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