and books once I finish this answer, too.
Because you’re right–we’ve all got those friends whom we rode shotgun with, who inherited and in their own way modified or continued to develop these regressive primitive codes of dude-ness, which, in one of your poems titled “Love Notes”, you note is to fail but “keep trying in the customs of dudes.” This idea of persistence, wearing away, eroding any barrier–it’s its own kind of colonial impulse. That my need is more important than your resistance, that it will outlast it. It’s so valuable that these are questions you’re working with–what is consent, not just interpersonally, but also in poems. Who gets to tell whose story and how? It makes me think of Edouard Glissant’s contention that people (especially colonized peoples) are allowed their obscurity and that some things–some works, some feelings, some thoughts–aren’t and shouldn’t be available for translation. Just because you want something doesn’t mean you should have it. Just because the mountain is there doesn’t mean you get to climb it. I’m thinking of the Indian government protecting the area around Nanda Devi (second highest mountain in the nation) for safety but also religious reasons. It seems to me that we could all stand to learn to take no for an answer more, on every level.
But one of the other things in your work that I think is really important in your work is how it demonstrates alternative methodologies of writing, especially regarding your collaborations. You’re a preternatural collaborator, with artists, the historical record, your own past, the music of others. It’s great in so many ways, but a lot because it’s you showing us, your readers, things you think are great. It’s a kindness and like, a community service, to enrich so many people’s understandings of what different creative expressions are out there, and how they intersect with each other and poetry and life and so on. How do you approach collaborations? Or, how do you figure out with your collaborators how to work together?
AM: Thank you for putting collaboration in such generous terms. I feel exceptional sometimes because I have exceptional friends. They all have such out-of-this-world perspectives and talents. I’m constantly learning from them. My most recent collaborations were with artists Dario Robleto, Kevin Neireiter, and Nicholas Galanin. Completely different makers with completely different political and aesthetic agendas, but they’re all part of my community of inspirations.
We talk about community in poetry a lot because it’s so important to surviving as humans and artists. Maybe even more now after being so physically isolated during the pandemic. But I’ve been thinking about how community—connections, support, social nets, whatever it means for the individual—is one of the first things that gets fractured by capitalism and its duplicitous institutions. What better way to keep everyone from building than to encourage competition for crusts? Scarcity can either enable or completely dismantle community if the community isn’t ready for what’s about to happen. And there is a genuine scarcity of resources for poets (and all artists, really), too, so we have to be mindful and we have to be generous. Not in the sense of being effusive with each other on social media, though that is welcome. But in a more three-dimensional sense—sharing tangible and nontangible resources without fear.
I’ve been the recipient of this kind of generosity throughout my career and I try as best as I can to give that back in whatever ways are available. When I was Poet Laureate of Indiana, I ran workshops at the Center for Black Literature and Culture called “Poetry for Indy.” I modeled them after June Jordan and Etheridge Knight’s Poetry for the People workshops. I tried to create a writing space in downtown Indianapolis for people who didn’t necessarily have access to a writing community. I thought it would just be neighborhood poets, but poets started showing up from Evansville and Muncie and Ft. Wayne because they needed a space that would honor their voices. I’d planned on continuing them after my time as IPL was over, but the pandemic paused those plans.
I know you were in Houston (where my friend Dario Robleto has a studio—shout out to Kerry Inman and the Inman Gallery who helped me get the art for both Map to the Stars and Somebody Else Sold the World!) with all of the beautiful writers and visual artists down there, so I wonder how it’s been for you, leaving a space of intense connectivity for a more isolated writing life? Has your idea of what community is or is for changed in your new space with your beautiful new role as a father?
That went pretty far away from collaboration, but in my mind, collaboration is community. Back when I was finishing Map to the Stars, I realized that I’d pretty much answered all of the questions I had poetically. The place I was in my personal and professional lives, the geographic and psychic space I was moving through were no longer spaces of inquiry. They were monochromatic and imperative. The only way I could find my way out was through linking with artists whose work inspired me. I imagined—and it turned out to be true—that if I could spend some time working in other artistic mediums it would force me to think of poetics differently.
The only way I could find my way out was through linking with artists whose work inspired me. I imagined—and it turned out to be true—that if I could spend some time working in other artistic mediums it would force me to think of poetics differently.
Working with Dario, Kevin, Nicholas, and also Youssef Daoudi (who is the artist I’m making a graphic novel with) allowed me to think in series of connecting visual images instead of series of sounds like I usually do in a poem. Music has always been the center of the poetry continuum for me. After collaborating with visual artists, I’m now imagining images as a corollary driver of the poems. Yusef Komunyakaa is probably my favorite poet generally but also for his ability to move a poem with both image and sound. “You and I Are Disappearing” and “Venus’s Flytraps” are immaculate in this way. Anything from Magic City or Dien Cai Dau really. The poems in SESTW are nowhere near as potent imagistically as Yusef’s, but I see myself toddling in his direction.
One more thing about collaboration: I was very lucky because I worked with artists who are my friends, in addition to inspirations. The collective agenda for each of the projects was simply to make the most incredible art we could. The ego was centered in the success of our shared art, rather than ourselves. That’s important because when we’re out here writing or making by ourselves ego is vital. It takes a particular kind of hubris to want to create art, given how much of it involves failure, so we have to believe this work matters. But that ego can also get in the way when other artists are involved. I can imagine another version of collaboration where there would be all kinds of drama because the artistic imperatives don’t line up.
CB: What you’re saying about ego, and how much we need it in the act of writing, reminds me of something I saw Nathalie Léger. She was talking about the hubris you’re talking about–the almost heroic effort it takes to reach a velocity strong enough to escape the gravity of those feelings. You know, the ones that say “this doesn’t matter” and “who cares,” those feelings of pettiness or that it feels petty. I think that’s really important to acknowledge, not to mention practice (and is a thing I have trouble getting past–this worry that my life as subject is too egocentric and self-aggrandizing/dramatizing to warrant anyone else’s attention). At the same time, though, what you’re saying about community and collaborative work, and how it shifts the location of ego in the process, so that it’s centered on the work itself and not the self, is such an important counterweight. To live in one extreme too long is to go full narcissist; in another, shapeless. For both of these, though, doing work that is one’s own, and doing work that is the collective’s, it feels to me that community is really essential.
I think this has become clearer to me as I’ve drifted further away from the community I had in Houston, which you rightfully note is vibrant, stimulating, and a little scruffy. I loved it there, and the people I got to spend time with in that city. Being away from it has given me perspective on just what I had, and how hard it is to get that. But with distance, and the recent thoughts and words of people like Matthew Salesses, Aditi Machado, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Éireann Lorsung, community is a thing that both sustains and differentiates you. And I think this sustenance and differentiation is really important for writing–as an individual, in community (people you chat about poems and life with over beers or ice cream) you get support and perspective that helps you feel like an interesting and intelligent person/creator as well as an individuated person. As a community, you’ve got people to work with, to help you consider and work with different perspectives, people who push you, in your own work but in your work together, too, to do more than you would otherwise. It’s kind of like the weird miracle of pressure and tension that allows a meniscus to form, the water gripping itself, the air resisting but also accommodating it.
Often I go to community for the same reason I go to poems: for perspective. To help me see the human side to a mass event, or to see the scope and history a small feeling can be traced up to. To challenge my understanding. Having poems (and essays and fiction) has helped me maintain that in the absence of direct human community, but you can’t replace the glee of a friend’s cackle or the opportunity to learn what you mean when you share an opinion on a line break. I can only imagine the opportunities for this kind of interchange that your workshops in Indy helped create–those sound so important, not to mention amazing! Here’s hoping the pandemic is under control soon and you can get them spread out among the Hoosiers.
At this point, I think I’ve just got one question left (though I wouldn’t mind if this convo just unspooled over the next couple months). We’ve talked about so much–music, parenthood, complicity, desire and consent in life and poems, community and collaboration. I’ve really appreciated the chance to see inside your process, your poetic values and aspirations, and what you hope Somebody Else Sold the World can tackle. I wonder if we could end by thinking not just about the poet, the work, the community, but poetry with a capital P, and what it can do. I really love what you say about it being “a megaphone at a protest and not a gun”–what amplifies but not what acts or does. What can, or what should, it do, and does that goal or purpose differ during times of crisis, as we’ve seen of late, or is it a question of intensity/degree?
AM: It’s been so great talking with you about all of this, Conor. I’m wishing you and your gorgeous book the most massive success possible and I’m excited we get to read together on the 15th!
It’s wild because I just got my author copies of Somebody Else Sold the World and I’ve been slowly inscribing them for my close friends and family. I have a nephew in the Air Force and I’m so proud of who he is and who he’s becoming. When he was younger, my sister would drag him to my poetry readings constantly. Somewhere along the way, he stopped fighting about it and wanting to be there on his own. He doesn’t write poetry. I don’t think he reads it much, either. But there is something about the atmosphere poetry creates that he enjoys.
I don’t know how he will react to this new book because as I told him in my note, the book is mostly full of uncle music. But I know he’ll respond in some way because he’s aware and open to possibilities. Poetry accesses some secret need in all of us and what it gives us might change depending on the world around us, but it all starts with poetic need. This pandemic has been awful in every conceivable way for our emotional and psychic wellbeing. For our art, too. I managed to write this book, mainly because I was clinging to poetry for survival.
Poetry accesses some secret need in all of us and what it gives us might change depending on the world around us, but it all starts with poetic need.
One good thing that came out of this time—and this speaks to what poetry can do—is a different idea for what poetry fellowship might look like. Those first couple of months were bleak and disconnected. Somewhere in there, people figured out how to use Zoom for readings and that changed everything. It gave people access to work they never had access to before because of geography, resources, availability, or time.
One of the most stunning and previously impossible events happened in June 2020 as part of Patricia Smith’s 65th birthday celebration: 65 poets each reading a poem in her honor, split over two nights. Patricia is one of my favorite poetry people, for her stunning poetry and for all of the work she does in the literary community, so it’s no surprise we all wanted to celebrate her. The event itself was a historic, literary occurrence that wouldn’t have been possible without Zoom. All of these dazzling, grateful poets “together” from all over the world reading poems to and for Patricia. I want to list names, but there were so many heroes that it would be disrespectful to choose who to name. But I think part of it is posted on YouTube (the second part, which you can find here).
Now I’m thinking about something that the novelist Ben Okri said about poetry. It’s cleaner than any definition I’ve come up with, so maybe I’ll just lean on his language. The quote looks long, but it’s only two sentences:
The poet needs to be up at night, when the world sleeps; needs to be up at dawn, before the world wakes; needs to dwell in odd corners where Tao is said to reside; needs to exist in dark places, where spiders forge their webs in silence; near the gutters, where the underside of our dreams fester. Poets need to live where others don’t care to look, and they need to do this because if they don’t they can’t sing to us of all the secret and public domains of our lives.
I love this job description. Okri’s talking about The Poet, but in truth the poet and poetry are symbiotic and make The Poet. They are both amplifier, enabler, conduit, stylist, wishing well, and a mouthless trumpet for each other. They each make possibility possible for the other.
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.
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
FWR: In my first read of “In Sound Mind”, I was struck by how you play with sound throughout the poem (such as the lines “Up there, sky-high,/ do you, as you go, know the feeling/ you slough?”). Can you speak about the growth of this poem? How does consonance (and dissonance!) influence your process– if at all?
Rosalie Moffett: I think I’ve been gravitating towards letting sound lead the way during this particular political period, and this pandemic—I’ve been angry, sad and with something overly simple to say stuck in my craw. Which makes a boring poem. A hallway you can see the end of from the beginning. But to let sound in as a guide gives that hallway some doors, some new avenues. There are then things behind doors that I have to shift in order to see. It opens rooms in my thoughts I didn’t know were there. Which certainly happened in this poem.
And (if you forgive me my wandering into some more conjectural territory) back in high school when I was obsessed with the weird experiments conducted in service of psychology and sociology, I remember learning about cognitive dissonance. In one study, participants were asked to either hold a pencil by pursing their lips, or in their teeth, like a rose. Rough approximations of a frown and a grin. They were then told jokes. Those with the pencil in their teeth found the jokes funnier. In short, the brain said “I must think these are funny, I’m smiling.” The brain likes to follow the body’s lead. Out loud, the mouth makes a rough smile in weeviling, feeling, bedeviled. Makes a rough frown when saying I don’t know, No one knows. I say all this not to claim my poems are smart enough to play these sounds like an emotional piano, but to offer that the sound of a poem might be working on our cognition in ways that are deeply layered and complex. I trust it to lead me through a poem.
FWR: There’s sly humor in these poems, particularly in “Nest Egg” with its addresses to Scrooge McDuck, that carves a new path to the emotional heart of each poem. It serves to buttress the associative leaps you make through the poems and expand on the emotional surprise. How do you see humor in your work?
Moffett: Humor is the PPE gear my mind wears, the way I can make something dark harmless enough to look at. There’s that old chestnut: tragedy + time = comedy. Often, when you’re too close to something, you can’t see the humor in it. If you train yourself to see the comedy, it’s like instant distance. (Instadistance™) You can see how humor could serve as a survival tactic, a jetpack out of actually facing something–and I think there’s a danger of that to be aware of in writing poems. But it’s also, I think, a useful way to gain perspective. Make something funny, and you can look down at it as if from a great height. What is also true is that this training (if you’ll let me call it that) makes a 2-way street. You can zoom in and see the tragic in something that, at first, seems funny. Scrooge McDuck? A duck obsessed with something he can’t eat? Swimming in coins? Oh, honey. What have we made.
Some of my zooming-in involves digging into granular and aspects of things populating my poems. Little of my “research” ends up in the poem (and I defy any algorithm to make sense of my internet searches). For this poem, I did a lot of reading about the character of Scrooge McDuck (yes, his was the first depiction of a swimming pool of money) and got to feel kind of close to him, a kinship. At some point in his history, he changed–someone took pity and shifted him from a miser (clinging to what he couldn’t even make use of) into a philanthropist. I wish that same hand would take pity on me.
FWR: I love your last images, whether Jessica kneeling with “anyone’s son” or the plant that neither “blooms nor fruits”. How do you know when you’ve ‘stuck the landing’ in a poem? Are there poems that you admire for their endings?
Moffett: If only, like in gymnastics, one could look up and see the score from judges!
I think what I look for is that feeling that my mind is standing, so to speak, on a new patch of land. A new vantage point. A poem, uniquely, is a negotiation with white space, with absence. Each line and stanza break are little perches from which to consider that absence. And that last line is where the reader stops, as if at the edge of a cliff, to look out. If there’s something still ringing, something hovering in the mind’s eye, demanding attention, OK. Good.
The cliff came up suddenly in Carrie Fountain’s poem “The Jungle” and then there I was, looking over the edge, ringing.
The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer is the debut of Eric Tran, released through Autumn House Press in Spring 2020 and selected by Stacey Waite as the winner of the 2019 Autumn House Rising Writer Prize. He previously published the chapbooks Affairs with Men in Suits (Backbone Press, 2014) and Revisions (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). Eric Tran is a writer and physician, based in North Carolina.
FWR: How are you doing?
Eric Tran: I’m doing well. I just got off this really intense rotation and this is the first weekend where I don’t have to go back on Monday. It feels like a nice chance to get back into the world. How are you?
FWR: I’m doing alright. It’s week two of school, so it’s back at it.
ET: Are you online or in person?
FWR: We’re in person. I have a few students who are remote, but the majority are in person. My students are wearing masks and they’re trying to stay apart, but our school is not sized so that they can always stay apart appropriately. It feels like a waiting game, unfortunately.
ET: It’s a valiant effort, and hopefully people stay safe. Hopefully, it’s not that people get hurt and that’s why things have to change.
FWR: Yes, I think, and I’m sure you see this too, that folks want to do the right thing but there is this disconnect between wanting to do the right thing and not wanting their lives to change.
ET: Yes, I feel like there is this lack of radical imagination, otherwise known as empathy, of being willing to sacrifice what you have. It’s very unfortunate that the only way for some people to be able to recognize that tragedy can befall them is when it happens to them.
FWR: Exactly. It’s an inability to imagine a broader context. Which, I guess, brings me to the way The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer obviously plays with characters, plots and themes from various comic books, but I’m interested to talk about to what extent the structure and style of comic books influenced the writing of your poetry. Did you feel the structure of a comic page influencing the way you visualized poems’ layouts or their syntax?
ET: I think that we forget that poems are visual objects, in addition to being text to be read, which I think gives another layer of richness. I prefer to write in white space. I think a line by itself is just a little too lonely, it’s a little too much to be putting on that single line. So I prefer couplets or tercets, lines that have more space around them.
Speaking of the coronavirus, I’ve been thinking a lot about breath in general. I’ve been working on this essay about breath, how necessary it is but also how we take it for granted. We assume that it will always be there, that it can always be there when we need it. For example, if we’re reading a prose block and we need air, we can look away from the page, but what happens when the text requires us to stay with it? If there is something so important that we must stay with it, can we give the reader some air within it? Does taking a breath necessarily mean stepping away from it? I think adding white space to your poems or your prose is a way to strike a compromise. I think that exists within comics as well.
I’ve been reading a lot of Tom King, and he is really drawn to this idea of six panels per page, which can be fairly rigid or overwhelming. But because he has the gutter, the space between panels or the margin, this margin allows us to take space between each panel where you can linger for as long as you need. I think the white space on the page of a comic book does a lot of things that the white space in poetry does; for example, moving from one panel to the next, sometimes it’s linearly connected (such as in one scene someone is sitting on a couch and in the next scene they’re standing up), but something will have happened between those two panels that we didn’t see. The white space signals that a jump is going to happen, and it clues the reader to take a breath and take the jump with the narrator. Or, sometimes if it’s a more experimental comic book, something even bigger can shift in that white space. Tom King, or rather the layout artist, decides how big that white space gets to be; sometimes it’s very minimal and sometimes it’s very large. I think comic books are playing with that narrative leap, much like poets like to. And that’s if we’re just talking about comic books that adopt that layout with panels and gutters. Some comics will have someone leaping across that white space or a hand reaching from one panel to another, which I think is very daring. Similar to poetry, that space is not just a place to take a breath but it’s also a place to do work in, to transform the poem or the layout.
FWR: What you’re saying about taking these leaps makes me think of the trust the writer must have in their audience and the material that they are generating.
ET: Most certainly, and a willingness that the reader must have that they are in good hands. I think that adhering to a kind of form, even if you end up breaking it, or it’s a loose or challenging form, gives that trust in the confidence in the artist and a structure to lean on. We all need to structure, even if we demand freedom; it must be freedom from something.
I think that adhering to a kind of form, even if you end up breaking it, or it’s a loose or challenging form, gives that trust in the confidence in the artist and a structure to lean on. We all need to structure, even if we demand freedom; it must be freedom from something.
FWR: Thinking of how you lean towards couplets or tercets, how did you find your way into the prose poems that are in the manuscript?
ET: I started my MFA as a nonfiction writer, but it turns out all my friends are poets, so I got pulled in. To be quite honest, I think that prose is always poetry. I was toying with sentences over and over, trying to make them beautiful, and it hit me one day that maybe I should make my words beautiful, as opposed to trying to build a narrative. A gateway from prose writing to poetry can be the prose poem. In this book, I think the prose poems make sense; I tend to be a poet who has a lot of narrative lines in his poems. I have been moving more towards more associative ways of using logic, but I do tend towards narratives. I think that one way to present it is in a prose block, because that’s how we tend to think of stories. And then I think that within that prose block, we can make leaps from one idea to another because there is a tight structure on which to rely. Then within those borders, you can be as experimental as you would like to be. In a way, this mirrors a comic book panel, which is usually rectangular and bound by a back and front cover.
In the book, I make a lot of leaps, such as from the Pulse mass shooting to the X Men comic books, which, in some ways, is not a hard association to make, but in other ways it is a hard association to make, moving from a comic book and kids’ TV show and multimillion dollar franchise to something very visceral, very real, and impacts people who are not multi-millionaires, who are not mainstream. I think the structure of the prose poem block contains those two more tightly than if you gave the distance of white space from each other; entropy might tear them apart. If you give them structure, they adhere more tightly.
FWR: Yes, exactly. I think there is so much juxtaposition in the text; I grew up in a Pentecostal house and the language that jumps to mind is being “of the world, not of the world”, or here, of the body and the body in these different places, whether it’s the body in the comic book or in an action film. I think of the way you move from high ekphrastic poetry to a poem that considers the guitar player in Mad Max: Fury Road (“Self Portrait as the Fire”) or Chris Evans (“Portrait as Captain America Holding a Helicopter with a Bicep Curl”), and then bringing it back to the body of someone helping a drag queen descend the stairs; the way that you’re moving in and out of these different worlds allows the various visualizations of the body to come together in a really cool way.
ET: I purposely try, as I said in my MFA thesis, to mix the high and the low. In some ways it feels very purposeful and effortful, and in some ways it feels very natural. We think of Keith Haring, who we think of currently as high art, or Frank O’Hara, who died on Fire Island, which was known for gay revelry, so these contradictions already exist together. And although those things exist together, I think hegemony, or the white washing of things, wants to push them apart. What our job is as artists is to reveal the truths that are already there.
hegemony, or the white washing of things, wants to push them apart. What our job is as artists is to reveal the truths that are already there.
FWR: I think that goes back to what you said when we first started talking about radical imagination and having that empathy to imagine a better world, or a world that responds to everyone in it. Did you feel like that in choosing or attempting to seek out truth, that that impacted your diction or the images you chose, in order to create a more expansive or more nuanced view of the world? I’m thinking of a poem like “Treatise On Whether to Write the Mango”, both for how the shifts in language mirror the shifting identities throughout the text, but also how you deploy interruption in the poem: “your ever-shitty teenager/ attitude (American!), never clearer/ when I woke wanting mangos/ instead of the rubbery jackfruit/ she woke at dawn to peel/ away from the thin white casing and so/ of course mangos”.
ET: I love the idea of radical imagination. I was part of this social justice, podcast listening group, and the podcast we were listening to was about how the principles of America were always set up to be against Black people. So we must radically imagine a new world, because the rules by which we play are inherently always going to resist change. Speaking of entropy, things always revert back to what they were.
So, using that radical imagination to imagine a world where everyone has a place within it, why then do we have to adhere to the diction, the imagery, the logic that existed in these previous worlds? I think poetry already does this. It supposes that there are other ways to make sense of the world, outside of the linear joining of two words to make meaning. If we accept that power, we can use whatever diction, syntax, imagery we want to hear. For example, there are times when I juxtapose the word “twink” with the word “prayer”. In a radically imagined world, I would love for twinks to be alongside prayer, and in my world, they are.
It supposes that there are other ways to make sense of the world, outside of the linear joining of two words to make meaning. If we accept that power, we can use whatever diction, syntax, imagery we want to hear.
FWR: It also creates humor too. In thinking about your work, and describing it to folks, you’re so clearly wrestling with grief, but there is also humor. With humor comes that sense of life. It doesn’t have to be a monopoly on one feeling.
ET: Yes, that speaks to this balance of extremes. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is in mental health, we work with the idea of the dialectic, which are two disparate truths that seem to contract each other, but they come together to form a deeper truth. For example, a bowl is something that has had something removed from it. So, you have the something and the lack of something, and together they form this new truth, which is a bowl. So thinking about grief and joy, sex and death, not necessarily to find a balance between them, but instead attempting to establish a dialectic in which they’re speaking to each other. That’s something I love about the cover of this book; it’s neon, in your face, very gay, but it belies that there is a lot of tragedy within in. I don’t think that’s hiding anything. The first poem (“Starting with a Line by Joyce Byers”) helps lay out pretty clearly what the book is going to be about.
FWR: That jumps me to the Lectio Divina series, which meditates on characters ranging from Emma Frost to Hektor the Assassin, and the way that by holding those disparate parts together, the reader sees the threads that exist across different characters but also different experiences. To me, these worked as stepping stones to take the reader through the text. How did the Lectio Divina series of poems originate?
ET: The concept of Lectio Divina is from the monastic Christian tradition of approaching a sacred text in different ways. I was introduced to it through a podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which is run by two folks who have Masters of Divinity. They approach the chapters of Harry Potter as if each has something to teach them, if they approach it earnestly enough. I started listening after Trump was elected in 2016; I stayed with it because, I believe in the first episode, one host said to the other ‘thank you for teaching me how to love again’. I felt like this was something we needed to relearn how to do. It is a funny, tongue-in-cheek show, but it is deeply serious as well. I also love the idea that they taught me prayer, because it feels like justice.
I think queer people, in particular, often feel excluded from spiritual practices, either because they feel excluded from many denominations or they feel like that need to decide between their queerness or their spiritual life, rather than having a dialectic or harmony of the two together. So, having a spiritual practice is a way of reintroducing a process by which to experience the world. During that time, I was also looking for a spiritual practice because there was a lot of loss in my life and I was thinking about how we learn to grieve. It’s not taught, formally or informally, and yet it’s one of the most important things we must learn how to do. I think spirituality can teach you how to do that, but if we exclude an entire group of people, who inherently have a lot of grief in their life, that is an injustice. So, using something like Lectio Divina feels like, to me, an act of justice to reclaim those spaces and bring them to my people.
FWR: This is making me think of how in so many spiritual traditions, there is also the sacredness of the body, and in your work, you have such attention to the body in your work, as if viewing it as a sacred text, a thing to be treasured, even if it doesn’t exist in the structures deemed appropriate or acceptable.
ET: I think most certainly the body is a text to be approached, spiritually so. To me, prayer is the act of paying attention to something you’re working with. We can approach everything as if it is prayer, but if we don’t know we have the ability to do that, we’re not going to do that. I think that prayer helps us deepen our relationship to things. I think this is the reason prayer is a factor in mental health– not religion, but spirituality in particular is a strong protective factor. So if we’re then aware of all the times in which we can practice prayer, that can only lead to a better life. I think so many things can be approached with prayer, which is part of what draws me to these so-called low texts, like comic books, which are not low texts at all, but would not otherwise be brought up in traditional religious circumstances. If we’re modeling the ability to do prayer in those circumstances and in very traditional circumstances, we’re showing ourselves and each other that prayer exists in all the spaces between. The body is one of those places, because the body exists in the high and low places as well. One way to think about approaching the body is to be with it, in sex, for example, or death, or loss, and think about how that special attention can guide us to and guide us through moments of wonder.
FWR: Not knowing the shape of the piece or pieces you’re working on about breath, I think of the attention there to the minutia or what feels like a mundane aspect of the body. It feels so simple, and yet if we were to stop, suddenly we have a big problem!
ET: Yeah– or if someone stops us from doing it. We take it for granted that it’s always here, but it’s here for you and me, but not for Black people, all the time. I love how much attention poets give to the body, in the here and the now, but I also want to give us the ability to think of the body beyond the physical body, as well. The body will fail us at some point; that’s written into its DNA, it’s not meant to be here forever, but how can we still give attention to the body when it is not here? Breath as well– it’s something but also inherently nothing.
FWR: Right, it goes back to what you were saying about the bowl, being the absence and the presence of something.
ET: And then what is the human body if not a bowl for air?
FWR: Or a bowl for memory, for experience…
ET: Right, and that’s the idea of mindfulness in mental health. Things will come, things will go. You experience them as they fill the bowl. It’s ok to be sad as they leave the bowl, and the bowl can be filled again.
FWR: I think this connects back to the idea of teaching grief. The emotions you are feeling in that moment may not last or may be tempered, and experiencing new emotions or developing new relationships does not mean that those previous ones have vanished, only that new relationships or feelings are coming in and adding to that space within us.
ET: Right, it’s a kind of object permanence that we’re always learning. This reminds me of what we were saying earlier about schools being open, and that they will probably close again. Will we look at that moment as a disaster, or will we look at that time together as something it’s now time to move on from as we approach a new situation and appreciate that situation for what it is, at that time.
FWR: There’s a connection that’s at the edges of my brain between what you’re saying and the fight for racial justice that is making its way through the country. So much of it is connected through video or social media records, and yet these are resulting in real actions that are being manipulated again through videos, which then inspire other actions. It’s connections across distance, space and time.
ET: Inherently in that is change. The injustice that is here right now is not the injustice that is here to stay.
FWR: And yet it goes back to what you said about entropy, that things will want to revert back to that old world. So how do we make a new world in the shell of the old?
ET: Absolutely, and I think that is the idea of being present. Being present doesn’t mean being inactive, it means living in this moment and evaluating what you can do in this moment. What in this present moment is doing anything at all. It’s that narrative leap we were talking about. Leaps are uncomfortable. If I don’t understand how a line can go into the next line, I can be delighted, but I can also be a little bit offended.
FWR: It’s that act of trust again, to believe that there is something on the other side of that gutter or narrative leap.
ET: That’s the job of the artist, to say I’m building the next breath for you, or the next content for you. Isn’t that an act of justice? To say that I guarantee my fellow human being has another breath, whether that be in racial justice or in terms of coronavirus? Why do we create art if it is not a self-perpetuating action?
That’s the job of the artist, to say I’m building the next breath for you, or the next content for you. Isn’t that an act of justice?
FWR: Are there artists or writers who are doing this work, or serving as guideposts for you?
ET: I feel like I am perpetually in debt to Ocean Vuong: he blurbed this book, he tries to bring up a multiplicity of artists, and he also picked my chapbook Revisions for Sibling Rivalry Press. And then I catch things he says off hand, like he was saying why people wear slippers in their houses is not to keep the outside world from coming in, but to show respect to someone’s stuff. He was saying that the reason he speaks so quietly is because he wants his voice to wear slippers in the world. I feel like that has influenced me a lot. More actively, Danez Smith, who is organizing in their local community and has raised something like 40 or 50 thousand dollars to do racial justice work in that area.
FWR: I see both of those writers in your work, especially as I think both are poets who are so interested in exploring and preserving a sense of self; each has a willingness to put oneself at the forefront of one’s writing.
ET: Yes, and a lack of apology, which I think is probably the most important thing. I think many artists, and I include myself in this category, can tend towards emulation. But emulation alone, I think, can serve as a sort of apology for yourself. I think a lot of us have imposter syndrome. It’s been interesting that some of the poems people have gravitated to have been poems I’ve never submitted for publication, because they felt too something– too something that I wanted to hide, or sneak into the manuscript. And yet those are the ones that people have brought up. The book is very personal, and for people to feel reason to talk about any piece of the work, but those in particular, has been very moving for me.
FWR: Is there one of those poems in particular that jumps out to you?
ET: A friend of mine experienced one of the first big losses of his life, and he sent me a photo of the poem “Closure”, which is a poem that I, I don’t think like is the word. I remember writing it and feeling like it was right for me, but it’s also very simple to me. I wish he was not feeling that loss or that suffering, and yet when that suffering happens, I feel both obligated to and happy to provide a tool with which to approach that tragedy.
FWR: Looking at the poem, it has so much we’ve talked about: the push-pull between absence and appearance– the airless kite, the mud prints– that threads so beautifully through the poem, even as the poem is also about moving forward and carrying griefs and memories forward. It’s a beautiful poem. I’m not surprised, but I’m glad that people are responding to your work and finding solace.
ET: As a debut full-length author, it feels like too much to expect such a personal response to the poems. We love accolades, or for someone to say something nice on Twitter, and those things feel lovely, but then once that moment is over, you go back to your everyday life. So, when someone reaches out, perhaps someone who maybe is not even a poet, to say that your book resonated with them, that, personally, is the most gratifying moment. That’s what poetry does– it reaches individual people, not just big swaths of culture. It seems strange because on one hand, those moments are not prestigious and on the other, they feel too valuable to reach. It’s very humbling.
FWR: I can’t imagine how having your debut come out against the backdrop of the coronavirus, how that might impact those feelings even further.
ET: Yes– initially I mourned the loss of a book tour and yet what has happened in response with my book, and thus my life, has been a rededication to racial justice. All the readings I’ve done online have been in some way related to that. A bunch of Western North Carolina writers and I hosted a fundraiser, where we used our books and our editing skills to raise money for organizations benefiting Black people. And isn’t that what I would want anyway? Can I imagine a better use for my art than benefiting the world in this way? So in that way, not thinking that ‘Oh, I don’t get to celebrate my book’, because I am. My art is existing in the space exactly where I hoped it would have. But in the previous models, pre-corona, that wouldn’t have seemed like a possibility to me. With this new world we’re creating, with our radical imagination, it is possible. Everything we do happens within a context. Our bodies, and beyond our bodies. Our breath, and our breath leaving us to intermingle with the larger world.
Christian Kiefer is the director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Ashland University and is the author of The Infinite Tides (Bloomsbury), The Animals (W.W. Norton), One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide (Nouvella Books), and Phantoms (Liveright/W.W. Norton). Photo by Christophe Chammartin.
FWR: Let’s start with your pieces for Literary Hub, where you focus on grammar as craft. Of Lauren Groff’s writing, you say, “The style of her sentences … are the gears and wheels of her genius.” Often, when we talk about craft, we’re looking at aspects of the form—point of view, exposition, characterization. I found it interesting how you articulated conditioning these components with the shape of prose itself. How does a writer go about using language and grammar to achieve a desired composite effect?
Christian Kiefer: I think the easy answer here is by consciously reading with language and musicality in mind. For me, the sentence length is effectively the length of breath that any piece of writing asks for. That length of breath can fluctuate depending on the scene or situation, but the exhale/inhale of a line of text is mostly dictated by its rhythm and its use of pauses and end stops (commas, periods—but also textual interruptions and so on). With someone like Faulkner, you’ve got an increasingly ostentatious use of clauses and phrases meant to contribute to the flow of the text so that the length of breath becomes almost laughable. For someone like Groff, you’ve got shorter, impactful clauses often fraught with a staccato rhythm that, even when rendered by soft syllabic information, is nonetheless possessive of a kind of wave-like feeling. One doesn’t even notice the periods, the commas, because the unit of rhythm is rendered so expertly.
There’s a whole list of “grammar rules” out there on the internet, of course, and once you have those under your belt, it’s pretty easy to see when people consciously break them. James Baldwin, for example, has a deep love of comma splices, which many college professors would mark as incorrect. Or Garth Greenwell’s idiosyncratic but deeply meaningful use of semicolons. Look at the rhythm of Jesmyn Ward’s prose, or ZZ Packer’s, or Michael Ondaatje’s. These are masters in how they employ grammar as a tool of meaning-making.
FWR: You’ve mentioned in interviews that when you’re writing poetry, you don’t think about narrative, yet the sentences in your novels are so poetic, such as this passage from The Animals:
Above him, above them all, the sky had gone full dark and stars seemed all at once to rise from the tops of the trees, their pinpoints wheeling for a moment across that black expanse only to return once again to those needled shapes, as if each light had come up through the soil, through the epidermis of root hairs and into the cortex and the endodermis and up at last through open xylem, the sapwood, through the vessels and tracheids, rising in the end to the thin sharp needles and releasing, finally, a single dim point of light into the thin dark air only to pull one back from that scattering of stars, the cambium pressing down the trunk, pressing back to black earth. Time circling in the soil and the silver tipped needles. Time circling in the big sage and cheatgrass of everything to come before.
The first sentence is a kind of blazon of a conifer, used less for exposition and more as movement. You’ve mentioned considering velocity as a specific approach to writing. How do you see poetic language as capable of creating certain motion? And in that way, how can lyricism serve narrative?
Kiefer: You’ve happened upon a great peeve of mine: style guides dictate prose should strive for clarity, as if poetry is the only form of writing that gets to be poetic. On one hand, that passage you quoted is perfectly clear to a plant biologist, although of course I’ve taken some license here and there, but its point and purpose is to sink the reader into the language of the natural world, a significant and meaningful (I hope!) theme of the novel.
The motion of the above passage is paused-for-breath by the commas, allowing for a lilting rhythm. I hone this by reading passages aloud over and over and tinkering with the rhythm and the language until it feels representative of whatever effect I’m trying to work toward. Sometimes it’s very, very conscious and sometimes it’s more intuitive, but most often somewhere in between the two.
Those last two sentences above are summatory of the long sentence that precedes them. It’s a way to nail down what might be to an average reader just a bunch of nonsense. I’m offering a way to anchor the reader to something a bit more grounded, though still representative of what the passage is “about”.
This is all to say that in terms of velocity something needs to be moving forward in the text. I’m a pretty patient reader but if there’s no apparent motion, I will eventually get bored. The writer has to put pressure on something—maybe it’s on the sentences themselves, but often it’s the characters, the situation, the scene. Hemingway is known for these short(ish), punchy sentences, but when in action scenes like the end of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” he moves into a completely different rhythm, a completely different velocity
FWR: Your fiction heavily employs atmosphere. In your essay on Garth Greenwell, you call one of his passages a “stuttering delay on the details of the protagonist’s recollection and remembrance.” This relationship between the information released in each clause and what is concealed, to be released later, is a playful manipulation that lends itself to building the haunting atmospheric elements in The Animals, too. How do your terms “re-grammaring” and “re-informing” apply to your approach toward writing and establishing atmosphere?
Kiefer: This is probably something I learned from Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner gives the reader so much information right from the first couple pages, yet the reader is totally flummoxed as to what is happening. Even at a basic level, the reader can hardly situate herself in the text. An elderly woman is sitting in a room telling a disjointed story to a college-aged Quentin Compson (from The Sound and the Fury). It seems like it would be straightforward, but part of Faulkner’s interest is the assumptions made by survivors of the Old South, such that most everyone knows the same characters and situations, and so Rosa Coldfield’s narrative—a narrative later assumed by Quentin’s father and by Quentin himself—is therefore fraught with assumptions about the knowledge of the listener/reader.
What this all amounts to is a text of accretion, the meaning of which deepens in spite of (or perhaps even because of) the reader’s confusion. It’s a miraculous thing and an almost impossible book to read, let alone write. I think I’ve probably read it ten times or so.
Having said that, I do think it can be very problematic to willfully withhold information from the reader, especially basic information. For those of us who are not Faulkner—and even Faulkner is not always in full possession of his talent—it’s important to set the reader into a situation or scene that is apprehensible. It can be terribly frustrating to read something and have to struggle to locate basic information. Absalom, Absalom! works counter to this because it’s very much about the act of storytelling over the gigantic canvas of history.
And thank you for your note on my use of atmosphere in my writing. It’s the part of the work that I most enjoy, which mostly comes late in the revision process. I’m doing 30 – 40 drafts of my writing, generally speaking, and a lot of that is dialing in specific textual effects and making sure that the setting is solid enough to be imagined but gauzy enough that the reader can also imagine her own version of it. In this sense, concealment can allow the reader into the text. In The Animals, I want readers to be able to envision the Nevada desert, but I also want to make sure it’s their own Nevada desert, not necessarily mine.
FWR: In Phantoms, characters and events parallel each other throughout, whether John Frazier and Ray Takahashi’s experiences in their respective wars, or John’s attempt to unravel the story of Ray against the backdrop of the town’s desire to deny it. Your syntax often mirrors this parallelism, as John views himself in opposition to or in league with different characters. Can you talk about how prose can embody what it is in fact describing, and how the goings on of a story might be inspired by its prose? How would you advise writers to play around with the tension and congruence between prose and content?
Kiefer: I would advise writers to play around with everything. In terms of the specific question, there’s a balance needed that is embodied in the syntax itself. Whenever you veer from the arrow of the narrative, you’ve got to remember that the reader is likely waiting for the text to reconnect with that (perceived) forward motion. As a microcosm, consider an individual sentence. “Once he awoke from his nap, Bob, still hung over from the night before—that last flight of whiskeys had clearly been a terrible mistake—returned to the office.” So what’s happening there is you’ve delayed the subject’s sentence by 7 syllables, then provided the subject, Bob, which immediately sets up the reader’s expectation that the verb is coming, which you’ve then delayed again by 25 syllables. You’ve got to make sure you’re deferring the reader’s grammatical satisfaction for a good reason. Too much of that will come off as an affectation. (Late Henry James is really, really good at this kind of thing.)
On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a scene where the protagonist is trying to avoid talking (or even thinking) about something, then the syntax—even in exposition—might start wrapping itself in circles in order to display something regarding that state of mind, delaying and interrupting, and so on, so that the reader can feel the reticence and avoidance without you having to state it. That’s a fine line to walk because it’s so easy to overdo.
FWR: You play around often with point of view, too. In The Animals, Nat’s perspective is in second person, and you write from the perspective of Majer, who’s a bear. Both Phantoms and One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide feature first-person plural, which in the former creates tension between community and individual and in the latter calls attention to the (inter)viewer and the nature of an artistic lens. What is point of view’s role in situating a reader closer to or farther from the text or characters?
Kiefer: This is something I’ve thought about a great deal. Pam Houston is the master of the second-person narrative, so I’m certain I learned everything I know about that from reading her work. Going back to Faulkner: he employs first-person plural often (look at “A Rose for Emily,” for example). Point of view is, for me, a decision of where to place what John Dos Passos famously called the “camera eye.” That placement can be very idiosyncratic and can even be off-putting (I remember Tin House-editor Rob Spillman commenting that he generally finds second person difficult to pull off).
What I’m interested in is using point of view to shift the position of the reader vis-à-vis the narrative. If we move from standard third-person past to second-person present, that does something significant to the flow of the text and the reader’s position to that text. The reader has to recalibrate where he thinks he is in relation to the story, which I find wonderfully invigorating (as a reader). Ondaatje does this kind of thing with scene, situation, character, and time when he shifts us into some other point in the timeline or shifting the entire narrative as in Divisadero. It’s a way to force readers to reapply themselves to the text while questioning what narrative is and what it can be.
FWR: I want to talk more about the filmic nature of your writing. One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide is described as a kinoroman, or a cinematic novel, and within it the narration functions at once as camera, us as collective readers and viewers, and words, as this is, of course, a book:
When she moves away we do not follow but watch her, receding, pulling out of focus as she reaches the glass doors of the casino, the reflection of the parking lot shifting momentarily across her disappearing shape. In that reflection is all of Nevada. In that reflection is you, reading these words.
Soon after, we read “We have not seen her smoke before, but she is smoking now.” This conflation of a literary feature like backstory with a note I’d expect to read in a screenplay functions as a sort of formal synesthesia. How do you draw from other creative formats in your work? And in your mind, what even is the role of form when it comes to writing?
Kiefer: I think it’s important to occupy “the arts” in a deep and meaningful way and to make sure you’re exploring how the effect of one work might be achieved in another. Like how might one create the textural quality of Anselm Kiefer’s (no relation) The Orders of the Night with words? Or the hauntingly floating opening of Hans Abrahamsen’s opera Let Me Tell You. Or Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait of President Barack Obama. That portrait makes me tear up. How could I as a writer accomplish the way it does that?
Obviously these are shifty questions. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait is wonderful because it can’t really be accomplished any other way, but I do think it’s useful to consider artistic borrowing in this capacity. After all, one isn’t trying to replicate the actual painting or music or text or film or whatever it is, but rather the feeling of that form.
FWR: John states early in Phantoms that “much of which [has written about Vietnam] helped [him] understand what happened over there and how the heavy stone of that experience continues to ripple out over a life that has been, at times, troubled by its own hidden currents.” This understanding of the Vietnam War helps the reader understand the domestic violence between the white and Japanese-American families of Newcastle as “a legacy of sanctioned violence both subtle and overt.” The formal can be of course akin to the traditional. So how can writers use formal conventions in a way that allows us to also re-understand and re-experience them?
Kiefer: At heart, I’m a traditional narrative novelist. The formal conventions are there because they work, but their existence also allows us to push against them, sometimes pretty hard, which is to say one can break herself upon the rocks of formal conventions. Despite the violence of that metaphor, I actually mean it to be positive: breaking in the sense of breaking open.
One of the things that formal conventions made possible in Phantoms was the direct critique of whiteness. A certain kind of America loves its nostalgia, but nostalgia for, say, the 1950s, a nostalgia that is also pre-civil rights, which is to say nostalgia (and especially nostalgia) can become a tool of white supremacy. So I’m writing about the Japanese internment and the American war in Vietnam, all of which is held in a traditional structure strong enough to push against—both in terms of the structure (which does shift and turn from time to time) and the themes.
FWR: Kirkus Reviews describes One Day Soon as an ars poetica, and your reflections on the creative process are refracted in the many ways in which you participate as a writer, musician, educator, and editor. Similarly, your writing encapsulates your interests, from being an ardent nature lover to having studied film at USC. Does writing have a requirement to in some way reflect on itself as a form of expression? And what then is the role of the author to do the same?
Kiefer: I’m not entirely certain how useful it is for writing to comment on writing. I don’t, for example, find traditional “craft” books to be very useful, nor do I much enjoy books that swing toward self-reference or meta-textuality. I already know I’m reading a book, so pointing out that I’m reading a book isn’t of much value to me. On the other hand, I love Italo Calvino so maybe I’m full of shit on this.
I think more important is being open to the truth that there may be no requirements in writing at all. Blake Butler, Katherine Standefer, Tasmyn Muir, Sally Rooney, Rebecca Makkai, Matthew Salesses, Emily Nemens: these are all wonderful writers who are doing very, very different things with words all while fulfilling whatever “requirements” we might place on them (or that they might place on themselves). What I want, what I long for, is a full immersion of my heart in the deep red-hot center of the text. I’m in the business of breaking hearts. We all are. And to be broken in turn.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a multimedia artist, poet, and writer. Griffiths is the author of Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books 2010), The Requited Distance (The Sheep Meadow Press 2011), Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose 2011), which was selected for the 2012 Inaugural Poetry Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, and Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books 2015), which was a finalist for the 2015 Balcones Poetry Prize and the 2016 Phillis Wheatley Book Award in Poetry. Her most recent book, Seeing the Body, is a hybrid of poetry and photography (W.W. Norton and Company).
FWR: I’d like to start with the titular poem, “Seeing the Body”. In it, you write into grief and how that grief can bifurcate the life of the living. In your visualization of grief, you create imagery (such as “flowers/falling from her blood” and “bale of grief on my back, opening/ into something black I wear”) that seems resistant to more common depictions of grief. (I’m thinking of poems like Auden’s “Funeral Blues” or the gothic imagery of Edgar Allen Poe, which have become synonymous with writing about loss). Did you find yourself resisting cliche, or writing through images that you had read from others, when you first began these poems?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths: The engine of “Seeing the Body” relies on how breathing happens through a poem as much as it is also about how breath stops or is altered by grief. There is the involuntary tension of trying to sustain an image or to construct a narrative about a beloved’s life or one’s self, only to find all is ruptured.
Auden’s wonderful poem is after something very different than “Seeing the Body” insomuch as Auden’s poem calls for a moment of silence that feels quite public in its address of ordinary life. My own poem wants intimacy, to address the earth and the private echo of silence where there is the sense of falling through one’s body, one’s birth and death through the body of the mother. My mother. This poem hurt me the entire time I worked on it. Years. I’ve never been attracted to clichés, visually or otherwise, so I don’t think about resisting them. What has startled and provoked me is the immediate emotional connection I feel wherever I share these poems. I’m writing about a “common” experience yet it is anything but common for me.
I can never read this poem as it should be read. That was intentional. Each time I enter the earth of this poem I am further away from its original grief. I am somewhere else in my body and can’t get back to the woman who braced herself against the initial impact of loss. Whenever anyone experiences this poem I hope there is an intimacy of reading that does not exclude our bodies. Through language, I’m aware of forcing myself to stop in the middle of something that has neither beginning nor end.
Listen to “Seeing the Body” read by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
FWR: Seeing the Body includes a section (“daughter: lyric: landscape”) composed of your photography, which is alluded to in other poems (“For years I photographed myself/ in a white dress”, from “Husband”). You write in your Author’s Note that these photos serve “as a map of the self and of the greater world in which [you] are both visualized and invisible”. Had you planned on incorporating photography from the beginning, or how did that process develop?
Griffiths: In the beginning, I didn’t plan to use any images at all in the book except I began to think about the types of photographs I had created in Mississippi just before she died. I had to go back and consider what I was “making” when I was unmade by her death. Then I also remembered the deliberate focus I gave photography immediately after her death. I clung to the machine, my camera, like a life raft. I began to perceive my own body as an urgent conduit of my grief, which meant I couldn’t leave my body outside of any landscape on the page.
Perhaps the only way now that I can truly see my mother’s body again is through studying my own. This time was weird and messy because I couldn’t read books. I had a hard time using my camera. All these tools were nothing to me. When I began to write about my mother, it was very difficult because it felt like language was forcing me to accept elements of her death I couldn’t bear.
Perhaps the only way now that I can truly see my mother’s body again is through studying my own.
FWR: Did this impact your understanding of or play with syntax? (I’m thinking here of the poems “As” and “Good Questions”).
Griffiths: “As” and “Good Questions” are fragmentary or function as what I might call a “collage of the lyric” — the rhythm and imagery bleed together in an attempt to both isolate language and to hold the visible language intact as grief itself opens through the body of the page. Photographs offered me a way to be grounded in the world, to remember there had been a world I loved before her death and that I could and must return to it. Finally, it was transformative, after so many years of being diligent that these mediums lived in separation, to ask them to touch each other and hold me.
FWR: “Color Theory and Praxis (I)” is a poem concerned with the body, but also the body in art. Specifically, it considers the painting “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz, which depicts Emmett Till. The poem questions who has the right to the body, particularly a body of color, and after death. I wonder if this influenced your own writing, as some of your poems see you imagining the voice of your mother, as in “Comedy”: ‘Yeah don’t go and write about me like that/ she says. I already know you will.’
Griffiths: I’m ambivalent about my relationship to placing myself inside the voices and bodies of others. I’ve done it, whether by persona or in certain photographic series, and it can feel tense for me. Issues of permission and imagination fascinate me. I’m not interested in policing anyone but I do have the right to challenge, to question, and to critique certain things, especially when it comes to visual arts and representation. There is a lot at stake for me even when it feels like people want artists to shut up when their work is confrontational. I read an interview where Schutz said the painting was about a conversation with Till’s mother. I disagreed with her perspective and the “terms” of this unreal, fantastical conversation, which placed the mutilated body of a black mother’s son as its focal point, as its medium. There is a photograph of Mamie Till at her son’s casket. I don’t feel like Schutz’s painting could ever listen to, or tell Mamie Till’s truth. The artist has a right to do whatever she wants but I tried to understand what and where that right was located. I mean, there’s a painting of hers that features Michael Jackson’s body on an autopsy table. Again, do what you want but do it well. Also, I noticed she didn’t use Trayvon Martin’s image, or Sean Bell’s, Tamir Rice’s, or Eric Garner’s, or Jordan Davis’, or Philando Castile’s, or Mike Brown’s, or Ahmaud Arbery’s, or…or…
I’m tired. There isn’t enough canvas, enough pigment, enough bones in this country for black artists to address the violence and harm done to our bodies, our communities, by the imaginations or institutions that can’t bear for us to live. It isn’t our job or our art’s job to do that work either. Why is America afraid that we dare to imagine ourselves as anything but dead?
My mother and I would go back and forth about my writing. Sometimes she’d ask me when I was going to write her story. Other times she worried about my imagination. None of the poems in “Seeing the Body” ever enter my mother’s body and use her voice. I never wanted to do that. The dialogue in “Comedy” was exactly what she said.
It isn’t our job or our art’s job to do that work either. Why is America afraid that we dare to imagine ourselves as anything but dead?
FWR: In “Good Questions”, you write, “when did the final arrangements begin? / At her birth. Inside of wet rock. When my birth began.” Throughout the text, I was struck by your exploration of inheritance, whether of womanhood or illness, and how grief lives in the body (as in “Signs”). Would you speak to the development of this thread?
Griffiths: I’m in a more explicit stage of my life where I want to think of myself within a greater dimension, in conversation with beings that arrived before me, and those who are already arriving after me. I think about what I can share with the living and the dead. I’m constantly aware that the earth is different in her temperament since I was born. I’ve been astonished by how quickly some of our geographies have reverted and have healed during the pandemic without the presence of human abuse.
At this point, my work lends me an expansive way to think about how I might, as an artist, establish or assert my own lineage or claim inheritance in ways that don’t necessarily include children. I’m constantly thinking about how remarkable it is to begin to really take into consideration the manners, culture, trauma, resilience, joys, and ways-of-being that I have inherited. These things I hold have come from my family but they have come from a larger consciousness. They also come from within me.
I’m in a more explicit stage of my life where I want to think of myself within a greater dimension, in conversation with beings that arrived before me, and those who are already arriving after me. I think about what I can share with the living and the dead. I’m constantly aware that the earth is different in her temperament since I was born.
FWR: Seeing the Body explores the shifting ownership of the female body and how language can free, as well as constrain. In “Ars Poetica”, you write of imagining becoming a writer or a woman like your mother, before the neighbor and his friend interrupt your daydream: “his friend braked hard,/ barking like a dog… Hey, Bitch, he said”. In “My Rapes” your mother asks, “why/ I listened to white girl shit. How could alternative music/ hear a black cry like mine?” Can language free us from the body?
Griffiths: It depends on so many things – whose language, which bodies, whose freedom, whose history, or memory. “Ars Poetica” speaks about some of the ways that violence can interrupt one’s dreams or one’s work. The poem is also asking questions about how we, especially black women, can afford our dreams and our work. How the world consistently fails to appraise our contributions even while our bodies and cultures will be taken as commodities, as resources. The second poem you mentioned is about some of the ways your own family will refuse to allow you (and by extension, your body) to live in songs (and bodies) that they believe are dangerous. I listened to a lot of Tori Amos because of what had happened to me. I listened to Fiona Apple, Ani DiFranco. I listened to them because my mother wouldn’t hear my truth. She couldn’t bear the thought of violation because she loved me so much.
Listen to “Arch of Hysteria, Or, the Spider-Mother
Becomes A Woman” read by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
FWR: Building off of that question, you thread myth through your poems. For me, the inclusion of Athena, Arachne and Eurydice roots your experiences in grief and voicelessness within a larger historical and human story of being a woman. And the poem “Myth” speaks of “the literature/ of blood the black face gasps in air. No… / the black boy’s face merely insists/ it is a face to begin with”, which, to me, seems reminiscent of the commodification of bodies of color not only in commerce, but also in art. Can you talk a bit about the inclusion of these figures?
Griffiths: This question feels similar to the earlier question about Till. In some parts of the book, I found myself returning to stories about daughters who were powerful but seemed unable to overcome their roles in a larger “myth” or story. These stories would often place women inside of cruelty and violence – rapes, murders, or “transformations” that altered or punished their bodies, or drove them mad. The poem “Myth” is about my rage as well as my grief that murders of black men persist in a cycle that renders them faceless, whether that is through death or incarceration. And there is a spectrum of micro-massacres between those extremes. Their humanity is erased.
FWR: Were there poets or writers you turned to for guidance as you wrote through your grief? (Lucille Clifton’s “oh antic god” springs to mind). Or, are there poets or poems you love to teach or share?
Griffiths: Yes, I return often to Ai and Lucille Clifton! I’m thrilled at the forthcoming publication of a selected, How to Carry Water (BOA Editions Ltd.), edited by my dear sister, Aracelis Girmay. It will be a feast! When my mother died, Aracelis shared a poem with me by Joy Harjo, our current National Poet Laureate. It’s called “Remember” and I read it aloud often. If I were brave enough to get a tattoo it would feature lines from this poem.